Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011

My biggest problem with the movie industry is that they allow a film to be shown in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles for two weeks at the end of the year and consider the movie to have been released in that year. Many of those movies don’t arrive in the rest of the country until late January or February of the following year. Consequently, we are stuck watching awards being given to movies that we can’t even see. This year, the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that five or six of 2011’s top-rated movies are still not available as of mid-January, 2012.

In his 2001 book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins made a distinction between “good companies” and “great companies.” I’d like to make a similar distinction between good and great movies:
  • A good movie is one that has some obvious flaws but is otherwise enjoyable and/or interesting to watch.
  • A great movie is one in which everything comes together—the script, the direction, the acting, the cinematography, the score, etc.—to produce a truly exhilarating experience.
Of course, there are great movies that have gone on to become classics, like “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” “Some Like It Hot,” and maybe 100 other films that have been posted on countless lists, and we each have our own great movies that we like to watch over and over. For me, the two greatest movies of the last ten years are “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and 2006 was the best year of the last decade, featuring very good movies like “Children of Men,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Volver,” and “United 93,” as well as the aforementioned “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

I’ve included this introduction as a way of saying that 2011 produced many good movies, perhaps more so than most years, but as of this writing, no great movies. Even the top few movies on this list have significant flaws, but they are nonetheless worth seeing. If some of the “2011” films that are released in January and February are outstanding, I will modify the list. As of now, what follows is my list of the Best Movies of 2011, in inverse order.

22. Real Steel: OK, so it’s a schmaltzy, cliché story about robot boxing. What it lacks in originality is made up for in genuine emotion and the sheer enjoyment of watching a father (played by Hugh Jackman) and his son (played by Dakota Goyo) coming together and learning from each other. Directed by Shawn Levy (who also directed “Date Night,” and “Night at the Museum”), the film features very good (and surprisingly un-cliché) performances by Evangeline Lilly and Hope Davis.

21. Point Blank: Unlike “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which has been hailed by critics but is the year’s slowest and most ponderous “thriller,” this French film actually is a thriller. Written and directed by Fred Cavayé, it stars Gilles Lellouche as a nurse’s aide who inadvertently gets caught up in a web of corruption and intrigue and has to work with a criminal, played expertly by Roschdy Zem, to get himself out of it. Saying any more would give away the plot, but I recommend renting or streaming this movie.

20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Of course, we all loved the original “Planet of the Apes,” even if we were then subjected to several, awful sequels. This prequel takes a very different approach by offering a somewhat convoluted explanation of how it all may have come to pass. But what’s interesting about this movie is the character development of Caesar, the lead ape, portrayed in a brilliant, digitized performance by Andy Serkis (who has had a lot of practice with such performances from playing “King Kong” and Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”). Add in performances by James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and direction by Rupert Wyatt, and you have a surprisingly affective motion picture.

19. We Bought a Zoo: Cameron Crowe has directed some excellent films (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) and some not-so-great ones (“Vanilla Sky,” “Elizabethtown”). This one falls somewhere in between, effectively telling a heartfelt story about a family (Matt Damon, Colin Ford, and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) dealing with the death of a wife and mother by escaping to a rural setting where they actually purchase a house that comes with its own zoo. While rescuing the zoo, they also rescue their family. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the zoo is staffed by several colorful characters played by Scarlett Johansson, Angus McFadyen, Patrick Fugit, and the consistently impressive Elle Fanning (Dakota’s younger sister). There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in other movies…it’s just done well.

18. Beginners: This is a small movie about big topics. In it, Ewan McGregor plays a straight, part-Jewish graphic designer whose mother has died and his 75-year-old father has come out of the closet before learning that he is dying of cancer. Partly because of his parents' unfulfilled, 42-year marriage, McGregor's character has trouble with relationships, even after meeting a wonderful but equally troubled French, Jewish woman, played by Melanie Laurent. Written and directed by Mike Mills, this is a well-scripted movie that deals with major themes such as gayness, Jewishness, and cancer, but does so in a quiet and sensitive manner.

17. The Lincoln Lawyer: The truth is that Matthew McConaughey is a decent actor when he keeps his clothes on. It also helps when he’s surrounded by some really good actors like Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, and Frances Fisher. Together, they tell a story, directed by Brad Furman, of a sleazeball attorney who works out of his car (a Lincoln Continental) and represents a detestable client (played by Ryan Phillippe) until the lawyer has a crisis of conscience. This is a successfully taut piece of filmmaking that keeps your interest throughout.

16. Footloose: Sometimes remakes work. Such is the case with “Footloose,” which doesn’t try to duplicate the original shot-for-shot. Instead, it updates the 80s dance classic, setting it in present day Georgia (instead of somewhere out west) and having the protagonist (played by Kenny Wormald in the role made famous by Kevin Bacon) come from Boston, rather than Chicago, which makes sense because Wormald grew up in the Boston area and has the accent down pat. Costarring Julianne Hough and directed by Craig Brewer (who directed “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”), the film is edgier than the original, contains additional plot lines, and features a country-rock sound that will make you want to get up and dance.

