Here is the sixth essay detailing the year in film. This time, it's the best of the best. Of course 'best' is a subjective term, so you might want to consider these my 'favorites'. Despite what everyone likes to whine about at the end of every year, 2011 was, in fact, one of the better years in a good long time. Maybe it was the effects of the 2007 WGA strike wearing off, maybe it was just dumb luck, but on the whole, movies, especially mainstream movies, were pretty on-spot more often than they weren't. But just as important, most of the year-end Oscar bait was actually quite good, so this is a year where I don't have to half-heartedly apologize for having a list filled with movies nobody saw and mainstream pictures that no one admits to liking. Even if it took 1/3 of the year to really get cooking, 2011 was an uncommonly solid year for all forms of cinematic entertainment. And of course, there are at least a few films that might have made the cut if they hadn't come out so close to the end of the year (mainly A Separation, Shame, and Pariah). But they merely become contenders for the 2012 Black Book award (i.e. -- great films that you saw too late to include in your best-of list, named after Paul Verhoeven's fantastic 2006 World War II thriller that I saw in mid-2007). And thus, without further ado, here are the very 'best' films of 2011. As always, the list will be in alphabetical order, with a final paragraph or two at the end for my very favorite film.
This was a complete and total surprise, one that I wish I had seen earlier in its release so that I might have been able to give it the proper attention. Unfairly written off as a Judd Apatow-wannabe comedy purely due the appearance of Seth Rogen, this fantastic comedic drama from director Jonathan Levine and writer Will Reiser is a loosely non-fiction telling of Reiser's diagnosis with cancer and how it affected him and those around him. I can't speak to the medical accuracy of every onscreen moment, but the film feels bitterly real and it is never less than emotionally honest. Joseph Gordon-Levitt reaffirms that he is one of the better actors of his generation, and he is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast (Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard, Phillip Baker Hall, etc). The picture is relatively restrained, dealing with its subject matter with a morbidly comic touch, which makes the emotional pay-offs all the more powerful. The movie is raw when it needs to be, cynical when it has to be, and just a bit uplifting when it has earned it. It also contains one of the biggest emotional gut-punches of the year, arguably the most moving scene involving a book since Carl found his wife's scrapbook in Up.
A Better Life
This fine and observant drama from Chris Weitz (plus writers Eric Eason and Roger L. Simon) basically plays out like a loose variation on The Bicycle Thief set on the streets of East Los Angeles. It is a character study of a single Mexican day-laborer and his attempts to rise up the theoretical economic ladder while keeping his son from straying off course. Demian Bichir delivers one of the best performances by any actor this year. Without getting into the politics of legal and illegal immigration, this is a powerful and provocative little drama that has justifiably stayed with critics since its release in May.
First let's point out what Paul Feig's Bridesmaids is not. It's not "Hangover for girls". Despite it's single (one/01) moment of bathroom humor, it is not a gross-out comedy or a raunch-fest. It's an uncommonly observant character study of one seemingly normal woman basically staving off a nervous breakdown as she attempts to participate in the wedding of her best friend. Kristen Wiig (who also wrote the screenplay with Mumolo) gives a fantastic lead performance that damn-sure should result in an Oscar nomination, as she anchors the film and keeps it from descending into farce. Melissa McCarthy delivers most of the bawdy punchlines and makes her theoretically clownish supporting character into more than just a caricature. Rose Byrne does subtle work here, presenting a character who is perfect on the outside but has her own set of self-esteem issues that bubble up. And Chris O'Dowd is the best romantic foil of the year, arguably the 'perfect would-be boyfriend' but capable of error and willing to hold a grudge if the reason is just. Regardless of what boundaries it did or did not break, Bridesmaids is the best comedy of the year and a finely tuned portrait of one woman trying to come to terms with her failures.
Captain America: The First Avengers (review)
Inside a needless prologue and a rather terrible epilogue (via studio-mandate) are about 105 minutes of near super-heroic perfection. Joe Johnston's dynamite action-adventure picture finally gives Steve Rogers the cinematic treatment he has long deserved. Chris Evans delivers a genuine portrait of America at its best: unquestionably decent and open-hearted, willing to fight but not itching to kill. It's a bravura star turn that helps make this the best Marvel Studios movie ever and perhaps the best film based on a Marvel character outside of maybe X2: X-Men United. Stanley Tucci does a supporting turn every bit as grounded and sympathetic as Gary Oldman's work in The Dark Knight, while Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Hayley Atwell (as the year's coolest 'love interest') deliver top-notch support. Johnston's splendid World War II action picture uses nostalgia in a tricky fashion, making us yearn for a time when America was unquestionably good and an absolute moral authority. With great acting, strong writing and terrific action, Captain America is a comic book adventure that ennobles the sub-genre. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers does more than just save the world from the Red Skull. His most super-powered feat is finally making me excited for The Avengers next summer.
