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Column Fri Dec 30 2011

Best and Worst Films of 2011

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgAccording to my albeit unscientific calculations, I watched right around 400 new movies in 2011 (with a smattering of vintage films thrown in, but only if I saw them on the big screen), either in the theater or as a screener. Dear lord, what is wrong with me? Actually, nothing, since I'm simply doing the two-fold job that was given to me: to point you, the reader, in the direction of worthy films, and steer you clear of the crap ‐ not always an easy task since people seem to flock to the crap at an alarming rate regardless of the countless warnings from me and others.

But in 2011, guiding folks into theaters playing damn fine films seemed like an easier job than it has been in recent years. I wasn't always pointing you in the direction of a multiplex, but there was never a time when someone would ask me what's worth plunking down money to see at any given point during the year that I couldn't point them to at least half-a-dozen great films, many of which were made for very little money. If you had given me a list at the beginning of 2011 of all the films that I would see in the coming year, I doubt if many, if any, of the below titles would been have predictable as my year-end favorites. I love when that happens.

I tried to limited my selections to films that were officially released in 2011, so something like The Cabin in the Woods (which I saw in December at Butt Numb-a-Thon) doesn't qualify since its official release date is April 2012. However, things I saw early enough in 2010 (such as the remarkable Certified Copy, which is rightfully on a lot of critics' Best Of... lists) didn't make the cut either for reasons that only my brain can make sense of. I guess certain films just don't feel like 2011 releases to me.

I only wrote blurbs for the Top 10, but that doesn't mean the movies that continue on from 11 aren't just as good in some cases. If you think 50 titles is overindulgent (it is, I know), I encourage you to stop reading at 10 or 20 or whatever number you deem appropriate. As in past years so they don't get lost in the shuffle, I've separated out the Best Documentaries of the year, so I can call attention to the extraordinary offerings that were released in 2011. You should see them all, and don't be so afraid of learning something or being moved by real life in a way that reality shows will never be able to accomplish.

And there's a Worst Of... list, but this may be the last year I do this run-down. Although I do find the bad reviews some of the most fun to write, even trying to remember all of the film titles I hated in a given year is exhausting and unproductive. I may select a single worst film for each year, but an entire list seems pointless. If you disagree, let me know. I bow to you guys for guidance on these issues.

Anyway, enough preamble. Let's get to some titles. Tell me what you think; feel free to offer up suggestions ‐ there have definitely been years when I've just flat out forgotten a title or two; or tell me certain titles are undeserving. They aren't, but if it makes you feel better. The accompanying comments on the first 10 come from my original reviews (assuming I did one) Please enjoy.

Best Films of 2011

1. Drive
Drive is a character-driven drama punctuated with some shocking moments of violence. It's also a fantastic showcase for LA atmosphere, showing overviews of the city that are stunning and locations we don't often get to see on screen. The film manages to be both an art-house film and B-movie that brings out the best of both arenas. It doesn't fit easily into a genre, so stop trying to. It's an apparition of a movie that still manages to pound its points home. This one is going to shake you up a bit, and you're going to be a better person because of it. Drive is the kind of film that makes me love my job, love movies, and love getting up every day hoping I'll see another movie as good.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
All too often, I'll watch a movie one day and within 48 hours, the details of the plot or what little character development might be featured has already begun to fade from memory. But with writer-director Sean Durkin's debut feature, the challenge is to forget so many aspects of this absolutely beautifully shot, thoroughly captivating film that combines mysterious characters, a tension-loaded story, and an atmosphere that blurs the lines between reality, memory and paranoia-fueled dreams. And all of these elements converge in the eyes and expressive face of lead actress Elizabeth Olsen. I've seen this film twice now, and it absolutely holds up. In fact, it gets better the second time around. There's a depth and confidence to the piece that is infectious. The organic atmosphere (nearly every frame of the film has trees and/or water in it) adds an other-worldly quality to the proceedings, which only helps build the tension levels to an excruciating degree. I can't wait to see what this director and the leading lady have for us next, and I think that's the highest compliment you can pay any artist.

3. Melancholia
There is so much to say about this film, and yet words don't quite do it justice, since writer-director Lars von Trier's end-of-the-world epic seems to be made from pure emotion. In the past, Von Trier has seemed fit to simply document bad behavior, but Melancholia transcends his previous works by digging deep into the psyche of its characters. It may not seem like it when it's described, but watching these characters crumble and then begin to rebuild is a wondrous thing. Most movies I can talk about with people who haven't seen them yet, but this one is a tough one to discuss with the uninitiated. So here's what you need to do: leave the house and check out this incredible film, and then we'll talk.

