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This One Goes Up to 11: 2011’s Best Movies

December 31, 2011

Now that I’ve finished my list of the year’s worst movies, it’s time to accen-chew-ate the positive. 2011 turned out to be a far better year for cinema than 2010, when Machete and Piranha 3D made my list of the year’s best films. You can read longer reviews of these movies, from Fretts on Film or my former blog with Bret Watson, Two Cranky Guys, by clicking on the titles. And away we go!

10. Win Win. Isn’t it about time we declared Paul Giamatti a national treasure? I mean, c’mon, the guy has been genius in everything from Private Parts to Sideways and as everybody from Harvey Pekar to John Adams. He gives perhaps his most subtly human and humane performance yet as a morally conflicted high-school wrestling coach in writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s deeply funny and moving character study. No question: Giamatti should win win an Oscar.

9. The Artist. What’s black and white and (mostly) silent all over? This artistically daring melodramedy about the dawn of the talkies. I just wish other 2011 films had opted to dispense with spoken dialogue. Like, say, Justin Timberlake’s terrible trio of In Time, Bad Teacher and Friends with Benefits

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The quietly riveting remake of John Le Carre’s Cold War classic gives Gary Oldman his greatest role since Prick Up Your Ears as George Smiley, a veteran British operative who’s assigned to find a Soviet mole inside MI6. TTSS proves the key to a great spy movie is simple: intelligence.

7. The Ides of March and The Descendants. It’s taken years for me to be able to take George Clooney seriously; first I had to erase all the memories of bad TV shows he’d done (The Facts of Life, Baby Talk, Bodies of Evidence…the list goes on). But this one-two punch knocked me out. The political thriller Ides, which he also cowrote and directed, provided even greater entertainment value than the current Republican campaign. And while there’s been a backlash (at least among my Facebook friends) against Alexander Payne’s Hawaiian coma-dy/drama, I found it utterly surprising and original. So you can count me among Clooney’s many conquests.

6. The Debt. You owe it to yourself to seek out this twisty tale of Israeli espionage on DVD. A flawless cast—including Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Sam Worthington and breakout star Jessica Chastain—and John Madden’s muscular direction should’ve made this an Oscar contender. Instead, it got lost in the late-summer shuffle. And that’s a crime.

5. Martha May Marcy Marlene. 2011’s other most overlooked movie featured a star-making performance by Elizabeth Olsen as a mentally fractured woman trying to piece her mind back together after escaping a terrifyingly believable religious cult. As its leader, John Hawkes is even more scarily charismatic here than in his Oscar-nominated turn as meth-head Tear Drop in last year’s chilling classic Winter’s Bone.

4. Bridesmaids. Now here’s a great movie people actually saw. To say it was the year’s funniest film might be damning it with faint praise, considering the limp competition (e.g. The Hangover, Part II, Horrible Bosses, Hall Pass and on and on, literally ad nauseum). So how about this? It was the funniest film in years. 

3. Moneyball. You don’t need to be a baseball lover to get caught up in the quixotic real-life quest of ex-Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, another artistic late bloomer like his Oceans 11-13 accomplice Clooney). You just need to be a movie lover. Without the corniness of Field of Dreams or The Natural, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan swing for the fences and connect.

2. Hugo. You don’t need to be a movie lover to treasure Martin Scorsese’s valentine to film preservation. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Masterfully adapted from Brian Selznick’s magnificent half-graphic novel, this artistic triumph redeems not just the 3D gimmick but the entire “family movie” genre. This is huge.

1. Drive. Director Nicholas Winding Refn doesn’t just have the year’s best name; he’s made the year’s best movie. Nothing gave me the same kind of filmgoing thrill—call it a cinemagasm—as this visually and aurally stylish yet profoundly disturbing action thinkpiece about a Hollywood stunt driver who gets mixed up in real-world mayhem. In a remarkable year that also encompassed The Ides of March and the underrated Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling slips into Steve McQueen-esque stardom like a well-worn scorpion jacket. And the supporting cast—including Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and an Oscar-worthy Albert Brooks—bring a stunningly amoral weight to the story. I can’t wait to see it again. And again. And again…

How many of these 11 films have you seen? And what were the best flicks you caught in 2011?

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15 Comments
  1. I agree completely with losing the words in JT’s terrible trio, but not that Gosling’s C,S,L was underrated. I think it was terribly overrated, it seemed rushed, especially at the end. I would put Hugo first, but I’ve yet to see Drive.

  2. BBrightman permalink

    Did not understand the Bridesmaids hoopla – it had a couple of funny moments – only those primarily featuring Kristen Wiig -she is hilarious. Melissa McCarthy was the stock obnoxious character – too over the top. She was much funnier hosting SNL. Why do people make such a big deal of this movie?? Ugh.

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