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 December

The end of every movie year can usually be summed up in a few words: blockbusters and Oscar bait. With all of the holiday-themed films already in theaters, Christmas time is reserved for some of the studio’s biggest movies and their final push before awards season. Though it’s always a bit hot-and-cold in terms of what you can expect, this year’s slate offers an enticing mix of popcorn and prestige films. (And in the case of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” both.) Though some of the more interesting award contenders won’t actually reach your hometown until January (if at all) due to a silly rule that only requires a movie open in a very limited engagement before December 31st, there’s enough good stuff here to keep you suitably entertained well into the new year.

“TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY”

Who: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds and Mark Strong
What: In the bleak days of the Cold War, veteran spy George Smiley is lured out of retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6’s ranks.
When: December 9th
Why: I would pay to see just about anything starring Gary Oldman, but his new film from director Tomas Alfredson (who’s already proven himself as a master of suspense with the vampire cult hit, “Let the Right One In”) has gotten me particularly excited. Based on the bestselling novel by former spy turned author John le Carré, the movie looks like a throwback to those great, low-key political thrillers from the 1970s, and if that’s not enough to pique your interest, then a brief glance at the cast list – a veritable who’s who of the best British actors working today, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch of “Sherlock” fame – will almost certainly change your mind.

“YOUNG ADULT”

Who: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons
What: A fiction writer returns to her hometown in Minnesota looking to rekindle a romance with her high school flame, who is now married with kids.
When: December 9th
Why: “Juno” was one of my favorite films of 2007. In addition to an excellent star-making performance by Ellen Page, the movie marked the arrival of writer Diablo Cody onto the scene and cemented Jason Reitman’s status as one of Hollywood’s most promising young directors. Fast-forward four years later and you can understand why Reitman and Cody’s latest collaboration, “Young Adult,” is already garnering awards buzz. Charlize Theron is perfect for the role of the former mean girl (she has the looks and attitude to pull it off without being completely unlikeable), while Patton Oswalt is an inspired choice to play her unlikely confidant. Cody’s snarky dark humor is also on full display here, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she nabs another Oscar nomination come February.

“THE SITTER”

Who: Jonah Hill, Ari Graynor, Sam Rockwell, Max Records and J.B. Smoove
What: A slacker college student gets caught up in a night of crazy hijinks involving a pair of vindictive drug dealers after he takes a job babysitting his neighbor’s kids.
When: December 9th
Why: Though its generic title makes the film sound like another family comedy starring an out-of-work action star, “The Sitter” actually appears to be a raunchier, R-rated version of the 1987 classic, “Adventures in Babysitting.” While the concept may be teeming with potential, however, I’m not entirely sold by the trailer. Jonah Hill (in his final pre-weight loss role) can be really annoying when he’s not kept on a short leash, and director David Gordon Green is notorious for doing the complete opposite. Sam Rockwell and J.B. Smoove make for an intriguing comedic pair as the film’s “villains,” but I have a feeling that the movie’s success is going to depend on the child actors. And if Elizabeth Shue doesn’t pop in for a cameo, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.

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