Honorable mentions: Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Rango, Source Code, Contagion, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Help, Melancholia, The Idles of March, Thor, Submarine, Win Win, Stupid/Crazy/Love, The Guard, X-Men: First Class
Special category: Christian Marclay’s The Clock
This film is under a special category because it’s technically not an original work and definitely not narrative cinema. The Clock is actually a 24-hour film that plays on a loop at the LACMA in Los Angeles. Christian Marclay put together an impressive montage from thousands of films “to create a functioning timepiece synchronized to local time wherever it is shown.” So, for ANY image of a clock or mention of time in a scene, it is the exact time for the local viewer. It’s hard to describe by text, but the result is strangely memorizing and a unique cinematic experience.
15. La Princesse de Montpensier (The Princess of Montpensier)
When I saw Tornatore’s The Legend of 1990 years ago, Mélanie Thierry was a standout as the French muse for Tim Roth’s character. I’ve been watching her career ever since and was thrilled to finally see her as the lead of this French historical drama. Premiering at Cannes Festival earlier this year, La Princesse de Montpensier contains gorgeous cinematography, classic sword fights, bloody battles from the religious wars of the 16th century, and great drama brought on by the troubles of an arranged marriage. But it’s the simple moments, orchestrated by the legendary director and cast, that make this an historical drama worth watching.
14. Attack the Block
This is your classic “bad guy turned hero” story with a twist: it’s a horror comedy about an alien invasion in England. Attack the Block was just plain fun with true scares and British humor sprinkled throughout. And what a great cast of young actors! For John Boyega, who played the lead character Moses, this was his first feature film and I can see a long career ahead of him. If you don’t like British humor, stay away. But if you’re a fan of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, this movie is sure to entertain.
Based on a true story, this little indie gem was the surprise of the year for me. I’m not a Seth Rogen fan and a dramedy about cancer seemed like a surefire train wreck. But the brilliant script by Will Reiser (best original screenplay of the year in my opinion) struck the perfect balance between sentimentality and honest humor. It’s hard to explain, but the film brings a sense of comfort and therapy for any young viewer. 50/50 is also a great illustration of friendship, even if your friend happens to be Seth Rogen.
12. The Tree of Life
First of all, let me state that I’m not usually a fan of non-linear or avant garde storytelling. From everything that I heard, I was prepared to dislike the film before I saw it. In reality, Terrence Malick (director) created a unique, memorizing atmosphere with every scene in The Tree of Life. His use of music and light was especially effective as witnessed in the creation sequence with Zbigniew Preisner’s Lacrimosa as the musical accompaniment. However, I think this film could have been a masterpiece if Mr. Malick chose to color a bit more inside the lines of conventional storytelling. One of the actors, Sean Penn, even said, “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” I completely agree.
“This should be open ’cause it’s called civil rights…this is the 90’s,” says Kristen Wiig’s character (in 2011) as she’s made to leave the first class section of an airplane. No scene has made me laugh so hard in years and the film, as a whole, was surprisingly both funny and poignant. Kristen Wiig was tailor-made for this role and the rest of the ensemble cast was equally impressive. Also, was it just me, or did Wiig and Chris O’Dowd have the best on-screen chemistry of the year? Whatever the case, Bridesmaids is a terrific comedy and a cult-classic in the making. “At first I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad handwritten book.”
I originally read the screenplay, co-written by Aaron Sorkin, two years ago while working in the ICM mailroom. It may have been an earlier draft, but I wasn’t too impressed and thought the project was dead in the water. But, a few years later, a film emerges with an unexpected emotional backbone. Director Bennett Miller took the best elements of the script (dialogue and unique story) and created a film where the audience actually cares about the managerial side of sports. Brad Pitt gives a wonderful, nuanced performance (best of his career?) as Billy Beane; and Kerris Dorsey, playing Billy’s daughter, steals every scene she’s in. Plus, Kerris sings a song for her on-screen father that bookends the movie perfectly.
9. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
What a fun ride! Surely the best action film of the year, this newest addition to the Mission: Impossible series is director Brad Bird’s first live action film. He previously helmed animated features like Iron Man and The Incredibles. But this inexperience went unnoticed as the film was executed with such vision and skill. Containing some of the best actions sequences in recent memory, the pacing was relentless as the characters moved from one awesome location to the next. Don’t even get me started on the gadgets; they were cool enough to make James Bond jealous.
