Looking back at this year’s slate of films, it would be easy to label it a disappointment. But while 2011 may not have been very memorable, it wasn’t exactly forgettable either. In fact, the biggest problem I came across while compiling my year-end list was that while there were a lot of movies I really enjoyed, there weren’t very many that I loved. That might not be the most encouraging statement to make before announcing one’s Top 10, but it’s the honest truth, and it doesn’t make the movies listed below any less deserving of my praise, even if there are some films missing that you believe should have made the final cut. But that’s why critics love writing year-end reviews; each one is unique to their specific taste, and mine is nothing if not unique. Well, except for maybe my worst-of list, which is filled with movies that I think we can all agree sucked big time.
Though I wasn’t that impressed by Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous films, they have an undeniable visual flair and originality that you don’t see very often. “Drive” took those qualities and applied them to a conventional Hollywood thriller, resulting in a movie that feels much more mainstream without abandoning Refn’s art house sensibilities. The film is as beautifully poetic as it is strikingly violent, while Ryan Gosling (who’s had a banner year between this, “The Ides of March” and “Crazy Stupid Love”) has never been better as the soft-spoken yet brutally intense protagonist. But for as much attention as the film’s graphic violence has received, it’s the opening sequence – an edge-of-your-seat car chase packed with tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – that is without a doubt the biggest highlight. And when a movie can start so brightly and continue to build on it like “Drive” does (thanks in part to fine supporting turns from Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks), it’s no wonder why so many people love this film.
2. “ATTACK THE BLOCK”
It’s not every day that you get to see a film before the rest of the world, so I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being among the lucky few in attendance at the SXSW premiere of Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” played a part in my overall enjoyment of the movie. A genre hybrid film with influences ranging from “The Warriors” to “Critters,” Cornish’s directorial debut is a lean, mean sci-fi action thriller that, although it boasts a mostly unknown cast and was made for a fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood movie, is the most fun I’ve had at a theater all year. The young actors are great, the creature effects are even better, and the film is fueled by a relentless, infectious energy that keeps the action moving at a rapid clip. There might have been several alien invasion movies in theaters this year, but “Attack the Block” was the best of the bunch – a fun slice of nostalgic geek cinema that blended action, comedy, horror and sci-fi to create an instant cult classic.
3. “YOUNG ADULT”
It’s no secret that Diablo Cody has her share of critics, but “Young Adult” proves that she’s more than just a vending machine for the kind of quirky one-liners that initially earned her notice back in 2008 with “Juno.” Thematically darker and more mature than her first feature, the film also feels more personal in its examination of what it means to grow up, providing the perfect platform for Cody’s voice to shine. Blisteringly funny and surprisingly poignant at times, “Young Adult” is so daringly original that its somewhat contentious ending has even divided audiences. But while Cody deserves a lot of credit for taking these risks, it’s Charlize Theron’s performance that brings out the comedy and emotion of the situation, delivering some of her best work as the beautiful but bitchy Mavis. It’s not very easy to make a character like that sympathetic, but Theron pulls it off so effortlessly that it would be criminal to see her name absent from any award ballot.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that knocks you completely on your ass, and Lynne Ramsey’s psychological thriller “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is such a film. A thoroughly engaging and disturbing look at the strained relationship between a mother and her sociopathic child, Ramsey has crafted a modern day “Rosemary’s Baby” of sorts that lingers in the back of your mind long after it’s over. Tilda Swinton delivers a powerhouse performance as a mother trying to adapt to life after her son commits a Columbine-esque massacre at his school, although a majority of the story takes place before the tragic event, with Ramsey exploring the idea of nature vs. nurture and how much Swinton’s parenting tactics are to blame for the subsequent actions of her malevolent son. Though the constant use of red imagery throughout the movie feels a bit forced at times, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is so brilliant from top to bottom (especially the acting, the score and the masterful editing) that it’s simply mesmerizing.
5. “THE DESCENDANTS”
Alexander Payne and George Clooney make such a great pairing that it’s amazing the two of them haven’t worked together before. The actor is perfectly cast here as frumpy, Hawaiian-based lawyer Matt King, who suddenly finds himself taking care of his two daughters on his own after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident. Like all of Payne’s male protagonists, Matt is likeable but flawed, and Clooney handles the Everyman role with poise, making you feel his emotion and pain every step of the way – from dealing with the news of his wife’s coma, to finding out about her affair, and finally coming to terms with her death. Though I know next to nothing about the 2008 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings on which the film is based, it’s not surprising that Payne scooped up the rights as quickly as he did, because his adaptation is a funny and tender look at the responsibilities of family that’s bursting with excellent performances – not just by the always reliable Clooney, but also newcomers Shailene Woodley and Nick Krause.
