Going back through the list of movies that were released in 2011, I realized two things – there were a LOT of films released this year, and I saw just about all of them. There were also just as many (if not more) bad movies as there was good movies, making the job of a critic that much more challenging. As is the thing to do as one year comes to a close and another is beginning, we take a look back at the past 365 days of film, and spotlight the good, the bad, and the (sometimes) just plain weird.
My thanks to Bigfanboy.com contributors Gwen Reyes and Gary Murray for weighing in, so you’ll see their picks and mine below. Agree? Disagree? Think we missed something? Let us know in the comments. I always say film is subjective, and different movies speak to people for different reasons. I never expect that just because we like something everyone else will feel the same way, and the same goes for the reverse of that. But that aspect is one of the reasons I find cinema so fascinating.
Gary Murray’s Top Ten of 2011
2011 has not been a great year for cinema. The box office has not done this bad since the mid 1990’s. It feels that the studios are trying to hit to the back bleachers and striking out more than connecting with the ball. But some films did manage to rise above the muck. Here are my picks of the best that 2011 had to offer:
SARAH’S KEY – There has not been a film that has moved me this much the entire year. It is a heartbreaking tale that finds eventual hope. This personal story of the Nazi occupation of France shows how inhuman humanity can be. The ending just rips at your heart.
THE ARTIST – the film is a gimmick but a gimmick that works in buckets. It is such a different experience that shows not only how film has changed but how, in some ways, it has become a weaker medium. Also, the little dog gives an amazing performance.
HUGO – Méliès was one of the greatest visionaries of the silent movie era. This tale honors his legacy and Martin Scorsese makes a film that the entire family can enjoy. Also, it uses 3D as an effective storytelling device and not just a gimmick.
WAR HORSE – This is a classic Steven Spielberg tale done in a grand fashion. It is an episodic tale of friendship and honor in the backdrop of brutal conflict. The star is the horse but some of the supporting cast delivers Academy worthy performances.
THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE – Admittedly a hard film to watch. Dominic Cooper delivers one of the best performances of the year in a role that is both ugly and fascinating. If one can get past some of the violence, this becomes a powerful reflection into madness.
THE HELP – A film that puts a human face on a part of history many try to forget. It is equal parts poignant and funny without being overly preachy. It has one of the biggest laughs of the year that shows all those gross-out comedies how to do a body function joke with timing.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – It pays homage to all of the other films while blazing a new trail. Andy Serkis shows that he is one of the best unknown actors working in Hollywood. It is one of the best cinematic rides of the year.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE – This film came out of left field. In a world where everyone knows everything about new films, this one just appeared. I had no idea where the film would eventually lead or how it would eventually end. It is both a mystery and a testament to love.
MONEYBALL – Brad Pitt delivers a devoted tribute to baseball. There is also an amazing performance from Jonah Hill. This film is a geeky love letter no only to the sport but to the idea of winning.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN – Best animated film of 2011 and one heck of a thrill ride. It is a simple little popcorn chewing adventure flick that is fun from the first frame. It is another film that has to be seen in 3D.
Gwen Reyes’ Top Five Best of 2011 followed by Top Five Worst of 2011
1. BEGINNERS – Back in February I had the chance to see an early screening of Mike Mills’ auto/biopic Beginners before it played at SXSW the following month. When I walked out I couldn’t stop buzzing from the images and feelings I had just experienced. While I normally would be the first person to brush off a film about a sad man reflecting on the death of his father while trying whole heartedly to get the cutest of cute girls to fall in love with him, I was utterly charmed. Beginners is one of those films that tears out your heart, but cuddles you after while whispering “it’s okay because you’re not alone.”
2. BRIDESMAIDS – I really don’t think there needs to be more said about this than “it’s happening…it’s happening.” A film about what happens when the eternal bond between best friends is tested, and Melissa McCarthy takes home a party favor puppy… or nine.
3. DRIVE – Ryan Gosling was, without a doubt, the man of the year. Staring in three films and earning an Oscar nomination earlier in 2011, his performance as a calm and quiet getaway driver stuck in a sticky situation surprised most everyone. Drive will simultaneously make you want to speed down city streets and fall in love with the most unattainable person.
4. SHAME – 2011 was the year of sex. And while that may sound incredible, it was actually a curse when it came to fall’s Shame, a film chronicalling a sex addict’s spiral into despair. This film will do for sex addiction what Trainspotting did for drugs—show both the enticement and the downfall of opulence. I loved it, even though I still haven’t taken enough showers to erase some of the more filthy moments from my brain (but that’s quite alright with me).
