2011 was an interesting year for film. Several small films came out of nowhere to become huge hits, while larger films by very talented directors ended up being disappointments. I would call 2011 the year of the very good movie. What I mean by that is that there were many films that were very good, but not great, not moving or surprising.
Of course, there were great films out there. Here is what I believe to be the ten very best that 2011 had to offer.
10. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Brad Bird’s live action directorial debut is impressive for a number of reasons. Ghost Protocol is the fourth installment in a fifteen year old movie franchise based off a 1960s television show. That has all the ingredients listed in a recipe for suck. Yet, not only does the movie not suck, it is the best in the franchise. But what I find so impressive about the movie is how much you can feel Brad Bird’s presence in this film.
The film jettisons the notion of having to explain all the spy technology and instead spends that time on the characters. This team of agents really care about each other. They aren’t a rogues gallery forced to work together, creating conflict from egos clashing against each other. They are a group of friends that have each other’s back no matter how bad things get.
One final note. Too many modern action movies have action for the sake of action. Not Ghost Protocol. Every action sequence in this movie drives the story forward. Not to mention that the action is really clever and inventive. Basically, this movie is a lot of fun and has a lot of heart.
A lot of attention has been given to Bridesmaids, and with good reason. This movie has damn near everything going for it. The script is hilarious. The cast is amazing. There are subtle jokes and huge set pieces. But it isn’t all gags and craziness. At the core of Bridesmaids, is a story about friendship and self-respect. There really is something in this movie for everyone.
And while a lot of praise has been heaped on Melissa McCarthy, I think the best thing in this movie is Kristen Wiig. Not only does Wiig give a great performance in the lead role, she wrote all the other roles with Annie Mumolo. Her character of Annie is what grounds the whole story, allowing everyone else to go all out. And I think that deserves some serious respect.
She also has what I think is the funniest moment in the whole movie and all she does is eat an almond.
8. We Bought A Zoo
I don’t understand why no one is talking about this movie. Not because it is groundbreaking cinema or a life-changing experience, but because it is damn good and a return to form for Cameron Crowe, who took a noticeable stumble with Elizabethtown.
The film is everything to love about Crowe. The soundtrack is great. The story is about love and family and overcoming adversity. It is sentimental in the best sense of the word. That is to say that We Bought A Zoo is sweet and touching without sacrificing honesty and reality. That’s right, I just said a movie where a family buys a zoo doesn’t sacrifice reality. If that isn’t an indication of how good this movie is, I don’t know what is.
At the end of the day, We Bought A Zoo won’t deliver shock and awe. Instead, it delivers warmth and love. It’s a film that makes you feel good about life and fills you with hope and I love it for that.
7. A Dangerous Method
I was riveted by this film from the very first second to the very last. The performances by Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as Sabrina Spielrein are phenomenal. Each one of them simply disappears into their roles. It’s a real treat to watch.
The subject matter of the film is also very interesting. There is the establishment of psychoanalysis and Freud and Jung disagreeing over what the goal of the treatment should be. There is a constant examination of the nature of the relationship between doctor and patient and what happens when that line is crossed. And, as is typical in a David Cronenberg film, there is an exploration of the connection between sex and violence.
It all adds up to a film that is endlessly fascinating.
6. Midnight in Paris
I think it is safe to say that Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen at his best. It has everything he loves to put in his films. There’s some great jazz on the soundtrack. There’s the battle of good, honest intellectualism versus arrogant, condescending intellectualism. There’s a neurotic main character that has a very romantic vision of the city he is in.
This movie is Allen having fun and taking you along for the ride, and there is something magical about that. There is large cast that all give wonderful performances, delivering very funny moments. The movie has a wonderful sense of wit and nostalgia, blended together into something that is guaranteed to make you smile and put a little spring in your step.
This film, written by Will Reiser about Adam, a 27-year-old guy that learns that he has cancer despite the good care he has taken of himself, could have been an incredibly depressing movie. It is not. Nor is an over the top story of great triumph. What 50/50 is is an understated and relentlessly honest portrait of grappling with mortality, which sounds like a dour and bleak story, but it isn’t. Trust me.
