A Year at the Movies: The Best (and Worst) Films of 2011

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The general consensus is that 2011 was an “almost there” year at the cinema.  You go looking for the abject masterpieces, then expect to come back lacking.  That’s not to say that 2011 produced a bad film crop, far from it; brilliance just took a backseat to solid, dependable craftsmanship.  It was the Sidney Lumet of movie years.

While some critics might bemoan the lack of audacity on display, I felt a certain egalitarian spirit.  The great films maintained, for the most part, a quality baseline, regardless of whether they sprung from the minds of the young up-and-comers (Sean Durkin, Steve McQueen, J.C. Chandor) or the great masters (Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg).  Everyone came out to play, and while my Top Ten List does reflect preferences from film to film, favorability levels exist only in minute increments.

Before I jump into the various rankings, I must add that no “Best of” list is complete without acknowledging the gaps; as in life, moviegoing is a work-in-progress.  Here are the movies I didn’t get a chance to see, and the reasons why this list will never be complete.

Margaret, A Dangerous Method, Beginners, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Artist, 50/50, Tyrannosaur, The Mill and the Cross, Meek’s Cutoff, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Higher Ground, A Better Life, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, Rampart, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Melancholia, A Separation, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Albert Nobbs, Into the Abyss.

And now, in ascending order, 2011’s Top Marks go to…

  • Hugo:  Incorrectly branded a “kids’ movie,” Hugo is a) the most personal film director Martin Scorsese has ever made, b) a valentine to film preservation, and c) the only movie to ever justify its 3D trappings.

  • Super:  This postmodern superhero tale brilliantly (and disturbingly) deconstructs all of the assumptions we hold towards our favorite costumed heroes.  Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page give fearless performances.

  • Midnight in Paris:  After thirteen years of wildly inconsistent filmmaking, Woody Allen has finally crafted something to rival the best of his 1970’s output.  Funny, sly, and very wise.

  • Margin Call:  The definitive account of the 2008 financial crisis. Margin Call gives a remarkably sympathetic account of its Masters of the Universe; they are good people drowning in a broken system.

  • Shame:  As potent an addiction drama as Requiem for a Dream.  Star Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen manage to steer seedy subject matter—a sex addict hitting bottom—into something equal parts horrifying and beautiful.

  • Martha Marcy May Marlene:  Just as Jennifer Lawrence galvanized last year’s Winter’s Bone, so does Elizabeth Olsen in the chilling Martha Marcy May Marlene.  A horror movie where the terror comes from the human mind failing itself, the film is the first great work of the millennial era.

  • Contagion:  Director Steven Soderbergh could have exploited this killer virus story for cheap thrills.  Instead, he uses a global pandemic to illustrate the human condition under duress: how quickly it can degenerate, and how tenaciously it can cling to survival.

  • The Descendants:  In its quiet observations, in its use of setting to reflect internal conflict, The Descendants deserves comparison with Akira Kurosawa’s great Ikiru; both pictures capture the hazy, temporal disorientation that follows a loved one’s death.

  • War Horse:  A big, nakedly sentimental Movie-with-a-capital-“M.”  War Horse is a children’s film in the same way that The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio are children’s films, dealing simply and directly with Big Themes without sugarcoating life’s harsher realities.  I’m still floored by the ways it marries full-throated melodrama to an angry, actively political antiwar saga.

  • Drive:  With this one picture, director Nicolas Winding Refn has revealed himself an expert in genre pastiche, sans quotations (think of him as an unironic Quentin Tarantino).  Refn synthesizes so many different filmic inspirations—slasher movie, romantic comedy, behind-the-scenes filmmaking satire, chase picture, to name but a few—into a modern-day film noir that’s simultaneously as sharp as a razor blade and as lyrical as a fairy tale.  Ryan Gosling’s enigmatic “Driver” has the magnetism of Paul Newman in his prime (even after he unleashes horrible, bloody violence), and Albert Brooks gives the year’s best performance as a wry and quietly vicious crime lord.  Drive reminds me why I fell in love with the movies.

Those ten were the best of the best, but now we move into the second part of the ceremony.  The Honorable Mention Awards go to the following recipients.

  • Most Underrated Gem:  Tom McCarthy’s sweet, funny Win Win.
  • Best Ending of the Year:  The Guard.
  • The “Proof That Diablo Cody Might Not Be a One-Trick Pony” Award:  Young Adult.
  • Best Summer Blockbuster:  Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
  • Best Summer Blockbuster Produced for the Same Amount as the Catering Budget on a Standard Summer Blockbuster:  Source Code.
  • Best Attempt at Capturing an Amblin Entertainment, Gremlins-styled Vibe: Attack the Block.
  • Best Wes Anderson-Ripoff That Doesn’t Feel Like a Wes Anderson-Ripoff:  Submarine.
  • Most Affecting Drama That Transcends Its Clichés:  Warrior (This one also gets bonus points for making MMA look cool as opposed to just uncomfortably homoerotic).
  • Best Screen Adaptation of a Trashy Beach-Read Book: (tie) The Lincoln Lawyer/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
  • Most Overrated 2011 Selection That’s Still Worth Your Time:  Moneyball.
  • The “Hey, Pixar?  Watch Your Back” Award: (tie) Nickelodeon Studios’ brilliant CGI adventures The Adventures of Tintin and Rango.
  • Heaven’s Gate Award for Most Compulsively Watchable Artistic Fiasco: (tie) Sucker Punch/The Tree of Life.

Finally, because everyone loves a villain, I present the Worst Film of the Year Awards.

  • Most Hateful Twilight Side Effect: Red Riding Hood.
  • The “Because We All Love Paying More for Something We’ve Already Got” Award: The Hangover: Part 2.
  • Least Imaginative, Most Apathetic Summer Blockbuster:  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
  • The “Ryan Reynolds Is Nothing without Sandra Bullock” Award: (tie) The Change-Up/Green Lantern.
  • The Comedy That Everyone Saw and Nobody Liked: Bad Teacher.
  • The Comedy That Everyone Saw and Only I Disliked:  Bridesmaids.
  • The Armageddon/Deep Impact Recipients for Equally Mismanaging the Same Trite Topic: Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached.
  • Worst Attempt at Capturing an Amblin Entertainment, Gremlins-styled Vibe:  Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
  • The “Kevin Smith, You Have Finally Smoked Yourself Retarded” Award: Red State.
  • Worst Film of the Year, Full Stop:  Crazy Stupid Love, which actually made me nauseous.  That’s a first.

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