The Year in Review: The Ten Best Films of 2011
While the Razzies announce their picks for the worst of last year on Monday (January 23), the following day, members from the AMPAS announce what they consider to be the best of the best from the same period.
With that in mind, now seems like as good a time as any to release my picks for the ten best films of 2011. I had hoped this would have been published closer to the start of January, but thanks to limited release, it's pretty impossible to do that unless you happen to live in certain parts of Los Angeles or New York.
So without any further ado, here were (in my opinion) the ten best movies from 2011. . .
#10. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Since 2003, there have been quite a few films about troubled teens that ultimately decide to partake in school shootings (both Elephant and Zero Day dealt with this in the same year). In fact, during 2011, we got two more: Beautiful Boy and We Need To Talk About Kevin. While the former featured a few good turns by leads Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, in the end, it wasn't as engaging as one would hope. Conversely, Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel may just be the best movie that's taken on this subject to date. Anchored by some fantastic performances (particularly Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller), Kevin grabs you early on, teases you with the possibility that it will reveal the devastation we've imagined, and when it finally does, there's no holding back. What also makes the film effective (in an unsettling way) is how it suggests that not everyone is pushed to the brink of violence by others. Maybe some people are just born evil.
#9. TAKE SHELTER
The last time Michael Shannon and writer/director Jeff Nichols teamed up, they gave us Shotgun Stories, an understated family drama that showcased Shannon's ability to carry a film himself and Nichols's talent behind the camera. The second time around, they're in even better form. As Curtis, Shannon is mostly laid-back, nonthreatening. But as the storm gets closer and more violent, Curtis begins to lose his grip on reality. Despite his best efforts to hold it all in, the bottled up anger and insecurities come to a head, resulting in a memorable public explosion. And then there's David Wingo's music score. "Perfect" doesn't seem to really do it justice. It so fits within the context of the film, an audio-only version of the movie would have worked just as well.
Comparisons to 2010's The Fighter are pretty much inevitable. In fact, I'm sure that Warrior's box office numbers were hurt by how closely the film resembled David O. Russell's Best Picture nominee. It probably wasn't a great idea to reveal the movie's major climax in the trailer either. Yet, despite all this, and the fact that you know exactly where it's going from the start, Warrior is still worth your time. You can't help but care about the characters, even Tommy (Tom Hardy), whose tough exterior and complex demeanor almost overshadow his ability to completely demolish his opponents on the mat. The heart of the movie is Nick Nolte. As Paddy, he takes the biggest emotional beatings of the movie, and this is all without having to step inside the ring. Invested as we are in the story, the film really finds its legs once we get to the fighting. Although we know who the final combatants are, it's still exhilarating to see how they get there. It says something about a film when you know where most of the punches are coming from, and it's still able to knock you out.
#7. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Woody Allen (especially contemporary Woody Allen) is hit-or-miss. Sometimes you get Match Point. Other times, you get Hollywood Ending. I already know that a few of my friends really disliked this, but for me, Midnight in Paris surpassed all expectations. After finding myself completely uninterested in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it was a nice change of pace to be just as invested in this imaginative new world as Owen Wilson's character. Anchored by an impressive cast (especially Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway), Allen's latest has the same old-fashioned appeal and quirky humor of 1994's Bullets Over Broadway.
#6. THE IDES OF MARCH
One thing you can say about George Clooney as a director is he sure knows how to assemble a fantastic ensemble. Led by Ryan Gosling, the movie features some major Hollywood A-listers turning in some fine work. Especially noteworthy are Evan Rachel Wood in a part that's flawed but still memorable, and Clooney himself as a political candidate who's nowhere near as humble as he appears to be on the surface. It's not just the performers that make this work, though. Clooney knows how to keep you engaged, keeping things moving at a pleasant, steady pace. It may not break the mold in terms of behind-the-scenes political secrets being revealed, but it's plenty entertaining nonetheless.
Field of Dreams. Bull Durham. The Natural. These are three films considered to be among the very best at capturing the game of baseball. I would add Bennett Miller's drama to that list. Thanks to his careful direction, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's pulsing screenplay, and some great performances from the main cast, Moneyball proves that you can make a sport's stats just as interesting as the game itself. Brad Pitt is great as Billy Beane, convincing us early on that he has both the slyness and ferocity required to manage a suffering team with an iron fist. He's nicely complemented by Jonah Hill, whose significantly less authoritative Peter Brand wins us over with his unassuming disposition. Although he hasn't gotten nearly as much good ink as his counterparts, praise should also be thrown Chris Pratt's way. Here, he dials down the kind of over-the-top acting we saw in the immensely disappointing Take Me Home Tonight and creates a reluctant antihero audiences have no trouble getting behind.
Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of 2011 as a sex addict whose life is so consumed by his obsession, he barely has a personality outside of it. Whether he's walking through his apartment in the buff or he's fully clothed, you're mesmerized by him. In a perfect world, both he and director Steve McQueen would be shoo-ins for Oscar nominations. The normally sweet and pleasant Carey Mulligan is also fantastic as Sissy, Brendan's painfully needy younger sister. There's clearly something to their relationship that isn't right (in one particular scene, it appears as if the elephant in the room may even be incest), but it's never disclosed, and their onscreen chemistry is all the stronger for it. Harry Escott's music score stays with you long after you've left the theater. While the track "Unravelling" gorgeously matches the images we see on screen, the piece playing over the end credits leaves you aching, but in a good way (if that makes sense). I've heard others (including Roger Ebert) state that they appreciated the film but could never watch it a second time. On the contrary, as soon as I left, I wanted to relive it all over again.
I've never really cared much for professional race car driving. So I was understandably reluctant to sit through a documentary about a famous Brazilian motor-racing champion. Thankfully, my intuition was very, very wrong. Senna isn't just the best documentary from 2011. It's one of the best documentaries, period. Unlike, say, the supposed Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated, Senna has such a wealth of candid and, periodically, explicit footage, it takes no effort at all to get sucked into the story. Without even realizing it, you find yourself moved by what you're seeing. We really get to know Ayrton Senna, his family and his crew. So when things don't work out for him, despite his occasionally conceited nature, you feel his pain. It's no wonder so many were up in arms when the film didn't make the Academy Awards documentary feature shortlist, although it's truly deserving of a Best Picture nod. Its director, Asif Kapadia, deserves special mention as well for crafting a tight, fluent piece. Antonio Pinto's music could not have been any more appropriate, particularly when "A Morte" plays over a certain heartbreaking scene. While the film won't be released in the States until March 6, 2012, thanks to Netflix, you can stream it instantly. I already have. Twice. Consecutively.
Truthfully, it actually pains me somewhat to put Drive in the number 2 spot, considering how long it was the best film I saw from 2011. The movie may the best example yet of what it means to use unoriginal songs effectively. Along with the decidedly unmanly pink font used for the opening credits, the music totally brings you back to the 80s. Drive deserves its own Oscar for best soundtrack of the year. Ever since my first viewing in September, "Nightcall" and "A Real Hero" have been on my iPod, and I haven't gotten sick of them yet. The acting is fantastic across the board, starting with Ryan Gosling as the driver who doesn't talk much but when he does, it usually means someone's getting hurt. Albert Brooks clearly had fun playing the major villain, and we have fun watching him. Carey Mulligan is sweet and instantly likable as Irene, reminding us of just how adorable she can be at times. Bryan Cranston, Ron Perleman and Oscar Isaac don't have huge parts, but they all make the most of them. What we have here is a modern-day western, with Gosling's character as the silent gunslinger who happens to trade in his horse for a stock car. Drive is clever, exhilarating and violent, making it one of the most unforgettable films to have come out of Hollywood in a while.
#1. THE ARTIST
Every year, there's one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest, one that reminds me why I love going to the movies as much as writing about them. It really got started in 2006 with Pan's Labyrinth. Then there was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007, The Dark Knight in 2008, The Hurt Locker in 2009 and The Social Network from 2010. For 2011, that film was The Artist.
A close friend of mine told me that I would love the film, and that seeing it would make me smile. I'm not sure if she meant that literally, but as it turns out, that's exactly how I reacted. In fact, I found myself grinning throughout the entire thing. It's not so much because The Artist is funny (although it is, at times) or because I'm crazy (I would hope), but because as an actual student of film, I was struck by how Michel Hazanavicius's detailed, meticulously-drawn homage to silent movies transported me back to my time as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, watching the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford convey so much while saying so little. Additionally, I was thoroughly impressed that someone could pull off making a silent film in today's market. Simply put, The Artist is pretty much perfect. From the acting to the story to the music to the dog, everything about the film just works.
TOP TEN: Update (7/9/12)
- The Artist
- Midnight in Paris
- A SEPARATION
- MONSIER LAZHAR
- PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY
- We Need To Talk About Kevin
- Take Shelter
DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius ("The Artist")
ACTOR: Michael Fassbender ("Shame")
ACTRESS: Viola Davis ("The Help")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christopher Plummer ("Beginners")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Octavia Spencer ("The Help")
SCREENPLAY: "Midnight in Paris"
ART DIRECTION: "Hugo"
CINEMATOGRAPHY: "The Tree of Life"
COSTUME DESIGN: "Anonymous"
FILM EDITING: "Hugo"
MAKEUP: "The Iron Lady"
MUSIC SCORE: "The Artist"
SONG: A Real Hero ("Drive")
VISUAL EFFECTS: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
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