It’s not going to even come close to receiving the amount of Oscar love that “The Return of the King” earned back in 2004, but that shouldn’t take anything away from David Yates’ “Deathly Hallows: Part Two,” which delivered an unbelievably satisfying bookend to the Harry Potter series after moviegoers became so invested in the adventures of the titular boy wizard. Following Daniel Radcliffe’s journey from cute kid to serious thespian has been almost as enjoyable, and in the final installment, the actor gets to show just how much he’s grown over the years, displaying a maturity that was only hinted at in the previous two films. And if Radcliffe is the anchor of the movie, then Alan Rickman’s emotionally complex performance as Severus Snape is the scene-stealing cherry on top of the Harry Potter cake. They’re but only two examples of what makes “Deathly Hallows: Part Two” so incredibly entertaining, but between its fantastic cast, stunning visuals and great storytelling, it’s every bit the finale that J.K. Rowling’s books deserved.
Were it not for the fact that I had already experienced “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” on two different occasions (having previously read Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel and watched the original Swedish film), there’s a good chance that David Fincher’s U.S. adaptation would have had more of a lasting effect on me. With that said, however, Fincher’s version of the popular crime thriller is hands-down the best of the trio, smartly trimming the fat from Larsson’s overly detailed novel and making excellent use of his wintry locale to create a natural sense of dread and atmosphere. Though Daniel Craig isn’t quite as miscast as disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist as I originally feared, he doesn’t really do anything to stand out either. But it’s probably better that way, because despite Noomi Rapace’s fantastic performance in the Swedish version, Rooney Mara outshines her in nearly every way as waifish hacker Lisbeth Salander, committing to the role so completely that you forget she’s even acting at times. It’s far from Fincher’s finest film, but without him at the helm, it certainly wouldn’t have been as good as it is.
Though it doesn’t quite have the same shock factor as “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is just as emotionally punishing – a brutal and bleak story about the unlikely friendship between an alcoholic widower and a religious charity worker abused by her seemingly nice husband. Eddie Marsan is a wrecking ball of cruelty as the twisted spouse who does a number of unthinkable things to his wife over the course of the film (like punching, raping and pissing on her), and yet we don’t even witness the worst of his transgressions. But while Marsan plays the domesticated monster well, it’s the film’s two leads that make “Tyrannosaur” so captivating. Peter Mullan makes an otherwise unredeemable character into someone the audience actually sympathizes for, while Olivia Colman (best known for her comedy work in films like “Hot Fuzz”) takes you completely by surprise with a stunning performance that will likely go down as one of the year’s best. “Tyrannosaur” isn’t just a coming out party for Colman as a dramatic actress, however, but also for Considine as a director to watch.
9. “WIN WIN”
Movies that open in the first half of the year tend to get the shaft when it comes to being remembered for awards season and other year-end festivities, but Tom McCarthy’s funny and heartwarming dramedy “Win Win” deserves better than that. The ensemble cast is amazing – from Paul Giamatti’s unlucky schlub, to Bobby Cannavale’s goofy best friend, to surprising newcomer Alex Schaffer – and the script never once feels false or panders to the audience. It earns every emotional beat along the way, making it the kind of feel-good crowd-pleaser that you don’t feel guilty about enjoying. Though there are certainly elements of the underdog sports genre on display here, “Win Win” is a film about family first and wrestling second, a theme that McCarthy has explored before in previous movies like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor.” He would probably never be mentioned in a discussion about the best American filmmakers working today, but with “Win Win,” McCarthy has made a pretty convincing argument as to why he should be.
10. “SUPER 8”
In a year where Steven Spielberg released two new movies, it’s a little ironic that it was J.J. Abrams who ended up making the best Spielberg film. A throwback to the director’s Amblin years, “Super 8” is a cocktail of nostalgia that works beautifully alongside the more modern-day technology that Abrams has implemented in the film’s amazing set pieces. But for as much trouble as he went through to keep his big, bad alien a secret, it’s probably the least memorable part of the whole film. In fact, if it weren’t for such an irritating final act (where the movie seemed far more interested in showcasing its “Cloverfield”-esque alien than the kids), “Super 8” would have ended up a lot higher on my list. The action is cool, but the real highlight of the film is the young cast, which not only managed to carry a summer blockbuster almost entirely on its own, but featured some great performances from Elle Fanning and newcomers Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths. I’d much rather watch them making a film than running from an alien any day.
