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Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Year in Review: Films

This past February I detailed the 25 films to look forward to in 2011. Looking back at my list, I accurately predicted some—Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and The Muppets—but many…or most…of the anticipated flicks turned out to be monumental busts or critically panned, like Sucker Punch, Green Lantern, and Battle Los Angeles..

Not entirely surprising, the year’s most well-reviewed and award-season-worthy films turned out to be the ones flying relatively under the radar. But what were 2011’s best films? Ask any Twihard and they’ll say Breaking Dawn; ask the Potterites and they’ll tell you to give the Best Picture Oscar to the entire Harry Potter franchise. Needless to say, “best” is always debatable. Still, here’s my round-up of the top movies of 2011.

Rarely do comedies, especially raunchy, R-rated ones, get their due. This year, though, Bridesmaids changed all that. While Judd Apatow applied his usual formula to the plot, the result was vastly better than any of his previous works. Many critics spent all their time talking about gender and how this film proves that women are, in fact, quite hilarious. But to focus purely on that actually discredits this film.

MovieFone says it best: “Bridesmaids proves that no joke is too raunchy and toilet humor knows no gender. While critics were too busy talking about what this movie means for ‘women in comedy,’ Bridesmaids simply did one thing: tell great jokes. Above and beyond everything else this year, this movie united its audience; man or woman, young or old, the overwhelming majority of viewers laughed their asses off at it, and turned it into a monster hit.”

If any comedy deserves to receive a Best Picture nomination from the academy, it’s this one.

Full of unexpected surprises, The Descendants, directed pitch-perfectly by Alexander Payne (Sideways), dishes out laughs and tears. It’s George Clooney’s performance, though, that truly makes this film. Many say this is the performance of Clooney’s career (with Batman & Robin coming in as a close second—kidding!) What draws me to this film, though, is the screenplay. The story is engrossing and relatable from start to finish.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
My favorite film of 2010 was David Fincher’s The Social Network. No surprise then that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made my year in review. Granted, I was once a skeptic of this film, but I have since been converted. Honestly, I was hook, line, and sinker as soon as I saw the trailer. The film, though, does live up to the hype, including Rooney Mara, who is a complete revelation as Lisbeth.

So why see this film if you’ve already seen the Swedish version? According to Entertainment Weekly, “Fincher and his splendid cast…do what the 2009 Swedish film version couldn't: They tease out the full mythological grandeur of the material. They have made a 21st-century vision of women who recoil from, or take revenge on, the men who fear and loathe them.”

The Artist
A black-and-white silent film set in Old Hollywood is now the favorite for awards season? If you’re wondering how, look no further than the director and his cast. As Rolling Stone puts it: “…director Michel Hazanavicius has style to burn and unexpected soul. Jean Dujardin is stupendous as the screen idol who resists talkies until a perky starlet (Bérénice Bejo) convinces him that art should never be afraid to embrace new forms.” This film, though, teaches us to appreciate old forms. It is also a complete crowd-pleaser—go ahead, try not to smile while watching The Artist.

This film is currently the Best Picture favorite for the Oscars. If it were to win, it’d be the first silent film to take home the award since 1927’s Wings

2011 might very well be the year of Gosling. He breaks up street fights, loves his dog, and has inspired a few internet memes. He also stars in many solid films, one in particular being the super-cool Drive. While Gosling doesn’t say much in this flick, he puts on an amazing performance. The film also boasts several awesome car chase scenes and a great soundtrack. It’s also completely unexpected: “Drive looks like one kind of thriller in the ads, and it is that kind of thriller, but also another and a rebuke to most of the movies it looks like,” says Roger Ebert.

It’s true: Martin Scorsese directed a family-friendly movie based on a book and shot in 3D. And surprise! It’s phenomenal. Based off The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo is Scorsese’s love letter to cinema. It enchants and delights; the typically unnecessary 3D effect is quite effective; and most importantly, it “reminds us all of why the movies are a place to see dreams come true.”²

The Help actually didn’t make that many “best of” lists—not compared to the rest of the films in this recap, anyway. But I saw it; I liked it; and I completely understand why there’s Oscar buzz circling around Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. In addition to their (and Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard’s) brilliant performances, this movie has a great plot arc, solid dialogue, and as much humor as heart.

