Posted January 16, 2011

Updated February 1, 2012 / Updated February 23, 2012 / Updated February 25, 2012

 

2011 was nearly as strong as 2010 when it came to films that I believed were strong enough on their own to be worthy of mention on my annual list of the year's ten best films.  As of the initial posting date of this article, I found myself giving four-star ratings to almost as many 2011 films as I did in 2010, although I did see more films overall in 2011 than I had in any other previous year (130 to be exact as of the latest update; 117 in 2010 and 111 in 2009).  

As with all other previous years, I find myself compiling and revealing this list much later than other film critics in North America, which is largely attributed to the lack of noteworthy late-2011 releases that still have not seen the light of day here in Saskatoon (the city is mournfully and notoriously bad when it comes to getting timely releases of such films late in the year).  As a result, an honest attempt on my part to relay what I accurately think are the ten best reasons to go the movies in 2011 proves to be rather difficult.  I admonish the fact that so many other critics have come out with their lists without having bothered to screen the remaining films from the year.  Regrettably, though, I have still not seen many prominent 2011 films, like THE ARTIST, SHAME, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, and MY WEEK WITH MARYLYN.  However, once I do – and if they deserve placement anywhere on this list – I will make the necessary concessions and adjust this compilation accordingly   

2011 had around 18-plus films that could have very easily made my Top 10, which has essentially allowed me to create not just a Top 10 list, but a Top 25 list, which consequently allows for me to honor films that I thought were among the more memorable from the year, but that I nonetheless couldn't place within the Top 10.  I have always considered, of course, my Top 10 as the best examples of the filmmaking craft from the last twelve months, but selections 11 through 25 are honorable runners-up.  A Top 25 also holds me less accountable from many readers out there when it comes to them reprimanding me for forgetting or neglecting to mention certain films on the Top 10 that I championed during the year.   

Most importantly, I must emphasize the following: this is my list.  It’s a personal and subjective one (film criticism is void of objectivity; it’s about one’s own unique response to films).  I not out here to make a list to singularly put indie art house fare on it to impress anyone, nor am I going to just campaign for big-budgeted blockbuster entries to appease populist tastes (either extreme represents the height of critical snobbery).  One thing I have consciously gone for here is variety.  My list below contains everything from an apocalypse drama (okay, two to be precise), a family dramedy, a true life sports story, a romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings, a 3D family fantasy, a gritty and violent action thriller, and so on.  No one can rightfully accuse me of lacking diversity here.  

So, partake and enjoy (or...not enjoy) my selections of the finest cinematic offerings from 2011:

 

 
 

 1.   THE TREE OF LIFE

 
 

How could I not put Terrance Malick’s film as the very best one of 2011?  It is, as I stated in my review, perhaps one of the most awe-inspiringly ambitious films I’ve ever seen.  

Here’s a drama that, on one level, appears to be a semi-biographical meditation on Malick’s own childhood memories of growing up in 1950’s Waco, Texas.  It’s also a searing portrayal of family strife, the innocence of childhood, and about unavoidably dealing with loss, death, and grieving.  Yet, THE TREE OF LIFE also manages to have the tenacity and daring aspiration of framing that story within the larger and more cosmic one of the very origins of the universe.  In what has to be one of the most visually arresting and impressively sustained sequences of visuals ever committed to film, Malick takes great pains and time (20 minutes worth and virtually silent throughout) to depict a God’s eye-view portrayal of the cold blackness of space, the eruption of the Big Bang, the early expansion of the stars and planets, the birth of Earth, and the very first stirrings of biological life on the planet.  It’s quite simply the closest that film viewers will perhaps ever get to witnessing a camera crew capturing and shooting the beginnings of everything.  

Then again, THE TREE OF LIFE is about the interconnectedness of everything.  No matter how tiny and inconsequentially small or universally large, Malick points out how everything is connected (all of God’s creatures, from dinosaurs to young boys in the 1950’s, are both capable of cruelty against much smaller creatures, as shown in two mirrored sequences in the film).  Then there is randomness: the death of one character in the film is depressingly random, but so too was the randomness of the Big Bang or the asteroid, for example, that impacted the Earth, killed off the dinosaurs, and irrevocably altered life on it.  When it comes to the larger scheme of things, an asteroid or a boy dying is miniscule compared to the vastness of the universe.

