Top 10 Films of 2011

Sometimes as a movie critic I begin to feel like Ralphie’s teacher from A Christmas Story. You remember her, right? She’s the one who – in Ralph’s fantasy sequence – hastily shuffles through an enormous stack of theme papers, becoming increasingly irritated that they all evidence fatal flaws. “You call this a paragraph?” she laments. “Margins!” The paper is stricken with an ‘F’ just like the ones before it. Disgusted with her students’ collective illiteracy, Miss Shields suddenly finds Ralphie’s paper in her hand. She stares spellbound at his exceptional composition. As his glowing descriptions of the perfect Christmas gift (a Red Ryder BB gun – with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time) leap from the page in glorious beams of inspiration, she is overwhelmed with joy. Her entire career in education is validated by having read this magnum opus, this stunning work of art.

A critic’s work can be similar; you dutifully slug your way through the insipid and mediocre, content to dissect them but ultimately hoping for that rare cinematic experience that sweeps you off your feet. You look for that fresh face in a sea of ubiquity, that story that transcends the tropes that built it and connects with you emotionally, viscerally, spiritually. It may be enjoyable to savagely cut down a deservingly bad movie, but the discovery of a new favorite is a pleasure much more satisfying.

In 2011, I didn’t pass a stack of ‘F’ grade movies across my desk. There’s too little time to entertain things I know I will hate. What I found instead was a growing middle class, if you will. I saw quite a lot of good movies; so many, in fact, that it became almost impossible to rank them. However, there was no Red Ryder essay for me in 2011. I saw very few films I would consider great, and thus far nothing I expect to become a long-term favorite (though my number 1 pick comes close). I guess you could say I’m a little disappointed.

It’s certainly possible that I managed to miss most of the best offerings. Never have I seen such a backloaded awards season, with so many critically lauded movies opening in limited release during December but without wide releases until January. Some never got a wide release at all. The result is that the general public didn’t have much opportunity to see some of the more artistic or challenging films. That’s a shame.

Still, I did my best to catch up this month and I feel like I can’t wait any longer to release this list before it goes bad and starts smelling up the fridge. Based on what I did see, here are my top 10 films from 2011.

10. Attack the Block

Attack the Block may be the most purely entertaining movie I saw all year. The concept is great: aliens land in a London ghetto and a gang of young ne’r-do-wells must rescue the block from the invasion. The ethnically-diverse group is played by a talented young cast and the film gives them plenty of funny banter and amusing moments. The characters are broadly drawn and the film is a little too compact to give any of them real depth (the film as a whole feels a little rushed and too neatly tied up), but this sci-fi/comedy/horror mix succeeds due to its high energy, humor and social awareness. Nick Frost shows up in a supporting role as their intercessor to the local drug kingpin, and indeed the film more strongly recalls Shawn of the Dead than anything else I can think of. Obviously low budget, Attack the Block covers its tracks with creative creature design and claustrophobic setting. I wanted to give this movie some exposure since I feel not a lot of people have seen it. It’s not perfect but it’s unique and amusing. You may want to prepare for reading some subtitles, though. While ostensibly in English, the thick cockney accents and plentiful slang are likely to befuddle viewers from the states.

9. Martha Marcy May Marlene

With a back-and-forth narrative that cuts between two timelines and an ending that rivals A Serious Man for lack of closure, this awkwardly-titled low-budget thriller isn’t the kind to offer easy answers. The titular Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has spent an indeterminate amount of time living in a cult ruled by a persuasive patriarch (John Hawks, fresh off his Best Supporting Actor nomination for last year’s Winter’s Bone); and when she finally escapes into the care of her sister, she finds her emotional scars and social maladjustment oppose her transition back into civilization. Elizabeth Olsen gives a wounded, haunted performance. It’s a far more nuanced and realistic vision than the abused hacker in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; she should have been nominated for Best Actress over Rooney Mara. The film is effectively constructed to show us the parallels between MMMM’s previous life in the commune and her new one as a guest at her affluent sibling’s lake house. I questioned whether the keen interest in the young girl’s mistreatment was justified, but I think it’s worth recommending the movie for its insights into identity, family and society along with the central performance by Olsen.

