So – another year has come to a close. And, as is appropriate, all the different tributes to what has happened in 2011 begin to pop up in newspapers and magazines across the country. Now is the time we reflect on the greatest moments, the lowest lows, and – of course – “the best of” lists.
It is a difficult task, naming the ten best movies of 2011. One feels a need to sound very professional and critical with a piece like this, and to choose movies which win prizes in France and earn mere pennies in the USA. But I see this year as mostly devoid of contemplative drama, instead coming through as a year of notable commercial releases. Granted, I did miss a number of movies this year. I have not yet seen J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, three movies that seem to be worthwhile efforts. I want to see Shame and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but while the first features Carey Mulligan and the second David Fincher, I’d rather not witness the explicit material that they are said to depict. And I missed The Ides of March – my only regret for this year, as I expect it to be one of the greater works of 2011.
So here they are: ten movies which I feel have a place among the year’s best work, and I feature them especially for the fact that I enjoyed them personally. However, I could have just as easily replaced The Descendants or Super 8 with Moneyball, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Kung Fu Panda 2, or Mission Impossible. This year may not have been the best we’ve ever seen, but it still packed a punch. I ask that you join me celebrating ten movies which clearly displayed good taste, excellent form, and poetic style, and each stands as a worthy example for what 2011 had to offer:
1.The Iron Lady – A stunning and profoundly human tribute to Lady Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady tells the story of the first female Prime Minister of Great Britain from an intimate and empathetic standpoint, depicting her rise to power as seen alongside her current-day struggles with Alzheimer’s and the memory of her deceased husband, Dennis. Meryl Streep is a powerhouse, giving Thatcher nuance and soul, a remarkable feat which is upheld by strong direction and a subtle, well-crafted screenplay. Determination is ultimately what makes Thatcher the force that she is, taking her to great heights before bringing her down. But in the end, she is able to reach down one more time for the strength to save herself so that finally, that same determination redeems her, and sets her free. A powerful and touching movie, far and away the most perfect and eloquent film I have seen this year.
2. Midnight in Paris – A personal favorite for 2011, Midnight in Paris tells the story of a screenwriter named Gil, a hopeless romantic who is vacationing in Paris with his fiancé and, perchance, a couple of friends they meet while there. Bored out of his mind by these people, Gil takes to wandering the streets one night when suddenly, at midnight, the city is transformed into the nightlife of the 1920s’, where Gil encounters all of his favorite writers as well as a beautiful and enchanting young model. This movie is well-aware of its fantastic nature, which allows it to indulge in the fantasy with gleeful incredibility, giving us a warming and funny experience which also contemplates the romantic habits of people in regards to the past. Woody Allen at his most whimsical and self-deprecating; a masterpiece of affection and charm.
3. Source Code – One of the more surprising movies this year, Source Code tells of a seemingly stranded Army captain who is chosen for an avatar-like government job which transports his conscience into that of a man who was killed in a train bombing earlier that day. The idea is to find out who planted the bomb and where, so that another, larger attack can be stopped. Its focus on the existence of parallel universes aside, Source Code is a tremendously thrilling and emotive film featuring a knockout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as the captain who must uncover a culprit through intervals which bring him back to the last seven minutes of a dead man’s life. An exciting and thoroughly satisfying movie.
4. The Artist – What many are calling the best movie of 2011, The Artist is certainly the year’s cleverest, as it plays with the concept of the silent movie to such an extent as has never been seen before. It is also marvelously enjoyable and sweet. George Valentin, a silent-movie star, slowly loses his way as the world of talking pictures comes into being, while a charming young extra named Peppy Miller rises through the ranks to become a star of the new era. George and Peppy are tentatively in love throughout, at first in spite of his status and then, later on, his envy of hers. But what this story boils down to is George’s stubborn inability to – both literally and figuratively – speak. This concept is brought forth through some wondrously original moments, and in its manipulation of sound The Artist comes through a real masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. A smart and absolutely indelible film.
5. The Help – A strong, effective commercial release, The Help is an equally beautiful and tough portrayal of black maids living in 1960s’ Jackson Mississippi, and of the white female reporter whose interviews with these women threaten to upend the city’s entire social order. Featuring some breathtaking performances from the entire cast, The Help offers the greatest ensemble of the year, with standout work from Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Viola Davis. Davis especially, for how she depicts the maid Abilene with humility and an certain awkward strength, making her one of the best heroines to grace the screen in a long time. A film worth cheering for – one of the most assured and convincing movies of the year.
