With 2011 winding down to its conclusion and the Weekend Warrior having seen his last movie just days ago–frankly, I lost count around 300 movies this year–I finally have come up with a pretty clear picture of what I consider, if not the best, then at least my favorites of the year. Honestly, I look at the list myself and think, “Is there going to be a stranger top movie list out there this year?” and I’ll actually be shocked if anyone can answer “yes” to that question.
Many people have said this wasn’t a very good year for movies, but maybe they just weren’t looking hard enough as I didn’t have any problem finding 25 movies I loved. To some, it’s going to be a very strange list indeed, because my favorite movies aren’t necessarily the ones that my fellow film critics have honored. In fact, few of my colleagues (and presumably our readers) have seen a couple of my favorite movies of the year, which is disappointing, but at least I have a couple of big tentpole franchise movies in there, too, so it’s not like I’m deliberately going for the vaguest or most esoteric picks.
The way this works is that all-year round, I keep a running list of what I consider the best movies using a fairly straight-forward 12-point rating system, and though I’m never doing direct comparisons between one movie and another when rating them, using this system means that none of the movies you’re going to read about below got onto the list without at least receiving an 8.5 out of 10.
(In many of the cases below, you can click on the movie title and read my review of each film.)
25. Point Blank (Magnolia) – This little-seen French action thriller from the filmmaker whose earlier film was remade by Paul Haggis as The Next Three Days and is a fairly simple premise of a male nurse (Gilles Lelouche) whose pregnant wife is kidnapped by gangsters trying to get their hands on a colleague (Roschdy Zem) who the police have been holding at his hospital. Anyone seeing the movie may be surprised that Luc Besson wasn’t involved in what ended up being an action flick just as exciting as “Taken” or other Hollywood action films, but with some of the most unexpected twists and turns every step of the way.
24. Contagion (Warner Bros.) – My favorite film by Steven Soderbergh in quite some time, probably going back to The Girlfriend Experience, returned him to his large-scale multi-storyline epics for which he won an Oscar with Traffic, only this time it wasn’t drugs that tied people together as much as it was a killer virus that proceeded to wipe out humanity while a couple individuals desperately sought out a cure. With a terrific cast including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, this is the movie that made it abundantly clear you should be very careful whatever you touch while in public, confirming years of germaphobe paranoia.
23. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox) One of the nicer surprises of the year was Fox’s decision to relaunch two popular franchises with prequels that actually ended up not sucking. Of course, we were already on board with director Rupert Wyatt, having been fans of his earlier film The Escapist, but getting Andy Serkis to play the ape leader Caesar using performance capture technology ended up being a genius move that made the film a lot more believable than the original “men in monkey suits” of the ’70s franchise. Add to that an intelligent story, terrific action scenes and unbelievable visual FX and you ended up with a filmmaking coup that was well worth the cost of a movie ticket. (We also liked Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, but we had more problems with it due to the way it diverged from the comics.)
22. Anonymous (Sony) – Another surprise was Roland Emmerich’s attempt at a period piece, a little closer to our own times than 10,000 BC, as he explored the myths behind the idea that William Shakespeare may not have written the plays for which he’s credited but rather may have been a front for someone in great power. Rhys Ifans played Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, whose writings about the court are frowned upon by the advisors of Queen Elizabeth (played by Vanessa Redgrave), but the results are a complex tale that takes place both in the royal courts and on the stage with Emmerich having the benefit of such a good cast including David Thewlis and Rafe Spall, who was entertaining as the drunken Shakespeare, who gladly accepts fame and credit.
21. Higher Ground (Sony Pictures Classics) – The first on my list of movies from Sundance is also the first of two directorial debuts by award-winning actresses who decided to go behind the camera. In this case, it’s Vera Farmiga’s adaptation of Carolyn Briggs’ memoir about a girl named Corinne growing up in the South and accepting a life of faith when she joins a Christian commune. Farmiga is as fantastic as always in the main role, as is her cousin Taissa (from “American Horror Story”) as the younger Corinne and Joshua Leonard as her husband, who doesn’t understand why his wife may need something more than her religion. It’s a fantastic character-driven debut by Farmiga that covers a lot of ground and time, which is quite impressive in itself. Sadly and rather ironically, it opened the same weekend Hurricane Irene hit New York, so God clearly doesn’t like being questioned.
20. Insidious (FilmDistrict) – Possibly the only horror movie on the list (other than Contagion) is this twist on the haunted house movie from Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, which I first saw at the Toronto Film Festival in 2010. Starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, I absolutely loved how they combined the “Paranormal Activity” style of fly-on-the-wall horror, which keeps viewers on the edge, then explodes with an ending that’s absolutely bananas. If there’s ever going to be a modern-day equivalent to Poltergeist, this is most certainly it.
