2011: The Best Films Of The Year

Time to lay it on the line.  I have watched nearly 200 films (give or take) this year and have shared my thoughts about a considerable number of them.  And while I acknowledge that this list arrives later than others, I still did not catch a couple of films I really wanted to see  before finalizing matters officially.  Oh well.

While I am very satisfied with these selections, please know that I agonized over these choices and considered more than 30 films for these 10 spots, including the honorable mentions below.  Overall, I had a blast this year at the movies but only gave 2 films my highest 5-star rating.  7 other films received a 4.5 star ranking and so that left 1 spot remaining for approximately 23 films with 4 star ratings.  Literally, any one of those films could have earned my #10 spot and I went with a film that I found to be simply wonderful and a thrilling rush back to form for one of the greatest writers, satirists, and comedic filmmakers of all time.

So, let the debate begin.  I will stand up for each of these films exuberantly, but I also recognize the subjectivity of it all.  Through all of this, my goal is to simply find good movies to tell people about.  I hope that I have done so again this year.

Let’s do this then.  Here is my list of the Best of the Best, the Top 10 Films of 2011, featuring snippets from my published reviews to snapshot just why I found these films to be memorable.  Additionally, 22 more films will be giving Honorable Mention and all of this is found…after the cut!

#10: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (dir. Woody Allen)
[Rating:4/5]

From its travelogue beginnings, with engaging jazz music settling in comfortably behind gorgeous shots of Paris, Woody Allen feels important and perhaps relevant again as a filmmaker. Casting Owen Wilson was, as it turns out, an expert move and he delivers the finest performance of his career. Wilson exhibits a boyish charm and excitement, as well as a wondrous fascination with every moment happening in and around him. I simply smiled and hung on his every word and reaction.

Midnight In Paris is as focused and engaged a film as Woody Allen has made in recent memory, and I, for one, am thrilled. Allen, for the last decade or so, has been largely overlooked, and as his films have waned in popularity, his gifts have been taken for granted. Vicky Cristina Barcelona did earn Penelope Cruz a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2008, but nothing he has done has really seemed to resonate much. That changes here.

Beginning with Wilson’s brilliant performance, to the wonderful dialogue and terrific supporting cast, to the meticulous set design and costumes, to the picturesque cinematography by Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas, and to the idyllic landscapes and soundscapes Allen interweaves into the production, Midnight In Paris is sentimental, reflective, and as inspiring as it is charming. Easily this is one of 2011′s most wonderful surprises.

#9: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2 (dir. David Yates)
[Rating:4.5/5]

Watching everything unfold, I was so appreciative of this entire series. At the time of this writing I am near the end of my mid-30′s and I have seen several thousand films in my life. I have been excited for the Star Wars franchise prequels, thrilled and nervous watching the Lord Of The Rings trilogy play out in three subsequent years, and have veered into downright geekdom for Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman series. But taking in …Deathly Hallows Part 2 I was struck by the notion that Harry Potter‘s final moments on screen were something I suddenly wanted to avoid. I thought back to how each film has a distinctiveness, a memorable quality about it, a uniqueness that has frankly changed cinema internationally forever and for always. The “Potter” films are often conveniently dismissed as kids fare or young teen pop culture films, have been notably snubbed by the Academy, and are often not taken seriously for being the accomplished films they truly are. Somewhere and at some point in critical circles, it became cool and hip to dismiss the franchise or proudly show a disinterest in even acknowledging their presence.

As bittersweet as it is for me to see this all come to an end, I can proudly share with you that Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2 is a staggering achievement and at this writing, Part 2 is the easily the best experience I have had in a theater in 2011*. I am not sure if this is the best film of the year thus far, but it absolutely belongs in the conversation; better and more rewarding than any action film from this year and deeper and more heartfelt than I could have ever imagined.

All is well indeed.

* – Editor’s note:  I restate this phrase once again in comments related to a film further down the list.  Just acknowledging it here, so I am not branded as a phrase-hound or ‘blurb” writer!

#8: THE MUPPETS (dir. James Bobin)
[Rating:4.5/5]

The Muppets is brilliant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the screenplay that Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller have concocted. Segel and Stoller also wrote Segel’s star turn in 2008′s raunchy, ribald, but endearing Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the enthusiasm found in that film is manifested tenfold here. Excitement and entertainment radiates off of the screen from the first moment to the last and even when this film’s opening number, “Life’s A Happy Song”, surges in front of you unexpectedly, the lyrics, the punny comedy, the images, all the cameos, and the feel of the song-and-dance numbers which follow, in this context, work better than expected.

