Our Top 10 Movies of 2011
By Andrew Welch
December 21, 2011
One of the major complaints about Hollywood today is its lack of originality. When the box office is ruled by remakes and sequels (and vampires, of course), film lovers have to do a little digging to find movies with depth and quality. But they’re out there. They might take you to another place—the grimy underworld of Los Angeles, the twinkling streets of Paris, the bleachers of the big leagues. But in doing so, they shine a fresh light on the intricacies of reality—the gravity of terminal illness, the curiosity of childhood summers, the very meaning of existence and creation. Here’s our list of the most memorable films from 2011 that renew our hope in the heart of Hollywood. It's an eclectic mix, and while it may not look like your personal list, we think it's a pretty good one. Whether you consider movies "art" or "entertainment" or a mixture of both, we think everyone will find something to love about the 10 titles singled out below.
10. Super 8
This summer saw its share of high-concept alien flicks, but Super 8 was the standout with its mixture of intimate emotion, roller-coaster thrills and a Spielbergian sense of wonder and nostalgia. It's the only summer blockbuster we saw this year that had the nerve to be as much a family drama as a film about aliens and government conspiracies. Better luck next time, Transformers.
This unsettling indie drama from first-time director Sean Durkin plays fast and loose with the rules of linear storytelling, and the effect is mesmerizing. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hapless young woman of the title, whose years with a secluded cult have left her unmoored from any sense of identity. Martha's title may be gangly, but as a film it's a brisk, chilling and virtuosic achievement.
9. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen play best buds in this comedy about a young writer who is diagnosed with spinal cancer, and it is their chemistry that gives this surprising comedy its equally surprising heart. It may have its coarse moments, but beneath that crass surface lies warmth and a deep understanding of life borne out of experience. The film's screenwriter, Will Reiser, was diagnosed with the same cancer, and this charming comedy is a testament to his experience.
Moneyball is based on a book written by Michael Lewis about the surprising reversal of fortune for the Oakland A's baseball team in 2002. You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy its crackling energy, though. With its combination of sharp, witty dialogue (courtesy of screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian) and winning performances from Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball is for everyone who loves a smart, well-directed dramedy.
A lot of stars release multiple pictures in one year, but the standout this year was Ryan Gosling. In Drive, Gosling plays a stunt man who moonlights as a getaway-driver-for-hire. Like a Western hero, he follows his own code and feels most at home in the saddle (or, in this case, behind the wheel). Beneath his cool exterior, though, lies a roiling temper and a familiarity with violence that's chilling. Drive may hit all the beats that a standard heist-gone-wrong picture demands, but Gosling's boyish charm and his cool in the face of extreme violence add an unexpected complexity to director Nicolas Winding Refn's kinetically dreamy action flick.
5. Ides of March
Another side of Gosling is revealed in the George Clooney-directed political drama, The Ides of March. Here, the challenge before him is not to play the archetypal hero but the compromised idealist with everything to lose, including his soul. Gosling isn't the only performer of note in Clooney's dirge to Obama-style "Yes we can" politics, though. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clooney himself all deliver stellar performances that are some of the best you'll see all year, regardless of your politics.
Martin Scorsese's first family film is not what it appears. True, it's friendly enough for the little ones, but it's more an homage to the incandescent power of cinema than anything else. What's more, Hugo is one of the few 3D films to actually put that extra dimension to good use. With it, Scorsese is able to breathe new life into classics like Pandora's Box, Intolerance, The General and of course the work of Georges Melies, in the process restoring a sense of magic to the movies and reminding us why we go in the first place.
3. Midnight in Paris
In his 41st feature film, Woody Allen trades weighty themes like faith vs. doubt and chance vs. fate for a romantic and whimsical look at what Paris represents to a struggling screenwriter/novelist named Gil (Owen Wilson). Gil dreams of living in Paris during “the good ol’ days” of Hemingway, Dali and Buñuel, and magically gets his chance. But even if you haven't visited the great French city, its easy to understand his nostalgic longing. With Midnight in Paris, Allen has tapped into something that’s as beautiful and universal as anything he’s ever done.
2. The Artist
If Scorsese indirectly pays homage to silent cinema in Hugo, then Michel Hazanavicius brings that entire moment from film history vividly back to life again with The Artist. Unlike his OSS 117 films, which broadly lampooned the spy genre of the 1960s (and also starred Jean Dujardin), The Artist tells a genuinely moving story of fame found and lost during Hollywood’s early days. The Artist has already topped a number of important year-end lists, including the New York Film Critics Circle’s, proving that perhaps silence is still golden after all.
1. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick's latest film—only his fifth since 1973—wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but for many critics and moviegoers The Tree of Life was a transcendent experience. Whether you're talking about the dazzling creation sequence set to Zbigniew Preisner's haunting "Lacrimosa," the nuanced performances of Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken, or the dreamy cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life reaches heights that other films can only dream of. But formal qualities aside, Malick's film is also a deeply felt meditation on life, death and the very nature of God. No one said it better than Roger Ebert when he wrote, "Terrence Malick's new film is a form of prayer." Amen to that.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Descendants, The Help, Higher Ground, Meek's Cutoff, The Muppets,