The Best Films of the Year:

(Keep in mind that this list is more a recognition of the films which were able to resonate emotionally, while also being well made; than purely a list of the finest technical abilities being put on display in a year full of well-respected auteurs bringing something to the big screen.)

10. Another Earth

— This low budget, high concept film from co-writer/director Mike Cahill and co-writer/star Brit Marling was perhaps the most welcome surprise of 2011. It’s always wonderful to be there near the beginning of an artist’s career and this is a 2 for 1. The concept of what one might say to their doppelganger isn’t entirely new but it’s a thought provoking one nonetheless; and Marling’s performance in the film is outstanding, earning her the Best Actress award from the San Diego Film Critics Society (you can bet I was among those who voted for her).


9. In a Better World

— Director Susanne Bier has yet to do any wrong in my estimation. Even though this didn’t resonate with me as much as some of her other films, the ability to elicit such excellent performances from the entire cast is astounding. The story follows the intersection of two Danish families (trying to summarize the full plot is asking far too much, read the review). Also, while the metaphors and messages are a bit too on-the-head for my taste, watching the two boys who are at the center of the film act so naturally and with such depth only reinforces Bier’s reputation.


8. Like Crazy

— The original review didn’t lend itself to placing this film on the Top 10 but re-watching it while preparing for the San Diego Film Critics Society vote made a world of difference. Director Drake Doremus (“Spooner”, “Douchebag“) has established himself as remarkably capable of delivering intimate portraits of characters, all while working in an improvised manner and often without a fully written-out script. He knows that it’s more important to follow the truth of the scene as the characters discover how each event affects their lives, than to make sure they’ve memorized their lines. “Like Crazy” features good performances, a beautiful score, is gorgeously edited to make it all seem like you’re tripping down memory lane, and sincerely captures that feeling of first love.


7. Martha Marcy May Marlene

— Writer/director Sean Durkin centers this story on Martha, played superbly by Elizabeth Olsen. She’s adapting poorly to life after just leaving/escaping a cult and the influence of its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes in another solid performance). This isn’t a crowd pleaser, as there is no traditional plot structure, but the tension Durkin creates as each layer of Martha’s ordeal is peeled back is palpable and made for one of the more discussion-inducing films of the year.


6. Win Win

— Writer/director Tom McCarthy continues his streak of excellent films with “Win Win”. Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer and high school wrestling coach who finds himself making a bad decision concerning one of his clients in order to make ends meet. It creates a domino effect with unforeseen consequences. Between Giamatti and the film’s excellent ensemble cast, this is one of the more complete movies of the year. It also should appeal to nearly any demographic, which while far from being a necessary quality, seems less and less the norm these days.


5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

— This movie has built-in emotional triggers like 9/11, an autistic child, and a dead Tom Hanks – so it’s not surprising that Kleenex may be required in order to get through the film. However, director Stephen Daldry managed to make all of this work in a sincere fashion, even with Sandra Bullock as the grieving widow/newly single parent. Max von Sydow and Viola Davis turn in excellent supporting performances and young Thomas Horn more than capably carries the load of being the central character. Obviously, this isn’t something you’d watch if you need an escape but for audiences looking to make an emotional connection with a film, look no further.


4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

— J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard franchise captured the world’s attention. Its film adaptations have spanned over 10 years and grossed a ridiculous pile of galleons. More impressively, producers and filmmakers were able to keep the same actors for the entire run (save for the late Richard Harris, R.I.P.). The end result is HP 7.2, which benefits from the previous 7 films in that audiences have bonded to the characters and it creates a “Return of the King” phenomenon, artificially inflating the sense of importance to it all. Sure, the gravitas inherent in the closing chapter is a bit of a cheat, but director David Yates, and the greatest grouping of British actors that might ever be assembled into one cast list, have bid farewell to Harry Potter in style. The film is a triumph of spirit, storytelling, and artistry.


3. 50/50

— Based on the real life battle with cancer screenwriter Will Reiser underwent, “50/50″ is appropriately being likened to “Terms of Enderment” for a new generation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to impress and turns in one of the best acting performances of the year, the supporting cast is more than up to the task, and director Jonathan Levine capably balances the comedic and dramatic aspects of Reiser’s excellent script. And did I mention Anna Kendrick? (Call me, Anna).


2. Beginners

— Perhaps the most criminally under-marketed movie of the year, it’s no surprise when people tell me they never heard of this at all. Hopefully, the critical success and multiple nominations the film and its performances are receiving from various organizations and critics’ groups will help audiences find it in the home market. Writer/director Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical tale of a son dealing with both the loss of his father (who came out of the closet in his seventies) and a new relationship with a French actress, is a pure joy to watch. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent deliver outstanding performances, as does Cosmo (an adorable Jack Russell terrier that steals a few scenes – in a good way).


1. Drive

— Topping out the list in 2011 is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s ode to early 80s genre films, “Drive”. Although Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks are truly excellent, the true star is Refn. Buoyed by an excellent score from Cliff Martinez, the movie is almost a fever dream and Refn expertly slow builds the characters and their relationships to one another, before furiously crashing everything down around them. Be forewarned, the brief bursts of violence in the latter half are quite graphic but because of the manner in which Refn has crafted things, it’s not gratuitous and only further heightens the seething emotions lying underneath each character.

The Worst Films of the Year:

(Since it’s 2011, adding one more crapfest to the pile seemed appropriate … and it was easy to do too.)

11. Cars 2

— We all knew this had to happen one day. Pixar’s amazing streak of excellent films was bound to come to an end eventually. While the first “Cars” was essentially their low mark prior to this point, making a sequel and centering it on Larry the Cable Guy’s portrayal of Mater the tow truck made sure they hit a new low. Jeff Foxworthy fans may find a lot to like here but for the rest of us, just sweep this spotlight on tedium under the rug and hope that 2012′s “Brave” will return the studio’s good name to its place on a pedestal above not only the other animation studios, but some of the live-action ones as well.


10. The Green Hornet

— Yeah, this year has some clunkers. “The Green Hornet” is sitting at #10. There are NINE movies worse than this! All audiences can hope for is that there’s never a sequel to this hodgepodge of awfulness. I hope Christoph Waltz got paid a lot of money to sully his good name with this stinker. All that this movie proved was that Seth Rogen is a far better comedian than action star … and far more palatable as a supporting character than the lead. Hollywood, please take note.


9. 30 Minutes or Less

— I’ll sum this up in 30 words or less: It sucks.


8. The Roommate

— Aargh! How do you mess up the “Single White Female” formula so much? What should have been a shallow, voyeuristic time-waster was utterly boring and even the hotness of Minka Kelly couldn’t save things.


7. Bridesmaids

— Oooh, this made a ton of money, the Golden Globes nominated it for Best Comedy, and tons of people think this is hilarious. Well, I didn’t put a dime towards its total, the Golden Globes are blatantly obvious and ridiculous in their choices, and I laughed more waiting in line at the DMV. It’s one thing to not get the jokes, there are plenty of comedies that don’t make me laugh that I still respect for their composition and chalk it off to appealing to a different sense of humor. However, the very title alone is a lie, this is all about Kristen Wiig’s character (the rest of the bridesmaids get short-shrifted) and it never made sense as to why she was someone I was supposed to be cheering on. I’d rather get a dental check up than see this again.


6. Take Me Home Tonight

— Cashing in on 80′s nostalgia is far from abnormal. However, making a film this bad about the 80′s is something audiences have largely been spared. Even in mediocre attempts, the soundtrack and general environment of the picture get audiences through it all. This is an abject disaster and essentially the anti-John Hughes film. It should only be seen if you’re actually high on cocaine, have traveled back in time via Delorean, and have a Flock of Seagulls hairstyle. Actually, even that wouldn’t be enough. Just avoid this crap.


