2011 was one of those years that had a wealth of good movies but a dearth of great ones. Like 2010, when The Social Network stood alone at the top and everything else was in its shadow, 2011 had exactly one timeless classic. But even if the search for classics might leave one wanting, there was no shortage of quality at the cinemas last year, and I actually had a difficult time getting this list down to 25.
The Timeless Classic
1. Hugo (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Back in early summer of last year, when the fall/holiday movie slate was beginning to be announced, I recall reading that Martin Scorsese’s new film was a 3-D children’s adventure, and I was disgusted. I couldn’t fathom a worse version of jumping the shark. Scorsese had always been a film classicist and purist (occasionally working in black & white), as well as one of contemporary cinema’s most masculine and adult of directors. A 3-D children’s film could not possibly seem more contrary to the man’s strengths and ideologies. I was dubious and hesitant of Hugo, to say the least. But never have I been more thrilled to be wrong.
Hugo starts out with a young boy’s quest to retrieve what he believes is a message from his dead father (coincidentally, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close featured an identical premise). But midway through, the film pulls a Psycho-like slight-of-hand with the plot, and it becomes about something else entirely. It turns out Hugo might be one of Scorsese’s most passionate statements as a filmmaker, and possibly closer to his heart than any of his previous works. It’s also not a children’s movie in the same way E.T. isn’t a children’s movie. It’s an all ages movie, but just because something is appropriate for children doesn’t mean it’s for them. I struggle to imagine any child liking Hugo as much as I know several adults do.
Hugo is a film about film. It’s about why film matters, why movies resonate with people, and why we devote so much time, energy, and money to capturing our dreams on celluloid. Only someone with Scorsese’s integrity and understanding of film could pull off a tale about the preservation and appreciation of the past by using the most cutting-edge of modern technology and technique. It’s an example of futurism and nostalgia aiding one another in creating a real and genuine sense of timelessness. While The Artist tried to simply recreate the past, Hugo shows us why the past matters, and why the past should always stay with us, even as we continue our eternal move forward.
The Great Movies
2. Drive (Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)
I read recently that all movies are, by definition, manipulative, and that it’s unfair to hold that against them. Instead, we can only comment about how, why, and with what we’re being manipulated. Drive is a movie that manipulated me in my favorite kind of way. Back in his spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, Sergio Leone pioneered a technique of creating a sense of danger and action by using editing, music, and cinematography instead of really having action. By doing so, he was able to feature long passages where nothing actually happened, because he manufactured an exaggerated level of intensity. In modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann do this in practically every movie they make. Drive does this too, and it’s a great example of the artistic capabilities that are unique to cinema. The fim features very little action, and probably only has 10-12 minutes of screen-time devoted to car chases. But the intensity, the style, the music, and the lack of dialogue create a weight to the events that’s palpable. It’ a movie that, when thinking back on it, no individual scenes or lines stand out, but you can remember exactly how you felt when you were watching it. Ryan Gosling displays a toughness and intensity that hadn’t been seen before, and the opening credit sequence is sheer perfection.
3. Beginners (Directed by Mike Mills)
The story of a man dealing with his father coming out of the closet after fifty years of marriage, Beginners masquerades itself as a simple and touching indie-comedy, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Like (500) Days of Summer did in 2009, the movie employs a wealth of innovative stylistic techniques to tell its story, but unlike Summer, the style of Beginners never gets in the way or draws too much attention to itself. There’s a fascinating technique of using old Polaroid photographs to convey the realities of life and emotion in different eras, and the movie very subtly shifts back and forth between three different time periods. But what the story veins have in common is that all of us are beginners at something through every stage of life we go through. And the fears and anxieties we experience with these new chapters of ourselves are often more similar than they are different.
