The Best and Worst Films of 2011
While compiling my list of the best films of the past year, I was actually most struck by the titles that didn’t make the cut. Throughout what the movie industry commonly refers to as “awards season,” several films have frequently popped on many, if not most critics’ lists: Hugo, The Help, The Descendants, The Tree of Life, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Moneyball and others. Most of these are good solid motion pictures, a few are risible, and all of them are, in my estimation, highly overrated.
This was a good but not great year for movies – frankly, there’s no further proof is needed for this statement beyond the fact that the perennially bankable Pixar offering was a dud (Cars 2). There were a plethora of above-average cinematic choices, but none that I would label instant classics. To that end, my Top 10 selections are well-reasoned but also a bit perfunctory – there’s not a lot of daylight between most of these choices and, say, a film such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, which did not make the list. Increasingly, whether a movie is “good” or “bad” is governed more by whether it exceeds or fails to live up to expectations.
Top 10 Films
1. Shame: Atmospheric and affecting, director Steve McQueen’s lays bare the secret life of a man paralyzed by sexual addiction, disrupted when his kid sister (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly moves in. Michael Fassbender gives the performance of the year with a role that’s a little bit Last Tango in Paris and a little bit American Psycho. This is no dark comedy, however, but instead an individual tragedy that lingers long after the closing credits.
2. A Separation: The fact that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was able to make this movie within the restrictive confines of his country’s rules on censorship is noteworthy enough. That such a seemingly simple story about family on the verge of dissolution spawns such complex questions about gender, religion, class and justice speaks to the film’s power…and necessity.
3. Warrior: The film’s MMA tableau is incidental – the film could just as easily be about boxing, tennis or even chess. Its real themes of betrayal, familial strife and America’s widening stratification are universal. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, this surprisingly smart, poignant film features a trio of awards-worthy performances from Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte and especially Tom Hardy.
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin: “Hard to watch but impossible to look away” describes this plaintive parable about a mother (brilliantly portrayed by Tilda Swinton) living with the grief and guilt of a high school killing spree committed by her disturbed/demonic teenage son. Part deep family drama, part tragedy, and part a high-stylized horror movie, it’s not a film for the faint of heart…or expectant mothers.
5. War Horse: Steven Spielberg checks a few more things off his bucket list: a World War I movie, a visually stunning John Ford homage, and a story about a boy and his horse. Although held together by a glue of schmaltz, it’s a strikingly beautiful motion picture in the most classic sense.
6. Win Win: A great ensemble cast, led by Paul Giamatti with his best role in years, guides this winsome seriocomedy about a small-town lawyer and his relationship with a client’s wayward son. Sans the smart-aleckiness of many Sundance-era indie comedies, writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) fashions a subtly subversive film that celebrates the virtues of middle-class America while laying bare the unpleasant underbelly of human frailties.
7. Drive: The pleasure of this vehicle is a matter of style, not substance. It’s a hypnotic noir-ish fable told using muscle cars and a nihilistic L.A. tableau, with a Danish filmmaker channeling enough Hollywood influences – Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Steve McQueen, Taxi Driver – to fill a film school syllabus.
8. Project Nim: Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire) employs two rather ordinary documentary filmmaking devices – copious reels of archival footage and talking-head interviews – to assemble an extraordinary expose whose true, brilliant purpose is to reveal more about the flawed people at this story’s center than the titular real-life primate, removed from its mother at birth and raised like a human child.
9. The Artist: French director Michel Hazanavicius reaches back to filmmaking’s earliest format to venerate the medium. Yes, the story itself is piffle. But, the transition from silent film to talkies speaks to an art form in which technological progress is both constructive and destructive.
10. Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 2: A suitable conclusion to the mega-popular franchise. But, what sets this finale – which finds Harry is full Messianic bloom – apart is the utter symbiosis it both forms and acknowledges between art and audience, underscoring the porous line between fiction and individualized reality as insightful as François Ozon’s Swimming Pool or anything written by Charlie Kaufman.
Worst Film of the Year: Your Highness – So awful is this waste of celluloid and so misbegotten is its premise that it is barely conceivable that real studios spent real money on it, or that real actors with real careers – James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, even Danny McBride – wasted weeks out of their professional lives participating in this dumpster fire of a film.
Other Bottom Feeders – The Change-Up; The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; I Am Number Four; Jack and Jill; Johnny English Reborn; Larry Crowne; Mr. Popper’s Penguins; One Day; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Twilight Sage: Breaking Dawn Pt. 1
Most Pleasant Surprises
50/50; Arthur Christmas; Captain America – The First Avenger; Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Everything Must Go; Fast Five; Horrible Bosses; Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; Puss in Boots; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Super 8; Warrior; Winnie the Pooh
Cars 2; Cowboys & Aliens; The Descendants; The Ides of March; Like Crazy; Tower Heist