Over the last few weeks I noticed several of my colleagues musing on Twitter about how difficult it was to choose a No. 1 film for 2011. They seemed to feel that there were a lot of movies that were very good, but few that were great, and nothing that jumped out as an obvious choice for Best Movie of the Year. And I was glad they said this, because it meant I wasn’t alone.
There was no clear winner for me this year. The top five movies on my list feel about right, but I’m not completely sold on the order. The same goes for Nos. 6-10. Several runners-up might have made the bottom half of the list if I’d compiled it on a different day.
Some of the movies here got B+ reviews from me originally, edging out a handful of A-‘s. I regret nothing! Sometimes reconsidering and/or re-watching a movie makes it feel better or worse than it did the first time. That’s just how it goes. It’s an art, not a science. That’s why wagering on the outcome is not allowed.
I see a couple of themes among my top 10 choices. Several of them, including Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, and even 4 and 9 a little bit, are about the male psyche. How do we expect men — and how do men expect themselves — to behave in order to be considered Real Men? What’s the right mixture of heroism, stoicism, chivalry, foolhardiness, and braggadocio? How is a man supposed to act when he gets sick, sees his dreams fade, or is faced with a challenge?
The other common thread is that nearly every film on this list is a risk-taker. Many of them (like Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, and 9) tell familiar stories but do so in a bold new way that makes them fresh and original. Some of them (like Nos. 2, 8, and 10) have familiar core elements but are so inventive they barely resemble anything we’ve seen before. It’s interesting that of these 10 movies, only three (Nos. 1, 6, and 7) were based on books or other pre-existing properties. The other seven were invented just for the screen. Adaptations, sequels, and remakes are often great, of course. But there’s something especially exciting about a good movie that came to life as a movie, and only exists in that medium.
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2011
1. “Drive.” If there wasn’t a clear-cut best movie of 2011, this one came closest for me. Nicolas Winding Refn’s intoxicating neo-noir existential crime thriller, starring Ryan Gosling as a taciturn getaway driver, stuck with me for weeks after I saw it, like a moody, lingering dream. It’s an action film that moves slowly, a character study that has bursts of brutality. Only on paper does it resemble the formulaic crime dramas it sounds like it reminds you of. On the screen, spinning its uncommonly entertaining yarn out of perilous characters and nightmarish scenarios, it feels dazzlingly original. It also boasts one of the year’s best soundtracks.
2. “Bellflower.” Here’s another one that lingered with me for a long time, and that pertains to Los Angeles men whose lives center around cars, and that has moments of surprising bloodshed. Evan Glodell’s brazenly genre-defying, micro-budgeted adventure is by turns funny, sad, horrific, insane, insightful, and disturbing, and it takes bigger risks than any other movie I saw this year. If it had failed, it would have failed spectacularly. Instead it succeeded, and I cannot wait to see what Glodell does next. I’m also a little afraid that he might be crazy.
3. “The Tree of Life.” Speaking of crazy people, Terrence Malick’s latest is a rumination on nothing less than THE MEANING OF LIFE! And it’s a gorgeously photographed poem of a movie, one that invites viewers to immerse themselves, get lost, and meditate. Plenty of movies fitting that description are pretentious and boring, which is how detractors described this movie. But I think it’s too sincere and humane to be pretentious. Malick means what he says.
4. “50/50.” Cancer, am I right?? This film has Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young man stricken with cancer and Seth Rogen as his best friend, and yet it is not a dark comedy or a dreadful misfire. The degree of difficulty here was very high, but writer Will Reiser (who based it on his life) and director Jonathan Levine pulled it off, delivering a poignant, uproarious, and compassionate dramatic comedy. This is the funny cancer movie by which all other funny cancer movies will be judged.
5. “Rango.” Who’d have thought, in a year that also had him playing Jack Sparrow and Hunter S. Thompson, that the best Johnny Depp movie would be the one where he’s the voice of a cartoon lizard? “Rango” is the loopiest, most anarchic, most inventive animated film of 2011, and one of the flat-out strangest of any genre. The whole thing feels like the Coen brothers made a Tex Avery cartoon set in the Old West, ran it through a Pixar filter, and then dipped it in LSD. I don’t even know if kids liked it, and I don’t care, either.
6. “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Another dreamlike entry on the list, this haunting drama focuses on a nightmare scenario — a mother dealing with a son who’s irredeemably monstrous — and lets us wallow in her painful memories. Tilda Swinton is terrifically haggard and exhausted as the mother, Ezra Miller is insidiously creepy as the son, and director Lynne Ramsay gives the whole thing a surreal, hallucinatory spin, as if we’re viewing everything through the prism of the mother’s gauzy, damaged subconscious.
7. “Winnie the Pooh.” Every other film on this list is in some way bold, inventive, and original. “Winnie the Pooh” isn’t any of those things — and that’s why it succeeds. Instead of updating Pooh for the 21st century, Disney offers the same hand-drawn animation, jaunty songs, and sweetly child-like sense of humor that we remember from the Pooh ‘toons of our youth (which in turn, were fairly similar in spirit to A.A. Milne’s books). The result is a gentle mix of nostalgia and guileless charm. It doesn’t matter that the film is just for kids. When it does its job right, everyone watching it is a kid.