5. THE TRIP – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon shine in this hilarious reality hybrid. The pair travels through the English countryside tasting the cuisine from the nation’s finest gastropubs and along the way they explore loneliness, family, fame, and Michael Caine impressions. Stop reading now and go check it out on Netflix Instant.
1-4. JACK AND JILL – Would it be okay if I just said this was the worst piece of cinema out this year? I mean, because it really, really was. The worst part was after I sat through 30 minutes, leaned over to my seatmate to mutter desperately how I couldn’t take any more she whispered back, “there is still 45 more minutes.” That is how terrible Jack and Jill truly was.
5. SOMETHING BORROWED – I have never hated a film more in my life than I hate Something Borrowed. I honestly forgot until a few days ago that it came out this year, as I had completely blocked it from my mind. There is nothing more painful than watching catty women stereotypes battle each other over the attention of a man nowhere worthy of fighting for, but when they try to pass off either of the women in this film as likeable then Hollywood really doesn’t understand the audience. I am not one to burn art, but I would be quite alright if this particular piece of garbage never surfaced again.
Mark Walters’ Top Ten Best of 2011 plus Honorable Mention, Best Sci-Fi, Best Guilty Pleasure, I Don’t Get the Hype, Most Surprising, Best Animated and Best Documentary – followed by Top Five Worst of 2011.
HUGO – Leave it to Martin Scorsese to wow me and make me feel like a kid again, all while putting together a film that’s a severe departure for him. Hugo is one of those movies for people who LOVE the cinema, even going back to the early days of its inception. Perfectly cast, perfectly performed, and beautifully directed in some of the most impressive 3D I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you owe it to yourself to do so.
THE ARTIST – It was hard not choosing this for my top spot, as I’ve now seen the film 5 times… yes, I liked it that much, and they sent me a screener I can watch whenever I feel like it, so that helps. I was already a fan for director Michel Hazanavicius and leading actor Jean Dujardin thanks to their OSS-117 movies from France. This “silent” film is a loving nod to late 1920′s box office treasures, and manages to capture the magic those early films had before cinema had even kicked into full gear. It’s also proof that you don’t have to hear people talk to know how good they can act.
THE DESCENDANTS – Alexander Payne makes his long-awaited return to the director chair with this George Clooney vehicle, which also happens to contain (in my opinion at least) Clooney’s absolute best big screen performance to date. He’s a flawed everyman dealing with a crappy series of events, but like many of us finds himself making to best of a bad situation. Add in Shailene Woodley’s impressive portrayal of his troubled daughter, and you’ve got a fantastic (albeit somewhat depressing toward the end) cinematic effort.
SHAME – the heavy drama about sexual addiction from director Steve McQueen is not a film I could recommend to many, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the critical hype its received. Michael Fassbender is simply excellent in the lead as the troubled Brandon, covering up a serious condition as his life unravels around him. The words “character study” definitely apply, and if you can get past the taboo aspects of the project, you’ll find something really unique and definitely memorable.
DRIVE – director Nicolas Winding Refn’s throwback to 1980′s crime dramas may have been misunderstood by many, and arguably mismarketed by the studio as more of an action flick than it ended up being, but I found the entire exercise brilliant and highly effective. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are a great pair of leads, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman playing baddies just adds to the overall fun. Toss in Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s auto shop employer, and you’ve got a solid cast of great characters in a movie that reminds me of some classic ffilms from my youth. Oh, and the soundtrack and score by Cliff Martinez is terrific as well.
50/50 – cancer is always a tricky subject, but finding a way to make it funny and awkwardly relatable turns this Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle into one of my favorite films of the year. Seth Rogen, who was instrumental in getting this movie made, plays the best friend role in a humble and perfect fashion, and Anna Kendrick is more adorable than ever as the inexperienced psychiatrist. Director Jonathan Levine helms the heartwarming and frequently amusing script by Will Reiser, and the end result is fantastic.
BEGINNERS – Mike Mills brought his autobiographical tale to the big screen at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, and showed with very little money and a competent cast (that includes Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent) he can make an artsy film with zero pretension. It’s quietly funny, appropriately sad, and more moving than you’d ever expect it to be. Oh, and it has one of the cutest dogs you’re likely to see on the big screen… ever.
SARAH’S KEY – based on the best selling novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, this film was sadly overlooked by many, but deserves all the accolades it got. Set against the background of a little-known Nazi occupied setting in France during World War II, the story follows a poor young girl who is determined to get back to her younger brother left behind, and how she beats the odds with often tragic consequences. The film jumps back and forth to present day as well, giving its main star Kristin Scott Thomas a chance to shine. It’s a beautiful and haunting film.
