by Sara Michelle Fetters
SGN Contributing Writer
I’m not sure a case can be made that 2011 was a great year at the movies. But I do think you can make one for it being very, very good, full of strong motion pictures that might not be extraordinary, yet are worthwhile all the same. Trying to come up with a best-of list is surprisingly difficult, with so many well-made and entertaining features vying for spots that trying to put them in a discernable order borders on the impossible.
Not that I’m saying this has been a year worthy of remembrance like, say, 2007, 1999, or the ultimate glory year, 1939, were. While filmmakers did a good job of producing a quality product, they didn’t craft features we’re going to be talking about for decades down the line. Sure, chances were taken, risks were made, and plenty of writers and directors did the unexpected, but the number of them doing it wasn’t exactly huge. I think there are roughly 15 features that truly succeeded, and we’ll be lucky if we’re still waxing poetic about half of them 10 or 20 years down the line.
And I’m just fine with that. Sure, there were way too many remakes, sequels, reboots, and comic adaptations. Yes, the prevalence of 3D (especially all of the brutally poor post-conversions) drove me ‘round the bend. But for every Conan the Barbarian there was a Fright Night, for every Green Lantern a Captain America: The First Avenger, and as bad as The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I was, the genuinely enchanting magnificence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II more than made up for the stench left by that vampire abomination.
Then there are the breakout stars, the actors and actresses who gave superb performance after superb performance. Michael Fassbender (Shame, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method), Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ideas of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Jessica Chastain (The Debt, The Help, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields, Coriolanus) appeared in movies so diverse and different it boggles the mind, each of them delivering staggering portraits that were diverse and mesmerizing, cementing themselves as talents certain to draw our attention for quite some time.
There’s so much more one could talk about, like how so many films challenged their audiences with enigmatic finales that forced them to figure out what happens next for themselves. Additionally, while some legendary directors rose to the challenge (Terrence Malick with The Tree of Life, Woody Allen with Midnight in Paris, Martin Scorsese with Hugo) others dropped the ball by making flicks that felt mechanical and by the numbers (Steven Spielberg with The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, Wayne Wang with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Michel Gondry with The Green Hornet, and Ron Howard with The Dilemma).
Overall, though, 2011 was a winner. There’s a lot of great stuff to talk about and savor, so much fodder for debate about which film was the best and which filmmakers took the most. With that said, here are my picks for the best the year had to offer.
2011’s 10 BEST
1) A Separation
Impossible to forget, this Iranian import is one of the more devastatingly tragic yet emotionally beautiful motion pictures that I’ve seen in years. The multilayered drama never goes where you expect it to, never takes the well-traveled path, everything leading to a denouement that held me spellbound all the way through to the end. Asghar Farhadi’s effort is an instant classic, and a haunting stunner I’ll be contemplating for a long time to come.
2) The Descendants
Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is an honest, heartbreaking, funny, and poignant examination of a family dealing with the specter of parental death, the movie anchored by a multifaceted, deeply personal performance by star George Clooney that arguably ranks as the best of his entire career.
3) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen hasn’t made a movie this great in arguably three decades, and this is coming from someone who has grown to consider Vicky Cristina Barcelona a minor masterpiece. What’s more, this time-bending dramatic comedy is a testament to self-reliance, about embracing the now, about being comfortable with who you are and the era in which you live, all attributes I’d never have imagined the man behind Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters would ever be extolling.
Borderline perfection, Mike Mills' second feature is a stunning examination of family, relationships, sexuality, and forgiveness that speaks universal truths everyone and anyone can relate to. Christopher Plummer is Oscar-worthy, but in many ways so is Ewan McGregor, the two of them crafting a father-son dynamic that’s as endearing as it is heartbreaking.
Back in September I wrote, “Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is an ambient mood piece that hits you like a shot of nitroglycerine-enhanced adrenaline, yet goes down as smoothly as an expensive slug of single-malt.” Nothing’s changed. This movie is an unforgettable stunner the refuses to let go of me. There’s been little else like it this year, the movie defying expectation at every turn, and after three viewings the only thing I want to do is head back to the theater and see it again. Albert Brooks deserves an Oscar.
6) Like Crazy
Director Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy got to me. Filled with sublime moments and reveling in emotionally complex authenticity, this relationship melodrama about two 20-somethings navigating the minefield of feelings they have for one another and the outside forces attempting to keep them apart is a total stunner. Anton Yelchin proves once again he’s a star on the rise, while Felicity Jones instantly makes a name for herself as an actress of supreme merit. This is an unforgettable movie to cherish.
7) 13 Assassins
To call Japanese legend Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins magnificent would be a serious understatement. Character-driven, methodical, and meticulous in its precision to create a sense of time, place, and situation, the movie is almost Kurosawa-like in its attention to detail before exploding into a final 50-plus minutes of carnage and bloodletting unlike anything else 2011 had to offer. Borderline perfection, action fans and Asian pulp cinema cultists will be beside themselves with glee after this one comes to an end.
8) The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s fifth motion picture is a treatise on life, aging, faith, family, and the universe that goes into realms and digs into corners as esoteric and bewildering as they are intimate and self-revelatory. This is the kind of movie that keeps you at arm’s length only to pull your in slowly, one strand of hair at a time, everything building to the type of conclusion that blows the mind and stirs the soul.
