In 2011, Malick planted a tree and Michael Fassbender showed no shame. The help made many disagree while two artists showed us the fragility of fame. Three descendants came together in paradise while a driver drove for a price. Siblings discovered the secrets of their mother while Billy Bean was our baseball brother. London teens saved the world and two young lovers gave it a whirl.
Last year I said 2010 was not a great year for films having only awarded 13 four star reviews. In 2011, I awarded 12, so you can judge accordingly. However, there were a lot of really good 3 ½ star films that I wanted to weave into the top 25, but couldn't make it work. Many of the honorable mentioned films are just as worthy to be on the list. Like always here is a list of the films I wish I could have seen but missed.
ALBERT NOBBS, ARMADILLO, BARNEY'S VERSION, THE BEAVER, BEING ELMO, BELLFLOWER, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH, CORIOLANUS, EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE, LE HAVRE, INSPECTOR BELLAMY, I WILL FOLLOW, THE INTERRUPTERS, INTO THE ABYSS, THE IRON LADY, KINYARWANDA, THE LAST CIRCUS, THE LAST RITES OF JOE MAY, THE MILL AND THE CROSS, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, MOZART'S SISTER, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, MYSTERIES OF LISBON, NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, OF GODS AND MEN, PARIAH, PASSIONE, PAUL, PINA, THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER, PROJECT NIM, QUEEN TO PLAY, RESURRECT DEAD, ROAD TO NOWHERE, SARAH'S KEY, A SCREAMING MAN, A SEPARATION, SILENT SOULS, THE SKIN I LIVE IN, THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS, TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL, TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS, TYRANNOSAUR, VIVA RIVA!, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and THE WHISTLEBLOWER.
1) THE TREE OF LIFE
Picking my #1 film hasn't been this easy since the Coen Brothers' made their best film in 2007 with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Terrence Malick's ambitious epic created a cinematic religious experience for me while watching it. As it unfolded I knew I was watching something special. Due to the quiet nature of their roles, it's easy to miss the difficulty of Brad Pitt and breakout star of 2011 Jessica Chastain's Oscar-worthy performances. It's the master filmmaker's best work. In a seemingly contradictory act, Malick highlights both the insignificance and significance of a single human life. On a macro cosmic scale, we are but a blip in the universe's history, but on a micro human scale, we are the universe to our family and friends. Through evocative cinematography, Malick has created something that is so dense one viewing is really not enough. But when tackling the subject of life and death, anything less wouldn't really cut it.
Only one film made me contemplate not making TREE OF LIFE my top film of the year. Steve McQueen's look at sex addiction is one of the best films I've seen on any kind of addiction. Michael Fassbender proves that he is a fearless actor, willing to put himself out there for his art. The film was strapped with an NC-17 for full frontal male nudity and a graphic orgy that are anything but erotic. Fassbender's Brandon Sullivan has a face of pain not joy when having sex. He's looking to find that high that will never come again. He might be intimate with many people, while never being able to be intimate with anyone. Following their work together in HUNGER and now SHAME, McQueen and Fassbender are becoming a classic cinematic collaboration.
3) THE HELP
Films about the civil rights movement always become hot button issues for critics. The Association of Black Women Historians ripped into this film, but then the Black Film Critics Circle named it the Best Film of the Year. For me, I was moved by the story of black women telling their stories about doing the thankless job of raising white folk's children. Like so many other films, the criticism falls on a white character needed to tell a black character's story. But that overlooks the point that the film highlights the unique relationship between black maids and white children. Emma Stone's “Skeeter” Phelan is one of those children. With Stone, the Oscar worthy performances run seven deep, notably the breakout performers Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. A dishonest film wouldn't have the bittersweet ending that works so poignantly here.
4-tie) THE ARTIST & HUGO
These two films make for a perfect double feature. Both celebrate the joy of film history and the fickle nature of success. Michel Hazanavicius' black & white silent film is a celebration of a bygone era a cinema, while being new and ingenious. It has comedy and dance and drama all wrapped into one film. French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are perfectly charming as a silent movie star stuck in the past and an up-and-coming ingénue. Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film is not just a story of a boy who fixes things, but also an ode to cinematic magician Georges Melies, who was the father of cinematic special effects, but ended up working at a toy store in a Paris train station. In his motivated use of 3-D and his emotional approach to film conservation, Scorsese proves that be was born to be a filmmaker.
5) THE DESCENDANTS
George Clooney gives one of his best performances in the latest from SIDEWAYS director Alexander Payne. Clooney's Matt King's life turns into a bumper car out of control following the boating accident of his wife. The tragedy puts his life into focus and reveals secrets that change his view of his entire life. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's script based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel has a unique ear for how families actually communicate. In a year of breakout actresses, teen Shailene Woodley gives a mature performance as Clooney's oldest daughter, who knows more than he understands. Set in Hawaii, the bittersweet tale of death and family shows that paradise is only what we make of it. That is our responsibility.
In my original review, I called DRIVE artful and bloody and visceral and elegant. This is all due to the unique style of director Nicolas Winding Refn, who takes his time, builds tension along with his characters and hits us in the face with bursts of adrenaline. Ryan Gosling is perfect as the enigmatic nameless antihero – a stunt driver by day and a get away driver by night. He takes sympathy on a young mother, played by Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan, and her young son while her husband is away in prison. But when daddy gets out, his past comes back and The Driver must get involved. The Driver is a person you definitely want on your side. And any good hero needs good villains and you won't forget the memorable low-rent, but ruthless, gangsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.