4. Bridesmaids (Directed by Paul Feig)
The latest in a recent summer tradition of blockbuster R-rated comedies (it began with Wedding Crashers in 2005), Bridesmaids might be the best one yet. Throwing characters into awkward situations is something comedies have done for decades, but I’ve never seen a movie completely embrace the awkwardness like Bridesmaids does. Each time you think the movie won’t go there, it does. It goes there, it stays there, and it wallows there. And this daringness to constantly portray the characters in their worst moments allows us to really feel for them. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as invested in the emotional well being of the characters in an R-rated comedy. Sure, I wanted Steve Carell to get laid in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and I wanted them to find Doug in The Hangover, but those endings were never in doubt. With Bridesmaids, I can honestly say I had no idea how the movie would end. Each event in the plot consistently surprised me, and they kept finding new and funnier ways to hit rock bottom. A lot of people come away from Bridesmaids saying some variation of “I didn’t know a movie about women could be that funny.” The big surprise to me was that a movie about anything could be that funny.
5. Win Win (Directed by Tom McCarthy)
Win Win is a funny and heart-warming story about making the best of bad choices, and knowing when to own up and start atoning. Paul Giamatti stars as a lawyer stealing the caretaker money he receives from a client in a nursing home, but when the client’s grandson shows up to live with him, things get weird. And there’s a lot of high school wrestling. It’s difficult for a movie to simultaneously succeed as a comedy, a morality play, and a character piece, but Win Win does just that. The funniest moments hold up against any other comedy of the year sans Bridesmaids, and the emotional arc of the characters always feels genuine. But what’s really great is the way the characters deal with real consequences to their actions. Win Win shows us that being a good person doesn’t necessarily mean living a life free of selfish mistakes. Sometimes it’s about what we do after those mistakes have been made.
The Very Good Movies
6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Directed by David Fincher)
Comparing 2010’s Swedish film and 2011’s American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an easy way to see what a difference a great director can make. The Swedish version was very good, captivating, and felt like it was pretty flawlessly executed. But it didn’t stay with you. The American version, on the other hand, was made by one of the five best directors in the world at the moment, and that skill is all over the screen. The story is more fleshed out, the editing makes the details of the murder investigation easier to grasp, the photography better styles the atmosphere, the music creates more palpable dread… and then there’s the Enya song, which is the moment everything crystallizes and you realize “Wow, this is much better than the Swedish version.” Individually these are all small improvements, but together, they make a huge difference. And Rooney Mara brings everything to the role of Lizbeth that you didn’t even realize was missing with Noomi Rapace’s performance in the Swedish film. But in retrospect, Rapace was too tough. Mara’s waifish portrayal conveys a vulnerability that’s essential to understanding the emotional damage and withdrawal at the heart of the character. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, at its core, simply a serial killer movie with a compelling story and great characters, and it doesn’t approach the eternal themes and complexity of Fincher’s 2010 masterpiece, The Social Network. But after two previous serial killer movies (1995’s Se7en and 2007’s Zodiac), Fincher said he was attracted to the project because he was “intrigued at the idea of making a franchise movie for adults.” He succeeded.
7. The Artist (Directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
If I hadn’t seen The Artist twice, it would have been much higher on this list (probably number 2), but it suffers quite a bit from a second viewing. The movie feels a bit too slight the second time around, and once the charms have become familiar, they lose their… err… charm. But having said that, there’s a lot here to love. The Artist is a positively joyous movie, well conceived and impeccably pulled off. And as a lover of movies, it’s easy to be thrilled that something like this exists at all. Silent cinema was the Latin of art forms: completely dead, nothing more than a subject people don’t want to study. But The Artist effectively acts as a thesis statement for why that shouldn’t be the case. The best silent movies weren’t stuffy or pretentious; they were crowd pleasers in the truest sense. Chaplin movies found success all over the world because they had universal appeal (and no language barrier). At its best, The Artist is proof that silent movies were and are a great art form capable of real expressiveness and great storytelling.
