Friday, January 27, 2012

An Interesting Year -- My Favorite Films of 2011

2011 in film? Depending on the critic, it was either a really awful year, or a phenomenal one. I do my best to see as many new releases as I can, but always manage to miss a large number of movies (this year, notable misses are War Horse, The Artist, The Descendents, and Jack & Jill), so it’s hard for me to say whether it was really good or bad. My impression was somewhere in the middle. Only a handful of movies seemed to distinguish themselves as great, a whole slew of films were good to excellent, and there were several diaper loads of turds as well.

In essence, 2011 was like most other years.

Based on the 70 movies of 2011 I’ve seen (as of this writing), I present to you my top 10 films of the year. The order is alphabetical, like my previous year’s entries, mainly because I hate trying to rank movies of different genres. These were the 10 movies that spoke to me and entertained me more than any others this past year.


Films about friendship hold a soft spot in my heart (The Fisher King, Lord of the Rings, and Superbad come to mind), and 50/50 immediately made room for itself. It takes a dead genre (the dying of cancer genre) and breathes – cough! – life into it by turning it into a buddy movie. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers he has a rare spinal tumor and a 50% chance of survival; instead of the cancer being a jaw-dropping, manipulative twist, it becomes an opportunity to discover how a person deals with grief. Adam’s journey is tumultuous, dark, and funny. Kudos to Seth Rogen, who finds more than stoner raunch in Adam’s best friend, Kyle.

Attack the Block
I’m a sucker for kids’ adventure films, like The Goonies and The Monster SquadAttack the Block, though, goes deeper than its roots in kid adventure would lead you to believe. It gives us seemingly unlikable protagonists, a gang of street thugs in London’s South Side, who begin the film by mugging a defenseless young lady. But as the movie progresses, the boys reveal themselves to be true heroes – especially Moses, played by John Boyega in a career making performance – by standing up against an alien menace. The movie’s tagline reads “Inner City vs. Outer Space,” but don’t let the exploitative, goofy vibe fool you: Attack the Block is one of the year’s best films.
I could try to convince you that this movie has cultural importance because of the way to takes the typically male dominated raunchy comedy and puts a unique feminine spin on it. I could try to convince you that Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumalo’s script is Oscar-worthy and that Melissa McCarthy’s performance is one for the ages. But I don’t need to. Bridesmaids was this year’s Hangover, not because of its content, but because of its invention and widespread appeal. It also happens to be a hell of a great movie, with outstanding performances and comedic set pieces. I laughed harder at this than any other comedy this year.
This was Ryan Gosling’s year, wasn’t it? He was in Crazy, Stupid, Love, Ides of March, and Drive. Drive was, by far, his most challenging role. Not many actors are able to command the audience’s attention in every single scene of a movie while uttering a bare minimum of dialogue, yet Gosling does it here with such ease that at first glance his performance would seem non-existent. That’s the movie’s greatest strength, though. By giving us such a silent, contemplative hero, we become aware of craziness of the plot – which is strong and powerful, punched up by some of the most frightening violence in any movie this year. This is a modern noir, a hard boiled narrative with an existentialist twist.
Martin Scorsese pulled a fast one on us with Hugo. We expect the master to make movies about society’s outcasts, punctuated by brilliant violence, foul language, and masterful montages. Instead, we got a movie about one of society’s outcasts, filmed in 3-D, made for the family, and composed as a love letter to movies and movie lovers. Hugo is a great film. No other film this year made me feel as powerfully as this one. I felt like a kid again, re-discovering why I go to movies in the first place…because they are so damn magical!
Midnight in Paris
It’s hard to say Woody Allen has made a comeback this year, since he has made a movie per year since 1968. Yet, he has made a comeback in terms of public awareness and critical acclaim. Midnight in Paris is his best reviewed film since 2000s Match Point, and his highest grossing film since 1987s Hannah & Her Sisters. Not that any of this matters to Allen, who pretty much disavows all of his work once it’s completed. Midnight in Paris is one of his Woody’s best films, period. It’s funny, poignant, and smart. Owen Wilson is the best stand-in for Woody’s nebbish persona since Woody hit his sell-by date. This movie deserves multiple viewings.
Super 8
J.J. Abrams got Steven Spielberg to produce this movie and channeled the spirit of Spielberg’s past glory. Super 8 is a darker version of E.T., in which the kids are seeking a legitimate monster holding their small town in the grip of panic and despair. Of course the special effects are top-notch, but the real surprise of this movie are the performances of the kids (Joel Courtenay, Elle Fanning, and Riley Griffiths). They make us believe the sci-fi happenings going on around them. In addition to being a good sci-fi/horror flick, Abrams makes it personal, as his characters are all budding filmmakers. The joy of filmmaking is evident here, and gives Super 8 all the pathos and warmth other notable 2011 pictures like Hugo and The Artist were trying to achieve.
Tree of Life
A masterpiece. Malick’s film has everything: stunning cinematography, iconic characters, grand themes, the history of mankind, and dinosaurs. He takes a small town family in 1950s Texas and shows their significance in the great scheme of things. It’s pretentious, yet heartfelt and extremely personal. No other film this year dared to do so much and succeeded so powerfully. One of the reasons I love this movie is simply because it has sparked debate among the people that see it. Those that love it, like me, are passionate about it, while those that don’t are equally passionate. Is that the hallmark of a great film? I’m not sure, but it certainly must be one characteristic.

I was interested in this film when I saw the trailer for it earlier in 2011, but never imagined that it would ever be on this list. But like both of its protagonists, Warrior was my underdog pick for the top 10. This movie succeeds because of the performances by Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, but especially Hardy, who is right up there with Gosling and Bale as one of the best actors of the new generation. These two brothers follow a very predictable road to a final fight, but they make getting there both relevant and emotionally riveting. There was no better ending to a movie this year.
Young Adult
This is a small film, so it will go unnoticed by most awards committees who are looking for sexier movies to lavish with praise and baubles, but it’s every bit as good as any film receiving “Best Picture” consideration. Diablo Cody’s screenplay, about an alcoholic teen fiction writer dead set to destroy the marriage of her high school sweetheart, is dark and daring. Somehow Cody, director Jason Reitman, and actress Charlize Theron found the heart beating in the protagonist’s bosom and made her live, while never sacrificing the venom dripping from her lips. Theron’s performance is flawless, and she is matched by the breakout performance of Patton Oswalt as the geek still trying to deal with high school’s worst torments and humiliations.

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