2011 has been, arguably, a great year for a wide array of films. There have been wonderful films of the heavy and the light variety; typically, the good movies are overloaded in the last quarter of the year. But this year, there have been solid films throughout, so much so that narrowing the list down to ten proved tougher than usual…
10) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – This action opera is everything fans of the genre look for, and the best of the Mission: Impossible franchise since the first one back in 1995. Here is a thrilling adventure film with multiple locales, action set pieces that are breathtaking in their scope, and thrills that never feel forced. No matter how outrageous the events may become, director Brad Byrd manages to keep the audience involved in the immediacy of the proceedings. Tom Cruise is his typical self as Ethan Hunt – that is to say he is as solid as he’s ever been here – but it’s the injection of actors like Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton that solidify the strength of this film.
9) Rango – The best animated film of the year is a cerebral, literate cartoon with a rich film history behind it and references to the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. What else would you expect from an animated film where Johnny Depp is our hero? Depp is silky smooth as Rango, the adventurous lizard who manages to fall into the role of town savior when he stumbles into a desert town in desperate need of some water. Director Gore Verbinski doesn’t take the easy way out here, opting to keep references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Man With No Name trilogy, and even Chinatown in place in a wonderful cartoon world which still manages to be kid friendly – to an extent.
8) Trust – I haven’t seen this film on many year-end lists, and I see any number of reasons why. This is tricky subject matter, and a film with very limited distribution that few people found. But there is no denying the power of David Schwimmer’s “message” film, about a young girl who is tricked into a sexual encounter by an online predator. While the horrifying events of the encounter are intact here, Trust is more about the aftermath, the humiliation and confusion of the young girl, and the emotional pain suffered by everyone involved. Clive Owen is compelling as the father, Catherine Keener likewise as the mother; but it’s the gripping performance by young newcomer Liana Liberato as Annie, the victimized youth, that carries the emotional weight of the film.
7) Hugo – Leave it to Martin Scorsese to tell everyone he is making a children’s film, and then deliver a beautiful, heartfelt meditation on the history and the origins of film. Hugo is a marvelous cinematic achievement and a touching story about a young boy who spends his days maintaining the clocks in a Paris train station. The screen is filled with sharp imagery and rich characters, including Ben Kingsley as George Méliés, the famous director, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector after Hugo Cabret at every turn. Hugo is a love letter to the birth of cinema, fashioned as an enchanting children’s adventure. In any normal year this may find its way to the top of my list; but 2011 blossomed into a special year in film, in my opinion.
6) The Artist – From one love letter to another we go, both focused on the early days of films and filmmaking. The Artist is a silent film about the death of silent films, in the face of the new talkies which swept the industry in the late 20s. The picture demands a certain type of performer, and director Michael Hazanavicius finds wonderfully expressive thespians in Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the two leads on opposite ends of their fame and career. Dujardin, as George Valentin, rejects the speaking films in which Peppy Miller (Bejo) finds her fame. The idea of a silent film may be too much for many people to embrace these days – never mind the horror of black and white! – but given a chance, The Artist might win over even the biggest skeptics.
5) Melancholia – This is where things get tricky as far as listing goes. These next two or three films could really alternate depending on the day or, perhaps, my mood. Today, at number five is Lars von Trier’s meditative look at the end of the world. Melancholia tells a pair of stories revolving around two very different sisters who almost seem to trade personalities in the middle, once a planet is discovered headed for earth and sure to destroy us all. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg play two sisters approaching grief in different ways, and Kiefer Sutherland, as the husband of the Gainsbourg character, remains optimistic until the very end. There is no better filmmaker to shine a new, different light on the apocalypse. There will be no worldwide panic, no presidential addresses here; just the end.
4) Drive – Nicholas Winding Refn’s minimalist crime thriller has evolved since its various 2011 releases, from one of the best to one of the most overrated films of the year. It just depends on where you pick up on the backlash. Drive is a crime drama on the surface, but a stripped-down character study about the nature of violence. Ryan Gosling’s nameless hero, the getaway driver, is less a person than a device for the action of the story, protecting his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and defending himself against the seedy criminal element floating around him. The overall vibe of this film is simply wonderful, pure, stripped away and soaked in an eighties vibe of neon pink and synth pop music. And Albert Brooks’ performance is what Supporting Actor noms are made of.
3) Shame – There hasn’t been a braver film performance this year than the one delivered by Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s heartbreaking, unforgettable film about a sex addict whose life is unraveling with every passing urge. Fassbender’ s Brandon is physically incapable of human emotion, and simply seeks out orgasms to ease his pain. This is a drug addict whose narcotic is sex, so it stopped bringing him pleasure quite some time ago. Enter Carey Mulligan as Sissy, his emotionally-ruined sister who reaches outward just as much as Brandon retreats inward. Shame is a film I will not soon forget, and one of the most mesmerizing and stylish character studies in recent memory.
2) The Tree of Life – This is a movie I wrestled with in my mind until I could see it a second time. It, like Shame, is an unforgettable film experience. But where Shame brings a certain range of heartbreaking human emotion, The Tree of Life inspires wonder, produces awe, and it even overwhelmed me a second time as I found myself drawn deeper into the story of the family the second time around. Brad Pitt may get a nomination for his role in Moneyball, but I feel like his work as the father here is much better, arguably the best performance of his great career. The Tree of Life is a film about humanity, surrounded by the beginning and the end in a package of stunning beauty and poignancy. This film challenges notions of what a film can be and what it can do.
1) Midnight in Paris – I remember catching myself grinning about two-thirds of the way through Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and realizing I had been grinning the entire time. There is a deep message here in Midnight in Paris, one about where we are in life and how we shouldn’t waste all of our time in nostalgia – no matter how thrilling it may be – but the packaging is one of aloofness and joyful filmmaking that feels undeniably wonderful from start to finish. Owen Wilson – maybe the best of all Woody Allen stand ins – is an aspiring great writer who, through unexplained magic, is taken back to Paris in the 20s where he hangs out with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein just to name a few. Midnight in Paris is filled to the brim with richness of detail, humor, and undeniable energy. This stands just slightly above anything I have seen this year.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Moneyball, a well written screenplay of an unfilmable book with great performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill; David Fincher’s sleek and visceral remake of the Swedish film and bestselling novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo; the final chapter of the Harry Potter series, The Deathly Hallows, Part 2.