List: 7 Films from 2011 that American Studies Scholars Should See

Somehow, it’s already December, and you know what that means: a million year-end lists of the best (and worst) 2011 had to offer. So we’re throwing our collective hat in the ring with this list of the best movies from 2011 that are of particular interest to American Studies scholars of all stripes. We can’t vouch for the  quality of all these, of course, but they at least provide some fodder for folks to potentially research and write about.

Quick note: there are a ton of worthwhile documentary films that were released this year that are worth a look, but this list only highlights fictional films. Have fun!

Drive

Ryan Gosling stars in this intense homage to a very gritty Los Angeles. He plays a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, but a botched heist leaves him with a contract on his head. Though the film’s storyline is predominantly a tale of the unnamed driver dealing with a variety of folks who try to kill him, Drive also offers a fascinating and dark portrayal of the city. Visually and musically, it’s 1980s-style noir at its best (but caveat emptor: the violence is sporadic but incredibly graphic).

Cowboys and Aliens

This is definitely not an Oscar winner, but for anyone who loves western-science fiction crossovers, it’s a must. Cowboys and Aliens is based on a graphic novel of the same name, centering on a no-holds-barred battle between man and alien in the Arizona territory, back in 1873. Bombastic visuals aside, the film also boasts a great cast and crew: it was directed by Jon Favreau and written by a crew that includes Lost scribe Damon Lindelof. And it stars Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Olivia Wilde.

The Help

Based on a novel of the same name, The Help tracks the relationship of a white woman with her black maids during the 1960s in Mississippi. Though the film has received generally positive reviews, it’s also earned some criticism for its problematic and stereotypical portrayal of black women. The Help even prompted the Association of Black Women Historians to release a public statement critiquing its treatment of the historical moment.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Comic books are often very political works, and the films that are based on these stories are no different. Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, and a bunch of other heavy-hitters, and features the super hero in a battle with the U.S. military against a power hungry subset of the Nazi Party called HYDRA. The film is a hell of a lot of fun, but it also comments on military technology, bodily enhancement, patriotism, and the importance of PR in fighting wars. Plus it has “America” in the title – there’s lots of America.

Meek’s Cutoff

Back to the West. Meek’s Cutoff centers on a small group of settlers heading west before the Civil War. They end up lost in the wilderness thanks to guide Stephen Meek, who doesn’t quite know where he’s going. The desperation of the situation leaves the settlers both at each others’ throats and struggling to deal with their depleting resources and energy. The narrative is intense and captivating, but what really resonates is the stunning camerawork highlighting the landscape – it really is a beautiful, deadly, painful frontier.

Margin Call

Margin Call examines an investment bank (based loosely upon the now-defunct Lehman Brothers) in the throes of a financial crisis that threatens both the company and the national economy. Sound familiar? The star-studded cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, ZacharyQuinto, and Stanley Tucci, highlights the personal stakes of the decisions made by Wall Street, so it’s worth a look if your understanding of the financial calamity that began a few years ago is centered more on numbers and formulas than on people.

Contagion

At first glance, Contagion is just another apocalyptic viral outbreak film. The real story, though, lies in the human response to an international threat. You’ll see a society deteriorate in the face of panic and fear, you’ll see how quickly information – right or wrong – can spread, thanks to new media, you’ll see the impotence of a government responding to an international disaster. It’s an upper, to say the least – but stellar performances by Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow make the film worth the inevitable uneasy paranoia you’ll feel after seeing it.

That’s all, folks! Did we miss anything? Leave a comment if you know another film that American Studies folks might find interesting!

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