Mattering, staying relevant, and summoning up the courage and self-esteem necessary to put yourself out there, shedding the comforts of hiding in the shadows…I guarantee you did not expect that to be found in this silly little Muppets movie did you? Neither did I.

I was smiling huge watching this play out and will defiantly stand up for how great a film this truly is, if need be. In a flash, Segel, Stoller, director James Bobin, these Muppets, and even songwriter Bret McKenzie (Flight Of The Conchords) took me right back to my childhood, bathing me in nostalgia. My mind raced back to my youth, wondering that if I had the opportunity to make everyone love that one special thing that I held on to from my childhood, then how awesome would it be to let others experience that memory and potentially love it as much as I did. The Muppets accomplishes all of that and more and this film is an absolute treasure.

#7: OF GODS AND MEN (dir. Xavier Beauvois)
[Rating:4.5/5]

“Of Gods And Men” is lyrical and mesmerizing in its minimalism. Beauvois walks us into the monastery and settles us in, almost like a documentarian would present the lives of these monks. The screenplay uses dialogue sparingly at first but the words become more urgent and important as the film presses on and the danger becomes more and more imminent. Affording the position of observer, Beauvois allows us the opportunity to draw emotional connections with these nine monks as they become consumed by their plight. While not explicitly spoken, their trust, fear, and lifelong work rest at the forefront of their minds and yet, when the scholarly, de facto leader of the monks, Christian (Lambert Wilson), and the doctoral and fatherly Luc (Michael Lonsdale) do speak, the other monks hang on every word.

“Of Gods And Men” is a film that will simply stick around you for awhile. It raises questions within us and about us and straddles the line expertly in telling a politically-charged story from an objective and unbiased place. Being French, I have no doubts that Xavier Beauvois has some strong opinions about the events and incidents which ended the lives of seven of those nine Tibrihine monks. And yet, Beauvois has not made a populist or even incendiary film. He has delivered a dignified film of power and beauty; one which presents the awesome power of faith in self and others that is nothing short of inspirational.

#6: THE TREE OF LIFE (dir. Terrence Malick)
[Rating:4.5/5]

Visually, “The Tree Of Life” has no equal. Every shot is a photograph. Every image painstakingly rendered in a most detailed and sumptuous way. The work of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is a revelation and there are innumerable images that are so beautifully composed on screen, they not only captivate your attention, they might even move you to tears. Alexandre Desplat’s score is tremendous and strikes a perfect balance between Malick’s linear and non-linear moments. Alongside the aforementioned visual effects, the sound mix is also stellar. There are multiple layers to decipher, sounds stacked on top of sounds, and the soundtrack for the film is also engaging and rich.

And despite everything extraordinary about Malick’s film, “The Tree Of Life” is an outright challenge. You must be focused and engaged with the film to tolerate the seemingly disjointed musings about nature and life and the connections with people and nature, the frequent shifts in tone and pacing, and the aforementioned visual effects and seemingly unrelated images that arrive at random times. The film embraces ambiguity. For me, making this all palatable is that no matter how obtuse or off the rails “The Tree Of Life” may seem, there is a warmth and comfort which radiates throughout. For Terrence Malick, a famed recluse who rarely, if ever, is seen out in public, he is trying to connect with his audience on an emotional level.

Importantly and impressively, a striking element to the picture is that, at times, there is a youthful and child-like wonder on display. Frequently, the camera moves loose and free, looking at the sky, staring up at trees, and swaying to and fro with a endearing innocence. When the focus is placed on (Jessica) Chastain, the film has a softer and almost loving quality, hue, and tone. Scenes with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are clinical and cold, the edits tight and more orderly. Curiously, Malick employed no less than 5 editors on the piece, and while I may listen to the argument that the film is imbalanced and a mess because of it, somehow the film retains a constant voice throughout. Almost in spite of itself, “The Tree Of Life” succeeds because of Malick’s unyielding and frustrating dedication to telling his story in the manner he insists on telling it.

There are moments I loved, found achingly intense and overpoweringly beautiful, and moments where I simply shook my head in complete and utter confusion. And you will as well.