50/50 doesn’t just explore the depression that comes with a terminal diagnosis. It isn’t that passive. The film finds both the humour and frustration in the situation in equal doses. And not just for Adam but for all those around him as well.
I think there are two reasons why I like this film so much. First, the film never seems to have a false note, everything feels like unadorned truth. Second, it is a movie about people trying to do their best. They are facing something horrible, with no clue how to deal with it, but they are all trying their best to do just that. And, to me, that is something pretty great.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene introduced the world to writer/director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen, and it is an incredible debut for both of them. Durkin’s film is about a young woman trying to assimilate back into society after escaping a cult.
I was floored by this film. It is constructed in a brilliant, non-linear way, jumping back and forth between the present and the past, between regular society and the cult. The effect is a disorienting one, creating a sense of paranoia and dread. By the end of Martha Marcy May Marlene, I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t, and that was precisely the point. This film gave a taste of what it is like to be indoctrinated into a cult and how hard it is to break free.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is an impressive and assured first feature by Durkin, but it is Elizabeth Olsen that really shines in the title role of Martha. Her performance in this film is incredibly brave and honest. Even though there are moments that are strange and uncomfortable, they feel truthful. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
3. Attack the Block
I’ve already praised this movie in my review of it, so I won’t repeat myself at length here. But I will say that I have had time to reflect on the film, and I still believe it is an amazing film that takes risk after risk and they all pay off. Not to mention the film is incredibly funny and has some awesome action sequences in it, as well as a coming of age story. To put it simply, Attack the Block is an immensely entertaining film that anyone should be able to enjoy.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive starring Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver that moonlights as a getaway driver is a film that will get under your skin. In the best way possible. Drive will constantly draw you in as it is both subtle and in your face, surprising and predictable, loving and violent. It is one of the most visceral films I have ever seen, and not just in an unpleasant way. A kiss in this film feels as real and hits as hard as a punch. Or a stomp for that matter.
The other thing that Drive has going for it is that it is relentlessly cool. The characters are cool. The costume design is cool. The cinematography is cool. Everything is cool. But not in an obnoxious way. By which I mean these elements aren’t trying to be cool, they aren’t posturing. They simply are.
And beneath all the cool is an emotional complexity that is fascinating to watch because it is never handed to you. Instead, it is hinted at and revealed slowly as the story unfolds and asks questions about redemption and heroism.
And finally, Cliff Martinez’s score in this movie is incredible. It is a very surprising score, a very odd one. A score that if you heard it on its own, you would not understand at all how it would fit into this film, but once you hear it during the film it is impossible to separate them. In my opinion, it’s the best score of the year.
Martin Scorsese can do no wrong in my opinion. Hugo was a movie that I found very personally moving. The themes of trying to find your place in the world and the power of cinema really touched me. Scorsese has made a film that looks back fondly at the silent film era. However, it isn’t all navel-gazing nostalgia. Hugo also looks to the future.
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to prove to the masses that 3D is an artistic tool. The 3D in Hugo is breathtaking and establishes itself with an incredible opening shot. The 3D in this film isn’t just there for spectacle. It’s more than that. And it isn’t there with the goal of helping to immerse you in the world. It’s more than that too. The 3D in Hugo feeds into the themes the story as a whole is exploring, it is actually an integral part of the story. That is something new and, quite honestly, amazing.
And while some people may think that Hugo is preachy, I think it is romantic. I think Scorsese’s love of film spills out over the screen and is infectious. Also, I think the film makes the point that film is important and needs to be preserved, but I don’t feel like it belabors that point.
Hugo is a film that shows how the magic of cinema can touch people and bring them together. But it is also very much about finding your place in the world and embracing who you are.
I love this film because it centers on the best aspects of cinema and human nature, and in doing so, shows us how great we can be.