8. Super 8

It’s Steven Spielberg’s best movie in 6 years and he didn’t even direct it. J. J. Abrams incorporates the spirit of wonder found in the likes of Close Encounters, The Goonies and E.T., and combines it with his own modern flare in this warm, earnest throwback. The unknown child actors playing the main characters are excellent, the film builds suspense slowly by concealing its mysteries for over an hour (Abrams remembers Jaws’ lesson that less is more), and the train crash that shows up as an early set piece is so exciting it’s hard to care how over-the-top it is. The ending is a weakness for sure, sentimental and silly though not wholly out of place. Hugo and The Artist are being touted as this year’s love letters to cinema; but if I were to make a film to honor the movies that impacted me growing up, it would probably look more like Super 8. I’ll bet a lot of audiences agree.

7. Hanna

I wouldn’t have picked the director of Atonement to direct an action film, but after seeing Hanna I know I would have been wrong. This film is an odd cross between a coming of age story and a Bourne flick – part European road movie, part spy thriller. Your enjoyment of the movie may depend on your tolerance for that mix. Personally I found it refreshing. Saoirse Ronan is superb as Hanna, a young girl trained in survival and combat but still unprepared to confront a world different from her isolated home but equally as hostile. She seems effortless in the way she conveys doe-eyed innocence or cold calculation. Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett are good, but this is Ronan’s movie. Wright’s stylistic choices at points threaten to overtake the film, but ultimately they are a big reason why I found it so memorable. Hanna was the best movie I saw in theaters last spring; that it has remained in the top 10 through the crowded awards season is a testament to its staying power.

6. The Tree of Life

Concerned with the highest contemplations of the universe and eternity comes The Tree of Life, a spectacular visual extravaganza from director Terrence Malick. If you’re surprised that I liked this movie, believe me when I say that no one is more shocked than me. I passionately hated Malick’s last movie, The New World. It bored me to tears and angered me with its pretentious voice-overs, shameless primitivism, and insistence on filming brooks and tree boughs rather than telling a story. The Tree of Life contains many of these same elements, but somehow it disarmed me with its beauty and sincerity. At first I wanted to roll my eyes but soon found them transfixed by the “history of time” sequence near the beginning of the film. The Tree of Life contains some of the most gorgeous imagery I have ever seen in a movie. While it doesn’t conform to a strict narrative, the story of a middle class family living in 1950’s suburbia is told well enough through individual vignettes that seem carefully observed from real behavior. The cinematographer has elected to focus on more varied, interesting subjects this time around, and the whispered narration seems more like prayer than anything else. This isn’t something you watch. It’s something that washes over you.

5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

2011 was the year of sequels, but the only one to make my list is the latest in the Mission: Impossible saga. The series has varied greatly in quality over the years, from Brian DePalma’s suspenseful original to John Woo’s disappointing follow-up, to J. J. Abrams’ solid third installment. Now, in his first live-action film, Incredibles director Brad Bird has helmed Ghost Protocol, and it’s easily the best entry since the first. The kind of movie that usually gets released during the summer, the film is pure spectacle; and that’s a lot of fun to see in a theater every now and then. Multiple dazzling, awe-inspiring action set pieces make us ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and maybe cringe or wince as well. The movie’s centerpiece is a breathtaking climb outside the world’s tallest building, but it’s by no means the only excitement. There’s a lucky prison break, a chase amid a monstrous sandstorm, a fight inside a high-tech, multi-level car garage; and, in classic M:I fashion, more espionage and hand-to-hand combat than you can shake a stick at. The game supporting cast includes Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton. They all get to enjoy a script peppered with plentiful humor as well as the intense choreography. Ghost Protocol is about the best you could ask of an audience-pleaser like this one. I’d go so far as to call it the best action picture since Casino Royale.

4. 50/50

One of the most winning, human movies of the year is – get this – a comedy about cancer. Based on the real life experiences of writer Will Riser, 50/50 tells the story of a young man (the always reliable Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets the cancer and doesn’t know what to do, his best friend (the always Seth-Rogen-y Seth Rogen) who doesn’t know how to help him, his therapist (the always adorable Anna Kendrick) who thinks she knows how to help him but doesn’t, and his girlfriend (the always beautiful but recently always evil Bryce Dallas Howard) who can’t take the stress. The balance struck here is admirable. The jokes are often funny but there’s real emotion of helplessness and estrangement. It’s got the sweet-raunchy mix of Knocked Up with a flavor of 500 Days of Summer. It’s really watchable and despite being so entertaining feels very honest. I think this film’s considerable accomplishments are often overlooked because in motion they seem so easy, so natural. Few films can make you laugh and cry with such aplomb.

