My Favorite Films of 2011
(in alphabetical order)
In Mike Mills’s utterly charming, slightly autobiographical drama, Ewan McGregor plays a writer who – like many in this world – have relationship issues. He has a tough time committing with a woman. He’s kind of estranged from his father. He doesn’t have many friends. His best friend, in fact, is a dog. But when his father comes out of the closet and becomes ill, McGregor’s life snaps into focus. Warm performances and a fantastic script help make Beginners an incredibly funny and moving experience.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Amid polarizing buzz, I did not know what to expect from this drama when I sat down to watch it during one hot summer night. The lack of expectations allowed me to open my mind and embrace the film for what it really was: a parable about loss, mourning and acceptance. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a six-hankie tearjerker and unabashedly so; it’s also a gorgeously life-affirming one, a movie that clings so hard to hope. It’s a miracle this even worked at all. Under the wrong hands, this could have turned into a Patch Adams or a Simon Birch. But director Stephen Daldry and writer Eric Roth walked some very fine lines and achieved a thing of genuine beauty.
In this fantastic thriller from Joe Wright, Saoirse Ronan plays a teenage girl who was raised by her father (Eric Bana) to become a ruthless killer. She’s completely isolated from society and her focus is razor-sharp and quick-witted. You would never want to cross her path. When Hanna is let loose, the film makes some charming observations on how a teenage girl processes modern-day culture. Part action thriller, part fish-out-of-water commentary, part father-daughter drama, and all parts awesome and thrilling, Hanna is an achievement in style and substance. A great ride.
Wall Street jargon tends to confuse me. All of this recession-speak makes my head spin. Margin Call, a corporate thriller about key strategists at an investment bank who make life-changing discoveries and decisions in a 24-hour period, made me feel like a smart person. I knew exactly what was happening; I understood the crisis, the dilemma, the stakes. JC Chandler’s script – which was nominated for an Oscar – was sparse, tight and utterly absorbing. And wow, what a cast! So good to see Kevin Spacey in a juicy role again. And Irons, Tucci, Bettany, Moore – incredible work from all of them.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Brian DePalma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible is one of my favorite movies. It’s one of the rare summer blockbusters that holds up well after repeated viewings. After the two lackluster sequels (III was pretty good, II was not), I had all but considered the franchise on its last legs. Boy, was I wrong! Ghost Protocol is the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year. Brad Bird’s fanciful direction, the delightfully clever set pieces, the familiar and rousing score, and an extraordinarily charismatic Tom Cruise at the top of his game — it all works. The surprise cameos and incredibly game supporting cast more than make up for the film’s sole weakness: an unmemorable villain. Still, it’s a huge adrenaline rush, just what the franchise — and the viewer — needed.
An exquisite, crushing little film. A Separation is an intimate drama about a working stiff who is in over his head with his father’s illness, a demanding job, a conflicted daughter, a house helper he cannot trust, and a wife who wants to move away. He is forced to make choices that will affect his family’s entire future. Payman Maadi delivers a masterful performance in Asghar Farhadi’s deeply resonant film from Iran. My heart breaks for this family.
You know me, I’m a sucker for time travel. But Source Code isn’t exactly time travel; the filmmakers like to call it “time displacement.” Hey, call it whatever you like; this stuff is right up my alley. The film involves our hero (the always great Jake Gyllenhaal) who helps the government catch a terrorist by “re-living” moments just before the previous terror attack. He’s not actually going back to stop the attack, but to gather information in order to prevent the killer from doing it again. Source Code is very tricky in its way of spelling out the narrative but it absolutely works. It’s a challenging film but hugely entertaining and very rewarding. Shout out must go to the lovely Vera Farmiga as a communications analyst who helps our hero save the world. After Moon and this one, director Duncan Jones has become a filmmaker you can get excited about.
Michael Shannon, character actor extraordinaire, gives one of his very best performances as a working family man who lives a peaceful, respectful life. Until, that is, he is inflicted with the harrowing symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. First he is ashamed and hides it from his family and coworkers. But then he becomes frightened. Jessica Chastain, who had a marvelous year, is aces as his conflicted wife. Some folks were put off by the tricky ending but it made absolute sense to me. (The way I see it, it is not to be taken literally.) It’s a daring film, beautifully executed by relative newcomer Jeff Nichols.
Michael Winterbottom’s improvisational The Trip is not just the funniest film of the year. It also happens to be a deeply moving travelogue in which two long-time friends reflect on life and its joys and miseries. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play variations of themselves as they eat and talk in one glorious location after another. Winterbottom originally filmed The Trip as a 6-part miniseries but whittled it down to a hilarious and heartfelt two-hour feature. It works like gangbusters. “Gentlemen, to bed! For we rise at daybreak… Or 8:30… ish.”
We Need To Talk About Kevin
The best film I’ve seen all year. It’s not exactly a title I’m eager to sit through time and time again, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that truly shook me to my core. Harrowing is not a strong enough word. Tilda Swinton gave the best performance of anyone I’ve seen in 2011. She plays a mother who never really wanted a child. Eva was a free spirit and the new baby ended that lifestyle sooner than she had hoped. She resented the kid but after a while, she turned it around. She fell in love with her son and wanted to make the best of it. But unfortunately it was too late. The kid saw right through her. Kevin was a boy who never had his mother’s genuine love. Needless to say, that f’ed him up good. We Need to Talk About Kevin is less about what Kevin actually does in the film and more about Eva and her guilt. Either way, it’s a thrilling piece of filmmaking.
The Adjustment Bureau; The Adventures of Tintin; Being Elmo; Cedar Rapids; Drive; 50/50; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; The Help; Higher Ground; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; The Myth of the American Sleepover; Paul; Rampart; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Shame; Warrior; Weekend; Win Win; Winnie the Pooh; Young Adult