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The Curmudgeon: Looking Back At My 10 Favorite Movies of 2011

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo from The Artist

I love movies and since I get to review them, I get to see LOTS of them. It’s embarrassing since I see lots of crap and really dreadful films.

I am lucky to live in a city with a good art house chain of theatres, a great film marketing company and a solid film festival that keeps me entertained for twelve days in November.

Nonetheless I never really realized how many films I saw in 2011 until it came up in conversations. Since then more people have asked me for a list of my favorite films.

To be honest, I hate the process of ranking things for a “best of.” It is such a grueling process. Therefore, to avoid my own consternation (and also to keep me sane), I organized the ten films I loved this past year in alphabetical order.

I also must admit that I have not yet seen The Help or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and therefore cannot include them in the list. There also are many great films I left off of this list after a wrenching process of elimination.

So warts and all, here they are…

The Artist

[ad#longpost]I think this is the best film of the year. There are a few reasons for this. First, it is the quintessential film about why early Hollywood was so interesting. Second, it brings the golden age of silent film to life while capturing the paranoia of the onset of talkies. Third, the acting is really good. Even the American bit players like James Cromwell and John Goodman are great. The chemistry between Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo (who have worked together before) is perfect. Dujardin’s debonair performance is reminiscent of Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks while Bejo smolders and smiles her way through the film as a starlet on the rise. The Artist also tells the sort of rags to riches story that Hollywood used to do well and affixes it with the “big comeback” subplot that audiences also love. Finally, The Artist is a bold film. It completely ignores conventional wisdom that silent films are not interesting. It also bucks the system in how it was made. It’s basically a throwback film in production, style and execution.

The film also brings back the dance number in a big way, something that hasn’t been seen in awhile. The Artist is a composite of everything that is great about going to the movies. It’s also glamorous and graceful and elegant with just a smidgen of attitude. All of this is topped off with a great dog that steals the show. It’s a refreshing change from what films have become in the last decade. It is simply dynamite.

The Descendants

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley from The Descendants

It’s hard to imagine George Clooney suffering in Hawaii but that’s exactly what is going on here. He plays Matt King, a lawyer who must decide the fate of 25,000 acres of pristine land that his family owns in Hawaii. The title on their land expires soon and they want to cash in. King is torn in two directions: the community wants the land saved and his family who want to take the money grab from a buyer who wants the land in order to make a resort. To make things worse, his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. But the pivotal plot point comes as he tries to reconcile things with his oldest daughter, who reveals a secret that drives the rest of the film.

George Clooney does a great job of moving back and letting his co-stars do their thing. He is the star of the film but this is not his usual turn: the character of Matt King is a departure for him as an actor. He plays a man completely surrounded by sadness, deception and loneliness. In the film Clooney partners with Shailene Woodley who plays as his gritty eldest daughter. Woodley is an actress on the rise who goes toe to toe with Clooney in the film, giving some tense scenes more flavor with her gumption.

The cinematography is beautiful and it is ironic to have a story set in paradise amongst so much drama. The Descendants never gets preachy or self-indulgent which also works to its advantage. Instead it peppers the production with some moments of comedic irony that elevate the picture, saving it from the doldrums it could easily fall into. Co-written by Community‘s Jim Rash, it’s the best drama of the year. It works so well because it takes all these awkward and strange moments and turns them into powerful moments of cinema.


Albert Brooks and Ryan Gosling from Drive

2011 is the year that Ryan Gosling arrived. His turns in Drive and Ides of March as well as the comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love–and all this put him on the A list for actors. Here, Gosling does a lot by saying little. He plays a Hollywood stunt driver who makes some scratch on the side by being the driver for various heists. A hit gets put on him when one of his jobs goes wrong. This culminates in a race against time and some awesome and inventive car chases.

The opening scene of this film is pretty incredible. It’s not a fast and furious kind of car chase but it is really clever. Another great thing about Drive is Albert Brooks. He should have been nominated for an Oscar for his role as Bernie Rose, a gangster who is scarier then most seen recently on the silver screen. Carey Mulligan plays Gosling’s neighbor, Irene, a single mom who struggles to make ends meet. The romance between her and Gosling’s character unfolds in a very interesting way and is not typical of most of the mush Hollywood puts in films these days.