5. Melancholia

— It’s not a Worst of the Year list unless there’s some hoity toity, pretentious borefest included. 2011′s entry is director Lars von Trier’s rumination on the end of the world. Although there are some metaphors your average hipster would love to discuss over a half-caf, skim milk, chi mocha latte, it’s really just 2 plus hours of watching Kirsten Dunst act like an obnoxious, depressed Kirsten Dunst and the longest wait ever for an apocalyptic ending that audiences should be rooting for when all is said and done. If there is a bright side, it’s that Bruce Willis wasn’t around to save everyone. Oops, spoiler alert. :P


4. Albert Nobbs

— Have you ever wanted to see an example of bodies at rest remaining at rest? Then look no further than “Albert Nobbs”. It’s been a while since a film did so little in so much time (unless you count “Melancholia”). This is only good for people suffering from insomnia.


3. Sucker Punch

— I’m sure I’m paraphrasing my own review in some way but seriously, how do you fuck up so bad when all people wanted was hot girls in short skirts with swords and guns fighting robots, dragons, and Nazis? It has all those things … and is still an abominable, unmitigated disaster. Look out Superman, Zack Snyder’s middle name is kryptonite.


2. Just Go With It

— The first of two Adam Sandler travesties on the list, the movie’s title must have been concocted on opposite day. While ogling Sports Illustrates swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker in a bikini can rightfully be considered worthwhile, essentially everything else in the film cannot. If there was a screenplay, it was written in yellow highlighter on a pad of post-its, thereby rendering it invisible. To no one’s surprise, this does not break Sandler’s impressive run of ridiculously terrible films.


1. Jack and Jill

— Adam Sandler completes his 1-2 punch to the cinematic groin with perhaps his most obvious attempt to determine the actual lowest common denominator when it comes to moviegoers. It appropriately opened #2 at the box office and continued to prove to Hollywood that audiences will see anything as long as it’s on the big screen, taking in $71 million in domestic gross (the world showed it was smarter than us and only contributed $16.8 million towards this monstrosity). If this isn’t Sandler attempting to find out just how dumb people can be, then there may indeed be something wrong with his medulla oblongata.

The Most Underrated/Overlooked
Films of the Year:

A Somewhat Gentle Man

— I’m a sucker for Scandinavian films and this falls right in line with that proclivity. Stellan Skarsgård turns in a fantastic performance and the film manages to have some of the funniest moments of the year, and some of the most poignant. A definite must-see for foreign film fans.


The Tree of Life

— This wasn’t so much underrated or overlooked as it was something that I wanted to make sure to recognize as it just missed the Top 10. While there are plenty who find it pretentious, and this is a prime example of art vs entertainment, I fully appreciate the ambitiousness of writer/director Terrence Malick as he explores the dual narrative of a family’s dissolution and the very beginnings of the Earth itself. The cinematography is stunning, and unless it’s still somehow in an actual movie theater, one should make sure to watch the Blu-ray or some other HD version, the standard DVD is not enough in this case.


Meek’s Cutoff

— Another film that is far more art than entertainment, writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s take on a wagon train’s journey across Oregon is an impressive undertaking. There’s just as much subtext as there are overt metaphors on display. The acting is excellent and it manages to capture the feeling of what such an expedition must have felt like, tedium and all. This lends itself more for the serious film buff or film student, but deserves some recognition nonetheless.


Angel’s Crest

— It just wouldn’t be a list made by yours truly unless some random, obscure, tale of melancholy found its way in. The story of a small mountain town shaken up by the disappearance of a little boy, I was captivated by the portrait of the community and the depth of emotion brought about by the aforementioned incident. Good performances all around, especially that of Lynn Collins as the boy’s mother.


The Guard

— Brendan Gleeson’s surname is appropriate. He makes me happy, whether it’s in appreciation of his fine dramatic chops or his comedic timing. Here he shows off both, as a seemingly bigoted police officer in a small Irish town who finds himself in the middle of a drug trafficking crackdown, joining forces with the FBI in the form of Don Cheadle. What at first seems a rather slight film has surprising depth and this is one of the sharpest screenplays of the year. If you love politically incorrect humor, this is the one for you.

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