We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
Overall, I'd give the movies of 2011 an "8/10." The "Year of Remembering," as Jeff Bayer hinted in his own Top Movies list, has seen some gems that we aren't soon going to forget. This isn't going to be a year like 2010, in which we will ask ourselves, "Wait, what won 'Best Picture' last year?"
Yet, this isn't 2007, a year that saw decade-topping movies like There Will Be Blood and even Superbad. I agree with Jeff that "while there were many good films, I don't think 'greatness' was achieved all that often." While both of us probably gave out more "8/10's" and "9/10's" in one year than we ever have before, we were still looking for more. To put it simply, and in the terms of a perfectly "8/10" movie, 2011 couldn't quite "win the last game of the series," as Brad Pitt said in Moneyball.
This was still a tough list to put together, however. After all, I just sent this telegram to George Clooney: "Please forgive me for not including The Descendants, but ... did you see Margaret? It was excellent!" Even Martin Scorsese de-friended me on Facebook.
Here's my Top 7 Films of 2011:
Recap: A regular teenager’s (Anna Paquin) life is changed forever when she indirectly causes a bus (driven by Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Alison Janney) on the street. While the rest of her teenage years continue to play out in regular order, she struggles to deal with the event, and with the manner in which the bus driver and the victim’s family handle such a tragedy. This movie was originally made in 2006, but for ugly legal reasons didn't see the light of the silver screen until this past fall. Anna Paquin's performance received a rightful nomination for "Best Actress" from the Chicago Film Critics Association. Reason: The ambition of Margaret can be hard to wrap one’s self around – the running time can be a little heavy, and there are moments where the film seems to bring too much focus on the legal aspects of its center tragedy. Yet once the film’s other components become clear, and feel united in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s interest with the teenager, we can only be glad that he fought through his own real life creative tragedy to finally deliver his own special work of art.
6. The Artist
Recap: A silent film star (Jean Dujardin) loses his power in Hollywood when talkie films are introduced, as spearheaded by the appealing Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). After barreling through numerous film festivals, this gem has picked up Oscar nominations for "Best Picture," "Best Actor," "Best Supporting Actress," "Best Original Screenplay," "Best Score," and more. It's an unhatable gem that you and your great grandparents could love. Reason: The film’s belief that life influences cinema (and vice versa) loads The Artist with a seemingly endless amount of delightful winks and nudges, such as when films within the movie reflect the actual relationship of its two characters. This hefty serving of meta movie meat is both the work of an incredibly charming screenplay, and of a writer/director in full control of his unique vision. The Artist is an unforgettable crowd-pleaser. It’s a gift from Hazanavicius and the perfect cast that he has assembled. It can be a gift from your love of movies as well.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Recap: A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) has difficulty determining what is real or imaginary after she escapes from a cult. Written and directed by first timer Sean Durkin, this Sundance hit gave the world a first strong look at the "other" Olsen sister, Elizabeth (whose previous on-screen credit was How The West Was Fun). This movie also features another grand performance from John Hawkes, whose creepy, creepy, creepy turn here has been extremely overlooked. Reason: This movie respects its audience’s intelligence, and their patience. Nothing makes immediate sense, or sometimes, nothing makes sense at all. Martha also acknowledges the presence of our imagination when we watch movies, and that our natural inclination to fill in the gaps of certain events can actually be used against us. With only a couple nudges of violent moments, the real disturbing aspects of this highly psychological movie are put together in our own minds. In its many strange moments that provide near unbearable tension (created in part by perfectly paced zooms), the movie gives us just a whisper of fear, and then leaves us in the dark – completely helpless, and crippled by its intimidation that (wonderfully) forces us to submit.
4. Young Adult
Recap: Former prom queen turned ghostwriter Mavis (Charlize Theron) returns to her quaint homeland of Mercury, Minnesota to win back the high school sweetheart who got away and then got married, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). Created by the writer/director Juno duo of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, this dark comedy was incorrectly packaged as a type of sequel/spin-off to Mean Girls. In all actuality, considering how it perfectly confronts midwest monotony and forces us to reconsider our reminiscing about high school through the eyes of the girl we despised the most, this is the best original screenplay of 2011. Reason: Cody's concentration on high school and Reitman's taste for the zeitgeist makes for a brilliant marriage with Young Adult, a pitch black comedy that fondly looks back in order to understand the present (a reoccurring theme in many movies this year). It’s a film that consistently rings true to so many life factors: the everlasting impression of high school cliques, the evolution of suburbia, and even our own fears concerning what to do with our lives. Even with Patrick Wilson’s naive sacrifice of a character, there’s not a scene in Young Adult that doesn’t ring with striking and hilarious honesty.
Recap: A stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) also does a little getaway driving on the side. He gets tangled up with the mafia and just wants to make sure a woman (Carey Mulligan) and her child are safe. This typical-sounding movie was unique directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who turned this concept into a modern fairytale with an 80s soundtrack. Drive also features a delicious villainous performance from Albert Brooks. Reason: In a Hollywood age of money-sucking animated sequels and similar looking Jason Statham movies, the "real hero" of Drive is director Nicolas Winding Refn. This is a movie that shows all what craftsmanship can achieve even when working with the most overused parts. It doesn't bury its head in its style, as it rewards viewers with a superb soundtrack and dynamic cinematography. And though scant on dialogue and immediate sexuality, it gives paying moviegoers the surprises and thrills they deserve. With an incredibly controlled performance by Gosling and the inspired work of Refn (who doesn't even have a license), Drive is perfect evidence that while there may be no new original concepts in Hollywood, excellent filmmaking doesn’t have to suffer.
Recap: Oliver’s (Ewan McGregor) life takes a big swing when his father (Christopher Plummer) makes two announcements: he has terminal cancer, and that he is gay. An incredibly personal film from Thumbsucker director Mike Mills. Reason: Beginners is a positively alluring act of complete catharsis – a testament to the idea that an artist can find the greatest truths in life, love, and death by increasing the understanding of their own souls. Told delicately through three praiseworthy performances from Laurent, McGregor, and Plummer, the film offers fantastic imagery to go with its natural quirkiness, all of it blanketed by an undeniable honesty about love and death that is never abandoned for melodrama. Tapping into elements of love such as Freud and Jelly Roll Morton, Mills has created something that might even register along with the more romantic corners of Woody Allen’s filmography. Like something with the barometer of frank force that makes Annie Hall so fantastic, Beginners is a film that can be as gorgeously personal for its audience as it is for this courageous filmmaker.
1. The Interrupters
Recap: This documentary from Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James follows around a group of violence "interrupters" in Chicago. With some carrying their own histories of criminal or gang related activity, they intervene during life or death moments to save and change lives. This movie was idiotically skipped over on this year's Oscar shortlist. It will be playing on PBS on February 14th as a part of the "Frontline" series. Reason: I have always believed in the power of movies, but I never believed one could actually change the world until I saw The Interrupters. A documentary that shows the work of people who are essentially walking saints, this is a movie that needs to have its message spread worldwide, because it brilliantly deconstructs all violence by looking at it like a sickness. The Interrupters is not a movie that looks from the outside in on violence, but hurls itself with incredible access into the personal episodes of those who are ready to commit such acts. It shows us the beginning, the middle, and the end of moments that could result in life-changing loss, but are "interrupted" by those who have already been in those shoes. Like no other movie this year, or possibly ever, it will change the way you think about the reasons behind all killings on this planet, and it will change your doubts that such an epidemic has no cure.