10 Best Films of 2011

January 8, 2012

This is my last “Best of 2011” post and I feel I’m running a bit late by just getting the film one finished, but at least it’s up before next week’s “Globes” really gets Award Season underway. 2011 movie-season was a bit odd for me in that it usually seems like December and early January is a flurry of movie-going as my wife and I try to catch all the potential Oscar-contenders that studios hold back for that last minute release so as to keep their product fresh in voters minds.  The last few Decembers have produced a lot of great movies that ranked high on my lists (Black Swan, True Grit, etc). This year it seemed like the last minute movie slate was rather sparse– I did hold off until December’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” finally started showing up close to home this weekend. I managed to see almost everything I assumed would be a potential best-of film, with a few notable exceptions as my cop-out of a 10th pick details.

10) Reserved Spot

Okay, so it certainly is somewhat of a cop-out to leave a space open but I simply haven’t been able to see a few key potentially great films that would likely make this list. I was a bit more selective on which movies I went to the theater for this year, there is no discount theater within driving distance of where I now live, and we all know how horrendously slow Netflix can be on adding new release films to their instant streaming. The one I most assume would make the cut and likely rank higher than 10th is “Moneyball,” which finally comes to DVD/Blu Ray/etc. later this month. Seeing that it has a great cast and creative team, and because I love (a) baseball and (b) baseball movies, and how even those who tend to hate both (a) and (b) are raving that this film which supposedly makes a numbers-based behind-the-scenes sports movie play like an intelligent fast-paced action flick with great character moments is a front-runner for Best Picture, I cannot imagine it wouldn’t make my list if I had seen it already. Other than that, I haven’t seen the new American version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and David Fincher as director and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score are enough to ensure my enjoyment of that one. I also didn’t catch “The Artist” or “Melancholia” yet. Another one piquing my interest is Meryl Streeps turn as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” which is just being released state-side next week (personally I think if it isn’t released anywhere in the US before December 31st it shouldn’t be considered a 2011 contender which is why I included “Crazy Heart” a year later than everyone else a few years ago–it was almost February  before I found anyplace showing it!). One much praised film that completely didn’t do it for me this year was “The Tree of Life.”

9) J. Edgar

Apparently most critics and audience-members alike weren’t overly jazzed about this film seeing as how it has made no “best of” lists or award-predictions that I have seen so far. It did get mixed reviews upon its release and most of the press I have read about it only complains about the make-up. I didn’t notice any glaring make-up mistakes or weird “Benjamin Button” aging mishaps over the course of the film, but I wasn’t particularly looking for them either. I do think what could have been an epic, classic film was instead a thoroughly entertaining and interesting one–closer to “really good” than “excellent.” But I love Clint Eastwood as a director and I’ve yet to really see a bad performance from DiCaprio, and I’ve been waiting for a biopic about Hoover for sometime–it’s amazing that a complex and fascinating figure as prominent to 20th century history as J. Edgar Hoover is just now getting a notable movie about him made. Eastwood follows the course of his life and touches on all of his quirks and psychological hang-ups. We see him as the golden  boy G-Man, the uber-doting son, the closeted friend but never lover of his long time partner, and especially the can’t-let-go-of-power possessed FBI director. Leo delivers a really solid performance portraying a man who had a large hand in shaping US history and politics for a longer period of time than any President.

8) Insidious

As usual, there were a lot of bad horror films this year and just a few good ones. “Insidious” was by far the best one I saw all year long. There’s a strong story here, that stretches some but never gets too convuluted. There are suitable performances that don’t get in the way of the story, and there are more than a few truly frightening scenes. Aside from the “Paranormal Activity” movies and last year’s “The Last Exorcism” there haven’t been many smart, scary, well-made mainstream horror films in awhile and this one certainly fits the bill and was much appreciated.

7) The Help

“The Help” was a rare thing to occur in the middle of popcorn movie season in the summer heat. It was a movie with an emphasis on story and performance, one with real issues driving it, and one that pretty much came off as a full on crowd-pleaser. I love Emma Stone and have wanted to see her in a serious role so it was nice to see her succeed so nicely here. It wasn’t a very “deep” film and one could possibly criticize a film with racism as its focus and the south in the 1960s as it’s setting for coming off so relatively light-hearted–but there are plenty of sources one can look at which deal with the situations in intense, unsettling ways and not every piece must use shock and sadness to convey its message.  “The Help” is a fully human picture that deals with the humanity of its characters and their close similarities which absurdly went so over-looked (as continues to happen today). “The Help” displayed the hypocrisy and banality of classism and racism in a way that hopefully caused some movie-goers to recognize that the same sort of things still occur in the present. In the process it never lost track of its story–one that was humorous, fun, and subtly thought-provoking. It’s a movie as much about trying to put oneself in another’s shoes even when that is often truly impossible and recognizing that even with the faults such a process can cause the effort it is still valid and necessary. Sure things wrap up rather Hallmarkish and nicely and although sexism is addressed a bit with the female protagonist’s own story, issues of white privilege that could have been more fully explored (and which are so currently valid) with such a protagonist were largely overlooked. Even so, “The Help” did the best it could do with such weighty issues in the vehicle of a summer mainstream movie and it did so very enjoyably.