THE TREE OF LIFE might be the first film to deserve worthy comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, one of the greatest of all films, perhaps because both films are oftentimes unfathomably impenetrable and befuddling to explain.  Both films show man’s evolution through the bigger framework of the cosmos.  Both films have extraordinarily believable visual effects that show space and time (Douglas Trumbull served on both films, this being his first credited work in decades) and both films have surely agitated some critics and audience members alike.  Yet, both films have the resolve to leave their own inherent mysteries open-ended to speculation and demand patience from viewers.  2001 was not initially loved by critics, but it's now heralded as an unparalleled masterpiece; I believe that THE TREE OF LIFE will be similarly received in the years to come. 

 

2.  MELANCHOLIA

Not too many films from 2011 came remotely close to Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE on a scale of ambition and boldness, but Lars von Trier’s end-of-the-world apocalyptic drama MELANCHOLIA came as close as any. 

Here’s a film, much like Malick's, that has a cosmic scope and uses bravura visual effects: in a shot of startling finality, von Trier portrays the immediate end of the Earth as it collides in space with a much large planetary body (named “Melancholia” by astronomers).  There is no mistaking it: Earth in von Trier’s film does perish.  More importantly, the polarizing and notoriously provocative Danish filmmaker never once succumbs to lame and ham-invested clichés of other apocalypse action films from the Roland Emmerich theater of pornographic, disaster porn extremes.  No, what we do get is a treatment of the end of it all with an indescribable level of destruction and conclusiveness. 

Von Trier shows this very early on – and during one of the great introductory montages of beautifully haunting shots ever committed to screen – so that it does not distract viewers from the rest of the story.  Melancholia is the name of the planet on a collision course with Earth, but it also reflects the emotionally mindset of its characters.  The story presented here is intimate and deals mostly with the lives of two sisters (played in a pair of natural and beguiling performances by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the film highlights how two different women respond to crisis.  Dunst’s Justine becomes a wounded and fragile woman when her marriage collapses and then finds inner strength and resolve when it appears that Earth will perish.  Conversely, Gainsbourg’s Claire begins the film as a secure woman that unravels into a paranoid and mentally damaged figure in the build-up of Melancholia’s impact.  Before the end comes, the two find a way to come together to achieve a harmonious co-existence before their existence is eradicated. 

MELANCHOLIA is almost purposely abstract in terms of meaning, but I will say this: it’s part sci-fi magnum opus, part family melodrama, and part expose on the nature of depression and disease.  It’s also one of the most atypical and jarringly original portrayals about a global cataclysm that I’ve seen.  If not for the existence of THE TREE OF LIFE, von Trier’s film would have been the finest of 2011.

3.  THE ARTIST >

I’ve spoken with some people that said they had no wish to see THE ARTIST, which is a shame indeed.  They usually point out these reasons: it’s a silent film; it’s black and white, and – heaven help us! – it’s a French film.  Yet, if they were to look closer at Michel Hazanavicius’ film – a lifelong passion project for the director – then it would be easy to see that THE ARTIST – like my #4 on my Top Ten below – is a film that’s steeped in a love of the movies and the history of the cinema.  The film is a meticulous reconstruction of 1920’s/30’s silent film artifice (right down to the intertitles, black and white cinematography frame within a period-correct 1.33:1 ratio, and performances) but the film’s bravura technical achievements helps frame its core themes: just as modern and fickle filmgoers have issues with seeing a film like this, the story within THE ARTIST deals with how talkies destroyed the silent film star.  

