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.
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.
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.
A funny thing happened at the movies this year: absolutely nothing blew me away.
There were things I really liked, but my list of favorite movies is kind of a joke, really. They’re not bad movies (not in my mind, anyway), but there are few, if any, Best Picture candidates in the bunch. Compare that to last year, where six of my top 10 movies were nominated for Best Picture. This time around, that’s just not happening. Just want to lay that out up front.
Worse, there isn’t one movie that stands above the others. I liked my favorite movies equally, more or less. That might sound like a copout, but it’s true. Of the movies I’ve seen so far, this was the year where movies were just sort of…there. Maybe we’ll have better luck next year.
My Favorite Movies of 2011
Selling one’s soul is a popular subject in movies, since no two people are willing to settle for the same amount. “Margin Call” explores the subject on a massive scale, since the ripple effect of the actions of a few will be felt around the world. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but it’s absolutely gripping. Kevin Spacey shines here, as does the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci.
It probably helped that I grew up in a small Ohio town not terribly unlike the one in “Super 8″ (though no one used the word ‘mint’ the way Riley Griffiths’ character does here), but “Super 8″ wasn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia; the movie delivered top-notch thrills, well-drawn characters, and the most spectacular sequence of the year with that jaw-dropping train crash. Elle Fanning, meanwhile, put on an acting clinic, and she’s only 13. Wow.
It has been outgrossed by 15 other movies so far this year – even “Rio” and “The Smurfs,” God help us, made more money – but there isn’t a moment to hit the multiplexes this year that was as jaw-dropping, as pulse-pounding, as the scene J.J. Abrams stages in “Super 8,” where his plucky filmmakers witness a collision between a military train and a pickup truck that ends all sorts of ugly for everyone involved. Well, the kids get out unscathed, at least physically. Mentally, they all officially came of age, whether they wanted it or not.
Back to the point, though: that train scene beats the hell out of the latest “Transformers” movie when it comes to packing the thrills. Sure, there was that one sweet scene with Sam getting jettisoned out of, and back into, Bumblebee, but for a two-and-a-half-hour movie, your best scene should be longer than 10 seconds, don’t you think? Abrams certainly thought so, which is why he made sure the train crash packed a wallop.
Come on, you didn’t think we’d show you the whole thing, did you?
Seriously, if you didn’t see “Super 8,” it is definitely worth picking up when it hits shelves next week for this scene alone – there is even a massive bonus feature dedicated to every possible aspect of the train sequence that you can imagine, along with a few you can’t imagine – but while the boys and the alien are the main focus of the story, just try to take your eyes off of Elle Fanning, as she basically takes the entire cast to school with no less than three showstopping scenes, which are (Warning! Spoilers ahead):
1. Her first rehearsal for Charles’ movie is so powerful that the extra who’s supposed to be talking on the phone in the background forgets to keep talking and instead stares at Alice (Fanning’s character), mouth agape.
2. Her zombie impression. Flawless.
3. Her tearful confession to Joe that his mom took her dad’s shift after he had called in drunk.
While we didn’t know anyone, ANYONE, who used the word ‘mint’ as slang for cool or great back then (or even now), Abrams captured something special with “Super 8.” It would be a pity for the movie to get lost in the shuffle.