Looking ahead from 2010 to 2011, the cinematic landscape looked suspect. The summer schedule was crammed with even more blockbusters than usual, as studios looked to continue or create a franchise or two every week. Some, like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men: First Class” exceeded expectations. Others didn’t fare so well – namely “Green Lantern.”
But as the year progressed, it became clear that some of the best films from 2011 had been released earlier in the year, sitting right underneath my nose just waiting for the credit they deserve. “Certified Copy,” “Incendies” and “Midnight in Paris” are just a few examples of movies released in the first half of 2011, while fall brought its usual competitive lineup looking to generate early Oscar buzz.
So, for the sake of reducing my rambling, here are the 10 best movies I saw last year … and some honorable mentions:
10. Hugo: Within Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” there’s a not-so-subtle call for support of film preservation – a subject that is dear to the filmmaker. The movie also encourages both young and old alike to find their passion in life and pursue it, much like Scorsese has. Morals of the story aside, “Hugo” is a piece of cinematic magic, and Scorsese shows audiences that in the right hands 3-D technology can go beyond the gimmick that it’s become, and have some artistic value.
9. Drive: Ryan Gosling owned 2011 – even if People Magazine didn’t realize that when they named Bradley Cooper as the year’s Sexiest Man Alive. Way to go editorial staff, you really missed the boat on that one.
In all seriousness, Gosling took chances in 2011 that most actors in his position wouldn’t dare to – particularly with his lead role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” It’s stylish and gruesome in a way we’ve come to expect from Refn (“Valhalla Rising”), and it reaches into existentialism through its lead character (named Driver), and its depiction of Hollywood. Albert Brooks delivers one of the best supporting performances of the year, and Gosling is absolutely perfect as the wheel-man.
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Independent cinema is alive and well, and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was a leading example of that in 2011. One of the most talked about movies coming out of Sundance, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a breakthrough for both Durkin and the movie’s star, Elizabeth Olsen – sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. The way Durkin weaves together Martha’s story, along with her many identities, is so well-crafted, and the film is so well acted, that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the world of “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
7. Melancholia: The antithesis of sunshine and rainbows, “Melancholia” is a true work of art from writer-director Lars von Trier. His look at one woman’s depression while the apocalypse looms over the world is unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Kirsten Dunst, whose career has been filled with extreme highs and lows, shows with her performance as Justine that she might just have a career with unexpected longevity. When she puts her mind to it, the girl can really act. So can Charlotte Gainsbourg.
6. Beginners: Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical film takes an honest and personal look at relationships and delivers one of the most endearing father-son relationships on film in 2011. Christopher Plummer is extraordinary as Hal, a father and widower who comes out as gay at the age of 75, after years and years of pretending to be a happily straight man. For the first time in his life, Hal is content, finally able to be himself. With this new revelation, Hal’s son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is forced to re-evaluate his own love life. As I’ve stated before, “Beginners” is quite possibly my favorite kind of movie, perceiving life as neither an outright comedy or tragedy, but finding a delicate balance between the two.
5. The Descendants: I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re either on board with Alexander Payne’s style of filmmaking or you’re not. I’m on board, which means underneath my 26-year-old exterior I’m likely a confused, slightly neurotic middle-aged man in the midst of a major life crisis. This time around, Payne draws a brilliant performance from George Clooney, as he sticks his character Matt King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, between a rock and hard place in his personal and professional lives. For Matt, there is no such thing as a winning situation. After “Sideways,” “Election” and “About Schmidt,” it’s no wonder why Payne was drawn to this story.
The director also has a knack for casting the right actors just where they need to be – Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Nick Kruase all give stand-out performances.
4. Midnight in Paris: This year’s entry from Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” is a movie for dreamers and romantics, which is probably one of the reasons I found it so appealing. Lighthearted with philosophical undertones, the film is just plain irresistible. Owen Wilson clicks with Allen’s vision, and is deserving of Oscar talk, as is Corey Stoll for his performance as Ernest Hemingway.
3. Margin Call: “Margin Call” is the best thriller I’ve seen since 2007′s “Michael Clayton.” The writing, with its pacing and precision, will remind you of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It also doesn’t hurt that writer-director J.C. Chandor assembled an all-star cast made up of Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, and Penn Badgley. Yes, that Penn Badgley. It would be an injustice for Kevin Spacey to get overlooked for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. It’s one of his best performances in years.
2. Incendies: Denis Villneuve’s “Incendies” isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s well worth the journey. The film sends two twins from Quebec (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) on an expedition to the Middle East to discover their dead mother’s (Lubna Azabal, who will blow your mind) horrific and graphic past in a region of the world torn apart by war and religious differences. What they find is both moving and unsettling. When you reach the end of their story, it will take your breath away and haunt you for months to come. It certainly did for me.
1. Certified Copy: “Certified Copy” is a gem of a movie that comes along once every 10 years or so. It’s a small story with big ideas – it’s a conversation between Elle (Juliette Binoche) and British author James (William Shimmell) as she leads James through the Italian village of Lucignano while on his book tour. Their discussion moves from a debate about the differences between original artwork and imitations – the subject of James’ book – to slowly uncover a much deeper connection between the two. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami knows exactly how to lure us in with the most engaging dialogue and direction of the year.
Honorable Mentions: 13 Assassins, Another Earth, Cold Weather, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Like Crazy, J. Edgar, Senna, Source Code, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Warrior, X-Men: First Class.
2. Take Shelter
5. Another Earth
7. Jane Eyre
8. Kung Fu Panda 2
9. The Debt
10. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Honorable Mentions: Hugo and I Am Number Four
So what were some of your favorite movies of 2011? Join the conversation and share your comments below, or like Joel Talks Movies on Facebook and let us know what you think.