Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 10 best movies of 2011

Time for the year-end wrap up, which -- for most critics -- means a list of the top 10 movies of the year. If 2011 wasn't a banner year for movies, it wasn't bad either. I always figure that if I have a difficult time narrowing my list to 10, it must have been a better-than-average year.
In 2011, even some of the more hyped movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II were good. A word about the series, which concluded this year, probably is in order: Aside from keeping a ton of British actors off the unemployment line, the Harry Potter movies turned out to be more consistently involving than anyone initially might have expected.

But among the special pleasures of the year, I rank a few more highly than others, even though I don't necessarily want to burden them with 10-best stature.

-- Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh turned director for Kill the Irishman, the story of the rise and fall of Cleveland hoodlum Danny Greene. Ray Stevenson gave a fine performance as Greene, and the always enjoyable Christopher Walken had an equally nice turn as Jewish racketeer Shondor Birns. At the time of the movie's release, I wrote that it broke no new ground, but did a hell of a job turning over old soil. If you're partial to gangster movies, you should make it your business to find this one on DVD.

-- Sometimes, a movie arrives with buzz acquired at the Sundance Film Festival. That was the case with Another Earth, a movie in which director Mike Cahill used a sci-fi backdrop (a second Earth hovered mysteriously over this one) to explore the grief-stricken life of a young woman (Brit Marling) whose careless driving resulted in the death of a mother and child. The sci-fi element may sound a bit far-fetched, but the movie's emotions felt absolutely real.

-- I approached Rise of the Planet of the Apes expecting nothing, but found something I'd been missing, a genuine helping of pulp excitement. Who'd have believed anyone could breathe new life into the Planet of the Apes series? Director Rupert Wyatt did.

-- Great performances abounded in 2011. Brendan Gleeson was glorious, profane, rude and strangely endearing as an unorthodox Irish cop in The Guard.

And then there's John C. Reilly. What a year for an actor who usually flies under the radar. Reilly played the raucous Dean Ziegler, an insurance agent who insisted on upholding the cause of ribald fun at a gathering of Christian-oriented insurance agents in Cedar Rapids. In Terri, a movie about an overweight teen-ager, Reilly was wonderfully inappropriate Mr. Fitzgerald, an assistant principal unlike any other we've seen, not that assistant principals are much of a movie staple. Of course, Reilly also appears in We Need to Talk About Kevin and Carnage, both of which have yet to open nationally.

And the year shouldn't pass without mention of Kevin Spacey's work in Margin Call. We're not talking about the flippant Spacey of movies such as Horrible Bosses or Casino Jack, but an actor who carried the full weight of a collapsing financial institution on his shoulders.

And while we're on the subject of Margin Call: I didn't put it on my top-10 list, but it should be acknowledged as one of the best acted movies of the year -- not only by Spacey, but by Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Paul Bettany.

Throughout this topical drama about a Wall Street firm on the verge of collapse, the actors keep their performances under tight control as they keep an eye on one another during a long night of meetings, personal jockeying, financial analysis and ethical indifference.

When Alfred Nobbs starts playing around the country, watch for the robust performance of Janet McTeer in a role that's best discovered in a theater.

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of special foreign-language films: Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre takes an encouraging look at people behaving decently toward an "illegal" immigrant, and Korean director Chang-dong Lee's Poetry manages, rather miraculously, to make a successful mix out of a horrific event and the search for self-expression by an aging, Alzheimer's-stricken grandmother.

Whether any of these movies becomes an important part of movie history remains to be seen, but each boasted elements that either moved me or which I enjoyed immensely, and I didn't want to push on without at least giving them a tip of the hat.

So now, for my top 10:

I put this as the top of my list because Brad Pitt, as a stern father, never has been better and because director Terrence Malick took a highly personal look at growing up in Texas during the 1950s. I'm not sure that Tree of Life was totally successful in mixing the intimate and cosmic or that every part of the movie worked equally well, but making a personal movie on this scale requires daring, skill and an artist's view of the world. Malik has plenty of all three.

2. HUGO.

It's difficult to imagine anyone loving movies as much or as intelligently as Martin Scorsese. And in Hugo, an adaptation of a story by Brian Selznick, Scorsese puts every ounce of that love on screen. Hugo is both a boy's adventure and an unashamed ode to the delight movies provided in their infancy. And, yes, it also boasts the best 3-D ever.

3. The ARTIST.

Director Michel Hazanavicius has made a silent movie that's clever, involving and entertaining. He tells the story of a silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career hits the skids when sound arrives. Sounds familiar, but Hazanavicius' movie -- shot in sumptuous black-and-white -- feels as fresh as anything I've seen this year because Hazanavicius seems to believe in the power of cinema to speak directly to the heart.


If you don't think Iranian movies have matured beyond the days of beautiful images and simple stories about kids, you haven't seen A Separation, one of the most emotionally complex movies of the year. Director Asghar Farhadi tells the story of a husband and wife who separate and are then caught up in a legal battle involving the woman who takes care of the husband's aging father. A Separation is one of those rare movies that respects everyone's point of view.


I debated whether to put this one on my list at all, but finally decided that it belonged there because of Elizabeth Olsen's terrific performance as a young woman who escapes from a cult. Martha Marcy also builds more tension than most of the big-budget movies that try for similar effects. Credit director Sean Durkin with an amazing debut that keeps us involved by never quite allowing us to find our balance.


I've long contended that director Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) is one of the few directors working today who really understands how to use images to comic effect. For all of his work on Pirates (and, no, I'm not saying those movies were great), Verbinski's most creative effort didn't sail on the high seas. It takes place in the desert, where Verbinski stages a clever animated western that stands as this year's best and most imaginative piece of animation.


Director Lynne Ramsey's spare and horrifying adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel - ostensibly about a killing rampage at a high school -- is really a stark and often horrifying exploration of the dark side of motherhood. Kevin isn't everyone's cup of tea, nor should it be. But for those who like filmmakers who push things to disturbing extremes, Ramsey's movie is a keeper. It's also one of the most visually arresting movies of the year, and features outstanding work by Tilda Swinton.


Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams has found its way onto a variety of 10-best lists. But I was more affected by Herzog's Into the Abyss, a documentary about far more than senseless murder -- although it's about that, too. Into the Abyss looks at shattered Texas lives, and stands as a clear-eyed examination of capital punishment, particularly what it does to those charged with carrying out death sentences.


Director Alexander Payne's look at a Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) trying to cope with terrible loss is both touching and funny. Although it's a few clicks short of a knockout, Payne's movie stands as one of the best and most meaningful mainstream entertainments of the year.


Director Bennett Miller (Capote) brings engaging authenticity to the story of Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), the Oakland Athletics' general manager who tried to build a winner by employing a system created by a nerdy statistician (Jonah Hill). Moneyball is smartly written and fun, a baseball movie that dares to wonder whether it's right to romanticize the sport.


Michelle said...

I saw 'Another Earth' and I liked it, too. Amazing scene with a guy playing a saw - how many movies have that?! You can listen to the ethereal music from this scene on the composer's website

Peter Nellhaus said...

Did you notice that a film that made a number of critics' lists, Uncle Boonmee, did NOT get a theatrical run in Denver? Both Landmark and the Denver Film Society dropped the ball on that one.

Anonymous said...

I think Uncle Boonmee played at the Denver Film Festival.

Robert Denerstein said...

Uncle Boonmee did play at the last Starz Denver Film Festival, but I don't believe it had a theatrical run beyond that.