I think that’s what struck a cord with me so much after viewing the film: it not only contains everything that viewers clamor for (action, romance, comedy, drama), but it uses old school and antiquated methods to tell an ageless story of love and redemption in the style of films from 80 years ago that manages to come off as both nostalgically old fashioned and audaciously modern at the same time.  The performances in the film are crucial to its sense of period and audience immersion: French star Jean Dujardin and Argentine beauty Berenice Bejo hold our attention and captivate us with their portrayals of silent film star George Valentin and up-and-coming talkie sensation Peppy Miller respectively.  The film chronicles how the once-mega-star Valentin slips into poverty-stricken despair with the advent of talking pictures and how Miller succeeds in its wake.  Bejo has the look, energy, and radiance of a early sound film screen actress down pat, but Dujardin has the most thankless task of tangibly harnessing the essence of Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire all rolled believably into one man.  I was intently enthralled with every minute of THE ARTIST, right through to its climatic show-stopping tap-dance duet between Dujardin and Bejo that harkens back to a kinder, gentler, bygone era of movie escapism before the cinematic landscape was not polluted by Michael Bay-ian nihilism.  Trust me: you don’t need dialogue, or color film, or American and English speaking performers to be mesmerized by THE ARTIST.  

> added February 23, 2012

4.  SHAME >

Steve McQueen’s SHAME is one of the most mesmerizing, unflinching, and unforgettable portrayals of addiction that I have ever seen.   The fact that it involves a man that suffers from a sex addiction may seem laughable at face value, but there is no doubt that in the morose, bleak, and unsavory world that this pitiful person resides in, his obsession with sex and ongoing desire to achieve orgasm is most certainly a self-loathing addition of the soul. 

This is the second film that McQueen has made with actor Michael Fassbender: he directed him in one of the best films of 2009 in his debut effort HUNGER, where the Fassbender gave one of the greatest of all film performances as the real life IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.  SHAME and HUNGER delves courageously and unflinchingly into the hearts of its tortured main characters that, through actions within and/or beyond their control, manage to enact horrific punishments on their minds and bodies.  Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is a man that lives within a bubble of desolate self-containment: he has no male friends, no girlfriends, no intimate family ties, and no meaningful relationships.  All he exists for 24/7 is to hungrily feed his deplorable and self-destructive desire to have sex – with whomever and whenever.  When partners are not available, he finds refuse in Internet porn (both at home and at work).   He loves no one person, nor himself.  When Brandon is shown engaging in sexual acts, there are of the most debasing, repugnant, angrily un-erotic and passionless kind.  This is all shown in a performance of great and courageous commitment, fearlessness, and unwavering rawness by Fassbender, who creates a portrait of dehumanizing angst and guilt.  The fact that Fassbender eluded an Oscar nomination for his searing work here is an unpardonable sin on the Academy’s part.  SHAME was not an enjoyable picture for me to endure, per se, but it will haunt and stay with me for an awfully long time.

> added February 25, 2012

5.  HUGO

The director of such gritty, violent, and matured themed dramas like TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, and THE DEPARTED making a children-friendly fairy tale fantasy…in 3D (!)…and it’s one of 2011 best films? 

All of those initial doubters about Martin Scorsese’s HUGO – based on the novel THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick – need to give their collective heads a hard shake.  HUGO is a family film.  It's a film augmented by 3D.  It's not hard-edged R-rated fare that Scorsese has made for forty years.  Yet, the sheer artistic genius of the film is that it’s not only unlike any family film I’ve ever seen before, but also unlike anything the legendary auteur has ever made before.  At face value, the film was advertised as a Dickensian fantasy with both whimsical and somber overtones, but the real epicenter of Scorsese’s film is something its trailers never hinted at: HUGO is steeped in an euphoric and revered celebration of the movies and the art of making and preserving movies themselves, all of which have been lifelong labors of love for its director. 

HUGO is also a bravura technical masterpiece, churning out one eye-gasmic and beautiful visual of early 20th Century Paris after another (this film looks like a storybook come lovingly to life) and it contains the best utilization of three-dimensional imagery this side of AVATAR (Scorsese was wise enough to use it for subtle immersion, not as an brain-punishing gimmick).  Yet, HUGO showcased the greatest living director today at the height of his artistic hubris, utilizing modern and state of the art filmmaking artifice to tell a classic movie fable about…the movies.  It’s an unexpectedly poignant love ballad to the art form and all of its cinematic pioneers that daringly laid the path for Scorsese to peruse his film dreams.  Who would have thought that this PG-rated family film would end up being Scorsese’s most deeply heartfelt and personal film?

