The Best (and Worst) Films of 2011
Inasmuch as our cinema genuinely reflects the pervading mood of the times, it comes as no surprise that apocalyptic misery and darkly foreboding atmospherics factored mightily into this past year’s crop of films. Fortunately, there were also key points of light in an otherwise bleak tableau, from strong female comedy ensembles (Bridesmaids) to truly exhilarating action flicks (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), there was just enough to offset the artistic desolation of powerful end-of-the-world visions (Melancholia) and the collective fear and misery of plaintive Oregon trail settlers in Indian country (Meek’s Cutoff). There might have been better overall years of film, but 2011 accurately echoed the fearful zeitgeist of its time.
The 15 Best Films of 2011
15. Captain America: The First Avenger
Maybe it is mostly in the details — Cap’s shield, the look of the Red Skull — but this summer blockbuster superhero romp actually is a hell of a lot of fun. Joe Johnston’s steady hand and attention to period detail allows the film to pass the initial smell test, which, in turn, allows the audience to buy into the whole regular-schmuck-turned-super-soldier story. Chris Evans also proves there’s at least a bit more to him than smug quips and bulging biceps.
14. Win Win
The estimable Paul Giamatti might be the recognizable star of this indie jewel from Thomas McCarthy, but the real attraction is the screenplay from McCarthy and Joe Tiboni. It’s not every day you get to watch an essentially good man sliding on such an ethical slippery slope, but such is the taut and lighthearted tone of the screenplay, that you retain your empathy for the film’s embattled wrestling coach, even as you know he’s going to have to pay for his deceptions in the end if he wants to retain his soul.
13. Jane Eyre
An elegant, mannered adaption of the Charlotte Bronte novel, Cary Fukunaga’s film is certainly beautiful to look at with gorgeous cinematography from Adriano Goldman, but with it’s enormous, cold castles and mysterious, rolling hills, it also captures the eerie atmosphere of this early literary ghost story. Stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (performing in the first entry of what was to become the Year of the Fassbender) are both in top form as well.
12. The City of Life and Death
From the review: “Chuan Lu’s film, based, it must be said, on real soldiers and victims of the catastrophe, is graphic and visceral, as it almost has to be in order to touch on the very real horror visited upon the innocent men, women and children of Nanking. His handheld camera fixes on the expressions of the victorious soldiers and civilian victims in equal counts, daring you to turn away. And you will be tempted: the film, while never gratuitous, displays shootings, drowning, beheadings, many rapes, and, perhaps most sickeningly, the joyful expressions of the perpetrators as they inflict this horror on their fellow man.”
11. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Given the hellbent seriousness of the previous films in the series, Brad Bird’s stunt-filled action soiree is a hell of a lot more fun than you might have imagined. The secret is in the way the filmmakers keep pouring on the obstacles to put in the heroes’ path, never more effectively than the bravura middle section, set in Dubai, that features the tallest building in the world, faulty climbing gloves and a monster sandstorm.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s stock response when asked about his brutal film’s precedents is to say the enigmatic crime thriller was an homage to Pretty Woman. Still not sure I totally follow his logic, but nevertheless the resulting flick was a fan boy delight: an equal parts lyric and ruthless thriller with Ryan Gosling as a nameless driver of getaway cars and Albert Brooks as his conniving, sadistic adversary.
9. Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog’s peculiar meditation on capital murder takes its cues from its enigmatic director, who feels strongly against the death penalty, but isn’t afraid to make a film that shows something of the complexity of the issue. There is a procedural element to the film, but very little suspense as to the outcome, which enables the audience to focus instead on the very real pain and suffering of all involved in the process.
8. The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius’ film gives itself an untold degree of difficulty — create an exciting and enthralling silent film for modern audiences utilizing the early cinema’s boxed-in aspect ratio and foggy black and white presentation — which makes its astounding success all the more mesmerizing. More than an homage, the film is so much fun, it almost singlehandedly revives a genre.
A comedy that works tirelessly for your attention, Kristen Wiig, who stars and co-wrote it, became one of the bust out stars of the summer based on her performance. Despite the potential chick-heavy premise, the movie thankfully avoids falling into Hollywood ‘female comedy’ schmaltz by sticking to its guns. The result is a film that’s just damn funny, regardless of your gender.
