The Best Films of 2011
2011 is the weakest year of film in recent memory. That’s not to say there weren’t some pretty good films out there, but it is the first year in which I can recall not having seen a movie that has earned a four-star rating. Whereas some critics give them out like candy, it takes a little more for me to award such a rating. I have to be absolutely blown away by a film for such a rating to be given. For example, last year I saw three four-star films: Inception, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole, each of them a superb achievement in cinema.
This is also the first year I can recall there not being a clear choice as the best film of the year. Usually, there is one that stands above the rest and is the clear, deserving choice of the title, such as my choices for the last few years: Inception, Inglourious Basterds, and The Dark Knight. This year, there have been several films that have been quite good, but not any that really stand out from the rest as being the clear choice, so this year I am kind of taking a page from the Book of Ebert and ranking them in order of approximate preference since, really, arguments can be made as to why each one is deserving of having a high spot on the list.
Before I begin the countdown, I have to mention that, due to poor distribution on the part of the respective studios, there were some films that I did not get a chance to see such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Coriolanus, and Shame. Also, Take Shelter played here briefly, but I did not have the opportunity to go see it. If any changes are needed to the list upon seeing them, I will make the necessary amendments, or at the very least, make a special commendation for them.
The Adjustment Bureau – A fascinating story of trying to control one’s fate.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – Thrills galore are featured in this excellent addition to the franchise.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil – One of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long time.
The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius’s amazing recreation of a silent film is delightful, emotional, and quite enjoyable. It’s also the frontfunner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar.
10. Drive – This bizarre film noir is somewhat reminiscent of Melville’s classic “Le Samourai.” Ryan Gosling delivers a very subdued performance as a driver for hire for criminals at night and a stunt driver by day. The excellent supporting cast includes Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Carey Mulligan. Features some amazing action sequences punctuated with a touching story of the Driver forming a relationship with his neighbor and her son. Wonderfully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
9. The Adventures of Tintin – A throwback to the great adventures of cinema such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Speaking of which, Tintin was brought to us by the great Steven Spielberg as his first animated film, and what an amazing job he does. Featuring incredibly lifelike animation and a story that sends our heroes, an investigative journalist and his dog, around the world. The great voice cast includes Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis (who also does more of his amazing motion capture work), Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. The best animated film of the year by far.
8. Anonymous – Sadly, this is one that the other critics didn’t take to despite it being one of the best films of the year. It tells an intriguing tale of how Shakespeare was not the actual author of the plays accredited to him, but rather that that they were written by the Earl of Oxford, who didn’t believe that people of his station did such things. Couple this with a good amount of political intrigue from a rebellion against the throne and you have quite an interesting story, particularly for those interested in the conspiracy theory revolving around Shakespeare, or even for those who are just fans of his work, such as myself.
7. Moneyball – A movie about baseball that is not so much about baseball but rather the people and effort behind making a team work. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill give excellent performances as two guys trying to put together a championship team for Oakland. Their theory is that a team needs to buy runs, not expensive players who are only good for one position. One of the biggest highlights of the film is the great screenplay by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. The latter’s contributions to the script are clearly heard in all the fast-paced, engrossing dialogue where, even for a scene that involves Pitt and Hill sitting around trading players, the audience is hanging on every word. One of the rare sports movies that’s for everyone.
6. Hugo – Martin Scorsese ventures into the realm of family film with this incredible film about a young boy and girl who work together to unlock a mystery involving a great filmmaker thought to be forgotten. It starts off a little slow, but the story that unfolds in the second half is a film-lovers delight that even dares to teach the audience a little bit of film history. While labeled as a family film, kids might not take to it quite as much as an older audience, particularly in the section that tells us a little about the beginnings of silent cinema, though they will probably enjoy the kids’ adventure. This is a film that any fan of film can enjoy.
5. Win Win – A sweet, touching story about a struggling lawyer, played by Paul Giamatti, who decides to get some income by becoming the guardian of an elderly man whom he sticks in a nursing home. When the elderly man’s grandson comes to live with him, things become more complicated, causing Giamatti’s family to take him in. Turns out the kid is pretty good at wrestling and the struggling lawyer just happens to be a wrestling coach as well. Win Win comes to us from Tom McCarthy, who has a great gift for bringing us stories with wonderful, unforgettable characters such as those in his previous film, The Visitor. A delightful film that’s a great mix of drama and comedy.
4. 13 Assassins – Director Takashi Miike keeps the spirit of the samurai alive in his ambitious, stylish, and spectacular 13 Assassins. With this film, Miike continues the tradition of great samurai films such as Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the latter of which seems to have somewhat acted as a template for this film. The story tells of a madman about to be appointed to the Shogun’s council in feudal Japan. If this should happen, it would mean disaster for the country, so a group of 12 assassins (plus one they meet on their journey) is formed to kill him.