9) Martha Marcy May Marlene
Another movie to feature a breakout performance by a rising female star (in this case Elizabeth Olsen), writer/director Sean Durkin’s debut is a powerful drama of sisterly love and forgiveness in the face of unspeakable psychological trauma that asks tough questions and then leaves the answers up to the audience to figure out for themselves. Beautifully realized, the film’s enigmatic final image is one I can’t stop talking about, and in the end has proven to be one of the more haunting and unsettlingly terrific ones of this or any other year.
10) Young Adult
If there were any justice in the world, actress Charlize Theron would win the Oscar for her fearless, nakedly raw performance in director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody’s latest comedic descent into the human maelstrom. But the movie is more than just a performance piece, the filmmakers putting up a mirror to our celebrity-obsessed culture giving us insights into who we are and where we might be going that aren’t remotely comforting or cathartic – and that, my friends, is a very good thing indeed.
THE NEXT 10:
11) Moneyball – A dynamite adaptation of the bestselling book with a performance by Brad Pitt that easily ranks as one of his all-time best. Not to be cliché, but this drama hits a home run.
12) Win Win – Paul Giamatti is at his best in this sports-themed comedic drama from writer/director Tom McCarthy that never quite goes where you expect it to. Amy Ryan gives one of the best performances of the entire year, and sadly no one but me seems to remember this fact.
13) The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius’ deliriously delightful ode to the days of silent moviemaking is an ebullient gem of a motion picture that just gets better and better the more I think about it. The movie features my absolute favorite scene of the entire year (yet one I refuse to talk about here so as not to ruin the surprise).
14) Hanna – A darkly violent thriller from director Joe Wright filled with performances and moments that constantly defy expectation and consistently surprise. Actress Saoirse Ronan continues to prove herself to be a special talent from which great things will blossom.
15) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Gary Oldman’s fascinatingly calm portrayal of John le Carré’s ace spy George Smiley is consistent cause for amazement, director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation a mesmerizing Cold War thriller that shows substance and style can indeed coexist within the same picture.
16) Attack the Block – A glorious melding of Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Gremlins, and The Goonies, writer/director Joe Cornish’s debut is a popcorn flick for the ages and a gnarly old-school B-movie gem certain to become a cult favorite.
17) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Rooney Mara explodes off the screen as antihero Lisbeth Salander in director David Fincher’s English-language take an author Stieg Larsson’s massively popular novel. A descent into the darker nether regions of the human condition that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.
18) The Adjustment Bureau – This adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story offers up so many divine delicacies it’s impossible to mention them all here. Stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are the romantic pairing of the year, while director George Nolfi showcases an almost Hitchcockian touch reminiscent of North by Northwest or The Lady Vanishes.
19) Bellflower – The devastating aftermath of a failed relationship has never looked or sounded so amazing. Writer/director/star Evan Glodell’s debut is an emotional firestorm of visceral melancholia that slapped me across the face, punched me in the stomach, and then ran over my flailing carcass just for good measure.
20) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Pure, unabashed popcorn euphoria, director Brad Bird and producer/star Tom Cruise reinvigorate a tired franchise while also manufacturing the best Hollywood-financed action film of the entire year. See it in IMAX.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetic order)
50/50; Black Death; Captain America: The First Avenger; Carnage; Contagion; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II; The Housemaid; Hugo; Life, Above All; Margin Call; Pariah; Poetry; Point Blank; Rango; Scream 4; The Trip; Tyrannosaur; We Are the Night; Weekend; The Whistleblower
Bill Cunningham New York, Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Interrupters, We Were Here
FAVORITE 2010 FILMS INEXPLICABLY RELEASED DOMESTICALLY IN 2011
In a Better World, Incendies, Of Gods and Men, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
2011’s 10 WORST
1) Sucker Punch – A video game I never wanted to play, an experience I’ll sadly never forget, Zack Snyder’s grotesque and grueling CGI abomination is a viewing experience I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy.
2) Red Riding Hood– An unintentionally hysterical reworking of the famous fairy tale, to call this one a mangy mongrel would be an unforgivable disservice to mutts across the globe.
3) Trespass – Never have so many talented, award-winning craftsmen come together to produce something so mind-blowing in its complete and utter ineptitude. A disaster in every sense.
4) Your Highness – The film’s best gag revolves around the prized severed member of a gigantic minotaur hanging around its hero’s neck. You’ve been warned.
5) Season of the Witch – The second Nicolas Cage monstrosity of 2011, this boring decent into devilish medieval madness is as pointless an excuse for an adventure as any I’ve had the misfortune to come across.
6) Mr. Popper’s Penguins – The central jokes revolve around penguins pooping all over Jim Carrey’s apartment, on his clothes, and in his mouth. The rest of the movie isn’t any more inspired than that.
7) Jack and Jill – Al Pacino, playing himself, delivers his most intriguing and maybe even inspired performance in years. I don’t know whether to be impressed or embarrassed for him.
8) A Little Help – A feature-length sitcom masquerading as a family melodrama. Isla Fisher does what she can even if the movie is an unfortunate and at times awkward and uncomfortable misfire first frame to last.
9) The Hangover Part II – Essentially a Thailand-set remake of the first film, only without any laughs while also doing a grand job of making each and every one of its main characters detestably loathsome.
10) Something Borrowed – Offensive and vile “chick flick” that’s as woman-hating as they come, the movie shoots itself in the foot at every turn while showcasing a despicable contempt for its audience.