It’s almost impossible to do this, but when I assemble a Top 10 list, I like to imagine myself a decade from now, reflecting back on the year that was. Which 2011 films will really stick out in my mind? Which are the ones that will rise to the status of all-times favorites, warrant repeated viewings, permanently lodge themselves in my cinematic soul? (To be honest, it’s an interesting—and humbling— exercise to look back at my Top 10 lists from years past. . .some of the films I was so passionate about at the time, I can barely remember.) So what follows is my best guess of the films that will stick with me forever.
At the very least, they stirred the hell out of me this year.
1. Moneyball – A buddy film, a baseball film, but mostly a story about the courage to spurn conventional wisdom and take personal and professional risks. Brad Pitt gives his best performance ever as Billy Beane, an alpha male and baseball lifer, whose armor of confidence has been ever-so-slightly dinged by disappointment and regret. Jonah Hill is the brainy sidekick who idolizes and ultimately saves him. Director Bennet Miller and co. get all the baseball details right. You can practically smell the chew and the pine tar.
2. Hugo – Martin Scorsese makes a 3D film and shows the world how it’s done (thus making him the greatest superhero of them all). His film about a little boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the bowels of a Parisian train station, circa 1920—is bursting at the seams with imagination, spectacle, and visual wit. The little boy is solving two interconnected mysteries: That of an automaton left behind by his deceased father and that of a bitter toy maker (Ben Kingsley) who works at the station. This is Scorsese’s Cinema Paradiso, his love-letter to film, done with a master’s eye and a passionate precision. Ultimately, Scorsese is able to celebrate the history of film while adding to own considerable cinematic legacy.
3. The Artist - It may seem astonishing that a black-and-white silent film, made by a French director with a nearly unpronounceable last name (Michel Hazanavicius) and starring two French actors that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of (Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo) would be the frontrunner to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. To which I say: See the film. Because, truly, once you see The Artist, it will all be clear. It’s made with such visual élan, such an obvious love for the medium, such joie, such wit—it’s about as irresistible as cinema gets.
4. The Help –I thought the book was one of the great populist works of entertainment of the last decade—juicy, hilarious, morally satisfying—and felt that Tate Taylor’s film replicated many of its specific joys. It also featured fierce, fabulous, and career-changing performances by the likes of Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone. So the controversy that surrounded the film somewhat baffled me: This was not a story of a white woman swooping in to save her helpless servants. It was a celebration of collaboration, of the strength and sisterhood of women—of all colors. Did the naysayers not see the same film I did?
5. Bridesmaids- The funniest film of the year—by a wide margin. Among its many pleasures, it finally gave Kristen Wiig a proper vehicle for her outsized talent (she also co-wrote the script). As 30something, marginally employed, unlucky-in-love Annie, Wiig is a revelation, as comfortable with a subtle gesture as she is with a broadly comedic one. She never panders for the audience’s affection—there’s no adorable clumsiness, no chin quivering crying jags, no scenes trying on hats fetchingly in front of a mirror. In fact, true to her name, she spends much of the film completely wigging out. And in its own modest way, Bridesmaids is actually pretty groundbreaking. After all, how many raunchy, rollicking female buddy films have we seen in the last five years? (I’ll save you a trip to imdb.com. The answer is none.) Turns out, when it comes to low-brow humor, anything boys can do, girls can do grosser.
6. Like Crazy – An achingly tender, heartbreaking, funny, sad, frustrating look at first love that will resonate with anybody who happens to be human.
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lynne Ramsay’s positively haunting film—a horror story in many ways—about a mother (Tilda Swinton) who doesn’t love her own child. Does she not love him because he is awful? Or is he awful because she does not love him? In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, Swinton’s face is a rictus of despair. In a year of incredible performances, hers is the most powerful.
8. Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen’s fanboy take on the artist’s life in Paris in the 1920s—and his most charming film since Purple Rose of Cairo. In this case, the Woody substitute is a Hollywood writer (Owen Wilson), concerned about selling out, who travels to Paris with his materialistic fiancée and gets magically transported back to the days of Pablo, Ernest, and Zelda. Giddily romantic, filled with Woody’s patented takedown of blowhards and pseudo-intellectuals, and a fun party game to boot—hey, is that Adrian Brody as Salvador Dali?—it was the film everyone loved this year, and with good reason.
9. Win Win - In my review, I referred to Thomas McCarthy as the “Anne Tyler of directors.” He makes movies about surrogate families, unlikely bonds, and sad people finding solace—if not outright happiness—in each other’s company. (In many ways, he reminds me of the great Alexander Payne—and this year, I actually preferred McCarthy’s lively offering to Payne’s somewhat wan The Descendants). Paul Giamatti gives another note-perfect performance as a decent man who does decent things, but not always for the right reason. Amy Ryan keeps it refreshingly real as his Bon Jovi loving wife. And newcomer Alex Shaffer shines as the sullen young man who enters their lives and, unexpectedly, their hearts.
10. Summer Action Movies - Okay, this is cheating a bit, but there were an insane number of good action films this summer. We’ll start with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, which ended that (eventually) excellent series on a triumphantly high note. Then the ferocious, humanist, fiercely original Rise of the Planet of the Apes, featuring that great motion capture performance by Andy Serkis, and certainly the most pleasant surprise of 2011. Those two may’ve soared above the rest, but this summer also gave us the treat of Chris Evans morphing from 98-pound weakling into superhero in Captain America; Kenneth Branaugh’s campily-fun Thor; The Rock going bicep-a-bicep with Vin Diesel in Fast Five (actually more of a spring release, but I couldn’t resist); and the female catnip of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender teaming up (we’re not worthy!) in X-Men: First Class.
Runners Up: 50/50, Beginners, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Muppets, Putty Hill, Shame, Source Code, The Tree of Life, Young Adult.
Note: I am yet to see David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I will post a review of that film on Tuesday and let you all know if it should’ve made the cut.