Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Top 35 Films of 2011: #10-#1

10. The Descendants 

What a wonderful movie this is. Director Alexander Payne has a unique gift: the ability to create worlds and characters that are instantly recognizable and–most importantly–instantly relatable. He’s firing on all cylinders in The Descendants, taking what are fairly played out storytelling tropes–an exotic land (Hawaii), a coma, an affair, a single parent attempting to raise his/her troubled children, etc.–and elevating them so as to make them grounded. He’s even able to take George Clooney, one of the most familiar stars in the world, and make him...well, just a little less familiar. The Descendants is this year’s everyman movie. 

9. Melancholia 

You’ve got to hand it to Lars von Trier–he’s certainly made the best out of his troubles. In recent years, we’ve seen Trier put out two films–Antichrist and now Melancholia–that have both explored the nature of depression in varying and unique ways. Trier, who is still in the process of recovering from his own depression, has used his unique psychological situation as a conduit for his stories–this isn’t the ‘Hollywood depression’ that we so often see in most mainstream films. Trier’s characters don’t sit on the couch, vegging out on Ben and Jerry’s and watching reruns of Jerry Springer; instead, they regard the world around them as completely fallible. 

In the case of Melancholia, that’s actually a literal and potential fallibility. It might be a bit of a stretch to call Melancholia an out-and-out metaphor for the ruin of the human psyche–although there are definitely aspects of the story that suggest just that–but it’s hard to deny the film’s points about love self contentment and purpose. Melancholia may not be the most fun film of 2011...but it’s undoubtedly the most haunting.

8. Margin Call 

My second favorite film of 2010 was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (a movie that happened to top my list of the Most Underrated Films that year, as well). While I won’t go into every specific reason as to my love for Oliver Stone’s sequel, I will say that one of the most prominent was its approach in regards to the human stakes of the economic meltdown of 2008: instead of focusing on the failings of corporations and the federal government, Stone and crew actually expanded what was at stake to include the moralities of the human players as well. 

It’s for a similar reason that I found Margin Call to be such a satisfying gem of a film. By placing the audience into the shoes of the key players, first time director J.C. Chandor manages to construct a world that wavers not merely on the edge of economical ruin, but the potential ruin of one’s soul. He also manages to mine grade-A performances from the likes of Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and, most pleasantly, the great Jeremy Irons as the scariest CEO this side of Warren Buffett. The writing is crisp; the tone is perfectly calibrated; the directing is spot on. Margin Call isn’t just a terrific film because it’s well made; it’s terrific because the points that it raises about humanity’s capability for evil are both unique and necessary.

7. Bridesmaids 

Yep, I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Where to start with Bridesmaids? How about the fact that it was the funniest movie of the year, hands down? Or the fact that it provided Kirsten Wiig with an opportunity to actually write roles for women that were more than just shrill stereotypes or flinty sexual interests? Or the fact that it finally–finally–provided Jon Hamm the role that we’d all been waiting for him to play: the lovable lunkhead? Upon its release, Bridesmaids was widely proclaimed as the ‘female version of The Hangover,’ but the truth of the matter is, there’s no comparison between the two. Bridesmaids has everything you could want out of a comedy: likable characters, funny lines, hysterical gags, and–gasp!–actual, honest-to-God stakes! Who would have ever thought that these things could have a place in a major studio comedy? Amazing.

6. Super 8 

Oh, how I loved this movie. 

In attempting to capture the essence of 1980‘s Spielberg and Amblin films, director J.J. Abrams managed to capture something else as well: genuine, unabashed summer fun. In a season stuffed with spectacles such as Green Lantern and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, how gratifying was it to watch a movie that took its energy not from CGI wizardry, but from the strength and depth of its characters? Some have criticized Abrams for heeding too close to the Spielberg playbook; I’d argue that he could have pushed it even further. 