8. “Rubber.” This is a movie about a sentient automobile tire that goes around killing people. It is also a dementedly clever deconstruction of horror movies, not to mention a chunk of genuine capital-A Absurdism. For meta-commentary, the tire’s murderous deeds are witnessed by an audience of people who observe the tire’s rampage and the subsequent police investigation in real time. The film’s trailer describes it as “Roger Corman by way of Samuel Beckett,” an utterly perfect summary that I won’t try to improve upon. Once again, a movie takes incredible risks and reaps satisfying dividends.
9. “Like Crazy.” Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones give natural, engaging performances in Drake Doremus’ emotionally honest little drama. It would be enough for a movie to accurately convey the giddiness of young love, or the misery of long-distance relationships, or the deeply felt pangs of breaking up, or any of the other facets of a typical romance. This one covers them all, and does it succinctly. In barely 90 minutes, we feel like we’ve experienced an entire relationship.
10. “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Like “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” this tense drama flashes back and forth between past and present as a young woman (played by startling newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a cult and tries to reenter normal society. The more we learn about the nature of the cult and its charismatic leader (played by the skeevy John Hawkes), the more we wonder whether she’ll ever be able to leave it behind. The film’s conclusion still doesn’t resonate with me, but what a gripping story it is, meticulously crafted by writer/director Sean Durkin. This was his first feature, and it’s one of the year’s most auspicious debuts.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): “The Adjustment Bureau,” “The Artist,” “Attack the Block,” “The Beaver,” “Beginners,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” “The Descendants,” “The Future,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” “Hugo,” “Insidious,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Muppets,” “Point Blank,” “Take Shelter,” “Win Win”
Films I didn’t see that have appeared on many other critics’ top 10 lists: “A Separation,” “Certified Copy,” “Margaret,” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” “Mysteries of Lisbon”
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2011
1. “The Three Musketeers.” I feel bad for all the movies I called “stupid” before this one.
2. “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.” If there’s one thing funnier than a guy in a dress, it’s TWO guys in dresses! And if there’s one thing funnier than Martin Lawrence, it’s … well, pretty much anything. Thanks to “50/50,” this was the year we finally proved that Martin Lawrence is actually less funny than cancer.
3. “Sucker Punch.” Sure, a hyper-stylized fantasy about hot chicks in a mental ward who use their imaginations to escape from the drudgery of being raped all the time sounds like a great idea for a movie. But somehow Zack Snyder messed it up!
4. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Jim Carrey co-stars with computer-animated penguins who poop a lot. Speaking of poop, this movie is made out of poop.
5. “Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star.” I guess it makes sense that Nick Swardson would star in a movie about someone who becomes famous despite not having any talent.
6. “New Year’s Eve.” Garry Marshall appeared on this list last year with “Valentine’s Day,” and now his lazy, imbecilic follow-up has earned the same distinction. Keep making your dimwitted comedies, old man! I’ll be here!
7. “Something Borrowed.” Kate Hudson will not rest until there’s no one left who can remember ever having liked her.
8. “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” The easy joke is “I don’t know why she does it, either!” The more rewarding joke is “Sarah Jessica Parker looks like a horse!”
9. “The Human Centipede 2.” After some people accidentally found some merit in the first “Human Centipede,” writer/director Tom Six sought to make something no one could possibly enjoy. A strange goal, sure, but who am I to judge?
10. Adam Sandler double feature: “Jack and Jill” and “Just Go with It.” I asked Adam Sandler why his movies are so sloppy, unfocused, and unfunny nowadays, and he responded by setting a pile of money on fire and pushing Rob Schneider down a hill.
Films I didn’t see that might have been contenders: “The Smurfs,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked,” “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World,” “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night,” “The Rite,” “Creature,” “Abduction,” “The Darkest Hour,” “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil”
Shortest movie: “Winnie the Pooh” (63 min.)
Longest movie: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (158 min.)
Longest title: “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”
Least enjoyable good movie: “Shame”
Most enjoyable bad movie: “Conan the Barbarian”
Best movie by a bad filmmaker: “Tower Heist” (Brett Ratner)
Worst movie by a good filmmaker: “Cars 2” (John Lasseter, Pixar)
Movies that could have been called “My Best Friend’s Wedding” in which the female pals have dance routines to pop songs from their childhood: “Something Borrowed” (“Push It,” Salt-n-Pepa), “Bridesmaids” (“Hold On,” Wilson Phillips)
Movies with characters based on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale: “Red Riding Hood,” “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil”
Movies in which a financially well-to-do man is perturbed by the arrival of his wife’s mentally unstable sister as a long-term houseguest, and in which Brady Corbet plays a minor role: “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Melancholia”
Movies in which John C. Reilly plays the father of a boy who’s involved in a violent altercation with other children: “Carnage,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
Movies in which someone who is not a vampire drinks blood: “Limitless,” “Breaking Dawn — Part 1”
Movies whose titles are complete sentences: “We Bought a Zoo,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” “Just Go with It,” “I Am Number Four,” “Take Me Home Tonight,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “What’s Your Number?,” “Everything Must Go,” “Take Shelter”
Movies that don’t actually feature any of the animals mentioned in their titles: “There Be Dragons,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Straw Dogs,” “The Beaver,” “The Eagle,” “The Green Hornet,” “The Human Centipede 2”