10. Warrior (Lionsgate) – While I’m not a person who normally digs sports movies and I have about as much interest in Mixed Martial Arts as I do in paying my taxes (i.e. not much), Miracle director Gavin O’Connor managed to use the sport as a background to tell a really touching family story of two brothers (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) torn apart by their parents’ squabbles and trying to connect with their estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. The performances by all three actors were fantastic as was O’Connor’s direction that made even the outcome of even the most predictable matches something that made you stand up and cheer. It was highly disappointing to see the movie tank at the box office, because it was a movie i absolutely loved from the very first time i saw it at CinemaCon in Vegas.
9. Source Code (Summit Entertainment) – It’s a little harder to explain my love for this movie, but it mostly comes out of the premise, the idea of being able to have 8 more minutes after your death that can be tapped into so that changes can be made in the timestream. Ben Ripley’s complex screenplay had a few noticeable conflicts that a stickler could take apart, but Moon director Duncan Jones really knocked one out of the park with this one, first with the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan as the leads, then with the innovative way of exploring this territory and making a solid film that can be watched over and over… and over. And it got better every time I went back to watch it, too.
8. 50/50 (Summit Entertainment) – Years after his terrific and personal The Wackness, a Sundance favorite, director Jonathan Levine returned with a dark comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 20-something guy facing cancer, based on the terrific and personal script by Will Reiser. Seth Rogen produced the movie and stars as Gordon-Levitt’s best friend, who tries to keep him in good spirits while he goes through the painful treatment. With a terrific supporting cast including Anna Kendrick as Adam’s therapist, Anjelica Huston as his mother, Bryce Dallas Howard and Phillip Baker Hall, the movie was so warm and funny and perfect, it made me realize Levine’s brilliance was no fluke.
7. Rango (Paramount) – Every year, at least one animated movie is able to sneak onto this list, but other than George Miller’s Happy Feet, this is the first time a movie not from Pixar or DreamWorks Animation made my Top 10 and in my opinion, “Pirates of the Caribbean” helmer Gore Verbinski’s first foray into animated films is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen all year. With a great script by John Logan and a hilarious performance by Johnny Depp and the rest of the voice cast, this was the type of Western I was hoping to get from the Coen Brothers with last year’s True Grit, and the guys at Industrial Light & Magic really stepped up their game for their first full-animated film.
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sony) – As much as I enjoyed the Swedish movie based on Stieg Larsson’s novel that came out last year, the first movie seemed very much like a film influenced by David Fincher’s Se7en that only got good about an hour into it when the two main characters were finally brought together. For his take on the material, Fincher has a far better cast (beyond the two leads) and a far better first act set-up so that it makes the whole thing that much more enjoyable. While this isn’t quite up there with the #1 placement for The Social Network last year or #2 placement of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, it’s still not bad for Fincher’s fourth appearance in the Top 25 with his last four films.
5. In the Land of Blood and Honey (FilmDistrict) – Angelina’s non-doc directorial debut takes a look at the Bosnian War through the eyes of a Serb soldier and the Muslim woman he loves and saves from a horrible fate as the war around them tears apart families. At its core, it’s a fairly simple “Romeo and Juliet” story but the way the horrors of this war are depicted, from the rape and degradation of women, to the wanton murder of Muslims by the military, makes it a shocking film. This would have been one of the best movies of the year if it was made by a director with 20 previous movies under their belt, and it’s more impressive to think that someone best known for their acting like Jolie could write and direct something so powerful, mostly with unknown Bosnian actors speaking in their native language.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Fox Searchlight) – One of the nicest surprises out of Sundance was this subdued thriller from first-time director Sean Durkin starring a brand-new face on the scene, Elizabeth Olsen, who is indeed the sister of the famous twins, but apparently, the one who got all the acting talent. She plays the title(s) character, a young woman who has escaped from a cult-like community led by John Hawke’s Patrick who seems to have control over everyone there. As she hides out with her sister and her husband, memories come back from her time in Patrick’s community who she fears may try to find her. The film has such a different tone and look from anything out there, punctuated by a fantastic ambient score that keeps you on edge. Durkin has quickly established himself as a filmmaker on par with some of the greats and we can’t see what he does next!
And here’s where it gets fun… our Top 3 movies of the year!
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (Warner Bros.) – That’s right! After ten years of “Harry Potter” movies, many of them being quite good, director David Yates and the entire cast and creative team created what I thought was about as perfect a finale as you can ever hope for. More than that, it was just a very well-executed film which had everything I came to expect from great filmmaking, and considering how disappointed I was with Part 1, this finale just made me absolutely ecstatic. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t even be a question that this is worthy of a Best Picture nomination, because everyone involved did some of their best work and to keep a franchise like this going for so long is quite an achievement by producer David Heyman, who probably can retire on the money made from these movies. But we hope he doesn’t.
