The Year in Film: Our Favorite Movies of 2011

This was yet another year with some of the most-anticipated films crammed into its final months, keeping them fresh in memory for the coming award-season. For this reason, we didn’t manage to see a few critic’s picks before it was time to make our list (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame, Melancholia, A Dangerous Method) and came up short of a perfect 10. But without further ado or apologies, these were our favorite films of the year…

1. Beginners

Go ahead and watch the trailer above, if for some reason you skipped out on the experience of watching Beginners. It contains many of our favorite elements of the film. But perhaps you had a knee-jerk reaction to the subtitle-speaking dog in the opening, as many (including ourselves) did to the twee-by-definition narrating cat in Miranda July’s The Future (and wouldn’t ya know it, July is married to director Mike Mills)… While Beginners does contain many of the tell-tale indie-isms of modern cinema, it avoids becoming a cliché, instead using these tools to craft a thoroughly endearing story of love, loss, and personal growth. We particularly enjoyed the quick-cut montages of still-images under McGregor’s narration and use of Mills’ quirky/depressing illustrations throughout the film, appropriately art-world touches for a story centered on a graphic designer and his museum-curator father. The soundtrack’s old time-y piano jazz brings the viewer into the familiar world that Woody Allen characters inhabit. Beginners may be guilty of hitting on all our soft-spots, but if you’ll give into its charms you’ll find a film that holds up to its promise.

2. Midnight in Paris

Speaking of Woody, I think we can all agree that Midnight in Paris easily tops any of the fifteen or so movies he’s made in the last ten years, ranking among his very best work. Owen Wilson plays the Allen stand-in lead to perfection (and who would have thought he’d pull off this task better than Larry David?) as a jilted newlywed screenwriter honeymooning in Paris with his shrew wife and her politically conservative WASP parents. Nothing out of the ordinary, until the deus ex machina of time travel sweeps him away to the Paris of the 1920s, where he encounters greats like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates), Salvador Dali (a hilarious cameo by Adrien Brody), Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Man Ray and more. Gil (Wilson) falls in love with a flapper ex-flame of Hemingway’s, a metaphor for the love affair with cultural nostalgia that his wife (Rachel McAddams) and in-laws cannot understand. The film is a love letter not just to the city (we have enough of those), but to the literary and artistic greats of the Jazz Age, a time Woody himself would surely love to escape to over any city in the world.

3. Hanna

I remember thinking upon seeing the bombastic trailer for Hanna, with its slick visuals and title splash heralding music by the Chemical Brothers, “This must be the feature film debut of a music video director.” So you can imagine my surprise to find out this stylish fresh take on the modern thriller was the work of Joe Wright, the director behind Atonement and Pride & Prejudice. But damned if Wright doesn’t know how to make a movie of any genre look good and draw viewers into its world. In her first lead role since The Lovely Bones, Saoirse Ronan plays the titular part of a young trained killer with conviction and believability, holding her own against stellar performances by Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana. But my initial reaction to the trailer was on the money about one thing– the real star here is the soundtrack, with the Chemical Brothers returning in fine form and laying waste to their ’90s electronic music peers’ soundtrack work (Daft Punk’s Tron, Mr. Oizo’s Rubber, even the Dust Brothers’ Fight Club). As a clerk at my local art-house theater/rental-shop said, if you don’t own any movies in the Blu-Ray format yet, this film will make you want to get started on that collection.

4. The Tree of Life

A non-linear essay on the very nature of existence, The Tree of Life seeks to balance weighty issues of life, death, and the origin of the cosmos against personal, fleeting moments of memory. Did director Terrance Malick bite off more than he could chew? Sure, but no film this year has been as divisive, even amongst those that get its artistic leanings. Pretentious? You fucking bet. Overreaching? Absolutely. But The Tree of Life is also stupendously gorgeous, poignant, and wrenching. For a film that swings big, it’s surprising that what works most are the small details. Supposedly based on Malick’s childhood experiences in Waco, TX, during the fifties, the prototypical family scenes are among the most realistic and precise depictions of domestic life brought to film. Imbued with an appreciation for kid magic, these scenes relish the awe and electricity of youth. Because The Tree of Life lacks a conventional narrative, what emerges is a strange collection of pasts and presents, lights and sounds. Supremely intimate and lyrical, The Tree of Life is less movie than it is a visual symphony.