4. 13 Assassins
Miike is a master of chaos, but this film proves he can also make certain that his elaborate blood baths are choreographed in such a way that they're relatively easy to follow. He spares us nothing in this gory conflict as limbs go flying in every direction and blood saturates everything. I've been a big fan of lead actor Koji Yakusho, and it's great to see him with rage in his eyes. These are not men who were dragged to this confrontation kicking and screaming; they are happy to be in the role of political assassins because it reminds them of a time when they felt useful, appreciated and powerful. I don't believe Miike could have been made this film 10 or 15 years ago; this is the work of a mature director that understands pacing, building tension and the importance of developing strong characters. If you can handle the extreme violence, expect a magnificent film with extraordinary performances framed in a bloody, muddy spectacle.

5. Warrior
Although this tale of two brothers that both fight in the same Mixed Martial Arts tournament contains many familiar moments and emotions featured in other sports films, I think I'm safe in saying that you have never seen a film quite like Warrior, a work that represents powerful, brutal, thunderous, intimate filmmaking at its very best. This is due to two of the most sweat-and-blood masculine performances I've seen since Stallone first entered the ring as Rocky and changed the world. In the end, this is a film about family and fighting, and it succeeds on both levels to absolutely pull us in and not let go until we're left bruised and bloody. The fight scenes are truly epic and they are shot and executed so convincingly, you can smell the sweat, feel the heat of each punch, and start to choke out when one fighter puts a death grip on another. This is truly one of the best films I've seen all year, and to think otherwise means you deserve as ass whopping of apocalyptic proportions, and I know just the guys to give it to you.

6. The Tree of Life
Director Terrence Mallick's film is one that cannot be pinned down to any one explanation or meaning. It's a film meant to wash over you and leave you thinking about it days or weeks after you've seen it. But most of all, it's a work left deliberately vague so that discussion will ensue after it's been viewed. Those are my favorite kinds of films. When I hear someone tell me a day or two after they've seen a thought-provoking film that they still don't know what they thought of it, my response is always some variation of, "The fact that you're still thinking about it probably means you liked it." The Tree of Life is not a simple, straight-forward work, but it's not confusing or so intent on being different that it makes it impossible to understand. My advice is to let the images take hold, and don't worry so much about piecing them together or attempting to interpret them until the film is done. My guess is that your analysis will never quite be complete until you see it a second time. You will absolutely take something away from the film, and that doesn't happen nearly enough in movies any more. Cherish the moment.

7. Moneyball
Above all else, Moneyball is damn fine storytelling that never forgets that the grace and perfection is in the detail. We get into the role each player has on the team. But I firmly believe you don't have to care one iota about baseball to love this movie with all your heart, and from this point forward, when the inevitable list of the greatest baseball or sports movies is compiled for whatever reason, I think this one will rank right near the top, and rightfully so. It's a winner.

8. Midnight In Paris
Every few years, Woody Allen reminds us that he's not just prolific but also that he's a genius. He's not a genius because he can make us laugh or think; no, he's brilliant because he very often can do both in equal measure. Almost without fail, when you read the cast list of whatever the next Woody Allen movie is, you are stunned at the caliber of the talent and the potential these great actors have together. Sometimes, what looks good on paper works; other times, it doesn't. I'm ecstatic to report that Midnight In Paris is one of the great modern Allen works, one that works on every level as both a romantic comedy and a metaphor for the dangers of living in the past. You may not get all of the jokes and references if you don't have a college degree, but there's still plenty here to laugh with and appreciate.

9. The Artist
It's unfathomable to me that there are people on this earth that don't like The Artist, the magical film from the talented French director-actor team of Michel Hazanavicius (who also wrote it) and actor Jean Dujardin. The film is a celebration and homage to a great, lost era in filmmaking. I have always loved silent film, even the ones that many consider average, simply because they reveal so much about a style of movie making and acting that is long gone and not considered nearly enough. The Artist reveals Hazanavicius' deep admiration for this bygone era and his attempt to remind us that those silent film actors were not lesser performers simply because we never heard their voices. Talking about this film almost ruins it; just go see the damn thing and don't be scared of the black and white or the silence.