WAR HORSE – Steven Spielberg explores the often overlooked first World War through the eyes of a beautiful horse. While I enjoyed Spielberg’s TinTin movie, I found this to be his real triumph in 2011. While not up there with his very best work, there’s a lot that works well in this film, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t tear up more that once.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – Elizabeth Olsen turns in a stellar performance as a young woman fresh out of living in a cult, trying to return to a “normal” lifestyle living with her sister, but her time among the cult members (lead by the always-great John Hawkes) has taken a serious mental toll. It’s a powerful look into a fractured mind, moving back and forth in time, and expertly put together by first time feature director Sean Durkin. It’s haunting and uncomfortable, and it just may be the most-impressive independent film of the year.
THE BEAVER – Jodie Foster directed and stars in this Mel Gibson vehicle that was sadly overlooked despite a strong positive reaction at SXSW. The most upsetting aspect was in never got a wide release, only showing in a few art hour cinemas. Saw what you want about Mel, but his performance (as a man battling depression by speaking through a puppet) here is incredibly solid, and there’s a great deal of sincerity and truth in the end result.
SOURCE CODE – after his unbelievably good directorial debut with Moon, Duncan Jones helmed this Jake Gyllenhaal thriller that crossed Groundhog Day with The Matrix and Quantum Leap, and takes the audience on an adventures that never slows down and constantly keeps us guessing. Jones knows how to bring out the best in science fiction, and this sophomore effort shows he’s anything but a one-trick pony.
I Don’t Get the Hype:
BRIDESMAIDS – I know I’m in the minority here, but although I found the movie moderately funny in parts, I just don’t understand the overwhelming response this one got from critics. Kristen Wiig of Saturday Night Live fame takes the lead playing a character I found to be often annoying and pathetic, even at the end of the film. Everyone else seemed to root for her, I just kept waiting for her to get her act together. And yes, I’ll admit Melissa McCarthy was fun as the crass friend, but it wasn’t enough to save this one for me… even after multiple viewings.
INSIDIOUS – the PG-13 ghost story from writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan (the two men responsible for the original SAW) is not only incredibly scary, but proves you can make a chilling and effective horror film without an R rating. Despite coming out earlier in the year, there are some visuals I still can’t get out of my head.
RANGO – It’s aesthetically strange in all the right ways, features a spectacular voice cast, and a loving tribute to Western movies. Rango also incorporate motion capture technology with the actor’s body language, often with the voice cast acting together, and it makes a difference in the end result. Gore Verbinski proves himself a force to be reckoned with in the world of animation, and Johnny Depp is infinitely more likable here that he ever hoped to be in The Tourist… yeah, I went there.
BEING ELMO – you honestly won’t see any other documentary from 2011 that will warm your heart and remind you why Muppets were so magical to us as kids. Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, is inspirational and candid in this intimate look behind the scenes of the most popular children’s puppet since Kermit the Frog… and I’m not just saying this because I got to tickle the real Elmo in front of a packed house.
Best “Guilty Pleasure” Film:
DRIVE ANGRY 3D – Director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer reunite after the success of My Bloody Valentine 3D for this over the top romp featuring Nicolas Cage literally driving out of hell to get revenge for the murder of his daughter. William Fichtner chews every moment he’s on screen, and Amber Heard proves she can play a tough girl, all while we sit back and enjoy the ride. This was made for midnight movies.
Top 5 Worst of 2011:
JACK AND JILL – Adam Sandler needs to walk away from comedy for a bit, as this farce in which he plays a man and the man’s twin sister is so painfully unfunny it comes across like one of the silly throwaway comedies Sandler was unabashedly poking fun of in Judd Apatow’s Funny People. The Sandman now officially has his Norbit.
SUCKER PUNCH – this is the first film director Zack Snyder also wrote, and while it’s visually stunning, the end result feels like we the audience are watching Snyder expensively masturbate for two hours… if you took away all the slow motion it might be half that time.
YOUR HIGHNESS – I like stupid humor as much as the next guy that grew up with Mel Brooks movies, but this knights in shining armor slapstick is neither funny or sincere, except for maybe the uncaring high school kids that will get high and watch it with their friends.
NEW YEAR’S EVE – Garry Marshall follows up the lackluster Valentine’s Day with this pseudo-sequel, which puts countless big names together in romantic situations, but is so obvious in its pandering it feels insulting. Couple that with the studio shooting scenes of a happy and healthy Robert de Niro JUST for the trailer that were never in the movie (as his character in the movie is sickly and dying fast), and you’ll officially be glad 2011 is over.
THE HANGOVER PART II – the boys are back, and this time they’re not remembering what happened the night before while in Bangkok. Sadly, the audience is subjected to a not-so-thinly-veiled and somewhat lazy remake of the first film that never manages to capture any of the fun or perhaps unintentional charm of its predecessor.