If you thought that “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was terrible, then you obviously haven’t seen “Zookeeper,” the latest Kevin James disaster to come out of the Happy Madison Factory of Sadistically Unfunny Comedies. It’s never a good sign when you see multiple names credited to a script, and this movie has five, including James himself. But for as much of a fool as James makes of himself, “Zookeeper” lands the top spot for what is perhaps the single worst sequence ever committed to film: a guy’s night out of sorts between James’ titular character and a real-life gorilla named Bernie that consists of the duo singing along to Flo Rida’s “Low” and dining at T.G.I. Friday’s, all under the pretense that Bernie is just a guy in a costume. Some may be willing to forgive “Zookeeper” as a silly kid’s movie, but no parent in their right mind should let their child watch this crap.
2. “THE SMURFS”
Raja Gosnell is responsible for some of the worst films of the decade, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that his latest movie is yet another cinematic abomination. Although it’s difficult to hate Neil Patrick Harris or Jayma Mays for starring in the film because they’re so darn likeable, they’re not doing their careers any favors either, no matter how much money it made at the box office. Hank Azaria, meanwhile, should consider hiring the services of Lacuna, Inc. to wipe this movie from his memory, because the veteran actor is beyond embarrassing as Gargamel, who seems to be stupid for stupid’s sake. The Smurfs themselves aren’t as annoying as they could have been, but the movie’s biggest problem is that it parades itself around as an homage to the original comics and cartoon when it has about as much respect for its source material as a prostitute.
3. “DRIVE ANGRY”
When you’re dealing with a movie called “Drive Angry,” it’s pretty much a given that it will either really suck or relish in its awfulness to the point of being so bad it’s good, and unfortunately, Patrick Lussier’s ode to grindhouse cinema falls into the latter category. Unlike the wildly enjoyable Clive Owen action film, “Shoot ‘Em Up,” which managed to strike the right balance between silly and serious, “Drive Angry” is just plain silly, with Nicolas Cage acting surprisingly subdued in a role that would normally yield one of his trademark loopy performances. Even worse are co-stars Amber Heard and Billy Burke, who redefine bad acting, and the horrible use (or some might say misuse) of the 3D, despite the fact that it’s one of the few films in 2011 to actually be filmed in the format. In fact, if “Drive Angry” is good for anything, it’s as a lesson in how to make a bad movie.
4. “CONAN THE BARBARIAN”
Attempting to reboot the Conan the Barbarian movie franchise was always going to be a pretty hopeless endeavor. There’s just no demand for a character like that anymore, and Marcus Nispel’s dumb and loud origin story certainly won’t help the chances of any future installments. It’s a muddled mess of a film that’s bogged down by terrible acting, cheesy dialogue and a mostly incoherent plot, and although that’s somewhat to be expected from a movie like “Conan the Barbarian,” Nispel fails to even make the action sequences very exciting. Instead, they’re bland, paint-by-numbers affairs that are edited together so quickly that you can hardly tell what’s going on. Jason Momoa isn’t entirely ineffective as the title character, but when he plays the role so starkly serious while his co-stars ham it up as the villains, it makes you question what kind of movie Nispel was trying to make: gritty action film or trashy B-movie? As it turns out, it’s not much of either.
Though I probably sound like a disgruntled old man picking on all these kid’s movies like they’ve stomped across my lawn, “Hop” is everything that’s wrong with children’s entertainment today. There’s not a single original idea in this holiday cash grab, which steals most of its ideas from “The Santa Clause” and completely wastes its talented cast in the process. James Marsden has never looked more lost than he does here, while Russell Brand must be counting his blessings that he’s hiding behind a cartoon bunny. But apart from the uninspired story, massive gaps in logic and stupid Easter puns, “Hop” just doesn’t feel like it was made by the same team behind the refreshingly whimsical “Despicable Me.” That movie was clever and had some real emotional weight to it. “Hop,” on the other hand, is as dense as a week-old marshmallow Peep.
Tags: 13 Assassins, Attack the Block, best movies of 2011, Carnage, Conan the Barbarian, Drive, Drive Angry, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, Hop, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Super 8, The Artist, The Descendants, The Dilemma, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Ides of March, The Muppets, The Smurfs, The Zookeeper, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Win Win, worst movies of 2011, Year End Movies 2011, Young Adult