6. Bridesmaids – By turns uproarious and heartfelt, witty and crude, Bridesmaids is the best comedy of 2011. Kristen Wiig stars in a film she wrote, as the single gal Annie who assists in the preparation of her best friend’s (Maya Rudolf’s) wedding. But in the process, she comes to grips with her best friend’s new buddy (Rose Byrne), a rich party-planner who threatens to not only steal the entire bridesmaid scene but their mutual friend as well. Wiig ensures through her writing and surprising acting talents that this movie is neither nonsensical nor flat out stupid; rather, it possesses so many emotional and comedic levels as to be both memorable and side-splitting. With an ensemble that comes close to matching the skill of The Help’s, Bridesmaids proves itself a wonderfully refreshing piece of comedic joy.
7. Crazy, Stupid, Love – Yet another great ensemble, Crazy Stupid Love begins with the breakup of a man from his philandering wife before it moves forward into the stories of several oddball players in the game of love. We follow this man (Steve Carrel) as he fights the memory of his wife (Julianne Moore) while trying to branch out and find new love (once through a one-night stand with Marissa Tomei). He is assisted in his escapades by a worldly playboy (Ryan Gosling), who himself has fallen for a distant and dissatisfied beauty, played by Emma Stone. The story evolves through charismatic and wise writing, coming together in a brilliant climax which is both startlingly hilarious and totally believable. The whole cast is in superb form, with especially noteworthy work from Carrel and from Gosling, whose playboy is backed with a surprising amount of depth. A wonderful and fun film; another of my personal favorites this year.
8. The Descendants – A smart and sensitive film, The Descendants tells the story of Matt King, a distanced father and husband who must come to terms with his wife’s approaching death as she lies in a coma, while at the same time dealing with the ill-timed realization that she was cheating on him. As Matt works to find his wife’s partner, he bonds with his daughters, especially his eldest, who is given excellent treatment by Shailene Woodley. Matt himself is played by George Clooney, and even while he ultimately manages to give a good performance, Clooney simply cannot evoke the proper pain from within, giving Matt’s scenes of mourning something of a half-hearted fakeness. Some character contradictions also pop up, but The Descendants still manages to be a respectable and touching motion picture with some genuinely inspired moments.
9. Super 8 – Failing towards the end as it slowly drifts into an unnecessary alien subplot, Super 8 nonetheless proves to be a nuanced and engagingly intimate story of one boy’s struggle for fulfillment with his father and friends. Bearing strong resemblance to Stand By Me, the story of best buddies dealing with problems at home and amongst each other is hardly new, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be good. Indeed, J.J. Abrams has here written and directed a movie which quite accurately depicts the emotional plights of children who are beginning to find love, seek independence, and push away from their elders. It is an affective movie which keeps you interested, a convincing effort with some great performances from its child actors.
10. The Tree of Life – While director Terrence Malick can prove to be a bit heavy handed with this often tedious film, what really make The Tree of Life become something of a masterwork are its moments of familial dysfunction. Forgetting the scenes of cosmic activity, Planet Earth-like nature shots, and an oddly brief appearance from Sean Penn, the core of this film is centered around one family living in suburban America during the 1950s’, and out of this family arises the emotional journey of its eldest son. A pained and stunning performance is given by the boy’s player, Hunter McCracken, who is on the verge of adolescence and comes to grips with his domineering and rough father, played with great talent by Brad Pitt. Also adding to this dynamic is the boy’s quietly noble mother – depicted through a graceful and human performance from Jessica Chastain. This movie sticks with you for its incredible insight and realism, yet it also grows into something more due to incredible visuals and an invigorating score. It is a trying, but ultimately rewarding cinematic experience.
It has been a good year, filled with movies which I’m sure will become fixtures in my circuit of regular viewings. Whether funny, touching, grand, or intimate, these movies stand out as a miraculous move forward on the part of Hollywood towards memorable entertainment, the likes of which have not been seen for decades. Perhaps not all perfect, but getting there, this year’s run has given me a little more faith in the American film industry – leaving a clear path forward into the New Year. Thank you 2011 – it’s been a blast!