15. Warrior: This one didn't make my original list because it hardly appeared in theaters and only became noticed when they started talking about Nick Nolte as a potential Oscar nominee. Directed by Gavin O'Connor (who previously directed "Tumbleweeds" and "Pride and Glory"), it stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as two estranged brothers who are mixed martial arts fighters united only in their disdain for their alcoholic father (Nolte). If you're talking about dysfuntional families, this is one for the ages.

14. War Horse: I think of this film as “Saving Black Beauty” because it contains a story similar to that of the most famous, fictional horse while setting it in wartime (World War I) in battles similar to those that Spielberg (who directed this film) also filmed in “Saving Private Ryan.” Less effective as a character study (some characters are developed then killed in the next scene) than a general condemnation of war, this may be the year’s most complete film, in terms of cinematography (gorgeous), score, costume design, set decoration, and all those other things that earn Oscars. However, the story is as predictable as they come, which prevents it from being a great movie. Nevertheless, it is worth seeing, if for no other reason than the memorable scene with a British and a German soldier in “no man’s land.”

13. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol: This is definitely the year’s best action film, and the most enjoyable of Tom Cruise’s “Mission Impossible” movies. As with most of these movies, it is a bit hard to follow at times, but it moves along at a breakneck pace, as directed by Brad Bird (who has directed outstanding animated films including “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”). It also doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast includes Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton.

12. Young Adult: I’m not always a big fan of plot-light character studies, but this one is done with such quality and craftsmanship that it deserves to be seen. Written by Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”) and directed by Jason Reitman (“Up In the Air,” “Juno”), this is a well-told tale of an emotionally bereft woman (played expertly by Charlize Theron) who decides she wants to reclaim her high school boyfriend (played by Patrick Wilson), who is married with a new baby. Returning to her hometown, she reconnects with another former classmate (played brilliantly by Patton Oswalt) whose high school experience was hellish and left him crippled. After that, the plot is where the characters take it, and the script and direction are deft enough to let that happen.

11. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: One of the most successful series in literary and film history, this one finishes with a bang. Directed by David Yates, it’s an action/adventure film bolstered by outstanding performances by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Walters, and Ciarán Hinds (who seems to be competing with Michael Fassbender to see who can make the most movies in a year). This brings to a raucous close the story of modern literature’s most famous wizard, and it does so with style and class. Note: If you haven’t read the books or seen the previous movies, you might want to read a primer, and you should definitely first see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.”

10. Source Code: A mindbender along the lines of “Memento” and “Inception,” this movie is about a project that can put someone in another person's consciousness during the last 8 minutes of that person’s life. In this case, the main character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is repeatedly placed into the same consciousness on the same train with the goal of unraveling a mystery and saving millions of lives. Directed with taut pacing by Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son who also directed “Moon”), this film offers several plot twists and an edge-of-your-seat experience. It also benefits from outstanding supporting performances by Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.

9. Friends with Benefits: The year’s best romantic comedy (there wasn’t much competition), this movie should not be confused with the lame “No Strings Attached,” although it is about a similar topic—having sex on a regular basis with the same person but without emotional baggage. This one deftly stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, but is differentiated from its film counterpart by an intelligent script (written by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman) and a truly wonderful supporting cast that includes Patricia Clarkson, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, Andy Samberg, and Richard Jenkins as a father with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Directed by Will Gluck (who made last year’s “Easy A”), this is a very enjoyable comedy about adult themes.

8. Moneyball: The semi-factual story of how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane won a divisional title with a fraction of the budget that other teams had to spend, “Moneyball” is the basis for how the Boston Red Sox built a team that won two World Series championships, and its concepts have revolutionized professional sports. In the film, which was directed by Bennett Miller (who also directed “Capote”) and written by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “All The King’s Men”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network,” “A Few Good Men”), Brad Pitt plays Beane and is supported by actors including Jonah Hill, Phlip Seymour Hoffman, and Robin Wright. What this movie lacks in emotion (not much connection to the characters) is made up for in intelligence and crisp writing/direction.

7. Bridesmaids: This movie takes outrageous humor, similar to that of “The Hangover” or “Knocked Up,” and applies it to the emotional issues faced by women when they get married or serve as bridesmaids/maids of honor. From the competitive rawness of the “dueling toasts” scene to the gross-out humor of the “salmonella fitting” scene, this movie goes where no chick flick has ever gone and as such, is the year’s funniest film. Directed by Paul Fieg (“Knocked Up,” “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”) and written by Kristen Wiig (who also stars in it) and Annie Mumolo, the movie benefits from no-holds-barred performances by Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jill Clayburgh (who died soon after making the film), and the inimitable Melissa McCarthy.