The Descendants (review)
Alaxender Payne returns with a bit of a switch. While most of his films have been dark comedies about seemingly light subjects, this George Clooney vehicle tells a dark and somber story with a light touch. Clooney sinks his teeth into a great role, as a man who finds out that his wife was cheating on him right after she ends up in a life-threatening coma, and Shailene Woodley (already solid on The Secret Life of the American Teenager) becomes a movie star as his resentful but empathetic older daughter. The film gives terrific material to Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard, as it asks whether 'doing the right thing' is really the right thing when it threatens the happiness of others around you. This is just a terrific little drama that hits almost all of the right notes.
Fast Five (review)
The fifth time is inexplicably the charm as this fourth sequel (and third entry from director Justin Lin) in an otherwise unremarkable series blasted off the summer season with uncommonly high style. The stunts are all practical, the locations are gorgeous, and the action sequences are all the more eye-popping for being able to believe your eyes. More importantly, the caper plot actually works, as the 'franchise all-stars' of the previous Fast/Furious pictures all team up to rob a drug kingpin while evading a U.S. Marshall played with pure overacting gusto by Dwayne Johnson. No one will accuse this film of being high art, but the emotional stakes are established just well enough to matter when the action heats up (Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Jordanna Brewster sell the material as much as they need to). Unlike so many sequels in long-running sequels, this one doesn't ignore every prior sequel but uses the character histories to add a rich emotional subtext to this fifth film. The events of the prior films are not only referenced this time around, but they actually matter in regards to how the characters act and the choices they make. This is a top-notch action picture and, along with another film on this list, will hopefully mark a return to big-budget action pictures involving mortal Earth-bound heroes performing very real acts of daring right before our very eyes.
Keeping in mind that I don't think Scorsese necessarily walks on water, this is probably my favorite Martin Scorsese film since... I dunno... Bringing Out the Dead? Which I suppose is a backwards way of saying I enjoyed Hugo more than The Departed, The Aviator, and Gangs of New York. The first act is slow-going, but Martin Scorsese and writer John Logan's loving plea for film preservation absolutely kills in the last 2/3. This was one of several films about nostalgia, although it differed from the others in that it concerns a once-great artist who wants to forget his former glories because he can't reconcile them with his disappointing present. With fine turns by Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz (I can think of no better child actor currently working) Ben Kingsley and Christopher Lee, among others, this enchanting and shattering family adventure film also boasts the finest live-action 3D you are likely to see for a long time.
This film was arguably the Video On Demand success story of the year, and it's easy to see why. It's a great film detailing the last 24 hours before the utter collapse of a Lehman Brothers-type financial firm whose chief qualities -- terrific acting and finely-tuned dialogue -- play just as well at home as on a big screen. It features a host of wonderful actors (Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, etc.) in terrific character turns for a story that has obvious social relevance. Fictionalized as it may be, the film works as a chillingly plausible 'as it happened' account of the bankruptcy that kick-started the current financial crisis. This is simply a terrific drama that is as delicious as it is nutritious.
Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (review)
Along with Fast Five, this dynamite action thriller may help revive the art of practical magic. Brad Bird's live-action debut may not have much emotional resonance and the script may have a few holes here and there, but it does have unmatched showmanship that takes you back to a time when the very idea of action sequences was magical in and of itself. The sheer quality and imagination of the action sequences on display, the sheer thrill of how real they all seem to be and the looks of sheer horror on the faces of the actors who have to perform them, reminds us, once again, how wonderful it is when you can believe what you're seeing. Tom Cruise reestablishes himself as a preeminent entertainer as he jumps, climbs and runs (and runs and runs!) to remind you why he was once the biggest star on the planet. He may be a little crazy, but damned if he's not absolutely determined to give you your money's worth, even if you're paying $20 per IMAX ticket. Mission: Impossible --Ghost Protocol is the best action thriller of the year and one of the most purely entertaining movie-going experiences of 2011.
The Muppets (review)
In a weird and surprising way, this would-be exercise in childhood nostalgia operates as a rebuttal to the constant need to revive and relive the entertainment properties of our youth. Oh sure, we still love the Muppets, but must our kids also worship them as we did? The film isn't so sure, and that self-doubt gives the picture an air of pathos behind the surface-pleasure delights. It operates not just as a joyous and hilarious celebration of Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang, but also a fond farewell and most-fitting finale (if need be) to these iconic entertainers who never really got that 'one last show'. With James Bobin, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller's celebration of all things Muppet, the film gives us a chance to finally make our peace with Jim Henson's unexpected passing just over 20 years ago. This film is the closest we'll ever get to be able to thank Mr. Henson in person.
Gore Verbinski's visually dazzling and endlessly inventive ode to film noir and the spaghetti western is unlike any cartoon you've ever seen. Johnny Depp gives his best performance since, I dunno, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, and you can feel the obvious attention being lavished on this labor of love for all involved. It's basically Chinatown in the old west with anthropomorphic animals, but the construction is so breathlessly exciting and funny that it stands on its own as a wonderfully quirky piece of adult entertainment that is nonetheless appropriate for (most) kids.