This is a cerebral film and Gosling layers his character with different personalities to great effect. The surrounding cast helps anchor the film in fine fashion. Mulligan is given some range to work with and she uses it to deliver an edgier performance then we are used to from her. Drive got a buzz coming out of the gate with rave reviews at Sundance and other festivals. When it opened, it capitalized on positive word of mouth to gain momentum. It’s not an action film per se but it slowly percolates into one as the conflicts in the film deepen, creating the smartest and bloodiest caper film of the year.


Sacha Baron Cohen in Hugo

Hugo is a complete 180 for Martin Scorsese as a director. There are no gunfights or swear-filled monologues. But there are moments of amazing tenderness and nostalgia that seem almost unheard of for him as a director. This is a great movie about making movies. Like The Artist, it waxes nostalgic for the glory days of early cinema when directors got creative in developing this new art form. Ben Kingsley is incredible and Sacha Baron Cohen sheds his over the top zaniness in favor of a tender and more traditional role. One of the reasons why Hugo works on an emotional level is because Cohen is really good. Asa Butterfield breaks out, holding his own again highly decorated actors more then twice his age.

The film also tugs on nostalgia in all the right ways. It’s a wonderful and inspiring work. I had forgotten that films with this kind of creative spark and originality could still be made. The eleven Oscar nominations are no slouch. Hugo is a visual feast with special effects that don’t look stupid and a feature acting that brings the magic of the novel to the big screen. The sets capture the sprit of Paris in the 1930s adding an even more sumptuous layer to the film.

Like other films on this list it’s great to watch both visually and technically. It’s well crafted, well acted and devoid of the overt seriousness that sometimes haunts Scorsese films. The best thing Hugo has going for it is this: it make you feel the joy of watching movies again. It captures the sense of wonder and awe that movies gave us in our childhood and then coats it with a well-acted story that plays the nostalgia card to the hilt. It is an utterly refreshing slice of multiplex incredibleness and nothing short of magical.

Midnight In Paris

Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali in Midnight in Paris

I am not a fan of Woody Allen or Owen Wilson. However this film manages to let both of them charm you seemingly without effort. Anyone who has ever had dreams or toiled as a writer can appreciate what Wilson’s character goes through trying to get his creative juices going. Corey Stoll is great as Hemingway. Kathy Bates steals the film as Gertrude Stein and Adrien Brody‘s hilarious Dali rules the day. This is a film where a combination of things comes together to make it work. It has a great cast, it recalls the magic of Americans in Paris in the 20s and of course it has the beauty of Paris as eye candy.

This film stretches your imagination and draws you into its time shifting worlds. Despite being dialogue-driven this big screen drama has a life of its own. For Francophiles and Woody Allen diehards it is a must see. For the average movie buff it is a fun little romp.


Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill from Moneyball

The best thing you can say about Moneyball is that people who knew nothing about baseball loved it. Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman are great in it. I am a baseball fan and the plight of the Oakland A’s is not an easy one to describe to nonfans. However this film boils it all down and makes an enjoyable film in the process. Pitt is great in a different role for him and his on-screen work with Jonah Hill is terrific. Hill is excellent in a different role for him. This is another great ensemble film that strikes a tone with viewers through a wonderfully adapted script.

My Week With Marilyn

Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe from My Week With Marilyn

There is so much to love about this film. Michelle Williams is fantastic; Kenneth Branagh is, well Kenneth Branagh and Dominic Cooper continues to do solid work on screen. When Marilyn Monroe went to England in 1956 to make a film with Olivier, most people in the industry knew it was a recipe for disaster. This film brings that collision of icons with wit, tension, humor and razzle-dazzle. The six months Williams took immersing herself with Marilyn has paid off with the best performance of her career. Simon Curtis’ subtle directing is perfect.

It is a shame it took mainstream audiences so long to discover Williams’ talent. She’s been in loads of great films and in every one she stands out. This is the film that will make her a bonafide star and reward her for a solid career in indie films.

A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi from A Separation

It may surprise a lot of people but Iran has an incredible film heritage. Iranian films of the last decade have been critically acclaimed for their powerful statements which conflict sharply with the political climate they are created in. Contemporary Iranian films are heavy on gorgeous cinematography and an overwhelming sense of harshness–whether it be from the weather, religious persecution, gender roles or in the case of A Separation, how to handle the difficult decision of leaving an oppressive nation for freedom or to stay in Iran and care for a parent who has Alzheimer’s.

