There is a caveat I’d like to make before I begin, and that’s that any “best of” list should always be considered not only subjective but subject to change, whether because opinions change or additional experience has expanded the horizons possible on that topic from that given perspective. Anyone who can’t or won’t acknowledge this isn’t being very honest.
That being said, the following are my ten favorite movie experiences of the year, and that’s really all you need to know.
- Warrior was at the time and remains my favorite. I described it in the linked review as a kind of prequel to the classic On the Waterfront as if you’re watching Marlon Brando back when he was a “contenda.” In this version, Tom Hardy is that man, and also the brother of Joel Edgerton, both of them MMA fighters who end up fighting against each other in an international tournament. The movie isn’t really about the fighting, however, so much as the emotional turmoil they’ve separately found themselves in, thanks in part to deadbeat dad Nick Nolte. Rarely is a drama this impactful, much less understated, with Hardy particularly demonstrating how he has become one of film’s most celebrated new stars. Jennifer Morriso co-stars.
- Source Code is the expansive vision of fate brought to you by Duncan Jones, on the surface a fun little Groundhog Day-esque adventure, with Jake Gyllenhaal repeating the same day over and over, fighting the control of Jeffrey Wright and Vera Farmiga while struggling to figure out whose body he’s in and why Michelle Monaghan seems so interested in him. Shot with incredible visual flare and more mind-boggling than any other science fiction film of the past ten years, this one will have a cult following at the very least for a long time to come.
- The Tree of Life has frustrated most critics who haven’t been able to understand most of what Terrence Malick put into his latest interpretation of the greater meaning of life, but that’s okay, because most of it is grounded by strong performances from Brad Pitt and 2011 all-star Jessica Chastain, who play parents with very different ideas about how to raise their rebellious boys. I’m not one to argue when one of the masters of filmmaking produces what may be his masterpiece.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 concludes the most lucrative franchise in film and literary history on a high note, fully embracing the grand scale J.K. Rowling built to in her increasingly intricate books. The films themselves have gotten better, from the magical angst of the third installment (Prisoner of Azkaban) to the incredible foreboding of the sixth (Half-blood Prince), and finally the epic journey of the two-part finale. Most movie-goers obsessed over Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, but it’s Harry who’s king of cinematic fantasy, and this one offers definitive proof.
- Green Lantern baffled comic book fans and casual viewers alike, certainly during a summer in which three other superhero franchises offered simpler interpretations of the genre, yet it was the intricate plotting and evocative motifs of the sole DC Comics property in the bunch that captured my imagination. Ryan Reynolds is the kind of movie star, hard to pin down but consistently in demand, who could pull off translating an entire franchise that until now has basically been unknown to the general public.
- Midnight in Paris continues Woody Allen’s reign as the biggest underdog in film, perennially beloved but prone to being underestimated and rarely a box office favorite, with Owen Wilson in his best role in years as a man who discovers the remarkable ability to travel back in time and hobnob with his idols. A sheer delight.
- The Adjustment Bureau was the most anticipated movie of the year that everyone basically forgot about after it was actually released, and that’s a terrible shame, because Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are not only perfect in this film but offer the best romance of 2011, all while evading sinister forces that seek to keep them apart. In short, this and Source Code made for a terrific one-two sci-fi punch.
- Hanna had the distinction of sporting some of the best actors assembled for any film this year, including Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, and Saoirse Ronan in the eponymous role, a gifted young woman caught in the middle of a convoluted plot. The best pure action movie of the year.
- Super 8 is another filmmaker’s opus, this time J.J. Abrams, best known for any number of TV series and several movie franchises, and working for the first time on his own dream project, involving a group of kids who become entangled in the fate of an alien who has crash-landed on Earth. Along with the criminally-underrated Kyle Chandler, they somehow manage to make everything right, all while participating in a story bursting with charm and wonder.
- Cowboys and Aliens should have been one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer, but was somehow lost in the shuffle. Well, never mind that. Jon Favreau is another filmmaker who hit a career high by famously combining James Bond (Daniel Craig) with Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the most innovative (and yet thoroughly authentic) Western that Hollywood is ever likely to produce. The key here isn’t the gimmick but the story, which tracks Craig as he struggles to figure out what caused him to lose his memory, and why Olivia Wilde is the only one who believes him.