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain deliver two of the year's very best performances in Jeff Nichol's devastatingly intense slow-burn drama. The film concerns a family man who is suddenly beset by visions telling him to build a giant shelter to protect his family from an oncoming storm, but it's really a powerfully subtle and observant study of mental illness and how economic difficulties can prevent families from dealing with critical problems before they implode. Shannon barely rises above a whisper and is all the more engrossing because of it, while Chastain (in the best of her seven 2011 performances) takes what could have been a stock 'supportive wife' character and invests her with a character arc and poignancy all her own. This is just an awesomely compelling drama that is every bit as intense as the most gripping thriller.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review)
This terrifically engaging and openly mournful period-piece espionage thriller operates on several levels. It is an acting treat, with a terrific lead performance by Gary Oldman and with several fine supporting turns by Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong. It works as a pinpoint precise spy thriller, where even the most rapt viewer will have to use their little grey cells to put the puzzle together along with Mr. Smiley. And, on a darker note, it is a condemnation of a generation that spent their lives protecting and stealing arbitrary pieces of now-irrelevant information, regardless of the collateral damage. Tomas Alfredson's drama uses its period-piece setting to reflect ever so poorly on the present.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (review)
Tilda Swinton gives one of her very best performance in this horrifying and haunting drama about the pain caused when your own child doesn't love you. This devastating picture can be read on multiple levels, depending on whether you choose to take the climactic events at face value or as some kind of righteously-indignant fantasy that justifies a mother's inexplicable inability to connect with her own offspring. However you read it, it is a painfully intense and gripping film that will leave you scarred.
Young Adult (review)
This partially inspired an essay about how audiences judge complex and potentially unsympathetic female characters differently than their male counterparts, and the film's box office failure and likely Oscar shutout more-or-less proved me correct. Jason Reitman directs from the best script of Diablo Cody's short career, crafting a dark and uncommonly sympathetic portrayal of the kind of person who would have been the stock villain in a more conventional 'chick flick.' Charlize Theron turns in another great leading turn as a genuine female anti-hero in the kind of complex character drama usually reserved for the Paul Giamattis and Phillip Seymour Hoffmans of the world. Like so many other films this year, it is a commentary on nostalgia, as its embittered lead returns to her hometown to try to recapture her glory days of high school by stealing back her old boyfriend. Cody, Reitman and the team never justify Mavis' actions, nor do those actions exist in a vacuum. It is a sometimes painful but always funny and authentic little slice of life that also features exceptional supporting work from Patton Oswalt. Like Bridesmaids, it may count as some kind of 'progress', but it stands first as a terrific film on its own merits.
And now, at last, my absolute favorite film of 2011...
Kung Fu Panda 2 (review)
On the surface, this unexpectedly terrific sequel is a dynamic action film, a riotously low-key comedy and a rare sequel that respects the journeys its characters took in the previous film and expands upon their world rather than replaying the first adventure. On a purely visual level, the film is an absolute treasure trove of gorgeous sights of 'old-world' China that reminds us just how much visual splendor we take for granted in modern animated films. But beyond the pitch-perfect action, witty and moving character beats and eye-candy on display is a somber and reflective tale of, ironically enough, letting go of the past. In a year when so many films good and bad are dealing with characters who are stuck in the past, Kung Fu Panda 2 is about accepting and letting go of the scars of the past. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger and directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, this moving character journey pits Jack Black's Po against a Gary Oldman's tortured peacock Shen who continues to do evil because he can't confront the initial horrors that he committed as a child.
The film unblinkingly deals with heavy issues in a way that's taken for granted at Pixar, and it tells a terribly sad story in a surprisingly lively fashion, with minimum onscreen bloodshed. There are moments of unexpected emotional power and unexpected grace, as characters (like Dustin Hoffman's wise but dryly sarcastic teacher and James Hong's endlessly loving father) we have only begun to know become characters we have grown to love. This is the second film in what is supposed to be a six part saga. Seeing how well the universe is expanded and developed, and seeing exactly where the series plans to go from here (the cliffhanger is a stunning good news/bad news twist) this is the one ongoing franchise that I desperately want to see be continued until its natural end. For being a near-perfect sequel and a near-perfect film, for giving me a new franchise to become truly excited about as Harry Potter and Batman end or head toward their finale, for being the most unexpectedly satisfying cinematic experience of the year, Kung Fu Panda 2 is my favorite film of 2011.
And that's a wrap on the whole 'year in movies' lists. I may do one more, if time allows, discussing the various trends both good and bad. But if time does not allow, here ends the year that is 2011. Overall, it was the best year in cinema for at least as long as I've been writing, highlighted by a resurgence in the adult-focused, star-driven, mid-budget genre picture. Anyway, share your thoughts below. For the prior year-end wrap-up lists, go here, here, here, here, and here. Happy New Year to everyone!