 6.  DRIVE

Yes, I did compare Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s (BRONSON) DRIVE to PULP FICTION in the sense that DRIVE not only showed a unique filmmaking voice at the helm that wanted to stir things up and slap the current film status quo in the face, but it also featured a director that wanted to pay homage to past genre films while showing respect for literate minded and patient filmgoers.  

DRIVE certainly offersed up what many of us out there were expecting (a high octane, rip-roaring, and deliciously lurid splatterhouse action thriller with wanton carnage and gore), but what most of us never saw coming was how the film was wrapped in its European, art house aesthetic.  DRIVE is a B-grade exploitation film made with impeccable A-grade art house trappings and works as a most welcoming relief from the mind-numbing, audience placating, and sensory overload extremes of traditional action pictures.  Part film noir, part visceral blood-soaked revenge caper, part neo-1980’s action flick, and part lurid grindhouse film, DRIVE avoided the nihilism and dime-a-dozen conventions of so many action thrillers and brazenly carved out its own highly unique path.  Within the first few minutes of this self-conscious film – with its bright, neon-colored title cards and its merrily electronic and synthesized music score that recalls what came before it 30 years ago – we know that we are in for an audaciously original ride.  And with Ryan Gosling’s quietly empowered performance that channels an uncomforting ferocity as its main anti-hero and – rejoice, one and all! – Albert Brooks’ wildly memorable turn as a soft-spoken and fatherly villain with a nasty penchant for murder and mayhem, the $13 million budgeted DRIVE fully emerged as an unholy blend of Tarantino meets Michael Mann meets David Lynch…which as far as genre films go was a most welcoming and innovative cocktail.

  7.  TAKE SHELTER

Jeff Nichol’s TAKE SHELTER was both a masterfully unsettling and profoundly creepy-as-hell apocalypse drama/thriller and a performance showcase for the great and undervalued Michael Shannon, a wondrous character actor that has a magnetic and deeply intense screen presence of uncommon authority.  

Shannon plays Curtis LaForge in the film, a man that is living the proverbial middle class American dream…that is until he begins to have disturbing visions that just might be the coming of the end of the world.  As he becomes increasingly plagued by his nightmarish visions he begins to further succumb into paranoia and fear.  As a sense of fatalism takes over him, Curtis decides to re-build a ramshackle storm shelter in his backyard, which alienates him from his friends, work colleagues, and wife (played by Jessica Chastain, second only to Michael Fassbender as the breakout performer of 2011).  In the film’s unforgettable climax, a hellish storm does come, which bares a unmistakable resemblance to Curtis’ demonic nightmares, and then…and then… 

Relaying more would involve spoiler territory, but I will say that TAKE SHELTER is that its one of those exceedingly rare apocalypse thrillers that’s not at all reliant on visual effects or perfunctory action scenes.  Instead, Nichols builds his thriller on an unnerving escalation of dread.  Even better is its handling of the central character of Curtis, and the film compellingly never attempts to answer our questions: Does Curtis have schizophrenia?  Are his visions manifestations of his unease about living in an economically troubled world?  Or, does he really have a psychic gift and is indeed able to foresee the end of times?  Nichols is naturally skilled enough as a director to let audience members make up their own minds as apposed to lazily telling them what they should believe, and the towering presence of Shannon – who evokes in Curtis an aura of swelling and unstably disturbed energy – completely sells this character’s unfortunate and saddening break from reality; it was one of 2011's most commandingly powerful and memorable performances. 

8.   THE DESCENDENTS

 

Co-written and directed by Alexander Payne (ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, and SIDEWAYS, the latter which made my Top Ten of 2004), THE DESCENDANTS was the only film from 2011 that managed to adeptly traverse between genuine heartbreaking sorrow and high hilarity.  Very few dramadies I’ve seen have been able to find humor in the most absurd and awkward of personal circumstances and then balance those moments with key scenes that cut to painful emotional truths.  The fact that THE DESCENDANTS was just as funny as it was tragic is to the film’s noteworthy credit. 

