2011 in Review: The Best Films

Much like this years albums, there were a lot of good movies to be seen, but very few brushes with greatness. And like that list – aside from my No. 1 – you could probably switch my top 10 and honorable mentions lists and still end up with a pretty solid selection of the year’s best movies. Yet there was so much I felt I missed out on this year. Movies I either didn’t have the money, time or company to see. So I’ve also made a list of 30 films, any of which could have had a major impact on my final decision. Oh, well. There’s always next year.

13 Assassins, The Adventures of Tintin, Another Earth, Attack the Block, The Beaver, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Bellflower, A Better Life, Certified Copy, Cold Weather, Crazy Stupid Love, Everything Must Go, Four Lions, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hanna, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, The Ides of March, The Interrupters, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Marwencol, Midnight in Paris, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Red State, Submarine, Take Shelter, Terri, The Trip, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Weekend

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
The Artist, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cedar Rapids, The Descendants, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Moneyball, Shame, Source Code, Super 8

10. The Muppets (dir. James Bobin)
By no means does the latest screen version of the Muppets reinvent the wheel. In fact, it’s not even the best Muppet movie and had room for improvement. Yet no film this year filled me with this much joy. I was absolutely giddy from start to finish. I was a kid again. How many films can make you feel like that?

9. Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy)
While the Descendants got all the buzz this year, Tom McCarthy’s quieter dramedy stole my heart. This is a film about people who make the wrong decisions for the right reasons, whose hope for simplicity only complicates things. The cast is uniformly excellent, especially the ever-underrated Melanie Lynskey, who has the tricky role of the deadbeat, drug-addicted mother. This is a great movie for families to watch together, regardless of that inexplicable R rating.

8. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
On the flip side, here’s a movie about people who make the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons. Charlize Theron has never been better (though I’ve never seen Monster) as Mavis Gary, an alcoholic former beauty queen and tween lit author extraordinaire who packs her Kate Spade bag and heads for her hometown to win back her high school sweetheart. Young Adult is refreshingly acerbic and ends in particularly defiant fashion. This is the movie Greenberg (2010) wished it could be.

7. Tabloid (dir. Errol Morris)
You are unlikely to ever encounter a character as fascinating as Joyce McKinney, the star of Errol Morris’s latest enthralling documentary. It’s impossible to know if she’s ever telling the truth, but you can be certain she’s only telling her version of the truth, and it’s the latter that Morris is after here. We may never know what happened that 1977 weekend when McKinney allegedly kidnapped her Mormon ex-boyfriend, but that’s irrelevant to this tale. It’s all about the often bizarre, frequently hilarious life of the former Miss Wyoming.

6. Beginners (dir. Mike Mills)
One of two “cancer comedies” to make the list, Beginners was nearly crushed under the weight of its own whimsy. But the relationships at its core feel authentic, sometimes brutally so. That gives it the power it needs to take it beyond any of the year’s other “quirky” arthouse fare. As both father and son try to start again after losing the most important woman in their lives, they begin to grow closer to one another. Beginners walks a tightrope, but makes it across by balancing its moving scenes and cut-up bits equally.

5. Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski)
For a while there, it appeared Pixar had a stranglehold on well-told animated stories for grown-ups that kids might enjoy as well. Then along came this bizarre little Western, with Johnny Depp as a chameleon who stumbles into a small town and becomes its sheriff. With homages to Chinatown, High Noon and Apocalypse Now, as well as a loving tribute to Clint Eastwood (“the Spirit of the West”), Rango knows its audience and honors their intelligence, instead of holding them hostage with lowest-common denominator references and zero structure. And it did it all without the need for 3-D glasses. After the overblown Pirates trilogy, I’m glad Verbinski’s going back to his small, offbeat roots.

4. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (dir. Brad Bird)
Action movies simply do not get better than this. The latest Mission is exhilarating from start to finish, and that’s mostly thanks to Brad Bird. The former Pixar director (The Incredibles) makes the leap to live-action in dramatic fashion, staging numerous “How on earth did they do that?!” setpieces. The script may be pretty generic, but everything else is top shelf. Just astonishing.

3. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Half action flick, half arthouse thriller, Drive has both a pulse and a brain under its hood. It won’t hit you on any emotional level, because like its title character, its almost all business. Drive is often a homage to ’70s and ’80s films about loners who find themselves in shark-infested waters. But because it’s so sharp, so kinetic, it feels like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

2. 50/50 (dir. Jonathan Levine)
Call me a softie if you like, but no movie got me more emotional than the other “cancer comedy” of 2011. The impeccable Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a health-conscious 20-something who gets diagnosed with a rare form of the disease and struggles to deal with its physical and emotional effects. Seth Rogen comes out of nowhere to give his career-best performance as Adam’s best friend, one of the few people he stays connected with during his treatment. I bawled like a baby more than once in this film, but cheered just as often. For the longest time, this was my No. 1, until…

1. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
It’s almost unfair to include this in the same discussion as the other films of 2011. The Tree of Life operates on such a different plane that you can’t really include it with the others. Maybe that’s elitist, but the film grapples with so many deeper questions than anything that came out this year. And while it doesn’t come up with clear answers to all of them, it was aiming for nothing less than examining the mysteries of the universe, the existence of God and the nature of family. It wrestles with all of this with some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever witnessed onscreen.

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