2. Blackthorn (Magnolia) – To think that I almost missed this film at the Tribeca Film Festival and only ended up catching it due to having a couple of hours of time to kill. Directed by Mateo Gil, writer of such Spanish classics as Open Your Eyes and The Sea Inside, it stars Sam Shepard as James Blackthorn, the bandit formerly known as Butch Cassidy, now living in Bolivia and about to return home to the United States before getting involved in a huckster, played by Eduardo Noriega, who gets him chased by a group of miners whom he stole money from. In an unprecedented spin-off from the classic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Gil’s film filled in a lot of the blanks with flashbacks to the younger Butch and Sundance, making for one of the best Westerns I’ve seen in some time which sadly never got the type of high-profile release I felt it deserved.
1a. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey – While normally I give docs their own list (which you can read below), I had to call special attention to this movie from Constance Marks that tells the heartwarming story of Kevin Clash, a young man from the inner city of Baltimore who escapes from his tough reality by getting into puppetry, ends up joining Jim Henson’s crew and creates one of the most beloved puppet characters of the last couple of decades with the lovable kid monster, Elmo. Clash’s story is joyously entertaining and incredibly moving, and being the only doc of the year that warranted a 10/10 rating–possibly the first since Man on Wire?–it seemed deserving of a mention on our Top 25 as well.
1. Incendies (Sony Pictures Classics) – Oddly, the very first movie I saw this year was also the very best as Denis Villeneuve’s drama really blew me away, becoming the only other movie besides “Elmo” to get a perfect score of 10 out of 10. Canadians reading this will probably say “This movie came out last year!” (and yes, it was nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category) but like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which was my #1 movie a couple of years back, as well as The Twilight Samurai, Villeneuve’s film wasn’t screened for American critics until the beginning of the year before it premiered at Sundance, and being the only non-doc with a perfect score, there’s no way I could possibly ignore it.
Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film starts as a simple drama about a twin brother and sister whose mother has died, but to get their inheritance, they’re each sent on a mission, one to find their long-lost brother, the other to find the father they never knew. This sends them off to their mother’s Middle Eastern home, and as we follow them trying to find clues to the whereabouts of the missing men, we flashback to their mother’s journey as her country is rocked by Civil War. It’s a beautifully filmed and told story that will leave you shaken to your core even if you think you’ve figured things out. Although there have been many movies based on plays this year–Clooney’s The Ides of March, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method–you could never tell by watching this one, since Villeneuve broke out of the theatricality of the play by capturing the beauty and the horrors of war in the Middle East.
So there we are. If you haven’t seen Incendies or Blackthorn or Martha Marcy May Marlene, I hope you’ll seek them out. (The first two should be on DVD by now, and the latter should still be playing in theaters.)
There are some really good movies I hoped would make this list but just fell short, so here are the…
Eight, to be exact, all of which just missed out making my Top 25:
Tyrannosaur (Strand Releasing) – Paddy Considine’s distinctive directorial debut took a look at the relationship between two very different people in a lower income section of Northern England, an angry drunk played by Peter Mullen and a kindly Christian woman played by Olivia Colman, both giving fantastic performances.
I Saw the Devil (Magnolia) – Korea’s Jee-woon Kim followed the search for a serial killer by a young government agent whose future bride was taken from him by the ruthless murdered, creating a brutal action-thriller that made a great addition to his previous genre films “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird.”
13 Assassins (Magnolia) – Similarly, Takashi Miike’s first Edo-period samurai film was one of his best films in years, as he got away from the bizzarre and made an epic war film that would make Kurosawa proud.
The Trip (IFC Films) – Michael Winterbottom reunited Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) for a trip across Northern England visiting restaurants and hotels that allowed the two of them to play off their awkward friendship, doing dueling impressions and trying to best one another, even as it explores a lonelier and more poignant side of fame.
Pariah (Focus Features) – Dee Rees’ fantastic debut stars Adepero Oduye as teenager Alike struggling with her sexuality and gender identity in a household where her conservative parents are already having problems. (Our interview with Dee Rees and Adepero Oduye runs later this week.)
Circumstance (Roadside Attractions) – Acting almost like a companion piece to Pariah, Maryam Keshavarz’s Iran-based drama told the story of two teen girls, best friends whose relationship gets more intense as they fight their urges due to the fact that two women having a sexual relationship is considered illegal in Iran.