Nary a scene in Super 8 isn’t entertaining or compelling in some way; from the spectacular opening train crash to the smaller scenes involving the central kids filming their homemade movie, Abrams walks the tightrope between rip-off and ode with the panache of...well, Spielberg. It may be nostalgia porn of the most obvious kind...but darn it if it ain’t titillating as hell.

5. 50/50 

Every year, there’s a little dramedy that comes out that is critically praised but ultimately rejected by audiences. In 2010 it was Morning Glory, and in 2011, that film was Jonathan Levine’s 50/50. It’s understandable why the film didn’t exactly catch on with people–after all, who wants to see a movie about terminal cancer? Yet what made 50/50 such a pleasure to watch wasn’t just its humorous spin on typically grim proceedings, but its sense of optimism–no matter how troubled the characters or situations became, it never became a slog to get through. In fact, 50/50 may just be the most feel-good cancer movie ever made. 

It didn’t hurt that it also had a great cast–Joseph Gordon-Levitt continued to prove that he’s the real deal, Anna Kendrick delivered a nice followup to her turn in Up in the Air, and Seth Rogen continued to show a knack for picking not only projects that are high in quality, but also high in heart. The subject matter may be grim in and of itself, but 50/50 is anything but.

4. Source Code

It’s funny–the first time I saw Source Code, I found it to be a perfectly diverting, if not especially memorable lark. While at the time I hadn’t yet seen director Duncan Jones’ previous breakout effort, 2009’s Moon, I remember not feeling a particularly strong desire to so walking out of his followup–nothing about Source Code had inspired me to want to see what else this guy had concocted. 

And then, something funny happened: I saw Source Code again. And I enjoyed it. Like, a lot. Suddenly, I found myself getting lost in the details of its labyrinthian plot and science-fiction elements. Suddenly, the emotions of the characters rang true in a way that they hadn’t before–they were more than just players to push through a dense narrative, but actual human beings that I found myself genuinely rooting and caring for. By my fourth viewing of the film, I had officially decided: Source Code was far more than just a mere lark. Between this, The Adventures of Tintin, and my #1 film of the year, 2011 has proven to be a year for me that has reinforced the importance of rewatching and reassessing films that I might otherwise have simply moved on from. Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a great everyman performance, as does Michelle Monaghan as his fated-to-die love interest. The plot is clever; the music is a character unto itself; even the basic look of the movie is interesting. Source Code is what studio actioners should aspire to be: smart, likable and exciting. 

3. The Adjustment Bureau 

As I mentioned in my Most Pleasant Surprises of 2011 list, The Adjustment Bureau had all the makings of a cinematic-bomb. Yet in between constantly changing release dates and a slew of bad press, it somehow ended up being just fine. Most critics were satisfied, if not overly enthusiastic with the film. 

I was enraptured with it. 

What can I say–maybe it’s the romantic in me, but the idea of having a story about two individuals that are destined to be together, set against the backdrop of a Phillip K. Dick sci-fi tale, just does it for me. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt had, to my mind, the hottest chemistry of any onscreen couple last year, with the rest of the cast delivering equally strong turns. One of the biggest criticisms lodged against the film was that it was too self serious, too sappy and contrived; to a degree, I can actually understand and even partially agree with that. Yet I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t play me like a flute. Director George Nolfi is a romantic, and it shows–every shot in The Adjustment Bureau, be it Blunt performing a quiet ballet or Damon racing through door-portals (just see the movie) to reach her, drips with sentiment. Yes, the movie may be unabashed hokum...but its hokum of the most rewarding and fulfilling kind. 

2. The Tree of Life 

You knew this one was coming. 

Really, what would a Top 10 List of 2011 be without The Tree of Life being on it? Director Terrence Malick’s beautiful, transcendent, inspiring poem of a film is the achievement of the year, craft-wise–thoughtful and elegant, frustrating and obtuse, rich and rewarding. It’s a film that demands repeat viewings, as well as plentiful debate about its meanings–that’s part of the experience. It’s also a film with an enjoyability-factor that will depend a lot on the characteristics and beliefs of the viewer watching it. As a Christian, I found much of the film to be powerful and occasionally even devastating. I was moved by its ideas, as well as its themes regarding fathers and sons, creation and the question of one’s ultimate purpose in life. 

