As with all such year end lists, the hardest part may be choosing only a few from many worthy contenders. It’s a fun problem to have, but it can also make writers fickle. Such is the case here with our top 10 movies of 2011. Those of you who listened to our podcast a few weeks back may be slightly befuddled. Yes, indeed, both of our top 10 lists have changed somewhat in the weeks since.
Our lists still remain delightfully different, with 17 movies represented between our two lists of 10. Check them out below and let us know what your favorite movies of the year were!
Linda’s Top 10 Movies of 2011
Movies that I also loved but in the end did not crack the top 10: “Take Shelter”, “Captain America: The First Avenger”, “The Help”, “The Artist”, “War Horse”, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, “Super 8″, “The Adventure of Tintin”…. and many, many more.
Perhaps the most underrated movie of the year, “Warrior” tries to sell itself as a movie about Mix Martial Arts, one of the most violent of sports. And true, it does star a couple of stoic, macho men (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) and their somewhat male cliche of an alcoholic, absentee father (Nick Nolte), but all of that just adds to the surprising emotional resonance that comes when you actually sit down to watch the film. The brothers are estranged from each other and from their father for different reasons, and both end up entering into the same MMA championship tournament for different reasons. While the movie has plenty of fight sequences, it’s when the three men begin to confront each other and themselves that the hidden heart underneath all the machismo is revealed and where the movie really shines. Hardy and Edgerton are at their best in those scenes, and Nolte – in a particularly heartbreaking confrontation with Hardy’s Tommy in a casino – is undeniably Oscar-worthy.
In a year of puzzling, ambiguous endings, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” takes the cake. But go on this suffocating, paranoid-ridden journey with Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, inside the mind of Elizabeth Olsen’s hopelessly confused Martha/Marcy May/Marlene, and you realize the film could not have ended on any sort of uplifting or comforting note. Durkin employs every sense to drown you inside his bleak but mesmerizing world, to great effect and, as a young woman who has escaped from a cult – and more broadly, gone through a traumatic experience – Olsen is a revelation in her feature film debut: childlike, empty, nearly mute, playing at human emotion without actually feeling any of it. And yes, that ending. A whopper of a puzzle that you will never get the answer key to but completely fitting this creepy, unforgettable thriller.
It’s hard to believe that two of the most moving and profound family dramas of the year revolved around a violent sport (See: “Warrior”, #10) and CGI apes. “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the sequel to those silly Charles Heston talking ape movies, elicited plenty of groans and eye rolls when it was announced. So people, myself included, were quite astonished to be so moved by Ceasar, the science lab rescued ape beloved by his human family who has to learn to find himself and lead the revolution of his own species. James Franco and John Lithgow are endearing as Ceasar’s human family, but this movie is all about that ape. The performance is nuanced and subtle, motion captured brilliantly from Andy Serkis, and the ensuing battle sequences are enthralling and had me rooting for the apes.
In an age where every classic tale needs to be put through the wringer of reinvention and spit out for moviegoing audiences proudly proclaiming to be darker, grittier and with a twist, getting a straightforward, faithful adaptation of a literary classic that had already been adapted at least fourteen times previously was actually, impossibly, refreshing. Through a simple twist in storytelling involving flashbacks and flash-forwards, director Cary Fukunaga has given us a new definitive adaptation of “Jane Eyre”, one that remains wholly truthful to its well-worn and beloved source material, but which feels fresh and new without any gimmicks. This is, in no small part, due to Fukunaga’s spot-on casting of Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender as the titular governess Jane and the stormy, brooding Rochester, respectively. The chemistry between the two was electric and brought life to a purposefully grey and vast landscape.
“Midnight in Paris” could have relied on Woody Allen’s signature wry humor to tell a normal story about normal Americans visiting Paris, and it probably would have been wonderful. But instead it takes a turn for the fantastical, and ends up as the most magical and transporting experience at the movies this year. Indeed, it’s in that fantastical realm – Owen Wilson, on vacation in Paris with uptight fiancee Rachel McAdams (playing against type), inexplicably time travels to the 1920s in the City of Lights every night at midnight – where the film finds its groove, in the form of one of the most charming and likeable cast of characters around. Allen gathers up a fictionalized rendering of some of the greatest artists and writers who called Paris home in the roaring 20s and who all happened to be good friends. Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill as F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are charming, endearing but clearly doomed, cameos from the likes of Adrien Brody as Salvatore Dali and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein are amusing, but it’s Corey Stoll’s mesmerizing turn as Ernest Hemingway that steals the movie. Cleverly, dialogue is delivered in the simple, frank and rambling style of Hemingway’s prose via Stoll in a deep monotone, and for the first time ever, I saw the what countless readers have seen in Hemingway.