19. The Artist (The Weinstein Co.) – You may have heard of this movie. You probably already know it’s a black and white silent movie starring a couple of foreign actors you’ve never heard of by a director with a long, hard-to-pronounce name (Hazanavicius), but that’s all you’re likely to have heard since it is a silent movie. (ha ha) This is a very special film about Hollywood during the silent film era with fantastic performances by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, and if it does win Best Picture at the Oscars, as many people are predicting, we wouldn’t be even remotely surprised or disappointed, because Hazanavicius’ brilliant job bringing the silent movie back to audiences is well deserved of all the accolades it gets.
18. Another Happy Day (Phase 4) – One of the last movies I saw at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the debut by filmmaking progeny Sam Levinson, which opens with Ellen Barkin’s Lynn driving her two kids, one of them played by the always great Ezra Miller, to the wedding of her estranged son. As we spend more time with their extended family, all the dark secrets from their past start coming out. Still in his mid-20s, Levinson wrote a terrific script and pulled together an astounding cast that includes Ellen Burstyn and George Kennedy, but also included head-turning performances by Barkin, Miller (a dark precursor to his role in We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Kate Bosworth as Lynn’s damaged daughter. Despite all the dark moments, the movie is as funny as it is dramatic, thanks to the likes of Thomas Haden Church and Demi Moore as Lynn’s ex-husband and his new wife.
17. Like Crazy (Paramount Vantage) – Another terrific film from Sundance, this one exploring a long-distance romance over the course of four or five years with terrific, naturalistic performances by Anton Yelchin (the best thing he’s done in my opinion) and Felicity Jones, using an intriguing mostly-improvised style of filmmaking that really makes you feel as if you’re watching real lives unfold. Whether intentional or not, Drake Doremus’ second film acts almost as an indictment of the immigration system and what it does to this relationship. (The film even includes a small role for Jennifer Lawrence!)
16. Drive (FilmDistrict) – We’ve already said a lot about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Hollywood breakthrough, starring Ryan Gosling as a nameless (and mostly quiet) stunt and getaway driver and how he falls foul of a mob boss, played by Albert Brooks, but it’s really a fascinating film that plays even better a second or third time, because it takes a second viewing to recognize that there’s a lot more subtlety to the way Refn explored his first American genre film than may be obvious from the ultra-violent action sequences.
15. A Separation (Sony Pictures Classics) – It’s not uncommon for foreign films to make their way onto this list, but in the case of Asghar Farhadi’s drama-slash-mystery set in present day Iran, I agree with all the raves the film had been getting on the film festival circuit. What starts as a film about a simple divorce turns into something more dramatic as we see how the law in Iran turns a simple argument into something with far more tragic results. (Look for our interview with Farhadi later this week.)
14. Attack the Block (Screen Gems) – The directorial debut by Joe Cornish, pal to Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, who produced the movie, and Nick Frost, who co-starred in it, showed the type of burgeoning talent that leads to a long and illustrious career making movies. This one was a clever premise showing what might happen if aliens invaded a tough council estate in London, and it offered scares and gore and action and laughs, making it as close to a “Goonies” for the current age as we’re going to get. Cornish put together a terrific young cast and got Basement Jaxx to provide the score, and boy, did I have fun watching this movie all three times!
13. Brotherhood – Possibly the least known film in this year’s list is this indie thriller from Will Canon that I first saw at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, which involved a fraternity initiation gone horribly wrong and what the young men do in order to try to get themselves out of trouble. This is a terrific film, well worth seeking out, featuring a terrific script and performances centered around a surprisingly simple premise. Canon is clearly a talent who will continue to deliver challenging films, and hopefully, this one will one day be discovered by a larger audience.
12. Bridesmaids (Universal) – The comedy that’s likely to show up on many Top 10 lists features the triumphant breakout of Kristin Wiig as a bonafide film star. Co-writing the screenplay with her friend Annie Mumolo, Wiig proved that women can have just as much fun as men while showing the evolution of a friendship and how it’s affected by the pressures of preparing for a wedding. The comedy is another coup by producer Judd Apatow, who has already done similar things for making the likes of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, and the movie was just so hilarious and touching that it showed Apatow’s “Freaks and Geeks” collaborator Paul Feig to be just as strong a film director.
11. Thor (Marvel /Paramount) – Most people who know me already know my love of comic books and the fact that I’m very picky about my comic book movies, and they’ll probably be surprised to see this one so high up in my list vs. Captain America: the First Avenger or X-Men: First Class. You see, the thing is that both those movies were good, but they diverted away from what I liked about the comics. Some could say the same about Kenneth Branagh’s take on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Norse God turned superhero, but everything from the design of Asgard to the way they used the fish-out-of-water aspect of a God on earth as he hung out with the likes of Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings made me love the character of Thor more than I have since Walt Simonson was writing and drawing the comics. Tom Hiddleston was perfect as Loki as was Anthony Hopkins as Odin and the Warriors Three and Sif were great, too! I’m dubious anyone can make a sequel as good as this introduction but I’ll hold out hope.