#5: PROJECT NIM (dir. James Marsh)
[Rating:4.5/5]

The origins of Nim began with another project known as Project Washoe. Washoe was an expansion on failed experiments by researchers to have chimpanzees learn how to speak human language. When it was determined that chimpanzees lacked the ability to replicate human speech patterns, Washoe attempted to take a newborn chimpanzee and integrate that chimpanzee into everyday human life to, in turn, see if chimpanzees could be raised as human children. Project Washoe was largely a success, but others were envious of the accomplishments and felt that where Washoe learned approximately 350 signs, more could be accomplished to bridge the gap even further between human and chimpanzee interactions and relationships. Enter Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, who had a bit of the “anything you can do I can do better” mentality.

James Marsh is a extremely effective filmmaker who, similar to his work with Man On Wire, integrates archival footage, present-day interviews, and recreations to tell a fascinating and heartwrenching story. Marsh nails all the details with the acumen of a top notch investigator and most impressively, he assembles and places on camera all of the major players. To his credit, Marsh never belittles or passing any judgment on any of these people and simple allows viewers to listen to each word, hang on every idea, and ponder for themselves just where and when this Project went wrong.

Project Nim is one of my favorite films of 2011 and has incredible power and resonance. This is a film that is important in examining the hubris of human beings, the ease in which some can embrace a “God Complex”, and the wanton disregard for responsibility in science, life, and simple logic. When Terrace simply informs an investigative journalist that the Project was a failure and disregards all of the money, time, and energy put in by numerous research assistants, you feel outrage. Nim deserved better and while he was used, manipulated, and discarded as nothing more than a child’s plaything, their is a beauty in the connections that Nim was eventually able to make while free from Herbert Terrace’s arrogant and short-sighted Project.

It was Henry Ford who said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” I thought about this quote tirelessly when watching Project Nim play out before me. At its conclusion, I was left pondering yet another famous quotation – “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should…”

#4: A SEPARATION (dir. Asghar Faradi)
[Rating:4.5/5]

My official review will be posted soon, but I am still haunted and compelled by Asghar Faradi’s A Separation, Iran’s selection for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which saw its theatrical release arrive in the last couple of days of 2011.  I am still marveling at how extraordinarily well written it is, how well acted it is, and how bold and brave making this film had to be.

A Separation begins with a husband and wife arguing over the merits of their marriage to a family court judge.  Simin wants to start a new life with her daughter and husband, seeking freedom for her family in another country.  Nader, on the other hand, feels compelled to stay and take care of his father, stricken with Alzheimer’s and in need of constant care.  Simin questions the reasoning but the judge orders that there are insufficient grounds for a divorce and Simin signs an order acknowledging the same.  She moves in with her parents, Nader moves his father in, and everyone tries to move forward.

However, separations in countless forms manifest, grow, and become realities.  Simin and Nader’s marriage separation is only the start to an intricate maze of physical and emotional separations which continually make the characters in Faradi’s film assess and evaluate their lives and the people who exist within it; all under the foreboding and unspoken, but always present, patriarchal and dictatorial trappings of modern-day Iran. 

After all the main characters are introduced, A Separation accelerates more and more expeditiously and urgently until everything reaches an unforgettable and thought-provoking conclusion.  As expertly accomplished as any movie I have seen in years, Asghar Faradi presents a half-dozen characters all immersed in conflict and yet never forces viewers to take a side.  But we are not merely bystanders though – we are engaged and immersed and riveted with every word, look, and decision that these characters make. 

But deeper and more powerful is Faradi’s ability to question various elements of Iranian culture and society – from the judicial system to health care and in doing so, how he ever got this film made is unbelievable.  That Iran saw it and selected it as their country’s submission for an Oscar is jaw-dropping and curious.

A Separation is as insightful and revealing as any film I have seen in 2011.  I cannot wait to see it again.

#3: 50/50 (dir. Jonathan Levine)
[Rating:4.5/5]

I have written this before and will undoubtedly say it again – the best films are the ones that catch you by surprise; the stories that present as one thing and then deliver something unexpectedly affecting and memorable. Perhaps I am leading with my heart a bit here, however “50/50″ got me early and refused to let go. Never would I have imagined that this little indie about a young guy dealing with cancer, obnoxious buddy in tow, would leave me so moved, appreciative, and battling introspection – relating personal experiences and emotions to those playing out before me on the big screen.