8. Midnight in Paris (Directed by Woody Allen)
Woody Allen has been in the midst of a career renaissance since 2005’s Matchpoint, when he began setting movies in Europe after over thirty years of exploring New York. Midnight in Paris is the best yet from this era, and it’s about an interesting theme that Woody hasn’t explored much (which is odd considering how similar in ideas so many of his movies are). This time around, Woody tackles the lofty subject of longing for the past and how people romanticize lives that weren’t their own. Owen Wilson is perfectly cast as Woody’s on-screen alter-ego, and he finds himself unwittingly trapped in a time loop by which he can engage with the famous denizens of 1920’s Paris, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali, Picasso, and others. If I have a complaint against the movie, it’s that the famous characters are a bit too defined by their clichés, but that never really feels like a flaw because it’s so much fun to see the interactions with them. By the end, Midnight in Paris has served as its own proof that the best way to see the past is through the movies.
9. The Descendants (Directed by Alexander Payne)
The Descendants has unfortunately become the poster child for how underwhelming 2011’s “best” movies were, but that’s pretty unfair. Getting lofted to the top in a weak year because everything else was underwhelming isn’t the movie’s fault. Removed from the weight of expectation and the perception that it’s a Best Picture contender, The Descendants is a very good and thoughtful movie, with fantastic performances and dialogue. Payne (who also directed Sideways and About Schmidt) is always good at toeing towards the humorous side of weighty subject matter, without ever undermining the emotional punch. Here, that punch comes in a wrenching goodbye at a hospital bed, where George Clooney delivers one of his best moments as an actor.
10. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Directed by Brad Bird)
It used to be that action movies routinely embraced the outlandish. But starting in 2004 with The Bourne Supremacy, and culminating with Casino Royale and The Dark Knight, we’ve spent most of the last decade in an era where action movies were graded on their “realness” and “grittiness.” For a while this felt refreshing, and it led to some fantastic cinema, but lately action movies have just gotten too bogged down into darkness (see: Taken). It made me want to pull a Crash Davis and scream at everyone “Hey! This is supposed to be fun, right? We’re supposed to be having fun out here!” Well, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol brought back the fun… and the ridiculous, the outlandish, the gadgets, the world-saving stakes, everything. And it did it with serious panache and style. Writer/director Brad Bird had previously only worked in animation (he helmed The Incredibles and Ratatouille), but that training proved to be the perfect antidote to the action movie malaise of contemporary cinema. In animation, your creativity isn’t constrained by the realities of filming, because the set pieces you conceive of only have to be drawn. So while other directors might have said “Nah, we can’t film that” at the thought of a foot chase through a sandstorm, or dangling a movie star outside of the world’s tallest building, Brad Bird’s brain doesn’t roll like that. And we’re lucky it doesn’t, because MI:GP has some of the best action set pieces you’ll ever see. Oh, and you know what else Bird’s Pixar training taught him? How to make a movie fun. Mission Accomplished.
11. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Directed by Tomas Alfredson)
Under normal circumstances, calling a movie long and slow would be considered a bad thing, but this is the exception. More than anything, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a methodical movie, placing careful emphasis on the subtle things spies would be trained to notice but might slip past the rest of us. I haven’t personally ever been employed as a spy, but if forced to bet, I’d wager this comes far closer to what it’s really like than any action movie ever has. A lot of quiet meetings in sealed off rooms, listening to conversations, logging details, and following hunches down dead-end paths. But the movie is never boring; it slowly absorbs you into its world and lets you linger there, listening to everything, processing the data. The payoff at the end might feel a little underwhelming, but remember, this was the Cold War. Was there even such a thing as a satisfactory conclusion?