6. Sarah’s Key: What makes for an effective Holocaust-period film is that it focuses on people and how they dealt with the awfulness of their situations. Produced in 2010 but not released in the US until mid-2011, Sarah’s Key does exactly that. It tells the tale of a young French girl who hides her brother from the Nazis by locking him in a hidden closet, and of the journalist (played with her usual class by Kristin Scott Thomas) who inadvertently uncovers the story before becoming obsessed with it. Unusual for a Holocaust movie, it is set mostly in France and conveys one of that country’s worst attrocities. Co-written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner from a book by Tatiana De Rosnay, this film is alternately interesting and gut-wrenching, but it commands your attention from start to finish.

5. Midnight in Paris: There was a time when Woody Allen was America’s best screenwriter-director, making truly great movies like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” That was before his personal indiscretions became front-page news. Since that time, he has continued to churn out movies, about one per year, some better than others, usually with A-list stars, and often with Allen playing a major role. In my opinion, this is his best film in a long time, not because it approaches the greatness of his classic work, but because Allen seems to appreciate that it is not a major motion picture, but rather as a small and charming fable. In this fable, the lead character is a Hollywood screenwriter and budding novelist, played by Owen Wilson (clearly channeling Woody Allen), who is visiting Paris with his bourgeois American fiancée (played by Rachel McAdams) and her boorish parents. He goes for a stroll one night and is picked up at Midnight by a car that delivers him back in time to the 1920s, where he cavorts with the literary, musical, and artistic luminaries of the time. He meets a charming French woman (played by Marion Cotillard) and returns every night at midnight to find himself and, with the help of Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates), his literary voice. In the end, this lovely story does what a good movie should…it leaves you wanting more.

4. The Descendants: This year, the film George Clooney directed (“Ides of March”) was not nearly so good as the film in which he starred (“The Descendants”). Co-written and directed expertly by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”), it tells the story of a Hawaiian man (Clooney) whose wife suffers a terrible water skiing accident that lands her in a coma. The man then has to reconnect with his two daughters (played phenomenally by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while reconstructing the events that led up to the accident and examining his marriage. Add in a subplot about a high-profile land sale and the result is a superbly made, emotionally charged movie complemented by the quirky style that has become Payne’s trademark. It’s also nice to see excellent supporting performances by often-underutilized actors such as Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, and especially Judy Greer.

3. The Artist: Yes, I’m strongly recommending a black-and-white, mostly silent film that was shot in a pre-widescreen aspect ratio. Similar to the story told in the musical “Singin’ In the Rain” decades ago, this film focuses on the end of the silent film era and the demise of its stars. In this case, the star is a handsome, debonair, and generous actor (played by Jean Dujardin), who loves his dog more than his wife and who fails to recognize the inevitability of talking pictures. His life is juxtaposed with that of a rising young starlet (played by Bérénice Bejo) whom the actor befriends early in her career and whose stock continues to rise as the actor’s falls. While not a new story by any means, it is told with warmth, heart, and dignity, and the use of a silent film to tell the tale of a silent film star has a certain elegance. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, this is a beautiful and precious film-going experience that features supporting performances by American actors including John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller.

2. The Help: People were both excited and wary when it was announced that a movie was being made of Kathryn Stockett’s very successful novel about the difficult conditions faced by African American maids in 1960s Mississippi. While they looked forward to seeing this superb story brought to the screen, they also worried that it may be too Hollywood-ized. That anxiety was raised when it was announced that the writer/director would be Tate Taylor—a man (telling a woman’s story) who had only directed one full-length feature (the unheralded “Pretty Ugly People”). Then, Emma Stone, a very talented but relatively unknown actress, was hired to play the lead as the white writer who exposed and documented the maids’ situations. In the end, it all worked out quite well. “The Help” is a well-crafted movie, and what it lacks in grittiness, it makes up for in solid writing and excellent acting by Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain. This is definitely a movie worth seeing.

1. Hugo: If you’ve ever studied film, you’ve probably seen the 14-minute French classic, “A Trip to the Moon” (Le Voyage dans la lune). Directed in 1902 by George Méliès, its most famous scene is of a spaceship hitting the eye of the man in the moon. Méliès was one of several directors who made hundreds of classic silent films, many of which were colored by hand, frame-by-frame. Martin Scorsese has been a leader in the effort to recover and save classic cinema, much of which has been destroyed or discarded. It is this love for early cinema that led Scorsese to direct “Hugo,” a film set in 1930s Paris, about a boy (Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield) whose father (played by Jude Law) teaches him to repair watches before he dies, and whose uncle leaves him in the Paris railway station to fend for himself while running the large, overhanging clock. There, he meets a bitter watchmaker (played by Ben Kingsley) and makes friends with the watchmaker’s ward (played by Chloe Moretz). Together, the two youngsters embark upon an adventure that eventually leads them to George Méliès and his story. Although slow at times, this is a beautiful tale of exploration and redemption. In making it, Scorsese demonstrated his love of early films both through the story and the filmmaking techniques, which draw on those films. It’s also interesting that he shot “Hugo” in 3D, but I suppose he did so because it’s what Méliès would have done had he had access to the technology. I intend to see this movie many times, and you may decide to do the same.

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