At the helm of it all is the presence of George Clooney, who plays a Hawaiian resident whose wife is in a near-death coma and discovers, to his horror, that she cheated on him before her current state.  What's so great about Clooney here is how he shreds away all of his past movie star vanity and immerses himself within the strange and convoluted network of conflicting emotions of his beleaguered character.  The quintessential Clooney movie star charm is still here, but he allows himself to play someone that’s more damaged, flawed, and uncertain than he has in the past.  Beyond Clooney’s Oscar-worthy turn, though, is Payne’s unique handling of his crazily unstable characters.  THE DESCENDANTS could have degraded into cheap, TV sitcom worthy theatrics and melodrama, but Payne, like director Noah Baumbach, refreshingly is more at ease with making audiences members feel uneasy about the trials and tribulations of his characters.  You rarely get a routine sense that THE DESCENDANTS is going to be cozy or inviting with its characters and story: its warts-and-all sensibilities – showing its deeply troubled personas at there worst extremes – is what ultimately makes THE DESCENDANTS feel like a far cry above other routine and obligatory dramadies about family strife. 
 
 

9.  MONEYBALL

 

You do not have to be a Major League baseball aficionado or a sports film genre buff to appreciate MONEYBALL.  The genius of Bennett Miller’s (CAPOTE) intoxicating biopic is that it’s both an unexpected real life inspirational sports film…and it's not.  It has the accoutrements of many down-on-their-luck underdog sports films: the lackluster players, the hopelessly inept team, the insurmountable opponents, the proverbial climatic big games where the underdogs prove what they’re really made of, and so forth.  Yet, MONEYBALL is not really a film that’s compelled with being a traditional sports film at all: like MIRACLE, it’s more about the behind-the-scenes personas and the politics of its sport than it truly is about the athletes and the game itself.   

With the unqualified cinematic dream team of writers Aaron Sorkin (THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, and THE SOCIAL NETWORK) and Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMERICAN GANGSTER, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) penning the adaptation of Michael Lewis' 2003 book of the same name, the film tells the story of Billy Beane, manager of the Oakland Athletics during the early 2000’s who was able to see the massive and unfair financial gulf that existed between pro teams.  With some much needed help, Beane had the radical notion of using modern advances in analytics to develop a productive and winning team on a shoestring budget.  This spat on the collective baseball wisdom of how to draft teams that was the norm for 100 years. 

Brad Pitt has never given a more textured and lived-in performance as he has here as Beane and he certainly is portrayed in the film as a man that took huge gambles when no one else would.  MONEYBALL never really paints Beane as a messiah-figure, though, as some have complained.  Yes, his A’s won 20 games in a row in 2003 using his methods, but they lost in the first round of that year's post season.  The A’s also never won a World Series under Beane.  What the film does champion is that Beane was a crucial figure in the history of the game for daring to change it.  The term “moneyball” and Beane’s unorthodox GM-style have now been copied by innumerable others.   There’s a message here that’s bigger than the game, which makes MONEYBALL one of the best sports-related films in a long time.

10.  YOUNG ADULT

 

Charlize Theron is such an angelically beautiful woman that it’s often hard for some, I think, to give her credit for being an accomplished and poised actress that takes premeditated chances with many roles that her fellow contemporaries wouldn’t dare. 

Just consider the role she plays in director Jason Reitman’s (THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING, JUNO, and UP IN THE AIR) and writer Diablo Cody’s (JUNO and JENNIFER'S BODY) YOUNG ADULT: she portrays Mavis Gary, a toxically selfish alcoholic and failing writer of young adult fiction that sees an invite from an old high school boyfriend to his home town to celebrate the birth of his first baby as a pathetic cry for help on his part.  She decides to visit him in an effort to steal him away from his loving wife and new child, mostly because she feels that this is what he needs, but more because Mavis is just such a loose-cannoned, drastically unstable, and genuine self-loathing human being that she narrow-mindedly feels that this is what he craves.  What. A. Pathetic. Woman. 