5. Drive

Drive is a stylish homage to ’80s B-movies and pulpy thrillers, and bears more resemblance to films like “Thief” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” than it does to the retro-modern pastiche of Tarantino. One of the best (and most meta) lines in the movie comes from Albert Brooks’ mobster character, describing the films he himself used to produce in the ’80s as “kinda like action films, sexy stuff. One critic called them European.” But where Drive really shines is the cast and the stellar performances they deliver. Though Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver (who comes across like a combination of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle and Alain Delon in Le Samourai) remains front and center, it’s the supporting cast that steals the show; especially Bryan Cranston who plays the mechanic mentor with a nervous energy, Christina Hendricks and Oscar Isaac as criminal accomplices in a violent robbery, and Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks as cold and calculated Jewish-Italian mob bosses with dangerous and unpredictable streaks of insecurity. Drive escalates in violence as the film progresses, but Gosling’s character never stops to wash the blood off his iconic scorpion-embellished members-only jacket— another meta-commentary on the nature of the film itself; bold, bloody, and unapologetic.

6. Bellflower

“It’s time you started your new life as Lord Humongous”… I wanted to like this film so much more than was possible, based on its premise as an “apocalypse love story” complete with cars and flamethrowers. But what an ungodly mess of a movie… Bellflower is full of completely unlikable characters and its plot is less “John Hughes meets Mad Max” (as advertised) than “Garden State with mindless violence.” The film’s protagonist, Woodrow, is constantly vomiting his emotions (literally) when he’s not communicating them with his fists. In a dream-sequence near the conclusion, love-interest/heart-breaker Milly actually tattoos a moustache on him. Seriously. Throw in an Urban Outfitters-approved soundtrack that beats you over the head with songs by Ratatat, Why?, and Lykke Li, and I’m all but set to turn my back on Belllflower and wipe it from my memory. However, I can’t ignore the film’s biggest redeeming factor: Writer/director/star Evan Glodell and his production team custom-built the cars, flame-throwers, and even the cameras they used to shoot the film, and the results are gorgeously impressive. Just watch it with the sound off, substitute in the plot of Drive and you’re set. The film’s visual and pyrotechnic feats earn Bellflower a spot on this list (and it was either this or the underrated but equally hyperviolent Hobo With a Shotgun.)

7. J. Edgar

Some have panned J. Edgar as a slow-building film that loses steam as it progresses—perhaps because it opens with large explosions (bombings of Federal officials’ homes by socialist radicals) before transitioning toward stage-play-like dialogue between young actors wearing a distracting amount of aging effects make-up. But I’ll take the best make-up job Hollywood has to offer any day over bizarre and unecessary CGI facial reconstructions like the “de-aging” of Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy. It says something for Eastwood’s skilled storytelling that throughout the film viewers may actually find themselves siding with DiCapprio’s Hoover against political foes like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys. As for cinematography, the film retains a washed out palette similar to Eastwoods’ other recent films, but with a period look somewhere between Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. Co-star Armie Hammer turns in a wonderful performance as Hoover’s lifelong companion and assistant director of the bureau, Clyde Tolson. And although Eastwood chose to include scenes alluding to Hoover’s long-rumored cross-dressing proclivities, the love story between he and Tolson plays out far more tenderly than an Intro to Government version of Brokeback Mountain. But it’s Judi Dench who steals the show as J. Edgar’s overbearing mother, who instills enough freudian damage on him to make enemies of the whole world. Though this type of film is usually Oliver Stone’s territory, Eastwood pays respectful tribute rather than smearing his subjects already dirty reputation, and I’d love to see him take home an Oscar for his efforts.