2011 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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.

Best Movies of 2011

1. “DRIVE

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.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to November

Can you smell that? No, not the pumpkin pie-scented potpourri that your grandmother bought you last Christmas – it’s the smell of awards season starting to heat up. Though November is typically a pretty eclectic month for movies, you can always expect a fair share of family films and Oscar hopefuls competing for the attention of your box office dollars, and this year is no exception. You also might notice that a few major releases – like the Adam Sandler-in-drag comedy “Jack and Jill” and the latest installment in the “Twilight” saga – have been left out of this preview. That’s no mistake. I wanted to save myself the trouble of writing about them and you the embarrassment of reading about them. After all, there are more than enough good options this month that no one should have to damage any more brain cells by seeing one of those movies.

“A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS”

Who: John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Thomas Lennon and Neil Patrick Harris
What: After Harold and Kumar accidentally set fire to Harold’s father-in-law’s prize Christmas tree, the duo embark on yet another weed-fueled adventure to replace it.
When: November 4th
Why: Though I refuse to believe that the 3D revolution is going to stick around for much longer, this is one of those times where I actually don’t completely hate the idea. That’s probably because director Todd Strauss-Schulson is really embracing the gimmicky nature of the technology, but who doesn’t love making fun of 3D? Though Harold and Kumar’s last adventure was a bit ridiculous for its own good, writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg appear to have reined things in for the third (and likely final) installment in the stoner bud series. Toss in some Claymation and the return of Neil Patrick Harris and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a fun theater experience.

“TOWER HEIST”

Who: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck and Téa Leoni
What: A group of employees at a luxury condominium enlist the aid of a career criminal to help them steal $20 million from the investor that emptied out their pension plans.
When: November 4th
Why: When I first heard that Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy were teaming up with director Brett Ratner for what can be best described as a blue-collar “Ocean’s 11,” I responded accordingly, with a witty comment and a cynical roll of the eyes. But something strange happened between then and now – I saw the trailer for the film, and amazingly, it doesn’t look half-bad. Perhaps it’s just because my expectations are so low for those involved in the movie, but this actually looks like it could be pretty enjoyable, and even somewhat of a return to form for Murphy, who hasn’t been funny in a really long time.

“J. EDGAR”

Who: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench
What: A biopic about the founder of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, whose 50-year reign as the face of law enforcement was threatened by the many secrets in his personal life.
When: November 9th
Why: Everything about this film has “future Oscar nominee” written all over it, including star Leonardo DiCaprio, director Clint Eastwood and co-star Armie Hammer, who’s landed the plum role of Hoover’s lifelong friend and rumored lover Clyde Tolson. It’ll be interesting to see how a mild conservative like Eastwood handles the mysterious relationship between the two men, especially with gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black behind the script, because dodging the issue completely won’t sit well with the usually liberal-minded Academy. The person that stands the most to gain from all of this, of course, is Hammer, who is pretty much a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination after just barely missing out last year for his incredible work in “The Social Network.”

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