“50/50″ may present as cute and funny and nice, but it is a bold film, one in stark contrast to many of the predecessors who have attempted to tell a similar story. “Cancer Films” or “Terminal Condition Films” all seem to play melodramatic and champion the proud character, staying strong long enough to learn an invaluable life lesson and/or relay some type of teachable moment. Then when the orchestral score floods the soundtrack and those moments are realized, the character always goes peacefully, invariably changing the lives of those close by for better and for always. Screenwriter Will Reiser has no desire to deliver such a mawkish and false sentimental elegy on life and the cinematic beauty of it. Instead, he relies on the loyalties of friendship, loyalties that certainly helped him through his difficult obstacles, and draws on his own underlying fears and sensibilities to drive his story.

I have no idea if there is an audience for this film, but I desperately hope “50/50″ finds one. I have such affinity for the film that I simply want to share “50/50″ with as many people as I can. When the film is funny, it is quotable. When the tone shifts to more emotional elements, it is compelling and riveting. When the characters are stripped down to their emotional core, it is touching and unnervingly honest. In short, “50/50″ is a fantastic film, sublime in virtually every way.

#2: THE DESCENDANTS (dir. Alexander Payne)
[Rating:5/5]

As stated, (George) Clooney has never been more moving or powerful than he is here and dissolves into the role of Matt, reaching layers and depths which require him to shed the sleek and slick stylings we have grown used to in recent years. And pushing Clooney to his incredible performance and matching him scene for scene, Shailene Woodley is officially ready for her close up. Anchoring the popular cult teen teledrama, “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager”, Woodley is often found on that show spitting out rhythmic, tempo-heavy dialogue that strains and wheezes within the show’s melodramatic layout. But for most people, “The Descendants” will be their first exposure to Woodley and once she warms to her father, her performance is equally intense and pitch perfect in matching Clooney’s emotions. They are fantastic together and watching their characters reconnect early on and build a father/daughter relationship over the course of the film is simply incredible to watch unfold.

I found myself dabbing eyes and swallowing hard several times with “The Descendants”, but not because it is a tearjerker or a shameless grab for the heartstrings. Payne runs from those cliches and punctuates his film with surprising moments of reality that a film of this type can seldom, if ever, attain. I loved the lack of sentimentality. I sat stunned when moments of pure and unfiltered anger and emotion emerge and hang in the air. I appreciated that Payne fleshes out his supporting cast just enough to give us an overview of everyone’s emotions and motivations.

With breathtaking visuals from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also lensed Clooney’s earlier 2011 film, “The Ides Of March”, and the exquisitely humble Hawaiian music score, “The Descendants” is transformative, powerful, and unforgettable.

#1: THE ARTIST (dir. Michael Hazanavicius)
[Rating:5/5]

You never know when the next great movie is going to arrive. We all see a number of movies a year that we all like and love to a certain degree, but the films which leave a lasting impression on you, stimulate the senses and make you fall in love with the art form of the motion picture all over again are exceedingly rare.

Sometimes, a simple story told exceedingly well can do it. Other times, a gripping and deeply profound documentary or insightful dramatic film can get you buzzing. But as I learned when seeing Michel Hazanavicius’ incredible The Artist, even with an absence of words, the motion picture can again be glorious, affirming, and affecting.

I love this film. I love the scope, the idea, the intent. I love the audacity of creating something like this. I love the tribute to, and astute critique of, the early days of an artform I write about and think about multiple times a day. By sheer design, a silent film made in 2011, with constant music score and title cards, cannot take me back to a period long ago, but I can have a sense and an idea of the energy and enthusiasm that making a film in that era brought with it. Michel Hazanavicius and his cast have succeeded in that regard and I, for one, am most appreciative.

The inevitable backlash may be beginning because, as of the time of this writing, The Artist has started to rack up countless critics’ prizes and nominations from the most influential of film award organizations. As a result, it is expected to be at or near the top of the list for the most nominations with the upcoming Academy Awards nomination announcement in January 2012. Every ounce of success and accolade levied upon The Artist is deserved in my opinion.

Through the viewing of approximately 200 or so films released so far in 2011, both seen in theaters and at home, The Artist is the most exhilarating experience I have had watching a movie this year. I proudly give it my highest rating and recommendation.

AND 22 MORE FILMS ALL COMPETING FOR #10 (all of which received 4 stars from me in 2011):

YOUR THOUGHTS?

2011 ADDITIONAL LISTS:

The Great Performances Of 2011
The Worst Films Of 2011

zv7qrnb