3. Moneyball

Not everyone can make a great movie, but a great movie can be made about any topic – even baseball and math. So proves Moneyball, an assured drama that takes us behind the scenes of the Oakland A’s whose biggest problem is that they lack the funding to draft a winning team. When manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) discovers a young analyst (Jonah Hill) with an unorthodox, statistics-based approach to the game, he believes he’s found their way out and fully commits to a daring strategy which puts him at odds with the staff and players he commands. This is a movie that finds excitement in things like telephone negotiations, business meetings, and in not going to games. How many sports movies can resist having an inspiring, sensationalized “ underdog vs rival” game as a climax? This one does, and it’s all the better for it. Pitt and Hill make a likable team, Philip Seymour Hoffman is underused but good as the coach, and Bennett Miller’s smooth, mature direction is a compliment to the Zaillian/Sorkin script. Moneyball is a film I think almost anyone could enjoy.

2. The Adjustment Bureau

Putting this over Moneyball was a choice I didn’t want to make. If I enjoyed that film largely with my head, The Adjustment Bureau is a selection from heart. Of course, after watching it I’m not so sure the choice was even mine to begin with. Adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick (whose work has been the basis for modern sci-fi classics such as Blade Runner and Minority Report), The Adjustment Bureau is a whimsical sci-fi/fantasy tale about love, fate and destiny. Matt Damon, a grounded actor who is rapidly becoming a go-to for the Tom Hanks style everyman, stars as David Morris, a politician whose quest to reunite with an impulsive beauty (Emily Blunt) after a “chance” encounter is blocked at every turn by a mysterious organization of men who may represent divine intervention or simply the elemental forces in the world. Damon and Blunt’s chemistry and banter is fun to watch – we root for them instantly. Anthony Mackie has a nice turn as the bureau member who questions his role, and the wonderful piano-laden score provides just the right touch. Some critics have dismissed this movie because it addresses these themes with compassion rather than cynicism, complaining the film is silly or trite. I prefer to think that it celebrates determination over determinism – fighting for love regardless of the obstacles.

1. Drive

Cinema is first and foremost about images, and for me the quintessential image in film this year was that of the Driver. His character is the one I most expect to stand out in my memory years from now. I see a future in which Ryan Gosling in his scorpion jacket is plastered on dorm room walls alongside Jules and Vincent or Scarface, and he shows up in movie montages next to Dirty Harry and The Terminator. Director Nicolas Winding Refn (whose last film, Valhalla Rising, I hated – do you see a pattern here?) has taken some familiar elements from the action/crime/noir genres and arranged them in a way that is fresh and invigorating. His film could probably be called Tarantino-esque, except that he fills the long spaces between brutish acts of violence with more silence than dialog. It’s slow, sometimes beautiful and sometimes disturbing, with a great supporting cast including Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Pearlman. It’s also probably one of the most talked-about soundtracks. Drive uses modern synth pop songs that recall the 80’s, an odd stylistic choice but one that gives the film a unique vibe. I wasn’t sure how to feel about Drive when I first watched it, but the longer I think about it the more I’m convinced that it’s the best thing I saw in theaters in 2011, and one of only a few movies that calls out for Blu Ray treatment. It’s at once atmospheric and raw, thoughtful and brash – at its center a mysterious man, an enigma wrapped in a mystery, a real human being and a real hero.

The Next Ten – A few honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Horrible Bosses, The Ides of March, The Muppets, Rango, Shame, Source Code, Take Shelter, The Ward, Warrior         

Movies I Missed – A few potential top-listers that I didn’t get a chance to see: Hugo, Melancholia, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Now for some miscellaneous statistics.

Biggest Surprise: The Tree of Life. If there was a movie this year I was certain to hate, this was it. Now look at it in the top 10!

Biggest Disappointment: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. How did the movie with the year’s best ensemble cast turn out so awful? This drab-looking spy drama is completely inscrutable.

Best Male Performance: Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

Best Female Performance: Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene

Worst Movie: Just Go With It. Thankfully I didn’t end up seeing Jack and Jill or Bucky Larson.

Most Overrated: Bridesmaids. Everyone hailed this as the comedy of the year, but I found very few laughs in it.

Most Underrated: The Ward. The latest film from horror legend John Carpenter explores very familiar territory but with a strong, smart, sympathetic lead character played well by Amber Heard.

Best Performance by a Bad Actor: Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer

Worst Performance by a Good Actor: Nicole Kidman in Just Go With It

Well, that about wraps up my year in film. Chime in with your comments, favorites, least favorites, etc. See you next year!