2011 was a strange year for movies. The November/December awards season melee, when typically the Best Films of the Year are released, felt fairly anemic. Whereas the spring, summer, and early fall abounded with terrific films, both big and small. Here is our list of the the ten best (and a few worst) movies of the year.
Miguel Arteta’s wistful little comedy had so much potential to be a sneering joke, a “Look at all the dumb Midwesterners living their boring little lives and thinking they’re special” kind of thing. The setup certainly allowed for that: A timid homebody (Ed Helms) insurance salesman goes on a business trip to Cedar Rapids, IA and fish-out-of-water hilarity ensues. But what Arteta, the writer Phil Johnston, and the marvelous cast (which also includes sexy-smart Anne Heche and lovable boor John C. Reilly, brilliant here) do instead is create a gentle but still consistently hysterical look at social awakening, and at people who are trying to be decent but who also want, like everyone, to lead exciting lives. It’s an accidentally timely, sweet, but never condescending paean to the middle ground of the 99%.
No film this year was more surprising, more invigorating, more resoundingly mesmerizing than Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylized look at Los Angeles, cars, crime, and the birth of a madman. With dialogue brimming with Elmore Leonardian crackle and Mamet-like tough guy operatics, smooth ‘80s retro and electroclash music, and menacing performances by a near-silent Ryan Gosling and a deliciously loquacious Albert Brooks, Drive is aesthetically gorgeous and yet also brutal, terrifying, unforgettably shocking. An action movie with a cool exterior and a hot, pulpy heart, Drive was the most thrillingly unique night at the movies this year.
Joe Wright, the stately Brit who gave us the elegant Pride & Prejudice and the melancholy Atonement, took a huge left turn this year with his Euro kaleidoscope assassin thriller Hanna, a feverish swirl of a movie that plays like a beautiful but slightly sour fairy tale. The young Saoirse Ronan, as a girl raised from birth to be a killer, was a more captivating presence on screen than many adults this year, while Cate Blanchett laid on a delicate smear of camp as the film’s sneaky villain. Here Wright proved himself to be more than a capable creator of tony high-gloss cinema -- his Hanna, with its wild and wheeling and yet never out of control visuals, is dark and scrappy and weird, while still frenetically lovely. Props also to The Chemical Brothers’ propulsive, eerie score. What arty fun!
A French-Canadian film set mostly in an unnamed country that bears a strong resemblance to the war-torn Lebanon of the late 1970s, Incendies is a Greekly tragic story about memory, legacy, and the inheritance of identity. The terrific Lubna Azabal is fierce and devastating as a woman both torn apart and hardened by war, while Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette glow with quiet ache as her two adult children trying to unravel a decades-old mystery. The truth behind that mystery is inevitable yet still startling -- we know the story is heading somewhere grim, but there is still so much power in its telling.
As a genuine-feeling depiction of the fuzzy confusion and blurry heartaches of young love, Like Crazy succeeds where many romances before it have failed. In the film, the darling Anton Yelchin and the incredibly appealing Felicity Jones play college seniors who meet and fall in love at UCLA only to be separated by jobs and visas and the unavoidable march of time. They and their director Drake Doremus let the wandering, hovering narrative play out with a naturalism that’s blissfully swoon-inducing in the happy parts and, conversely, wounding in the sad stretches. Blessedly devoid of any grandiose professions of passion or overly articulate theorizing on the nature of love, Like Crazy tells a story that manages to feel both precisely specific and wholly universal. We may not all have been exactly there, but something about the film’s assured yet unshowy depiction of love, particularly young love, as something all at once sturdy, fragile, joyful, and bitterly painful, still rings achingly true.
A wonderful wonder of transporting summertime entertainment, J.J. Abrams’ sweet-sad homage to Steven Spielberg is a bracing monster movie and a little postcard to one’s youth seamlessly fused together. Abrams found an entirely winning ensemble of kids to play his leads, none of whom, even the biggest star among them Elle Fanning, display any of the unfortunate movie-kid precociousness that so often sinks films with youngsters front and center. The monster stuff is filmed with Abrams’ usual swift but never too slick energy, and Michael Giacchino’s dazzling score perfectly communicates the awe and grandeur of teenage adventures with friends, of tender first crushes, and, y’know, of a space alien attacking your town. Super 8 is a refreshingly kind-hearted and uncynical movie, the sort of thing we didn’t think they made anymore. Which we suppose was the whole point of making it.
An ominous movie for ominous times, Jeff Nichols’ deeply unsettling feature tells a tale of mental and environmental cataclysm that isn’t quite science but doesn't quite feel like fiction either. The disarmingly intense Michael Shannon plays a small-town Ohio construction worker who begins to have horrifyingly vivid dreams and visions of a catastrophic storm -- Are they real, like they were for people in Joplin, MO (and elsewhere) earlier this year? Or are they hallucinations brought on by developing schizophrenia, which runs in the character's family? That tingly uncertainty, between paranoia and reasonable worry, is the film’s rattling engine, and Shannon and his costar Jessica Chastain, soulfully playing his wife, keep us arrestingly unsure even through the film’s breathtaking finale. Nichols is a major emerging force in independent filmmaking, appearing rather suddenly and powerfully, much like a storm. But, of course, the good kind.
A thought experiment becomes a striking and deeply effecting picture in Terrence Malick’s ponder of nothing more profound than the nature of existence. While not exactly a narrative film in the strictest sense, Tree of Life still tells a vital and potent story -- about a childhood in 1950s Texas, about an adulthood in an anonymous city, about the very beginnings of the Earth’s idea of living. The Texas sequence in particular is a stunner, with Malick’s camera wandering freely through a house and a surrounding neighborhood, showing us a whole childhood’s worth of frustration and wonder and discovery and sadness in an hour. Here again Jessica Chastain projects almost otherworldly grace, while Brad Pitt lets his innate twinkle disappear, and thus shines even more, as a tough love dad. Malick's movies aren’t for everyone, and that’s OK, but for those that are fans, this a high achievement.
We didn’t expect to like this film, all cheesy, three-hanky, “a boy and his horse” animal picture as it is. And yet there is so much near-perfect moviemaking on display in Steven Spielberg’s tearkjerker war epic that it lingered with us long after we’d left the theater. A story about war, World War I to be exact, as told through the experiences of one horse from Devon, War Horse does not offer any terribly new insights into the horror and existential annihilation of war, but it does do the noble work of depicting a vast array of those affected by it with heart-swelling compassion. Never corny or treacly, but not unrelentingly bleak either, the film is feel-good done intelligently. Spielberg and his trusty longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have composed something of remarkable beauty, even when they’re showing us terrifying ugliness. No, this is not verite war cinema, but the film’s hopefulness and good will toward men (and horses) trumps any cynicism we might otherwise feel toward this kind of picture. It’s cathartic to cry big, fat, blubbering tears at the movies sometimes, and for that kind of experience you can do no better this year, or many others, than War Horse.
Two people meet -- one a lonely lifeguard, the other a frustrated artist -- and spend a weekend together: They drink, they have sex, they sleep, they confess their fears and wishes and wants. There is a sudden, surprising connection; this may be the beginning of love. But then the weekend is over and the future is ruefully unknown. Weekend, like Like Crazy, tells a wholly realistic tale of modern coupling, with all of its tics and neuroses and idiosyncrasies. It was the most romantic movie of the year, both hopeful and heartbreaking. A true gem. Oh, and yeah, it just happens to be about two men.