This is a film filled with powerful decisions about caring for parents, improving the life of a child, and hoping for individual freedom while tolerating oppression. These decisions may seem simple to us in the West. But in Iran they are complex issues that involve a great deal of misery and personal risk. The backbone of the film is Peyman Moadi as Nader and Leila Hatami as Samin, a mother and wife who displays incredible courage as the movie unfolds. The two leads propel the film and work well together. This is a difficult film to watch at times but it pays off in bringing to light the plight of the people living in contemporary Iran. A Separation is the best foreign language film I saw all year. It is finally getting wider circulation and critical praise.


Craig Roberts from Submarine

Submarine was a greatly overlooked film of 2011. This Ben Stiller-produced film played the art circus for about a month and then vanished. This is too bad because it really was a clever film. Set in 1986 Swansea, this coming of age film, directed by Richard Ayoade (IT Crowd) is based on Joe Dunthorne’s novel. It’s a tale of all the things that go into any good coming of age film: love, loss, hope, hate and being an outsider. The protagonist is a fifteen-year-old lad named Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) who lives in a weird world of delusion where he believes that he is a much-loved genius destined for greatness.

In fact he’s a pretentious kid who is on the outside of the ‘cool kids.’ His alienation is shaken when he meets Jordana (The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Yasmin Paige). Jordana is wily and sneaky. She uses Oliver’s affection for her to her advantage, manipulating Oliver to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. Pre-teen angst ensues, they kiss and suddenly they are boyfriend and girlfriend for real. Things are great before the big plot twist hits–Oliver’s weird life goes wonky when he believes his mother is having an affair with the neighbor next door.

Oliver self-narrates the film, and completely misses what is really happening in his life. His own self-absorption is his downfall and nearly ruins his family life. This self-narration serves as a great plot device. It sums up the loneliness and isolation Oliver feels but never really confronts until he meets Jordana. It also is serves as the ignition for some of the film’s most comedic and touching flourishes. Both Roberts and Paige shine as the leads in the film. Paddy Considine is great as a weird new age folksy neighbor who has eyes for Oliver’s mom (Sally Hawkins). This strange subplot provides enough quirkiness to give the film some lighter moments to counter balance Oliver’s over seriousness.

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys composed the soundtrack for the film, which adeptly wraps the drama onscreen. Submarine is a fidgety film. It has everything you want in a good coming on age film. Yet it goes off the formula by throwing in some interesting and unexpected subplots. Ayoade’s direction never overreaches its boundaries. Instead it gently pushes the story along without hurrying it, which means that the ensemble is allowed to give an emotionally charged presentation free of sugar and artificial flavoring.

Unfortunately while Submarine had a great run at several film festivals it never really got a push from the studio stateside. This is tragic because it was one of the most sincere romantic dramas of the year. Make it a point to see it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Okay. How do you re-imagine a great John Le Carre novel that was turned into a great series of films with Alec Guinness? Simple, you get one amazing cast and get Gary Oldman to act his ass off by not appearing to be acting at all. Then you surround him with a who’s who list of great talent. Colin Firth, John Hurt, Kathy Burke and Benedict Cumberbatch (in a role that was made famous by Michael Jayston) are all equally amazing in this film. Toby Jones is brilliantly cold and calculating and Mark Strong breaks out into some more serious drama.

This is a very smart film. You don’t need to read the book to follow the cold war shenanigans of hunting a mole in the UK spy network. But you do need to pay attention to the dialogue and mannerisms of the characters. Oldman is terrific in a performance unlike any he has given before. He dials everything down, giving Smiley a more devious and cunning aspect to his character. To appreciate the film you almost have to see it on two levels: the first being an intense and great film and the second being an acting lesson from the best British ensemble of the last half-decade. These guys all show up and school people on what acting and compelling storytelling is all about.

In conclusion I will add that I liked Super 8, Thor and Captain America. I think Rango was underappreciated and I wish more people saw Tyrannosaur, Take Shelter and The Guard. I think that Meryl Streep was amazing in The Iron Lady and Glenn Close was equally brilliant in Albert Nobbs. I also wish Cowboys & Aliens and Green Lantern were not so crappy.

Overall it was not too shabby of a year for movies. I wish I could have seen more.