12. Warrior (Directed by Gavin O’Connor)
Short of the latest Twilight crap-fest, probably no movie in 2011 inspired less excitement from me than Warrior. I truly hate UFC, and I’m completely opposed to it on moral grounds. Even when Warrior received fantastic reviews upon its release last fall, I stayed the hell away. It wasn’t until Nick Nolte received an Oscar nomination that I forced myself to watch it, because I feel compelled to see all of the nominees in the major categories (which is still the only reason I watched The Blind Side). And what did I find? Only one of the best sports movies of the last decade. The story of two estranged brothers with baggage from their alcoholic father who square off against each other in the UFC championship, Warrior has pretty much everything you could want from a sports movie. Redemptive story arc? Check. Goose-bump inducing competition scenes? Check. Exciting training montage? Check. Ending that feels surprising even as it was completely inevitable? Check. Endearing self-doubt among the main characters? Check. Family drama? Check. Low odds of success for the characters? Check. And the best part for me is that Warrior never feels like a movie about UFC. It feels like a domestic drama about a family battling their past, and just doing it in a ring instead of a living room. And after quality supporting work in Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tom Hardy proves in Warrior that he’s an actor of serious chops and he’s ready for stardom—which he probably has coming this summer as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises.
13. Crazy Stupid Love (Directed by Glenn Ficarra &
The degree of difficulty in making a great and original romantic comedy is probably higher than just about any other movie genre, but Crazy Stupid Love is a movie for which just about everything goes right. The script by Dan Fogelman, writing his first live action feature movie after years of work in animation, is absolutely note perfect, and the cast brings everything to the table that you could want. The movie manages to wink and poke fun at its genre while also shamelessly embracing it. And the scene where Ryan Gosling reveals that his “Big Move” is mentioning Dirty Dancing is probably the single funniest sequence I’ve ever seen in a romantic comedy.
14. Moneyball (Directed by Bennett Miller)
Moneyball is a movie that simultaneously succeeds on two levels, as a sports movie and as a character piece. As a sports movie, it has the worst-to-first story arc that is nearly infallible, and the snappy dialogue (brushed up by Aaron Sorkin) serves it well. But where Moneyball really succeeds is as a character piece, and Brad Pitt’s portrayal of an against-the-wall baseball team president is a fantastic depiction of a man who dares to think outside the box and challenge a system. The big unfortunate flaw of Moneyball is that it’s a movie completely lacking an ending. While Billy Beane’s revolutionary team-building strategies completely turned around the Oakland Athletics and created a winning culture, the team still got bounced out of the playoffs in the first round every year, and that result is so anti-climactic that the movie avoids even showing it. In some ways, it’s unfair to hold against the movie the fact that the A’s didn’t win a World Series under Beane, and the movie should be commended for trying to maintain accuracy. But just because the flaw in the story is the fault of history doesn’t mean the flaw isn’t there. If the 2002 Athletics had won the World Series, Moneyball might have been the greatest sports movie ever made, and would probably win Best Picture. As it is, it’ll have to settle for the achievement of squeezing a B+ film out of a C+ story.
15. War Horse (Directed by Steven Spielberg)
War Horse is a movie that’s so implausible that you have to consciously choose to let go of logic and allow the sweeping emotion of the story to grab hold of you. Because if you don’t do that, then it’s easy for the message of War Horse to come across as the following: The Central goal of World War I was to reunite a boy and his horse, and all soldiers on both sides (even the doctors) were working together towards this end. And if that’s what you take away from the movie, then there’s a very good chance you won’t like it. But if you can allow for a heaping dose of suspension of disbelief, then War Horse is a really wonderful old school epic of movie-making. The score and cinematography are positively beautiful, and this style of movie is almost as much an artifact of the past as The Artist is. Plus there’s a truly touching scene of a British soldier and a German soldier working together to free the horse from barbwire, and discovering that the opposite sides they’ve found themselves on aren’t indicative of much other than circumstance. There aren’t always enemies in war. Sometimes it’s just the guys on the other side.
The Good Movies
16. Shame (Directed by Steve McQueen)
Shame is a very good art film that suffers a bit by going too far in some spots and not far enough in others. But even while being flawed, it’s a film that shouldn’t be missed, and it’s strengths—a gorgeously shot opening sequence, a powerful performance by Michael Fassbender (and his penis), and a beautiful musical number by Carrey Mulligan—are phenomenal. Plus, the movie is practically all sex, so it’s definitely not boring.