Yes, Theron is still a gorgeous woman in the film, but she is a mentally scared late-thirtysomething woman that’s still mournfully trapped within the emotional mindset of a teenager.  The greatness of Theron here is that she never cues up the character to be likeable; she dutifully plays her as a near-redemption-free and depressing human being.  Much of this also has to do with the collaboration of Reitman and Cody (their first since JUNO) that maintains the film’s deeply cynical and disturbing edge while, at the same time, allowing for dark comedy to peek through.  Most crucially, Cody and Reitman wisely look at the resolute coldness of their subjects without letting them off the hook, but they don’t demonize Mavis to the point where we can’t understand her.  YOUNG ADULT is depressing and bleak for showing the slow-burning train wreck of a weak-minded and insecure woman, but I nonetheless found the film uplifting and endlessly watchable because of it.   It also shows Reitman as one of the pre-eminent humorist-dramatists of his generation and cements Cody as a writer with a strong voice and command over her subjects.  

 
  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2011 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  WIN WIN::Tom McCarthy's made one of the year's most deeply humanistic dramas that subverted sports film clichés and emerged as a more natural and honestly constructed crowd pleaser.

 

12.  MIDNIGHT IN PARIS::A Woody Allen love ballad to Parisian locales large and small that uses time travel as a narrative anchor; a highly odd, but winning combination that resulted in the director's finest film in years.

 

13.  HANNA: Director Joe Wright's suspenseful, stylish, and brazenly original assassin thriller was a pulse-pounding wake-up call to a genre that was suffering from a bit too much complacency.

 

14.  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOLBrad Bird's triumphant first live action film achieved the impossible by making this forth film in the series its most action-packed, exciting, and impressively mounted.

 

15.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGERThe finest comic book super hero film since THE DARK KNIGHT could not have been any more different: a rip-roaring, adventure-filled, and wholesome-minded appropriation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's legendary Marvel creation.

 

16.  SOURCE CODE:Duncan Jones' follow-up to his fantastic MOON carried an ingenious time travel narrative and a genuine focus on ideas and concepts over pyrotechnics and special effects spectacle.   

 

17.  ANOTHER EARTHOne of 2011's more introspectively rendered sci-fi films with an unique and involving premise and strong lead performances.    

 

18.  THE SUNSET LIMITED: One of the best films of 2011 came not from the big screen, but from the small screen with this superlatively acted HBO drama, based on the Cormac McCarthy play of the same name. 

 

19.  CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS: Werner Herzog's intoxicating documentary about one of the oldest of all of the world's cave paintings; it utilized 3D as a proper tool for immersion and not as an obtrusive, in-your-face gimmick.

 

20WARRIOR: Not enough filmgoers went to see Gavin O'Connor's (MIRACLE) splendid drama focusing on an estranged family who share a similar passion for Mixed Martial Arts; more powerfully moving than expected.

 

21.  TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY:  > A mind-bendingly complex Cold War espionage thriller that was all the more compelling because of Thomas Alfredson's calculating direction and Gary Oldman's intensely internalized performance.  > added February 1, 2012

 

22.  A DANGEROUS METHODThe performance triumvirate of Kiera Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, and Michael Fassbender excelled in director David Cronenberg's period drama.   

23.  50/50Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave a career-high performance in this tactfully hilarious and serenely touching dramedy about a young man dealing with cancer.   

24.  BEGINNERSChristopher Plummer deserves serious Oscar consideration for his role here as a man at the autumn of his life, facing a terminal disease, and realizing that he's a homosexual; graciously and attentively directed by Mike Mills.

25.  THE TRIP:: Steve Coogan and Rod Brydon are infectious comic dynamite here in this knee-slapping Michael Winterbottom comedy; the scene of the actors' dueling Michael Caine impersonations was the single funniest movie moment of the year. 

