The past year has been fantastic for moviegoers. More so than any other year in recent memory, the best films of 2011 are incredibly different – in tone, in style, and in direction. Sure, there were duds too. But in between, a handful of directors took risks and played against type to create things thoughtful, compelling and wholly entertaining.
1. Drive — Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn distill the action drama to its coolest core with Drive, a thematic heir to Le Samouraï, A Fistful of Dollars or any film that throws strong, silent badasses into danger. Gosling’s iconic turn smolders against a doe-eyed Carey Mulligan, while Albert Brooks’s performance as a sociopathic mobster is downright revelatory. Sprinkle on Cliff Martinez’s ethereal ’80s synth-pop soundtrack, and Drive becomes the rarest of action movies – it tells its story in the quiet moments, between bullets.
2. Weekend — Director Andrew Haigh’s risk was simple enough: Follow two men as their relationship sprouts, entangles itself, and takes on a thrilling life of its own. That Weekend is his writing and directing debut makes it all the more impressive. By embracing what it is – and adding a few deft touches along the way – Haigh made a love story to remember.
3. Another Earth — When a soon-to-be MIT student (Brit Marling), drunk and driving, leans out her window to spot a mirror image of our planet in the sky, only one thing is obvious – Another Earth is sci-fi like we’ve never seen before. Mike Cahill’s directorial debut uses this cosmic crisis to explore a kind more immediately existential, creating an affective movie that’s as grim as it is delicate.
4. The Tree of Life — Terrence Malick’s examination of our relationship with nature incomprehensible is a brilliant movie. The Tree of Life splits God and man, amid the story of a boy growing up in 1950s Texas, with a poetic approach to life’s big questions that’s equally gorgeous and inventive.
5. Bridesmaids — That Bridesmaids worked is no surprise. That it worked so well – sprinting past Judd Apatow’s man-boy formula to become a genuine comedy about women, their friendships and their love lives – is an unexpected delight.
6. The Descendants — Alexander Payne (Sideways) brushes off the camera for his first feature-length work in seven years, and it was worth the wait. George Clooney stars as a Hawaiian landowner whose wife lands in a coma. His stellar performance, as well as Shailene Woodley’s, make The Descendants one of the best of the year. Payne’s wry sincerity, though, will make it last.
7. Pariah — The closing film at Reel Affirmations 20 is awesome in its ambition. In the wrong hands, Pariah would be provocative. Instead, first-time writer and director Dee Rees poignantly explores a variety of social conflicts through the eyes of a black, lesbian teenager who struggles with sexuality and identity. The film will get a theatrical release in our area in January.
8. Hugo — Martin Scorsese trying his hand at 3D will turn heads. But gimmick aside, Hugo deserves credit for telling such an intimate story within a movie so expansive. When the movie’s second act kicks in and it suddenly becomes a movie about movies, Hugo is as good as anything else in 2011.
9. A Separation — There’s an aching intensity to A Separation, director Asghar Farhadi’s vivid dissection of a domestic tragedy between an Iranian man and woman with a strained marriage. Farhadi masterfully tugs at each thread as their relationship unravels, turning A Separation into something much more, about marriage, honor and punishment.
10. Hanna — Joe Wright’s Hanna, with its booming Chemical Brothers soundtrack and cold-blooded, teenage assassin (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t the most innovative movie out there. It’s simply action, mainlined through gracefully meticulous sequences of violence. And it’s done damn well.
1. Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star — A movie that has neither charm nor purpose, it’s an offensive attempt to churn out another Happy Madison branded star. On cue, there’s Nick Swardson, Prince Valiant wig in hand, ready to torpedo any semblance of wit, intelligence or taste as an oafish Midwesterner with a tiny prick. Bucky Larson isn’t a star being born – it’s a black hole.
2. Jack and Jill — That whole “Happy Madison branded star” thing? It’s all because of Adam Sandler and the nonsense like Jack and Jill he slops out year after year. While he’s the only genuine moneymaker to rise out of the gang, he’s still guilty of their crimes. Jack and Jill is humor of the lowest common denominator, outfitted in a 90-minute Dunkin Donuts commercial.
3. Atlas Shrugged — Everyone else did too when they heard about this poor excuse for a movie.
4. Conan the Barbarian — Here are some of the ways I described Conan the Barbarian in August: “Sucks gloriously … treats men and women like mouth-breathing caricatures of violence and sex … a hodgepodge of images thrown at you both expositionally and literally.” Four months later, I’m still not entirely sure Conan was anything but a bad fever dream.
5. Apollo 18 — Boy, this was disappointing. Apollo 18 takes the found-footage style of Paranormal Activity to lunar heights with a conspiratorial mission to the moon that flails and fails to make a lick of sense.