8. Super 8
Interwoven with nostalgia and innocent wonder, this (not so subtle) homage to Spielberg’s earlier work revolves around a group of kids who stumble upon a government cover-up while making a movie in a Midwestern town. In his first film role since “Friday Night Lights,” I was excited to see Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor!) in another role. But it was Elle Fanning who stole the show. Displaying mature constraint and emotion beyond her years, Elle’s future career is one to watch. And how amazing was that train wreck scene? J.J. Abrams sure knows how to orchestrate a cinematic phenomenon. It was something to behold.
Lionsgate really made a terrible mistake with the marketing of this film: bland trailers that gave away the entire plot, poorly-chosen release date, and no awards push for the actors. It’s a shame because Warrior deserved a better/bigger audience. This film is the best overall sports movie since Remember the Titans and contained some truly impressive fight choreography. Tom Hardy, as always, gave everything to his performance and veteran actor Nick Nolte topped it off with his emotional portrayal of a recently sober father trying to earn back the respect of his sons. Beyond the sport aspect, the family dynamics carry this film and the theme of forgiveness takes it home.
In Martin Scorsese’s first movie geared toward children, there’s more to this film than meets the eye. I was fortunate enough to read the book and script prior to my viewing, so I had an inclination of what to expect. But the way in which Scorsese mixed the fictional tale with the true stories of french pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès was a sight to behold. Hugo was Scorsese’s very personal “love letter” to the originators of cinema, who paved the way for what film eventually became–the art form of our time. The film may be a bit tedious for modern kids to enjoy, but I hope older audiences can embrace the tale of a forgotten legend.
5. Midnight in Paris
If there was one theme that resonated in the majority of films this year, it would be nostalgia. And Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris takes the cake in this thematic department. Owen Wilson, playing a lead character who I could relate to, is a writer who visits Paris to get inspiration for a novel. While there, he has strange midnight fantasies that take him back in time where he meets the great artists of the 1920s: Cole Porter, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dalí, and others. Midnight in Paris is breezy, comical, and insightful, making it Woody’s best film in decades. It also has wise things to say about living in the past and how nostalgia has the same effect on every generation. Hemingway, played to perfection by Corey Stoll, had words of wisdom for the lead character regarding storytelling: “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”
4. The Muppets
“It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet the Muppets.” I can’t claim to be a Muppet expert or super fan, but I have great affection/respect for the world that Jim Henson created years ago. In addition, I was thrilled that Jason Segel handled the franchise reboot with such respect and dedication. A lot of work went into this film, and it was evident in the final product. With fantastic original songs by Flight of the Conchords‘ Bret McKenzie, clever/witty dialogue, and heartfelt moments, I couldn’t have asked for a better theatrical experience. I had a goofy smile plastered on my face for the entire film, and the soundtrack has been a favorite on my iPod ever since.
3. The Artist
Every year I see one film that makes me completely jealous, wishing I was the one directing or producing. Created by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist takes the prize by a long shot for 2011. It’s a black and white, silent film set in 1920s Hollywood where a silent movie star struggles to transition into talkies while befriending a young starlet. The final product is not gimmicky in the least and translates into a marvelous theatrical experience. It’s charming, funny, poignant, and co-stars a very talented canine. Speaking of stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo gave my two favorite performances of the year and something about their on-screen charisma was almost palpable. I would jump at the chance to work with either of them one day!
This wonderfully complex and semi-autobiographical film by Mike Mills stuck in my mind for days after the initial viewing. It’s a deeply personal film that weaves the stories of five connected individuals together with unconventional storytelling. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and is often non-linear. But Mr. Mills doesn’t disrespect his audience and uses Ewan McGregor’s character to keep the emotional backbone intact. It’s very hard to pinpoint why I enjoyed the film so much, but sometimes words are inadequate when images and faces tell a story better. That is, until a scene-stealing dog (pictured above) gets a few subtitles in certain scenes.
Ryan Gosling had quite a year with three great films (including Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Ides of March). But his best was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in which Gosling was lucky enough to play the coolest character of 2011. Simply known as Driver, the lead character of this film is a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a getaway driver. But his secret life is changed forever when he becomes invested in the protection of his neighbor (the lovely Carey Mulligan). Gosling’s demeanor, reminiscent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, blends seamlessly with the dream-like nature of the film to create a hypnotic atmosphere. This film will be too ambitious and polarizing for any major awards. But I’m glad that the filmmakers didn’t sacrifice their vision for popularity because, in my opinion, they created the cinematic event of the year.