The first half of the story may move a little slow for some, but the second half is well-worth waiting for. It features one of the most unforgettable battle sequences in cinematic history that includes bows, arrows, spears, swords, slingshots, dynamite, and flaming bulls. Miike somehow has this last for an incredibly exciting and engaging, non-stop 45 minutes, but the difference here is that, unlike many action films nowadays, you can tell what’s happening thanks to skilled editing. Usually one has to turn to the old maters for such a film, but Miike has pulled it off marvelously.
3. We Need to Talk About Kevin – The story of a woman who has to deal with the fact that her son is a monster. It jumps between present day and several years earlier when the son, Kevin, was born. We slowly see the events that lead to the way Kevin and his mother are in present day in a film that can be very uncomfortable to watch as you notice several things going wrong. Features a performance by Tilda Swinton that is the best performance by an actress I’ve seen all year. The film doesn’t go into wider distribution until January and February, but when it does, I highly recommend checking it out. (Look for my review around the end of January)
2. Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen returns to top form with his latest film, Midnight in Paris. It tells the story of a writer, Gil, who is visiting Paris with his fiancée. His belief is that the best era to have lived was Paris in the 1920s where several of the greatest artistic minds existed. When out on a walk one night, he is picked up by a mysterious car that transports him back to the 20s where he meets such people as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. The joy of watching this film is in the artistic grab bag of personalities that Allen incorporates into his screenplay. You never know who you’re going to see pop up next. It’s a wonderful mixture of charm, magic, and wit that should not be missed.
1. X-Men: First Class – I know, I know, I’m just as shocked as you that this hit the number one spot. It was an incredibly close call as both this and Midnight in Paris were my favorite films of the year, so it all came down to the second viewing test. While “Midnight in Paris” was still quite good, I found that X-Men: First Class held up a little better, being just as entertaining, engaging, and delightful as it was on the first viewing, if not more so.
The story is just what the title implies. This is the first group of mutants gathered at Charles Xavier’s school to stop an imminent threat. Sebastian Shaw, a mutant with the power to absorb energy, is bent on creating nuclear war by forcing the Americans to place missiles in Turkey and the Russians to place missiles in, you guessed it, Cuba. The film features a fascinating double-use of history in that not only are we getting the fictional history of one of the most famous groups of superheroes ever created, but also the incorporation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the United States and Russia were actually incredibly close to nuclear war.
Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are excellent as the young versions of Erik (later Magneto) and Professor Xavier, respectively. The younger actors playing the newly-recruited mutants are quite good as well. After a first viewing, I complained that Kevin Bacon is not particularly effective as the villain because he’s not exactly threatening (he’s not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of someone who’d make a good villain), but on the second viewing, I enjoyed his performance a lot more, finding him to be more delightful than threatening.
Now, does having this film at number one mean that it was just a really good film, or is it a sign that this year was rather weak? I think it’s a little bit of both actually. I’ve already mentioned how there weren’t any films that blew me away completely for a four-star rating, but X-Men: First Class is quite a good film and will be remembered for being such. If Christopher Nolan set the mark for how good a realistic superhero movie can be with his Batman films, then Matthew Vaughn has set the mark for how good a superhero movie can be even when dealing with the most absurd and unbelievable material.
I’ve also already mentioned how you can pretty much make a case for any of these films as being the best of the year. X-Men: First Class was lots of fun and shows that even absurd comic book material can be made into a great movie. Midnight in Paris delighted me with its excellent screenplay and fascinating personalities and characterizations. We Need to Talk About Kevin was somewhat disturbing, but utterly absorbing. For all I know, one of the films I haven’t gotten to see yet was a solid four-star champion, which would indeed change this list.
Next year sees the release of two films that will undoubtedly be great (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Dark Knight Rises), so it seems I’ll just have to wait until then to be completely blown away again into the four-star realm.
The Worst Films of 2011
As per usual, the year brought us many stinkers that we as film critics were forced to sit through, so once again, it’s time to air out the dirty laundry to bring you some of the very worst films that the year had to offer.
Before I begin this countdown, it should be noted that I did not see several films that would have undoubtedly made this list such as Jack and Jill, Bucky Larson, The Human Centipede 2, and the latest Big Mama film, so if there’s a really awful film missing from the list, there’s a good chance that I just didn’t waste the time to see it.
Dishonorable Mentions: Season of the Witch, 11-11-11, Dream House
10. The Green Hornet – This is one that I’d completely forgotten about until I was preparing this list by combing over all the films of the year. This was supposed to be a fun adaptation of the Radio show turned TV series, but instead, what we get is a complete mess of badly shot action sequences and an extremely annoying lead character played by a motor-mouthed Seth Rogan. On top of that, we get the pointless inclusion of 3D and Christoph Waltz, who isn’t given much of anything to do throughout the film. It’s no wonder I forgot about it.