There was some controversy surrounding it, as MovieFone points out: “…there are a lot of reasons The Help shouldn't work—mostly because it puts Hollywood gloss on the civil rights movement and hedges a bit into white-savior myth territory." But social implications aside, "this is just old-fashioned moviemaking of the highest order.”

I did not like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, so I was a bit nervous about this flick. However, after many good reviews, I gave it a whirl and was more than pleasantly surprised. I loved it. Touted by many as Woody Allen’s best film in years, Midnight in Paris is at once a love letter to Paris and a fabulous daydream for lit majors. It also pokes fun at people’s disappointment with modernity and their subsequent nostalgic yearning for past golden eras. I'd yearn, too, if it got me a trip to Paris and a chance to hang with Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Josephine Baker.

Talk about Oscar bait. However, this film released pre-award season, so it has since been frequently overshadowed. While it probably won’t be up for Best Picture, Clooney may find he has some competition in the Best Actor category. Brad Pitt hits it out of the park with his performance as eccentric and flamboyant Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane. And director Bennett Miller, doing his first film since Capote, sticks to the book and, according to The Chicago Tribune, “has asserted his rightful place on the shortlist of excellent American directors.”

War Horse
War Horse is a movie you see during Christmas weekend. It is family-friendly and cinematically gorgeous. It is light-hearted, yet it tugs hardcore on your heartstrings. And it makes you leave the theater wanting to be a better person…and wishing you had a pet horse. Perhaps these are the reasons it has been so well-reviewed. It may also be the reason it hasn’t made that many “best of” lists. It intentionally runs you through an emotional ringer, and it is schmaltzy, but in the best way possible—a throwback to a time when people put aside their differences for the greater good. In 2011, that idea is quaint; perhaps War Horse will remind everyone that quaint isn't always bad.”³

Deemed “the sleeper hit of the year” by MovieFone, Beginners stars Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor convincingly playing father and son. This semiautobiographical drama is immensely original and very smart. “The movie isn't for every taste,” says Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly. “But that's exactly what I love about Beginners: It's as true to its own character as the men in this optimistic tale are to theirs.”

Elizabeth Olsen steps out of the shadow of her sisters and all their zany adventures. This movie about identity is carried by the performances of Olsen, who plays a girl who escapes a cult, and Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes, who plays the cult’s sinister leader. Raw emotions and dread fill this movie, and many have touted it as, coincidentally, this year’s Winter’s Bone. Here’s hoping it skyrockets Olsen’s career like Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence, who happens to star in my most anticipated movie for 2012, The Hunger Games.

Honorable Mentions…
I know I’ve neglected so many fine films in my recap, so I’ll take the easy way out and quickly list some “honorable mentions” for 2011: Weekend, A Separation, Young Adult, The Muppets, My Week with Marilyn, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Shame, Super 8, Attack the Block, Margaret, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Margin Call, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and even though they’ve made just as many worst lists as they have great lists, I’ll tack on Tree of Life and Melancholia.

What titles do you deem the best of 2011? What are you most looking forward to in 2012?

More Best of Lists
The 10 Best Movies of 2011(Rolling Stone)
Top 20 Movies of 2011 (Roger Ebert)
Highest Scoring Movies of 2011 on Rotten Tomatoes
The Best Films of 2011 (The New York Times)
Best Movies of 2011 (Slate)
10 Best Movies (and 5 Worst) of 2011: Lisa Schwarzbaum's Picks (Entertainment Weekly)
10 Best Movies (and 5 Worst) of 2011: Owen Gleiberman's Picks (Entertainment Weekly)
10 best movies of 2011 (Chicago Tribune)
10 worst movies of 2011 (Chicago Tribune)
Best Movies of 2011 (MTV)
The Year's Best Movies (WSJ)
At the movies: Top 10 in 2011 (Click on Detroit)
Best films of 2011 (Miami Herald)
Year in Review 2011 (MovieFone)

Happy New Year! See you in 2012!

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