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
 

RANGO Wondrously detailed and lush animation highlights Gore Verbinski's first animated film; contains meticulous artistry and a free-wheeling sense of whimsy.   

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS:   Belongs alongside other franchise reboots like BATMAN BEGINS and CASINO ROYALE for injecting some much needed invigorating freshness into the X-Men series; Michael Fassbender creepily charismatic turn as the young Magneto owns this film.

A BETTER LIFEDemian Bichir gave one of 2011's most quietly empowered and touching performances in Chris Weitz's drama about illegal immigrants struggling to make a go of it; more perceptive and heart-rending than other similar films.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN:  Although the fact-based screenplay lacked psychological depth, the performances by Kenneth Branagh and Michelle Williams as Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe respectively had enough to make it worthy of recommendation.  > added February -- , 2012

THE LINCOLN LAWYERYes, Matthew McConaughey has played a lawyer before, but he proved here why he is so resoundingly good at it in this involving and surprisingly well oiled legal thriller.  

HALL PASS:: The Farrelly brothers confidently return to the high scatological hilarity of their early films with this knee-slapper about two married men given a week off from their respective marriages.   

MARGIN CALL:  A timely and uncommonly immersive drama regarding the night before the epic financial collapse of 2008; Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons gave two of the more memorable supporting performances of the year.

JANE EYRE   Michael Fassbender yet again proves why he was the break-out star of the last twelve months with another performance of deeply internalized intensity and cool and meticulous bravado; co-star Mia Wasikowska had the thankless task, though, of confidently carrying this umpteenth adaptation of Bronte's classic novel.   

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS: Terribly underrated romantic period melodrama from earlier this year that told a well orchestrated love story amidst a backdrop of a Depression-era traveling circus;  Christoph Waltz's commanding performance here echoes the unsettling level of screen magnetism he showcased in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.  

FAST FIVE:  This fifth - yes, that's fifth - film in the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise shockingly tops just about all of the other entries in terms of ludicrous, but exhilarating, action spectacle.   

THOR:  Great Odin's raven!  This adaptation of Marvel Comic's hammer wielding Norse mythological God was like one of Jack Kirby's robust, explosive, and vibrant comic panels come joyously to life.  

CEDAR RAPIDS:  One of the more underrated - and barely seen - comedies of 2011 had a side-splitting performance by Ed Helms as an in-over-his-head insurance salesmen sent to the "big city" for a crucial sales conference.

FRIGHT NIGHT:  Craig Gillespie's (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) bloody good (sorry, couldn't help myself) remake of the revered 1985 horror-comedy classic;  it carved out its own unique niche while being faithful to the original.

EVERYTHING MUST GO:  A rare - but welcome - dramatic turn for Will Ferrell showcased the actor at his most melancholic and soulful; a heartfelt, funny, and poignantly rendered tale of grief and self-loathing. 

THE HELPOne of the great audience pleasers of the year deserved its supportive audience response as a sobering real-life social fable regarding racial injustice and the coming together of black and white women to bridge the gulf between their respective differences.

THE MUPPETS:  Only heartless and deeply cynical moviegoers will not find this MUPPET film reboot a giddy, colorful, and toe-tappingly high spirited delight.  . 

THE GREEN HORNET:  Unfairly maligned by critics, this adaptation of the the iconic DC Comics character has a pitch perfectly cast Ryan Reynolds as the main hero and maintained a willingness to be a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi escapist spectacle of sight and sound. .  

GREEN LANTERNAnother green-hued super hero saw big-screen treatment in 2011, and this Seth Rogen co-written and starred action caper was rowdily enjoyable and refreshingly not cut from the same cloth of other comic book film ventures.   

UNKNOWN:  The 58-year-old Liam Neeson has fully emerged with TAKEN and UNKNOWN as a bona fide action star with a grizzled, raspy-voiced tenacity and teeth clenched vigor.  

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU: Yet another well rounded and idea-heavy sci-fi drama - based on a story by Philip K. Dick - that had a less-is-more production artifice that allowed its themes and performances to shine through.