This French Canadian production was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year and deserved to win. The story follows two siblings whose mother has asked them to find their father and brother who they never knew existed following her death. Through their search, they discover the shocking past of their mother, a woman they believed to have lead a boring life. This epic drama reminded me of Asian extreme cinema in many ways with its twisted turns. In its story of a son and daughter uncovering more about the bravery of their mother, the film makes us wonder how much we really know anyone in our lives. What secrets do we hold that would transform our images in the minds of those we think we know so well?
It was a good year for Brad Pitt. In TREE OF LIFE he gave his most subtle performance, here, he gives one of his most likeable. As Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, he plays a smart jock, who challenges the powers that be to change the game that kept him from attending college. Pitt's Beane is teamed with an Ivy League grad that uses stats to build a better baseball team, played by Jonah Hill. Pitt and Hill are like a perfect comedy duo, working off each other using their unique characters to make us laugh and root for their risk taking. This insider's look at the business of baseball is a new kind of baseball movie.
9) ATTACK THE BLOCK
If BOYZ IN THE HOOD was an alien invasion flick with the sensibility of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it might be something like this badass entertainment. This British import finds a London gang from the poor section of town fighting off shadowy aliens. Equally funny and scary, the film from director Joe Cornish breaks down stereotypes of the horror genre with this witty dialogue and pitch perfect action. On the block, there are things more dangerous than aliens sometimes. For sheer fun, this one is the best of the year.
10) LIKE CRAZY
This intoxicating romance is the best tale of a long distance romance I've ever seen. Writer/director Drake Doremus' breakout film also features the breakout performance of Felicity Jones as Anna, a British student who overstays her visa after meeting Anton Yelchin's Jacob. She is remarkably charming, making the audience fall in love with her. The story gets young romance so right in the ups and downs and uncertainty. Doremus makes us see why Jacob and Anna might not work and why they should be together. In the end we just want them to be happy whether that means they end up together or not.
John C. Reilly gives a hilarious performance as a vice principal looking out for an overweight outcast and the other freaks in his school. It's a familiar high school tale told with original characters.
12) THE FUTURE
Miranda July's follow up to her wondering ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW is a bittersweet romance about how we sometimes sabotage our own happiness. With a stalking shirt and the power to freeze time, this whimsical dramedy is not your typical romcom.
13-tie) A DANGEROUS METHOD, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE & TAKE SHELTER
These three films dealt with mental conflict in uniquely powerful ways. David Cronenberg's story of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud deals with the mental anguish of repression in a thought provoking way. Sean Durkin's tale of a survivor of a cult features a remarkable performance from Elizabeth Olsen, whose paranoid character can't reorient herself to the regular world. Jeff Nichols' tale of a man struggling to control his increasing schizophrenia is the best film I've seen on the disorder, which features first rate performances from Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.
14) HIGHER GROUND
Actress Vera Farmiga makes her directing debut in this thoughtful look at the issue of faith. This is a powerful drama that doesn't belittle believers or live in a fantasy world of moralistic platitudes.
15) YOUNG ADULT
Director Jason Reitman reteams with his JUNO screenwriter Diablo Cody for this biting black comedy about a YA author who decides to go back to her hometown to steal her high school boyfriend away from his wife. Charlize Theron is magnificent as the self centered would-be home wrecker and Patton Oswalt is the moral center as "hate crime boy."
16) WAR HORSE
Steven Spielberg's tear-jerking melodrama is like discovering a lost film from the 1950s. Stylistic and cinematically beautiful, this drama about a boy searching for his horse during WWI is like John Ford had a chance to make another epic.
17) MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Woody Allen's loving ode to Paris in the 1920s stars Owen Wilson as a Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of living in a bygone era. With the vibe of Allen's THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, this magical comedy celebrates the past but still has something to say about today.
18-tie) 50/50 & CONTAGION
These two radically different films both deal with disease in a compelling way. Jonathan Levine's cancer comedy, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick, is not just a humorous look at how a young man deals with the disease, but how those around him react as well. Steven Soderbergh's super flu thriller is a masterful look at how the CDC would actually approach an epidemic, which features an all-star cast and makes you want to wash your hands more often.
Lars von Trier is one depressing filmmaker, so that is why his version of the apocalypse is so compelling. Kirsten Dunst gives the best performance of her career as a depressed new bride who feels like the world is coming to an end. As they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean a rogue planet isn't on a collision course with Earth.
20) MARGIN CALL
Director J.C. Chandor makes the most impressive feature debut of the year with this honest, but damning, look at one fictional firm who started the downfall of the U.S. economy. It's not a tale of conspiracies, but one of ruthless survival.
Like a Greek epic, this human drama of fallen men is masked as an MMA flick. This story of brothers and their father has powerhouse performances from Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte.
22) JANE EYRE
Michael Fassbender was the stand out male performer of the year and gives the most unblinking version of Charlotte Bronte's Rochester. Combine his performance with Mia Wasikowska's perfectly prim Jane and director Cary Fukunaga has made the best screen version of the classic tale.
23) RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the classic sci-fi franchise is a smart piece of entertainment and an honorable addition to the series. At its center, Andy Serkis gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Caesar the chimpanzee, who leads a revolt against their human oppressors.
24) HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS - PART 2
Simply the most consistently good series in film history ended on a strong note. Harry clearly moves from a boy to a man as he becomes the hero he was destined to be.
Errol Morris' documentary about the 1970s Mormon sex in chains case is the perfect tabloid tale that seems too insane to be true. The film works as a profile of tabloid journalism and a character piece on Joyce McKinney, a fascinating romantic who sees kidnapping a man as act of love.
THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY
A BETTER LIFE
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
COWBOYS & ALIENS
DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
THE IDES OF MARCH
IN A BETTER WORLD
LIFE, ABOVE ALL
LOUDER THAN A BOMB
LE QUATTRO VOLTE
TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
WINNIE THE POOH
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS