Favorite Films of 2011

So I know that 2010 was a good year for movies, but looking back, most of that was based on the fact that you had three top-flight films (Social Network, Inception, Toy Story 3) and a bunch of really good “second-tier” films. I’m not sure if 2011 has any that will be as memorable as Social Network or Inception, but there’s an insane number of “first-tier” films from this year. As a reminder, this is a list of my favorite films from 2011, not a list of the best.

20. Horrible Bosses
Yeah, I know they didn’t stick the ending with this one, but man, those first 45 minutes were hilarious. Plus, Charlie Day is doing Charlie Dayish things. That’s a winner in my book.

19. The Muppets
It hits everything you’d expect it to, just as well as you’d expect it. How perfect was choosing Brett McKenzie for doing the music? I mean, if you get rid of all the sexual allusions (which, admittedly is 80% of it), Flight of the Conchords songs are essentially Muppet songs. Tell me that “Man or Muppet” didn’t sound like some of the best FOTC songs. Throw in that you get an encore of the original Muppet movie’s Rainbow Connection and you’ve got yourself a near perfect soundtrack.

18. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
This was a great movie. Now, I want to talk about something else. If you were J.K. Rowling do you think you could resist writing another Harry Potter book or twelve? George Lucas couldn’t (twice!). Peter Jackson couldn’t. Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t. I fully expect in ten years or so to see some adult fiction Harry Potter (think Dan Brown meets the Ministry of Magic). Don’t give me that “it’s perfect as is” crap. You know we’ll all be right there in line buying it. Just like were were with the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones 4, the Godfather part III and how we will be for the Hobbit.

17. The Tree of Life
I really struggled with where to put this one. I recognize the achievement and the quality of this film, but it just didn’t resonate with me like it did with some people. The fact that (I think) I get what Malick was doing (if anyone can get Malick was doing…) means I can’t place this higher without that feeling that it was absolutely the best thing I’ve ever seen.

16. Meek’s Cutoff
You’re going to hear a lot about Rooney Mara’s performance as Lisbeth Salander in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as being the gold standard for feminist performances this year. Nothing against Mara (she was incredible and Oscar worthy), but Michelle William’s performance in Meek’s Cutoff is tops in this area for me. The movie itself is how I would imagine it was like to travel the Oregon Trail. Because of that, it has its flaws as a film, but you can’t deny the natural drama and tension that arises from the situation.

15. The Help
Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s get every great actress working today and put them in the same movie! Don’t be surprised if you see the Academy Awards for Best Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) come out of this film. Davis has some competition with Meryl Streep, but Spencer’s a shoe in. While the performances are undoubtedly what makes this movie, give credit where credit is due, the material can’t be total fluff for the performances to be as good as they are.

14. The Ides of March
What I liked most about this film is its relativity. Sure, every character does something bad, but each one would tell you that it’s entirely explainable why they did it and why it has to be considered relative to the greater good (whether that be the “real” greater good or the “I want power” greater good). It’s the classic “do the ends justify the means” argument. Take a look at where you are right now in your life and where you want to be. What if someone told you there were two paths for getting there– one slow and good, the other quick and bad? What if you weren’t sure which path you were going to take until you’d already taken it– would you still do it? These are the things that Gosling’s character has to wrestle with (at least earlier on in the movie). Perhaps the most soul crushing occurrence of the entire film is the internalization of the realization that Gosling’s character is going to get to where he wants to go, but not in the way he wanted to do it. What should he do now? What can he do now?

13. The Guard
Who would’ve thought that this year’s greatest action hero would be a 60ish small-town Irish cop that’s defensive of his favorite prostitutes and witnesses a car crash only to hurry over so he can search the victims for drugs he could use? And yet, Brendan Gleeson instills Sgt. Boyle with a human sense and huge amount of humor that turns The Guard into a film everyone will like.

12. Another Earth
It doesn’t happen often, but you know how you can look back at certain choices you make and see how they’ve defined your life? Sure, some of them are big ones (like where you go to school, where you take your first job, who you marry), but some smaller ones have just as profound an impact. What makes Another Earth stand out is that it takes a note from the TV show, Fringe, and literally makes it possible to explore different choices. Though, that begs the question: would you even want to know if “your” life was better elsewhere?

11. Bridesmaids
Remember what I said last year about Jon Hamm being in a movie automatically vaulting it to the top 15 of my list? Well, Jon Hamm is in this movie. You’ve heard over and over at how this is the “female” Hangover, but that doesn’t really do it justice. To me, that says that this movie wouldn’t have been successful without the Hangover, which is ridiculous. There are two things that are important to making a movie like this good: 1) Was it funny? and 2) Does Melissa McCarthy poop in a sink? Yes and Yes.

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
I’ve read a few of John Le Carre’s spy novels, but never this one. Honestly, I would have thought it impossible to fit any of Le Carre’s densely packed novels into a two-hour movie, but here we are with Tomas Alfredson (who you probably remember from the Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In) mostly accomplishing it. Yes, you’re lost about half the time, but instead of that discouraging or boring you, it pulls you further into what Alfredson and Gary Oldman are going for: a web of information and deception that could lead to anyone being the mole. If you like your spy thrillers without the hand holding, this is the one for you.

9. Moneyball
It’s a baseball movie… about advanced statistics… that don’t exactly work for a team that had no choice but to rely on them… that somehow turned into the feel-good movie of the year. (Cue the West Wing Theme) Thank you, Aaron Sorkin.

8. The Artist
After finally seeing this, I’m little puzzled by the best-picture buzz it’s getting. The performances (both in front and behind) the camera are top-notch, but you can’t help but feel like it’s missing something that those top movies have every year. Despite all that, it’s supremely enjoyable and takes what basically amounts to a gimmick (for those who don’t know, this is a silent movie) and makes it feel integral to the film. Absolutely one of the year’s best, but a little too slight to be in that top tier. Of course, that’s exactly what I would have said about the King’s Speech last year…

7. Melancholia
If you’ve ever wanted to watch a Lars von Trier film without being completely horrified at everything that’s going on, here’s your chance to see one and only be 80% horrified. There are very few filmmakers who know how to frame the appropriate emotion for the end of the world, (hint: Armageddon’s use of “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” is not it) but von Trier is one of them. I know this is late, but see this in theaters if you get a chance; I think I lost some of the ending’s effect from watching it at home.

6. Midnight in Paris
I know we’re clearly out of the golden age of Woody Allen movies, but I’ll be damned if this didn’t feel like it could have been stuck right back with Manhattan, Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. That may mean very little to some of the more modern film watchers (I’m firmly in that camp), but it’s a return to Woody Allen’s wheelhouse of emotionally whimsical and endlessly entertaining.

5. Nader und Simin (A Separation)
Isn’t it interesting that despite layers and layers of cultural differences, there’s emotional resonances that we all feel? Calling Nader und Simin (English Title: A Separation) a foreign film is an understatement in some ways and unfair to it in others. Foreign implies a non-native experience, but if that were true how does this film create such an emotional connection? Sure, this film wades through the beginnings of a divorce in Iran; sure, it’s totally in Persian; and yes, it deals with a legal system that’s unfamiliar to westerners, but despite all of that, if this was truly a foreign film, how is that you can be devastated by the consequences of the choices of the characters? Nader und Simin may be foreign in origin, but it’s decidedly native in nature.

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
This is the third time I’ve consumed this material (book and Swedish version of the film) and needless to say, no one, not even the author, can do this like David Fincher. This is your quintessential book adaptation: it stays true to the source material without feeling the need to be tied down by it; plot points are changed and characters are shuffled around, but the heart of the original story is there. Only then do you have to add on the fact that no one can do suspense like Fincher. This is the guy who made a movie about a nerd making a website come off like Silence of the Lambs. When you give him actual suspenseful source material, you know you’re in for it and it doesn’t disappoint. Go see this and then tell me you weren’t literally uncomfortably wriggling in your seat.

3. Martha Marcy May Marlene
One of the best years for female performances in recent memory may be capped off by one of the Olsen sisters (thankfully, not Mary Kate or Ashley). Maybe what I appreciate most is that it never feels like Elizabeth Olsen is “acting”. While her sanity is clearly in question, it never turns into one of those over-the-top, totally-withdrawn performances. It feels authentic and original. What higher praise could you give? Sean Durkin’s directing and screenplay is light years beyond what you would expect from a first-time effort; some will be upset and find it gimmicky the way he plays with time and attempts to shift reality, but it feels very natural with Olsen’s performance and the flow of the story. As for John Hawkes, he’s doing his normal awesome John Hawkes stuff. One of these years, the Coen brothers or Tarantino will cast him and he’ll win an Academy Award.

2. The Descendants
Thankfully, I have very little experience with grief. That doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it when I see it, but I just have very few personal feelings to pull from. And while the bulk of this movie focuses on the concept of grief and how to deal with it, the ultimate thing I pull from it is what it takes to become a better person. Some people can change with a major event occurring: a loss of job, a loss of a relationship, a loss of someone close to you; while others know themselves well enough to change when they want (think about the people who make New Year’s Resolutions and actually keep them). I think I’m more like George Clooney’s Matt King. Matt wants to take his wife’s accident as a catalyst to be a better father and husband, but over the course of the movie realizes that it’s the fall out that shapes you as a human being. It’s not about becoming a better person in one fell swoop; it’s taking those bits and pieces of wisdom and experience you get over the course of your life and realizing how they all fit together to make you the best person you can be. Sure, that’s cheesy and may be a bit trite, but it doesn’t make it any less true. For my money, this is this 2011’s best picture, though it’s doubtful it’ll beat out the Artist for it.

1. Drive
It’s nearly impossible to tell you why I like this movie so much. But, to save you some rambling about atmosphere, tension and action, I think what it comes down to is style. This movie has it. It’s a nasty world it creates, but somehow I want to live in it. The other piece of this movie is Gosling. I’m not sure there’s anyone else working today who could pull this role off. Maybe Clooney ten years ago. Gosling’s nameless character (The Driver) is the Clint Eastwood of Westerns, the Roland of Gilead of Stephen King’s Dark Tower. What you see is what you get. You get no back story; his entire existence is defined by what you see on screen. Somehow that draws you in even more.

I’m betting that most people who’ve seen this place it at or near the top of films from 2011, whether you’re a critic or just someone who happened to wander into the theater because the name Drive sounded cool. I’m also betting that when I go and read the reviews for this movie, that anyone who’s attempted one finds themselves equally at a loss for words. How good can a movie be if you can’t describe how good it is? If Drive is any indication, pretty damn good.

Apologies to: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, Contagion, Super 8, War Horse

Still need to see: Hugo, The Adventures of Tin Tin, Shame, J. Edgar