6) The Lincoln Lawyer

This was just a really fun action drama based on a fun series of books that pulled off the rare feat by being a movie as good as its source material. Not to mention that it featured the best Matthew McCaugney performance yet–he completely captures the character of Mickey Haller so much so that I can’t help but envision Haller as McCaugney when I read the books now. Everyone else in the cast did a terrific job as well, especially Marisa Tomei. Read my full review of it here, not much has changed in my opinion of it since I saw it back in March.

5) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Finally, I got to see this. I have waited to see it since I saw the trailer for it when I went to see “Drive” back in September. It’s a dense film–if you fail to concentrate at any moment you’re apt to miss something. It’s relatively slow-paced yet something is always going on. It’s a quietly unfolding espionage thriller that operates like a complex piece of orchestral music in that it’s constant flashbacks occur not in showy stop-flash music video style but in a subtle ebb-and-flow where images recur and themes repeat. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and company all dip into their roles and deliver good as always performances. Characters get defined fully yet deftly much more like  a novel than a film. The mystery gets to unravel bit by bit without seeming to be  doing so at all until the last 15 minutes. The action is almost all in the form of a tense under-tow. A very British spy thriller suited to its source material but also taking advantage of the film medium.

4) Midnight in Paris

“Midnight in Paris” is a really up-beat and lightly romantic picture for Woody Allen. I almost always like what Allen directs but you never really know for sure which Allen picture you’re going to get until you get on with it. What you can always expect is someone standing in as a Woody-esque protagonist now that he rarely appears in his own films anymore. This time around it’s Owen Wilson, who does a great job with the part. Wilson is Gil, a successful screenwriter wanting to make the jump to writing “serious” literature. Working on his first novel, a novel about a man who runs a “Nostalgia Shop” selling old pop culture souvenirs, Gil is on vacation in Paris with his fiancee. Gil is a nostalgic himself, obsessed with the Paris of visiting Americans Hemingway, Fitzgerald as well as Salvador Dali and TS Elliot. “Midnight in Paris” becomes just a fun comedy, with a slight sci-fi twist (Gil gets in a cab at Midnight each night and winds up in the past). Hemingway is portrayed hilariously, Kathy Bates is great as Gertrude Stein. The main focus of the film really becomes nostalgia and the warped misperceptions it creates and how it can deter from living life in the now. A worthy, if repeated, theme that is also the subject of a blog I’ve been working on off-and-on for awhile so I’ll really say no more here other than “Midnight in Paris” is a really superb and fun film, shot beautifully in a way that takes full advantage of it’s location and setting.

3) The Ides of March

“The Ides of March” is a dark political piece in that when all is said and done, the ambiguities and pitfalls of the political game are all full-circle as we witness the journey of a political newcomer from idealist to cynical “realist.” Clooney is a great actor with a keen mind for making great films, films that aren’t suited for everyone about which he seems to care-less; and that’s good, because it allows the rest of us to enjoy a very intelligent cinematic adventure. This is an actor’s playground–Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei and Clooney himself all get framed in the camera showcasing the craft of acting, all doing it the best that can be done. The script is tight and smart, with excellent dialogue and pacing–its really just a great movie.

2) The Descendants

George Clooney again; he consistently proves himself to be the best Hollywood actor of his generation with an equally smart choice of films to involve himself with. For the past ten years he has made and promoted movies that needed to be made that many others would have avoided–smart, literate films that don’t pander to their audiences. “The Descendants” is a great family drama, a movie with warmth and humor that deals with life and death, infidelity and the often strained relationships of parents and children. It’s also about commerce and heritage and making touch choices, about trying to do the right thing at a hard time in an everyday sense. In a way though, this is the anti-“American Beauty” in that it finds real reconnection, change, making peace with the past, forgiveness, and family itself not only desirable but fully attainable. From acting to score, writing to directing, “The Descendants” is the deserved front-runner for Awards season.

1) Drive

“Drive” was my favorite film of the year when I walked out of the theater in September and it still is today. Flipping through “Rolling Stone” magazines 2011 in Review issue I noticed they chose it as number 1 as well. It’s unlikely any “serious” panels will and I don’t see an Oscar nomination in its future, and that’s a shame because this was the best made film of the year. Other films portray great stories that could also work well in other mediums but no other film this year took advantage of the film-medium itself in the way “Drive” did–it does so in as exciting of  a way as “Pulp Fiction” did at its release. “Drive” is simply too ambiguous, too dark, too bloody, too “messy” and unresolved to be an Oscar picture. But it’s a classic picture nonetheless. Read my full review here.

Honorable Mentions: Super 8; Thor; Captain America; X-Men: First Class; Contagion

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