10. Young Adult
For many, Young Adult is going to be an exercise in defying expectations. It comes from the writer (the Oscar-winning Diablo Cody) and director (Jason Reitman) of Juno, so you might expect a light-hearted comedy with snappy dialogue and a few moments of seriousness to drive home its deeper messages. Not only would you be 1,000 percent wrong, but you'd be selling Young Adult seriously short on just about every level. Anchored by a pair of performances that are among the year's best, surprisingly sophisticated dialogue, and a subject matter that is unsettling, with touches of humor, this movie achieves moments and takes us on such a nakedly personal journey that it feels almost death defying for its characters. The film is a a deftly smart and sometimes unnerving work that takes us down unpredictable roads and thrives in its dark corners. It simultaneously reminds us of the best and worst parts of the human soul, and shows us that a lot of people use both in order to get through the day. This is a great movie that doesn't use the usual tricks to convince us how great it is.

11. Take Shelter
12. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
13. A Separation
14. Mildred Pierce (I had to give a nod to truly one of the best film-watching experience I had in 2011, even though it was not a theatrical release. This Todd Haynes-directed HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet was a perfect blend of quality acting, discomforting melodrama, and a time capsule of a bygone era that was not kind of single/divorced women.)
15. Submarine
16. X-Men: First Class
17. Another Earth
18. The Descendants
19. Hugo
20. The Muppets

21. Shame
22. Bridesmaids
23. The Beaver
24. Like Crazy
25. A Better Life
26. Win Win
27. The Future
28. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
29. The Skin I Live In

30. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
31. Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol
32. Jane Eyre
33. Weekend
34. 50/50
35. Captain America: The First Avenger
36. Super 8
37. Source Code
38. Tyrannosaur
39. Contagion
40. Meek's Cutoff

41. Mysteries of Lisbon
42. La Havre
43. Attack the Block
44. The Adjustment Bureau
45. Super
46. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
47. Crazy Stupid Love
48. Hesher
49. Rango
50. Insidious

BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011

1. 1. The Interrupters
A work of documentary perfection that not only spells out the problem of violence in the economically devastated neighborhoods of Chicago but also does the best job I've seen of offering solutions. It is a powerful film that shows this subject from every possible angle. The folks in this community are trying to take control of a bad situation and make it better. I can't imagine this movie won't have an impact on you on a profoundly deep level. I wanted to shake the hands of every person in this film when it was done. This is a movie about individuals, each with their own dramatic backstory, who have used the drama in their lives to make something good. I'll smack anyone who sees something bad about The Interrupters ...or maybe I won't.

2. 2. Buck
3. 3. Project Nim
4. 4. Pearl Jam Twenty
5. 5. Nostalgia For the Light
6. 6. Into the Abyss
7. 7. The Black Power Mixtape
8. 8. Bill Cunningham New York
9. 9. Bobby Fischer Against the World
10. 10. Being Elmo

11. 11. Beat, Rhymes & Life: Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
12. 12. Tabloid
13. 13. Undefeated
14. 14. Shut Up Little Man!
15. 15. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
16. 16. Senna
17. 17. Garbo the Spy
18. 18. One Lucky Elephant
19. 19. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
20. 20. Page One: Inside the New York Times

WORST FILM OF 2011

Larry Crowne and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close No they are not the worst made movies of the year or the worst acted or the worst themed. But damn did these films rub me the wrong way with all of their misguided do-goodery and false, wide-eyed innocence. I'm not sure what I cringed at more: Tom Hanks on a scooter, or Tom Hanks plummeting from a fiery World Trade Center tower. Plus, both Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock look about as miserable to be in these movies as I've ever seen them. Hanks had perhaps the worst year of his entire career since he started winning Oscars ‐ maybe ever ‐ simply by teaming up with two of America's sweethearts. He made not just two movies' worth of unapologetic garbage, but more like that trail of discolored goop that seeps out of the garbage when the bag gets a tear at the bottom. Don't ever do this again, Mr. Hanks. I think you're great; I truly do. But don't ever do this to us again.

Runners-Up
Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked; Apollo 18; Battle: Los Angeles; Beastly; Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star; The Change-Up; The Conspirator; The Darkest Hour; Dylan Dog: Dead of Night; Fireflies In the Garden; A Good Old Fashioned Orgy; The Hangover, Part II; I Am Number Four; I Don't Know How She Does It; Jack & Jill; Just Go With It; Killer Elite; Mars Needs Moms; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Red Riding Hood; Sanctum; Scream 4; Season of the Witch; Shark Night 3D; The Smurfs; The Son of No One; Spy Kids: All the Time in the World; The Three Musketeers; Water for Elephants; What's Your Number?; Your Highness; The Zookeeper

LaShawn Williams / December 30, 2011 3:57 PM

Awwww man--I totally dug Just Go With It! :-) Also, I feel super guilty that I've not seen The Interrupters yet.

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