From the review: “You would be hard pressed to find a film with a greater contrast between its opening scene and its final one, but, that, too, is part of the point: In a world in which societal expectations and social mores are shown to be little more than paper lanterns, burning up in the atmosphere, the problems of a tiny planet filled with people don’t amount to terribly much.”
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dense and complex, this adaptation of the John le Carré spy thriller is evocative not just of the cold war and the espionage games super power governments play with one another, but also of the European ’70s era itself. A brilliant cast spearheaded by Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth helps to bring Tomas Alfredson’s vision to elegant life.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s psychological horror film features excellent performances and a superbly disturbing script, leaving all but the hints of things much to our unsettled imagination. Elizabeth Olsen proves herself to be a young actress well worth following in her own right beyond her famous siblings, and Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, has hit a home run with his first at bat. A very impressive debut.
3. 13 Assassins
A masterful set-to in post-feudal Japan, Takashi Miike sets up his doomed-but-honorable Samurai in much the same way Kurosawa planted the seeds for the climax of The Seven Samurai. The epic ending battle — more than 30 minutes long by my unofficial count — is nothing short of exhilarating.
2. The Tree of Life
There are plenty of critics who found Terrence Malick’s thoughtful and evocative treatise on mortality and human consciousness to be a discombobulated bore. While it’s true the film’s narrative is shunt around an enormously complex and slow-paced visual essay, it’s not to say the movie lacks for a through-line. It’s just that the narrative arc is so broad and all-encompassing, it’s hard to get a handle on it. The film is not without its flaws (Sean Penn’s character is easily the least ambivalent and most out-of-place prop), but it does so much so overwhelmingly well, that you have to give it its due. It might not be a film you’ll watch over and over again, but it will stay with you like a found memory.
1. Meek’s Cutoff
Inscrutable and haunting, Kelly Reichardt’s film about a group of settlers trying to make it to Western Oregon by following a suspect guide across Native American lands manages to be both lyric and realistic. The ending turned off more than a few people, but one of the film’s many strengths is its refusal to tie anything up in a neat package for viewers.
The Five Worst Films of 2011
No, it might not be quite on the same awful scale as the rest of this list, but in terms of wasted talent, this disappointingly turgid summer action flick from Kenneth Branagh took the dubious prize: A strong (though slumming) cast with such heavyweights as Natalie Portman, Stellen SkarsgardRene Russo and Anthony freaking Hopkins, are given damn all to do in this utter misfire. Thor himself, played by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth, fares better than everyone else, but the inane script and CGI-a-thon effects left much to be desired.
4. The Hangover 2
Bored and listless, the filmmakers so neatly recapitulated the original break-out comedy — in frequent cases, even running the exact same jokes — filmgoers should have filed a class-action suit against the studio. Unfortunately, they didn’t (at least to our knowledge) and the bloody thing grossed $200 million in the U.S. alone, so you can expect to see part 3 (why not set it in New York!) sometime in 2014. Sigh.
I know this is fish in a barrel, but I can’t let a list like this go without at least a mention of the unconscionable laziness behind this bland Kevin James laugh vehicle. There’s simplifying a script so it’s uncluttered, then there’s just taking the easy way out at every opportunity. Broad, dumb and excrutiatingly unfunny, this beast of a spectacle should have stayed inside its cage.
2. Larry Crowne
With an aging Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts trying entirely too desperately for a sprightly romance-challenged little comedy, it would have been up to a sparkling script to bail it out of trouble. Alas, the absolute waste of a script by Hanks and Mia Vardolos actually dooms it even further. Even now, six months later, I can’t believe Hanks, who wrote and directed the imminently watchable That Thing You Do back in 1996, could possibly have done this to himself. It’s like going from The Deer Hunter to Heaven’s Gate, only without the audaciousness.
1. Sucker Punch
Everything you can possibly hate in an entirely CGI-dominated presentation: trite, ridiculous script, horrific acting, boringly over-the-top “stunts” and action scenes that just leave you bored and despondent. Add to that mess the filmmaker’s conception of this film as any kind of subversive action critique, and you have your most excruciating cinematic experience of the year.