The images that Malick crafted here are stunning–almost every shot of this film could be framed and hung on someone’s wall. Many have criticized the film as being self-indulgent and ultimately meaningless –a contraption with no key. That could very well be true. Yet it doesn’t change one bit my appreciation for what Malick has done here. The Tree of Life is cinema at its purest state: unbridled, nonsensical and completely and utterly wondrous. 

1. Moneyball 

I’ll admit: I walked out of Moneyball the first time I saw it feeling flummoxed. That was different, I thought. I don’t know where to even start unpacking that. For one thing, director Bennett Miller hadn’t made a sports movie–he’d made a movie about numbers and statistics. For another, the movie hadn’t seemed particularly concerned with drawing non-aficionados into its groove–to a relative sports outsider like myself, I’d often felt at a loss as to how to even begin to approach the material. Combined, these two elements left me feeling cold, and at the time, I couldn’t understand how the film had managed to connect with so many people. What was with this movie?

As the days passed, I found myself unable to shake that question. By the time the following weekend had rolled around, I had decided: I needed to see Moneyball again. So, early that Friday evening, I drive to the local theater, bought a ticket for Moneyball, and sat down, determined to figure this thing out. 

A little over two hours later, I walked out breathless.

I don’t believe that there’s such thing as a perfect film–no work of art is flawless, because all art is subjective. And while Moneyball likely has its share of debatable flaws, I have to say: on a pure craftsman level, I found nearly every aspect of Moneyball to be absolutely immaculate. Tight would be the word that I would use to describe it. Tight was the dialogue. Tight were the characters. Tight was the the narrative. Tight were the performances. Tight was Miller’s direction. Tight was the score. Tight were even the wardrobes. Every nuance, every detail of Moneyball was carefully conceived, constructed and carried out; not one word or image was false. Every line of dialogue was weighed with exactly the right amount of personality; every performance was tailored with exactly the right amount of gravitas. As cinema, Moneyball was about as solid and unbreakable a creation that, to my mind, could ever possibly be hoped for.

I ended up seeing Moneyball two more times after that second screening. And each time I did, the film only became more impressive. Like a living organism, it evolved and changed, took on different meanings and tones. Each viewing was like a new film. Details that had previously gone unnoticed began to arise, to build and add to the scene around them. Like a great piece of music or literature, Moneyball only became more meaningful the more times it was seen. I found it to be the richest, most immaculately conceived film of the year, as well as one of the most emotionally satisfying. 

Often times, critics will decry the difficulty in choosing a single film as their #1 of the year. They argue that it’s impossible to pick just one film, that it’s ridiculous to judge one movie against another. “There can be no one definitive film,” they say. “It’s an impossible choice.”

I would beg to differ. 

Other Films That I Liked:
Cedar Rapids, Paul, Insidious, Hanna, Scream 4, Thor, Hot Coffee, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, The Guard, The Debt, Apollo 18, Red State, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Contagion, Warrior, Drive, Win/Win, Certified Copy, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Real Steel, The Thing, American: The Bill Hicks Story, Catching Hell, Bellflower, Puss in Boots, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bill Cunningham New York, The Muppets, Like Crazy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, War Horse, Carnage, Young Adult, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


  1. I like everything in your Top 10 (except Melancholia which I found to be an absolute chore to suffer through). I loved Moneyball so an admirable choice for the #1 position. It’s also nice to see The Adjustment Bureau get some love. This seems to have either been forgotten or not enjoyed by most critics as I haven’t seen many mention it. I put this in my honorable mentions for 2011. Nice list.

    Here's mine: http://fastfilmreviews.wordpress.com/my-top-10-movies-for-2011/

  2. No love for Attack The Block?!!

  3. Surprising - and nice - to see The Adjustment Bureau on your list. Hokum, as you say, but awfully fun hokum.