17. Le Havre (Directed by Aki Kaurismaki)
A quirky and original French comedy about illegal African immigration in a northern port city, Le Havre is consistently surprising without feeling like the story is betraying reality. And there’s a rock and roll segue in the middle of the film by someone named Little Bob, inspired to play a charity benefit after he’s reunited with his estranged wife, who he calls “the road manager of [his] soul.” What more do you need to know?
18. Ides of March (Directed by George Clooney)
Ides of March succeeds on every level you could want it to except one—the revelation that politics are crooked and dirty no longer has the ability to surprise us. But even if the dramatic punch of the movie is lost to the reality of the era, it’s still a compelling story told with great craftsmanship by Clooney and featuring very good acting and dialogue.
19. Hanna (Directed by Joe Wright)
A fairytale-like story about an adolescent girl assassin raised in arctic seclusion, Hanna has some stunningly realized sequences, and is set to a propulsive score by The Chemical Brothers. There’s even a dazzling 360-degree fight scene shot in one take. But Hanna also feels a bit cheesy at times (especially in the ending), and the Brothers Grimm themes don’t come across as well as they could have.
20. 50/50 (Directed by Jonathan Levine)
50/50 is a funny and touching story about a 27-year-old guy dealing with cancer, and his best friend trying to help him find the brevity in the fact that he might die. It’s based on a true story, but like Moneyball, the reality of the events play against the movie, as ending with the dual triumphs of the lead character surviving and starting a relationship with his hot therapist feels a bit too cute and convenient.
21. Rampart (Directed by Oren Moverman)
What could have been a cliché-ridden movie about a corrupt cop (Woody Harrelson) getting his come-uppance actually manages to be an intense and original character piece by focusing on the inner torture of the lead character. He believes himself to be a good father to his two daughters and an effective cop because of his willingness to break any rule necessary to punish the bad guys. But the realization that the heat his vigilante habits stir up is emotionally damaging to his daughters causes him to reevaluate his actions.
22. Young Adult (Directed by Jason Reitman)
Young Adult was a bit of a letdown for me given the talent involved and an ad campaign that was executed perfectly, but the movie is still good and worth seeing. The real flaw is that it sets up a story premise that doesn’t have anywhere to go, so the ending feels like the characters have just been sort of abandoned. Given what happens in the climactic scene, it might be a good thing that there was no follow-up. But the conclusion still feels a bit empty all the same.
23. Super 8 (Directed by J.J. Abrams)
Even though Super 8 is a science fiction film involving an alien monster terrorizing a small town, it also feels somewhat autobiographical of its director, J.J. Abrams. That’s because Super 8 is also about a group of friends in late 1970’s suburban Ohio making movies on their Super 8 camera and dreaming of becoming the next Steven Spielberg. In that respect, the film really is autobiographical, and Abrams was able to bring it full circle by enlisting Spielberg to help produce the film that’s an homage to his early career. And the movie’s emotional payoff moment features a beautiful image that really pulls the heartstrings.
24. The Debt (Directed by John Madden)
Like The Usual Suspects and Atonement before it, The Debt reminds us that unreliable narrators can be used in films just as well as novels, and just because we see events dramatized on screen doesn’t mean they occurred. Unlike the above films, the revelation in The Debt isn’t quite of the jaw-dropping variety, but it’s still an interesting movie that explores the theme of truth versus perception with dramatic skill.
25. A Better Life (Directed by Chris Weitz)
A Better Life is mostly a remake of the Italian neo-realism classic Bicycle Thieves, updated to reflect the modern social issue of illegal immigration in southern California. And for the bulk of the film’s running time it doesn’t distinguish itself as being anything more than that. But the movie concludes with a stunning powerhouse of a scene and Demian Bichir earned himself a Best Actor nomination for his emotionally affecting delivery. If the whole movie were as good as the last ten minutes, it might have been in my top ten.