THE RITE  Falsely advertised as an Exorcist-esque horror film that actually was a more compelling religious drama about struggling with faith in the midst of unexplainable phenomenon.  

KUNG FU PANDA 2  A delectably delightful follow-up to the original animal-heavy martial arts animated feature developed ever deeper themes and explored darker territory than its antecedent.  

HORRIBLE BOSSES:  It was a screen comedy about some lowly workers seeking revenge on their a-hole bosses...what was there not to like here?

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN:  This obsessively and cheekily gory grindhouse effort had a very, very game Rutger Hauer as...uh...a hobo with a shotgun...kicking ass in this love ballad to 1970's B-grade excess.  

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET:  A creepy, unsettling, and economically directed apocalypse thriller from the director of THE MACHINIST.  

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2:  I have been royally hard on most of the cinematic adventures of J.K. Rowling's massively popular literary hero, but even I had to concede that this final installment manages to go on with a bang...and a hint of magic too.  

THE IDES OF MARCHA disturbingly incendiary political morality play from director and co-writer George Clooney, featuring another stellar performance by Ryan Gosling.

KILLER ELITE: I felt empty leaving the theater after seeing this relatively empty calorie action thriller,  but there was no denying that it wholeheartedly delivered the goods as an exciting action picture.

THE BIG YEAR Not a big box office smash, considering the comic talent of Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black on board, but this comedy about competitive bird watchers was nice and gentle minded with the material instead of going for mean spirited jabs against it.

FOOTLOOSE:  Call it sacrilege, but this Craig Brewer (HUSTLE AND FLOW and BLACK SNAKE MOAN) directed remake...re-imagining...reboot...whatever...of the classic 1984 dance-crazy original cut loose (sorry again!) from its predecessor as an enjoyable original all on is own.

IN TIMEOnly in a sci-fi fantasy could Olivia Wilde be taken seriously as the mother of Justin Timberlake, but this thriller from Andrew Niccol (GATTACA and LORD OF WAR) had a novel and engaging premise to carry its story confidently forward.

TOWER HEIST: A snappy, energetic, and, most importantly, fun heist comedy that contained Eddie Murphy's most engagingly funny comic performance in years.

J. EDGAR:  Although I found director Clint Eastwood's handling of the underlining material a somewhat lopsided affair, Leonardo Dicaprio meticulously transformed himself in one of the most powerful governmental men of the  20th Century in this handsomely mounted biopic.

IMMORTALS: Sure, this Tarsem (THE FALL and THE CELL) directed swords and sandals fantasy owes an existence to CLASH OF THE TITANS and 300, but his astounding visual panache lovingly permeated every pore of this film.

CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE:  A crazily amusing, sometimes stupidly conventional, and lovingly performed romcom.  

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES:  Another reboot emerged in 2011 of a long dormant film franchise, and this retooled APE adventure was a rousingly resourceful and compellingly produced ode to the Chuck Heston 1968 original.  

CONTAGIONAn eerily atmospheric and palpably frightening end-of-the-world pandemic thriller from Steven Soderbergh.  

STRAW DOGS:  Didn't hold a candle to the polarizing 1971 Sam Peckinpah original, but Rod Lurie brought a level of professional sheen and polish to this remake.

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMASIt was a yuletide film with Harold, Kumar, a horny-as-hell N.P.H., an f-bomb uttering Santa, claymation, an ecstasy-addicted young child, and a lot of pot smoking done with three dimensional tinkering.  It delivered on intended promises.

THE DEBT: Kind of MUNICH-lite, but this John Madden (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) directed period espionage flick was still a understatedly stylish and well performed Nazi-hunting spy game thriller.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO  David Fincher's long awaited remake of the Swedish original was not as faultless as that 2009 foreign film, but remained a solidly directed and richly atmospheric adaptation of Stieg Larsson's world famous murder-mystery novel.  

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN  Although I found the film artistically pretentious and emotionally impenetrable at times, there is no doubt that we will be talking about Tilda Swinton's bravura and haunting performance in it for years come.

 

 

   

 

 
     
 

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