Making a top ten-movie list is a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because you get to look back on all the movies you’ve watched that year and pick your favorites. It’s a bad thing because you have to look back over all the movies you watched and see if you can pin point which ones are worth mentioning. This isn’t an easy thing when taking into account all the bad movies there have been this year.
This was a good, not great year for movies There were a lot of movies that ranged from good to very good and then there were a few that really blew me away. On this list there are only four movies where I walked out of the theater thinking “Wow!”
I know that usually you’re supposed to rank the movies from one to ten but there’s no way I could do it and make it fair. I mean, how do you rank a movie like “Midnight in Paris” to “Drive.” Both films are entertaining but have different premises, styles and tones. Anyway, here are my top ten movies of 2011 in alphabetical order:
The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius)
Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” is the most daring and risky film of 2011. Making a movie in black and white and in the silent movie isn’t exactly something a lot of people want to see. But that risk pays off big time, as “The Artist” is a delight. It’s story is simple and straight-forward: A famous silent movie star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) has reached his peak and is now being fazed out by the incoming talkies. Accompanied by an excellent silent movie-esque soundtrack by Ludovic Bource, Hazanveticus’ film is a love letter to a glorious era in movies as well as a contemporary statement on the current changes in cinema. These are the kinds of risks I like to see directors take, among all the 3D, CGI, Spielberg sentimentality and Michael Bay caliber explosions.
Carnage (Roman Polanski)
Four couples played by Jodie Foster John C Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Walz meet in an apartment to discuss a school-yard fight between their young sons that slowly turns into verbal warfare. It’s one of the most true to life movies I’ve seen this year and also one of the funniest. Although it’s not raunchy or screwball it is incisive, it comes from the simple truth that intense, nasty conversations can be funny. Yes, not a lot happens in “Carnage” in the sense of real movie action (It takes place in one place and in real time) but so what? Amidst all the 3D, CGI and shoot em up action flicks it’s nice to see a movie about people having an insightful as well as funny conversation. Andre Gregory and Wallace Shaw did it in 1981, so why can’t these fine actors do it now?
Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn)
“Drive” is simply a movie that must be seen. Trying to describe its premise does it no justice because there’s nothing particularly different in its story structure, nor in its story structure. There’s a clear hero, a clear antagonist and it follows a clear path. Ryan Gosling plays a man known as Driver, a stunt driver for movies by day and the getaway driver for heists by night. “Drive” is purely an exorcise in the craft of filmmaking, directing, cinematography, music, editing, and acting. Much like Quentin Tarintino, Winding Refn has a love of film nostalgia. There are numerous references to other action movies and the whole film has an 80’s vibe to it. The action in it is gripping and exciting but it isn’t overwhelming or fast paced. Winding Refn slows it down so it’s almost graceful; yet, at the same time it’s not afraid to embrace B movie thrills. It’s a cross between a compelling drama and a Grindhouse style revenge movie.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
This movie doesn’t rise to the greatness of Fincher’s 2010 critically acclaimed “The Social Network” and it doesn’t stray very far away from Stieg Larssons book or the 2009 Swedish language adaptation but David Fincher’s American adaption of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is still a compelling and expertly made murder mystery. Daniel Craig has a stern ruggedness that’s fitting for the role of Mikael Blomkvist, the shamed journalist and editor of Millennium Magazine, who takes up the job of solving a forty-year-old murder mystery that lies within The Vanger family, a powerful Swedish syndicate that owns a major corporation. Meanwhile Rooney Mara plunges herself into the broken down, tattooed, body pierced, out cast hacker Lisbeth Salander, who works with Mikael as his research assistant. Fincher’s stylistically smart direction combined with a rapid-fire and meaty screenplay by Steven Zallian makes “Dragon Tattoo” an enthralling, sometimes disturbing but ultimately satisfying film.
Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
A love letter to early cinema, “Hugo tells the story of a young orphan, Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station who discovers that a grumpy old man (Ben Kingsley) working in a toy store in the station is really Georges Mellies, an early pioneer in silent movies. In addition to the movie’s endearing and touching story, “Hugo” is a visual marvel. Scorsese’s use of 3D is the best in any movie (even better than “Avatar”) so far. The movie is a living, breathing organism about young meets old, a celebration of technologies and a golden age in cinema.
Margin Call (J.C Chandor)
“Margin Call” is a true horror story but instead of being about murderers and people getting hacked to pieces it’s about something that’s truly is scary: the 2008 financial crisis and the people responsible. Taking place at an investment bank similar to one like Lehman Brothers, “Margin Call” is the best film that has been made about the crisis in recent years. It’s not cool and slick (like “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) or sentimental (like “The Company Men”). Instead it’s cold and claustrophobic, taking place mostly within the investment bank building. Most importantly it’s brutally honest and Chandor goes into the characters as opposed to overdramatizing the situation. As a first time director, Chandor shows impressive skill, especially since he has little room work with. His script is intelligent as well as entertaining and the movie is carried by fantastic performances from Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons and others.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Sean Durkin’s directorial debut is a haunting and sometimes chilling portrait of the dangers of being in a cult. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a young woman who has recently escaped from an abusive cult led by a charismatic cult leader played by John Hawkes. She stays with her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). However memories of being with the cult still plague her soul and she’s always worried whether or not the cult will find her. The movie is subtle, considering it’s about a cult but there are some scenes in it that made me downright shiver. Making her film debut, Olsen is a natural as naïve and damaged Martha and Hawkes gives a calm but sinister performance, perfect for a cult leader.
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
This is arguably the best work Woody Allen has done in years. “Midnight in Paris” tells the story of a struggling writer named Gil (Owen Wilson) on vacation in Paris with his future fiancé. Gil is unhappy because he would much rather live in Paris during the 1920’s. One night he gets his wish and he’s transported back to that golden age where he gets to meet his literary idols, Ernest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and others. The movie is by no means deep but it’s nevertheless a charming little romantic comedy/fantasy about finding your place and appreciating the time period you live in. Allen doesn’t try to come up with an explanation for Gil’s elapses through time, as he doesn’t need to. Cinematographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas shoot the film in warm, inviting colors and the film will certainly make you want to go to Paris.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Who would have thought a reboot of “Planet of the Apes” would be possible. Who would have thought CGI, motion capture apes would be more interesting than the human characters. Rupert Wyatt’s new film is a perfect balance between a popcorn action flick and an absorbing drama that just gets better and better the more you watch it. Wyatt does a smart thing with this movie, he takes his time establishing the origin of the ape uprising. This film isn’t about global domination but instead about the apes escaping from their evil captors. A lot of the movies success goes to Andy Serkis playing Caesar, the humble, genetically enhanced ape that starts the rebellion. Serkis gives one of the best supporting male performances of the year and does it all through almost no talking.
Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
Without having a major film role since 2009, it’s nice to see Charlize Theron back in full form. In “Young Adult” she gives a multilayered, down to earth performance as Mavis Gary, a former popular girl in high school, but now in her forties she has become depressing and bitter. What begins as another comedy about a malicious person turns into a rather bleak character study about not wanting to grow up. Although, the single best thing about “Young Adult” is that Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody are able to end the movie cliché free, which wont appeal to everyone. It’s not the happiest of endings but it is optimistic and one of the most realistic ones I’ve seen in years, which is key to the entire movie’s success.
Honorable Mentions (In alphabetical order):
50/50, Beginners, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Descendants, Hannah, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, Into the Abyss, Money Ball, Pariah, Rango, Scream 4, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Tree of Life, The Whistleblower, X Men: First Class.