I watched roughly 14,400 minutes of new cinema in 2011. Picking and ranking 2-hour chunks above one another is an absolutely monumental, draining, and in some ways worthless task for a year that many would argue was lackluster. Hell, I would have — but then when making a shortlist of truly great 2011 films worthy of recognition, I jotted down thirty titles, no problem, no sweat. I considered going the Rolling Stone route and doing ten ranked mainstream films and ten ranked indies/foreigns — but even that proved too difficult. What I took away from this year is that the simplest and oldest of ideas, given the right approach and passion, can achieve the highest of highs. So without further ado, my 2,011-word-breakdown on what got me jazzed in 2011.
20. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”.
This one seemed to transcend all genders and tastes to become the romantic comedy event of the year. Damn straight. “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, while falling prey to many tropes of its genre, goes to show just how far organic relationships and characters can elevate material. It’s a funny, touching, and surprisingly wise look at love in all its stages. Insert comment about Ryan Gosling’s shirtless scene here.
19. Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”.
Every ounce as sappy and corny as its many detractors will tell you. That’s what made it click for me. “War Horse” features some of Spielberg’s most well-directed sequences in a decade, and wisely focuses not on the eponymous horse, but his indelible impact on the humans around him. A gorgeously shot, lovingly made film that, if made 60 years ago, would probably be hailed as a classic.
18. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”.
It hurts my soul that this isn’t higher. Few films hit harder than “Hugo” did, or pulled out as many technical stops. Scorsese manages to combine a redemption story, a dreamlike fantasy, a film-preservationist-manifesto and a children’s film into one very tasty package, while also making the most cogent case yet for the existence of 3D.
17. Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult”.
From the “Juno” team, this is a comedy whose humor is by and directed towards very, very misguided characters, giving every laugh a really subtle but lasting burn. It’s acerbic in tone but thoughtful in nature, with some very fine performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.
16. Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene”.
Girl is integrated into cult. Girl eventually leaves cult physically, yet not mentally. This simple, but terrifying premise made for some of the subtler filmmaking this year — but haunting filmmaking, nonetheless. The ending of this film will either soothe or shake you, and the way the film makes a cogent thematic argument for either interpretation makes it an uncannily unsettling work.
15. Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”.
A lot of films’ twists leave you surprised to some degree — but how often do they make you re-evaluate what you just saw on every level, be it thematic, emotional, motivational, and yes, sexual. “The Skin I Live In” does that, using ’50s-esque pulp and modern paranoia to craft something totally undefinable. And brilliant.
14. Jason Eisener’s “Hobo With A Shotgun”.
You think the joke’s on you because this made my list? Nope. Joke’s on you for not seeing this endlessly inventive, blood-soaked grindhouse tribute. Available on Netflix Instant, this 86-minute monster is perfect viewing for the whole family, especially little kids who may derive enjoyment from watching people their age set on fire.
13. Gore Verbinski’s “Rango”.
Before you ask, that last sentence was a joke. What American families need to be watching is “Rango”, a Johnny Depp-starring film among the funkiest and most original genre-hybrids of the year. It’s also absolutely hilarious, filled with excellent action, and unlike many on this list, made hundreds of millions of dollars. Who loses here? No one.
12. Michel Hazanivicus’ “The Artist”.
By reaching to devices of the past, “The Artist” created an almost disgustingly charming, thoroughly entertaining dramedy. Its black-and-white, silent format has brought an entire filmmaking era back into public consciousness, an absolute miracle if you ask me. Oh, and that damn dog…
11. Jonathon Levine’s “50/50″.
Writer Will Reiser, drawing from his own experiences as a young man getting cancer, managed to create something with the raunchy charm of “Superbad” with the emotional weight of, well, “Terms of Endearment”. “50/50″ owned me from the first frame, and though you may be laughing too hard to notice, some of the year’s most subtle, effective character-development is to be found here. Good movie. Great movie.
10. Kim Ji-Woon’s “I Saw The Devil”.
“I Saw The Devil” is the revenge movie to beat all revenge movies, and I mean this in both how much it breaks your heart and how freakin’ bloody it gets. There is nothing that these men will not do in this movie. But the way the film simultaneously provides outlandishly well-done action and, by its conclsuion, condemns what it’s done to these people’s souls, is as fascinating as it is contradictory. Good looks, South Korea!
9. Mike Mills’ “Beginners”.
An elderly man, coping with the death of his wife of 40 years and a cancer diagnosis, comes out as gay. His son struggles to cope and finds solace in his dog, who communicates with him via subtitles. There’s about a million different ways that premise could have derailed and become typical “indie” fare — but it didn’t. Miraculously, it’s one of the most moving, heartfelt movies of the year, with the nostalgic 1950s’ score making the story of a man’s exit from this world subtly devastating.
8. Brad Bird’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”.
After how long I’ve been yearning for a perfect action film, to finally receive it is the greatest of all pleasures. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” has action that gets at the heart of what the genre, and popcorn entertainment at large, is really all about. And after due consideration and three viewings (IMAX is a must), the 30-minute Dubai segment is genuinely one of the greatest action sequences ever created. The fact that this film finally ended the ridiculous Tom Cruise backlash nets bonus points.
7. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”.
If I were to tell you my own Hawaiian heritage didn’t make me hugely biased to this, I’d be lying. But the majority of America seems to be with me on this one – George Clooney turned in some of his best work as a Honolulu man trying, by any means necessary, to protect his newly-inherited responsibilities to his daughters, in the wake of a jet-skiing accident leaving his wife in a coma. Such a moving, hopeful work. If Oscar taps this one’s shoulder, I would not be surprised or displeased in any way.
6. Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”.
Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, or have access to Academy voters’ screener DVDs (my secret, now not-so-secret weapon), you have not seen or probably heard of “A Separation”. And now you have. It’s an Iranian film pulsing with vitality and emotion, about a couple in the midst of a divorce and the effects it has on the people around them — their daughter, her teacher, and a couple who accuses the husband of something truly horrible. “A Separation” is a film whose greatness comes by way of revelations that cannot be spoiled — but, like the greatest of thrillers, language-barrier or no, this film gripped me totally and never dared to let me go.
5. Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.
If “Midnight in Paris” is a light, frothy dream, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a garish, bloody nightmare. Some of the most effective horror filmmaking in decades is on display here, with two utterly killer performances as a doomed mother-and-son duo. “Kevin” is a prime example of both the lows of humanity and the highs of filmmaking.
4. Joe Wright’s “Hanna”.
The story of a teenaged assassin and her destructive impact on the people around her as she traverses the globe towards an unknown mission. “Hanna” begins and closes with the title character taking a life. The first time I was in a state of shock. The second time I was in a state of utter awe, a state into which only the best motion pictures can exalt me. “Hanna” is some of the most energetic, propulsive mainstream filmmaking in a decade, with every element coming together totally and tightly.
3. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”, tied with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.
You probably think my use of tie is cheap and lazy. You’re totally right. But see this hypnotic duo and tell me you could choose one over the other. Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick have crafted lush, gorgeous tone poems that make 2011′s strongest case for film as a pure sensory art form. My reactions to these films were totally indescribable, characterized only by the joy I feel when I stumble upon projects very near and dear to their maker’s hearts. The fact that these films are about both the end and the creation of the world ties it together nicely.
2. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”.
Woody Allen takes absolutely no risks with “Midnight in Paris”, exploring very few themes and using very few characters he hasn’t before. All the better for it. When a Woody Allen film clicks together, as seems to be the case less and less these days, there’s absolutely nothing like it. “Midnight in Paris” is a film reflecting on love and memory’s potential to deceive us, but as time has gone on this year my adoration for this has only gotten stronger. It’s an utterly charming, wonderfully romantic tribute to one of the world’s great cities.
1. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”.
I’ll keep this final entry short and sweet. “Drive”. The film of the year, the film of my dreams. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it on my first go-around. So then I went for seconds, with thirds, fourths, and fifths not far behind. The premise is simple: Ryan Gosling drives getaway cars for criminals, gets romantically involved with a neighbor, and things crash and burn for everyone involved, bloodily. But the approach taken to “Drive” is everything, making a film whose every moment puts a spell on me — one unlike anything else this year, last year, any year. This is as tense, mysterious, satisfying, sensual, shocking, good, and just plain cool as movies can get.
Thank you to the films and the readers that made 2011 unforgettable. $10 to the first person who provides a count of the adjectives in this column. Cheers.
Note: I didn’t yet see “Shame” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, two films that have dominated this year’s cultural discussion. Ten further films that barely missed the cut on this list, and broke my heart in doing so: Takashi Miike’s unbelievably epic samurai romp “13 Assassins”, J.J. Abrams’ utterly joyful Spielberg tribute “Super 8″, Spielberg himself with the animated entry “Adventures of Tintin”, George Clooney’s “Ides of March” whose killer ensemble brought a haunting political and moral dilemma to life, the funniest film of the year “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”, Tomas Alfredson’s paranoia-infused espionage drama “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, Steven Soderbergh’s virus-documenting thriller “Contagion”, 2011-pop culture’s biggest event in the final “Harry Potter” film, one of the great contemporary youth romances “Submarine” and finally, Kevin Smith’s “Red State”, which incurred the hatred of most critics but was truly the biggest leap ahead for any filmmaker all year.
Note post-other note: The worst film of the year was “Battle Los Angeles”. Everything these above films are not, totally incompetent “action cinema”, and not even filmed in Los Angeles…Not far behind is the stoner medieval-comedy disaster “Your Highness”. The pandering racism of “The Help” was every ounce as disgusting as the film’s complete success and probable Oscar wins. “The Hangover: Part II” was Hollywood at its copy-and-paste worst. “The Rite” was utterly rote. “Breaking Dawn: Part I” fully validates the complaints of every die-hard “Twilight” hater, which it’s worth noting, until I saw it, I was not. And I fully apologize to the theater janitors who swept up the popcorn I threw while watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”.