Before getting to my top picks, I’d like to acknowledge some of the critically lauded — even Oscar-nominated — movies that failed to live up to expectations in 2011. One of the worst culprits, Terrence Malick’s grandiose The Tree of Life tried to reveal the meaning of life through out-of-sequence scenes of the Big Bang, the age of dinosaurs, a family’s life in 1950′s Texas, and the afterlife – all accompanied by soaring symphony music. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in revealing the meaning of pretentiousness. The Help, in contrast, failed for being too pedestrian. Not even the above-average acting performances by its female cast could elevate it beyond its simplistic script. Another disappointment for me – and I love baseball (and baseball statistics in particular) — was the extraordinarily dull Moneyball, a snoozer that consists of conversations in dark rooms between ill-defined characters. (Was Jonah Hill really nominated for best supporting actor? Really?) And while I appreciated the melancholy tone and Hawaiian setting of The Descendants, I still don’t understand the fuss over this average family drama. Shame showed us the sordid life of a sex addict in all its NC-17 glory, but I only needed about five minutes to get the drift of it. Finally, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a spy movie set in the 1970′s, proved impenetrable to me (perhaps because I was unfamiliar with the novel and/or miniseries) and I quickly became lost in its murky plot.
Here are my favorites. One takes place in the 1930′s, another in the 1920′s and a third in the 1910′s. Two are by the same director, two are about the age of silent movies, two have protagonists with comic dog sidekicks, and three are set in France.
10. Young Adult. Charlize Theron shines in this black comedy about a hard-drinking, self-centered writer of young adult fiction who returns to her hometown to reunite with her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). So what if he happens to be happily married with a newborn infant? The clever script by Diablo Cody (Juno) does a great job of setting up viewer expectations—then dashing them in unanticipated ways.
9. Beginners. This quirky love story zips back and forth to different points in the life of a lonely graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) who’s unable to commit to serious relationships. In contrast, his septuagenarian, newly widowed father (sure-to-win Oscar-nominee Christopher Plummer), who’s just come out of the closet, has no such difficulties. The complex relationships between McGregor, his lover (the luminous Melanie Laurent from Inglourious Basterds) and his father all ring true in this poignant tale of new beginnings.
8. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Harry vs. Voldemort in the long-anticipated showdown! The action-packed finale to the Harry Potter saga delivers movie magic (once again) and a satisfying resolution to the epic series, which ends on a high note.
7. The Adventures of Tintin. The Hardy Boys meets Raiders of the Lost Ark in Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture animated 3-D adventure about the iconic French comic book sleuth. It’s worth seeing just for the spectacular visuals—but there’s also mystery, a treasure hunt, pirate battles, pulpy action sequences and a pet dog sidekick who steals the movie. Tremendous fun.
6. The Artist. This beguiling black-and-white silent movie — about a forlorn silent film star (Jean Dujardin) coping with the advent of the talkies — speaks to something that still resonates today, the sense of loss that sometimes accompanies the arrival of the next technological marvel. But it’s also sly, funny and uplifting.
5. Bridesmaids. The year’s funniest movie by the Judd Apatow-crew shows that sensitive talky gals can be equally as funny – and as hilariously raunchy – as their male counterparts. Saturday Night Live‘s Kristin Wiig surprises with her acting range as the bridesmaid who fears she’s losing her lifelong best friend (Maya Rudolph). And Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy is a scene-stealing laugh riot. ’Nuff said.
4. Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson effectively adopts the nebbish-y neurotic Woody Allen persona in this charming flick about an American writer who explores Paris at night and time-travels to the 1920′s where he rubs shoulders with legendary literary figures. Nighttime Paris evokes the kind of wonder and mystery Allen typically reserves for New York City. With his exploration of London in Match Point, Barcelona in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, and now Paris, Allen seems to have found a formula for reinvigorating his career.
3. Hugo. Hands down the most visually spectacular film of the year, Martin Scorcese’s magical 3-D movie about an orphan who lives inside the compartments behind a wall-clock in a French railroad station in 1931 – and loves motion pictures – is absolutely enchanting. Like The Artist, Hugo celebrates the age of silent film and is populated by an array of peculiar characters, including Sacha Baron Cohen as an officious, child-hating station inspector and Ben Kingsley as a bitter toy store owner with a mysterious past.
2. War Horse. Steven Spielberg’s affecting masterpiece tracks the epic journey of a horse through the horrors of World War I, presenting the interweaving stories of its various owners on both sides of the conflict. Shot in the lavish, old-Hollywood style of a John Ford Western, the red skies and open prairies and horrific battle sequences show off Spielberg’s skills, but his greatest gift remains his ability to tell an emotional story with no apologies. To Spielberg’s many sourpuss critics, I can only say: I challenge you not to be moved.
1. A Separation. Contemporary Tehran seems utterly alien, yet so familiar, in my favorite movie of 2011, a riveting Iranian family drama about a child custody dispute—and a murder charge. It features the best ensemble acting performances of the year with characters that are nuanced and sympathetic, and a script (nominated for best screenplay) that underscores the sometimes-subjective nature of truth. Brilliant.
11. Margin Call (moody financial thriller set in the nighttime offices of a New York City investment firm on the eve of a market catastrophe); 12. Captain America (Marvel’s iconic superhero is brought to life in this entertaining popcorn flick set during WWII); 13. Drive (a strange hybrid of languorously paced art film and brain-bashing action flick starring a magnetic Ryan Gosling); 14. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh’s slick, frighteningly clinical account of the race to contain a global pandemic that threatens humanity’s survival); 15. Another Earth (a duplicate version of Earth appears in the sky—a metaphor for second chances—in this compelling indie about terrible mistakes and redemption)
Finally, here is a list of actors more deserving than Jonah Hill of a best supporting actor nomination: Albert Brooks in “Drive”; John Hawkes in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”; Kevin Spacey in “Margin Call”; Jeremy Irons” in “Margin Call”; Ben Kingsley in “Hugo“; Sacha Baron Cohen in “Hugo”; Seth Rogan in “50/50″; Patton Oswalt in “Young Adult.”