9. Paranormal Activity 3 – This is a series that should have died before it was even allowed to start. The first film was an exceedingly dull, slow, and tedious experience, which has since been replicated twice for the two sequels. Unfortunately, these films are becoming as parasitic as the Saw films, though not as bad, but since they cost such a small amount to make, if only a few people go to see it, it’s considered successful, and therefore the studio has enough funds to finance more of them. However, just like with the Saw films, the quality of the final products don’t seem to matter at all as long as it makes money.
8. Drive Angry 3D – I’m still baffled as to how these guys managed to turn what sounded like an interesting premise of a man coming back from hell for revenge into such a bore of a film. It starts off promising, but quickly loses its way as it becomes a mess of a story involving a satanic cult. Throw in some badly shot and badly edited action sequences and you’ve got yourself one of the worst films of the year.
7. Priest – Numbers 7 and 6 actually kind of go together. Once again we have a complete mess of a story, this time involving a priest played by Paul Bettany trying to rescue a girl from vampires. This one was supposed to be in 3-D, but luckily I was able to see it in 2D, though it didn’t help make the film any better. Much of it occurs in dark locations where it’s hard to tell what’s going on, not that the audience ends up caring since there’s zero plot and character development. What a waste of Bettany’s talent.
6. Sanctum – Here we have another movie that takes place in very dark locations, but this time, it’s for almost the entire film. This one was also supposed to be in 3D, but I caught it in 2D instead, and I’m glad I did, because like Priest, I can’t imagine how dark the film would have looked having to watch it in 3D when the film is already occurring in a very dark setting. On top of that, the entire film is simply about a group of people trying to find their way out of a cave after trying to find where water is being released from it into a nearby sea. Why they would risk their lives for this is inexplicable.
5. The Twilight Saga : Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – The Twilight Saga is a soap opera that somehow continues to get worse as it goes along. The three leads, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner, give their usual stiff, wooden performances which merely prove that they have no business being anywhere near the occupation of acting. The story here is even worse and more melodramatic than usual and involves Edward and Bella finally getting married and going off on their honeymoon. This takes up the first half of the film and eventually gets around to Bella getting pregnant. Meanwhile, we get little hints that there’s finally going to be a fight between the vampires and werewolves, but when we do, it lasts no more than two minutes, leaving the audience wondering what they’ve just sat through a bloated two hour soap opera for. Luckily there’s only one more film to go before we say good riddance to this awful series.
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon – See Optimus Prime take on his most challenging enemy yet: Steel Cables! Yes, the film actually features a scene where the great Optimus Prime gets tangles in steel cables for several minutes while the never-ending climactic action sequence continues on and on. Apparently Michael Bay learned absolutely nothing from the previous film where one of the main complaints was the never-ending battle sequence at the end of that film. Once again we get an overly-long (154 minutes!!!) bore of an action film with no character development, no plot, bland CGI, and editing based on Bay’s belief that everyone has an attention span of approximately half a second. This is yet another series that simply needs to die.
3. Conan the Barbarian – Speaking of films I had completely forgotten about, here we have Conan the Barbarian, a completely mindless, pointless mess of a film. The film is loaded with problems from the nonsensical plot to Jason Momoa’s terrible performance (who thought someone could make Schwarzenegger look good?). The biggest question I was left with after it was over was how in the world they managed to get Morgan Freeman to narrate this travesty of a film. That must’ve been some paycheck. Luckily this bombed at the box office, so that supposed sequel that Momoa wrote will never see the light of day. Thank goodness for small favors.
2. Your Highness – You know those films that make you squirm in your seat just for how bad they are? Well this is one of them. Here we have a film that was written by a pair of prepubescent kids, Danny McBride and Ben Best, whose main goal was to try and fit as many sex jokes into 100 minutes as they could. The result is an embarrassingly unfunny film that will have you squirming a hole right into your seat. It seems almost impossible to believe that James Franco and Natalie Portman, both Oscar nominees earlier this year, would go anywhere near this terrible material. It’s also quite hard to believe that the director, David Gordon Green, is the same man who brought us the excellent film Snow Angels, one of the best films of 2008. Such an incredible waste of talent.
1. Battle: Los Angeles – Here’s an example of where just about everything that can go wrong with a film did. There are so many aspects of Battle: Los Angeles that are so incompetently done, it’s amazing that the film was ever released. This film’s long list of problems include a terrible story and screenplay, as well as incomprehensible editing and every alien movie cliché you can think of, including a rousing speech to raise the troops’ morale (which got a pretty good laugh at my screening as I recall). All this film made me want to do is rewatch Independence Day, which, when compared with this film, looks like a masterpiece. Back in March when I reviewed the film, I predicted that this would be the worst film I would see all year because I couldn’t imagine that anything else coming up this year could be worse. But who knows, perhaps one of the films I skipped was even worse, and if that’s true, I shudder to think about it.