The best pleasant surprise of the year has to go to Joe Cornish’s thoroughly entertaining directorial debut “Attack the Block.” Hype from fanboys and comic book conventions don’t always equate quality filmmaking, but I gotta hand it to the geeks this time. Firmly in that Edgar Wright horror/comedy school of filmmaking, Cornish brings us an alien invasion movie unlike any we’ve seen before. Though it’s set in such dire settings as an inner city block where teenagers mug their neighbors for fun and even younger children prepare for such a life with toy weapons instead of real ones, the humor is heartfelt and genuine. Also heartfelt and genuine is the performance from John Boyega, as the seemingly cold-hearted, bad-ass leader of the gang, who turns out to be just a victim of his poor circumstances as well. As for the horror elements, there are no bug-life aliens here, as Cornish has created, even with his modest first-feature budget, completely original and scary as hell ape-like aliens that will rip your face off – quite graphically.
George Clooney’s career-best performance as a hapless, emotional father – so unlike the suave, in control high-rollers we’re used to seeing him play – is the highlight of the latest drama from Alexander Payne, one of my favorite directors. Clooney’s Matt King is getting hit from all angles: wife has suffered an accident that has sent her into a coma and likely death, leaving him as the sole guardian of two foul-mouthed, quickly spiraling out of control teen/tween daughters, and amongst pressure from a large clan of cousins, he’s the sole decision-maker on a piece of historical real estate passed down from his wealthy ancestors. Oh, and that coma-ridden wife? Was totally cheating on him, and he’s only just finding out now. Shailene Woodley, as the rebellious teenager who turns out to be wise beyond her years, is a revelation. Seamlessly blending heartbreaking emotion with laugh out loud humor, Payne renders an utterly believable portrait of a broken family struggling to hold themselves together, and ultimately finding strength in their loyalty to each other. Also seamless and masterful is the setting of Hawaii, which Payne manages to capture as the idyllic paradise that most tourists imagine it to be (with some fantastic Hawaiin music) and as the inevitably mundane and sometimes tragic backdrop of its inhabitants.
“Drive” is a movie that I initially left off of my Top 10 list. Nicolas Winding Refn’s exercise in style is so shockingly and graphically violent that I had a hard time sitting through it and right after seeing it, couldn’t imagine calling it one of the best movies of the year. But upon reflection, even my squeamish aversion to gore couldn’t overcome just how brilliant this dreamy, atmospheric movie is. Ryan Gosling gives his best performance of the year – in a year where he’s had several good ones – as an unexpectedly boyish and charming stunt car driver slash getaway driver who will go to great lengths to protect the unattainable girl he falls in love with (Carey Mulligan). “Drive” boats beautiful cinematography, rendering my city of residence, Los Angeles, in a warm and loving glow; and the best use of unexpected, juxtaposing electro-pop music in film this year.
It’s hard to talk about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” without bringing in preconceived notions, expectations and experiences, so I’m not going to try to pretend to be objective. As a big fan of the book who didn’t care for the Swedish adaptations, David Fincher has succeeded wholeheartedly here. Let’s begin with the casting of Rooney Mara, who is receiving gushing raves for her transformative performance as cyberpunk hacker Lisbeth Salander, and earns every bit of it. We already know Lisbeth is a strong, badass and independent woman, but Mara brought a level of vulnerability and tenderness to the character that made her feel more human and relatable than ever. Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist, for his part, knew that the right thing to do was to sit back and let her take the lead. As with all of Fincher’s films, the framing and editing and cinematography is sharp and without fault, and after “The Social Network” collaboration earned an Oscar win last year, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have written another brilliant musical score that wholly encompasses the bleak mood of the film. Most importantly, Fincher knew the rather mundane murder mystery was simply a vehicle to bring two characters together and with that knowledge, has made the definitive adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
It was not hard at all to determine my favorite film of 2011. As soon as the end credits rolled on Steve McQueen’s controversial sex-addiction drama, I knew it would likely wind up as my #1 of the year and indeed, none of the fourteen films I saw after came close to surpassing it. “Shame” is one of those rare gems that I can call a perfect movie. McQueen is a visionary who employs glorious, luxurious long takes and a relentlessly steady camera that allows the audience to revel and immerse inside his world. And that world, bleak and empty and disconnected, is inhabited brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, who gives the performance of the year as the neatly compartmentalized but deeply troubled Brandon. His secret “shame” may be sex addiction, but, as embodied just as fearlessly by Carey Mulligan in a role unlike we’ve seen her in before, it comes from a deeply rooted, emotionally stunted place. The siblings act out from the same spring of dysfunction, but in fascinatingly divergent ways. “Shame” has stuck with me all these months later and will continue to do so for years to come.