Horrible Bosses (New Line/Warner Bros.) – Seth Gordon assembled the hilarious trio of Jasons Bateman, Sudeikis and Charlie Day from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to take on three of the worst bosses ever, played by Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell, and the results were unbelievably funny, as it ended up being far better than anyone could ever expect.
The Green Hornet (Sony) – Seth Rogen’s long-planned take on the pulp hero of the ’40s and ’50s was a singularly unique experience in terms of comic-based movies that got most of the laughs from the title character’s relationship with his far-more-capable “sidekick” Kato, and man did Michel Gondry blow the doors off the visuals of his first mainstream studio film!
Top 12 Docs
1. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey – Already mentioned above, but as the first doc to get a 10 out of 10 from us maybe since James Marsh’s Man on Wire, this is quite an achievement. It barely got a theatrical release, but hopefully people will discover it on DVD or PBS will run it.
2. Beats, Rhythms and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Sony Pictures Classics) – Michael Rapaport’s directorial debut took a look at the innovative hip-hop group of the ’90s who had been unable to work out their differences to stay together after a recent reunion tour. The film really gets into the different relationships of the four members and how they’ve evolved over the years.
3. Revenge of the Electric Car – Chris Paine’s follow-up to Who Killed the Electric Car? was another great doc from the Tribeca Film Festival, this one looking at the race by three different individuals to perfect the electric car: Bob Lutz of General Motors, Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and the young upstart Elon Musk of Tesla Motors. It’s a film that was head and shoulders over its predecessor as it got into the heads of three powerful individuals trying to bring us in to the future.
4. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop – Rodman Flender went on the road with Conan O’Brien on his tour following his ousting from the “The Tonight Show” and in the time leading up to his show on TBS and really got into the mindset of the talk show and comedian who had gained an inflow of support from the fans unhappy with how he’d been treated by the corporate bigwigs at NBC. The impromptu and candid Conan is just as funny off-stage as he is on-stage and if you weren’t a fan before seeing the movie, you will be after seeing it.
5. Life in a Day (National Geographic Films) – After making a number of dramatic features, Kevin Macdonald returned to doc territory with a fairly simple premise accumulating home-made video footage uploaded to YouTube from 100s of individuals, all shot over the course of 24 hours, and created something artistic and poignant and quite remarkable.
6. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – I’ve kind of lost track of whether the third film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the West Memphis Three actually got a theatrical release–it will be on HBO in January–but the fact that all the filmmakers’ hard work at getting behind the three young men put in jail for the murder of three young boys and finding new evidence of their innocence contributed to their release from prison makes this film quite an enormous coup. There is no greater proof out there that a film can make a difference than this trilogy.
7. The Swell Season (Seventh Art Releasing) – One of my favorite new artists of the past couple years was the Swell Season, the group formed by Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova, that was featured in John Carney’s film Once. This doc, which debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, followed the duo around on their worldwide tour after winning the Oscar for Original Song and delved deep into their relationship, which was falling apart at the seams as they tried to deal with fame.
8. Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Anchor Bay) – Very few docs have done a better job getting to the heart of their subject matter than Alex Stapleton’s look at famed B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman, made all that better by the testimonials from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jack Nicholson.
9. The Last Mountain – Bill Haney’s doc took a different look at the environment from others by being more focused on the situation of a group of people living in the Appalachian Valley suffering from the effects of a coal mining company’s leveling of the mountains around them, and how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has gone on the trail to put a stop to it.
10. Pearl Jam 20
There’s few filmmakers who could do justice to Seattle’s own Pearl Jam, but former music journalist Cameron Crowe really nailed this portrait of the band on hitting its 20th Anniversary. I’m not even a Pearl Jam fan and yet found myself really warming up to them.
11. Page One: Inside the New York Times (Magnolia) – Andrew Rossi’s look at the inner-workings of the New York Times is the perfect movie for anyone who has ever been interested in going into journalism
12. All-In (4th Row Films) – Other than movies, and music, and comic books, and girls, my fifth favorite thing in the world… is poker, and this movie by Douglas Tirola perfectly captured the way the popularity of the card game exploded over the past decade thanks to movies like Rounders and televised poker. As someone who still plays poker two or three times a month, it was a fascinating look at some of the bigger names behind the game and how they see the game changing since they began.
And just for laughs…
My Five Favorite Music Albums of 2011 (In No Particular Order)
The Foo Fighters “Wasting Light”
The Horrors “Skying”
Rival Schools “Pedals”
Does It Offend You, Yeah? – “Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You”
Wire “Red Barked Tree”
That’s all for now. Look for our “Terrible 25 of 2011″ sometime next week or just after the New Year.