You’re probably so over 2011 right now. You probably have no interest in the Top 10 Films of 2011 anymore, but allow me to explain why it took until Jan. 3 to publish this list.
2011 left something to be desired at the movies — and that’s being nice. Each year tends to be full of at least a half dozen unanimously great films and I’m struggling to decide how to order the many 4.5/5-star films I saw. I only gave five films that rating, and one 5/5, and even of those films I’m not deeply raving about more than three of them.
It’s sad, because I most definitely said last year that I figured I would be hard-pressed to figure out my list this year based on the title I was looking forward to. I also mentioned how making this list stinks because there are always a few films I see in January that would be in the mix. So as you might imagine, I was kind of desperate. I held out as long as I could hoping to see films that I would want on my list. It was worthwhile, as two of the films here were added within the last couple weeks.
My Top 10 Films of the Year
10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
I was completely underwhelmed by the Battle of Hogwarts, but “Part 2″ was a thrilling conclusion in all other ways, an apt exclamation point on a a franchise I couldn’t praise highly enough for its maturity and risk-taking among various other accomplishments. Everything came full circle and Daniel Radcliffe took center stage, proving just how far along he’s come in the last decade. Read my review.
9. Take Shelter
In a year of mostly underwhelming studio-produced Oscar films, a little gem like Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” stands out. 2011 had its fair share of slow and plodding suspense thrillers, but few managed to keep me engrossed like this one. “Take Shelter” features a powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon as a man wrestling with apocalyptic visions and the realization that he may in fact be crazy. We haven’t seen a descent into madness this effective in a long time and Nichols’ use of suspense is downright Hitchcockian. Read my review.
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Usually it’s a film that looks really good in previews that ends up bad or disappointing; it’s almost never the other way around. Yet bad title and all, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” demonstrated consummate execution of an origin story. The emotional punch packed into the story of Caesar the ape’s disillusionment with the human race not only caught audiences off guard, but also bolstered the otherwise ordinary action sequences with an emotional intensity. The special effects were also something to behold, as WETA has proven time and time again that motion capture is a powerful visual tool. Then there’s Andy Serkis, who shows working with mo-cap is not a paycheck, but a skill and an art form. Read my review.
Try to pigeonhole “Drive” into a genre — just try. Nicholas Winding Refn might not have gotten much of a welcome party from American audiences, but he proved his time will certainly come with this exceptional and unique mixture of crime drama, thriller and action. Like so many 2011 films, “Drive” moves slowly and builds suspense, but its unforgiving and brutal payoffs will leave you floored. Performances of tremendous magnitude come from both Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks and the hip indie soundtrack gave it all an unusual flair. In the future, films like “Drive” will be viewed among the year’s best in the court of popular opinion as well. Read my review.
6. X-Men: First Class
The cream of this year’s superhero crop, “X-Men: First Class” also demonstrated how effective a well-told origin story can be. With James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing the characters we’ve come to know and love in Professor X and Magneto, Fox hit a home run. Their performances and the friendship dynamic takes this film somewhere special and the themes at play come across second to only the Christopher Nolan “Batman” films. Director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”) prove they can weave gold when entrusted with a blockbuster. How 20th Century Fox ever managed to make the year’s best popcorn flicks (this and “Apes”) given their reputation for creative interference has me foot in mouth. Bravo. Read my review.
5. 13 Assassins
Rarely do I feel compelled to push something foreign or totally off the radar, but “13 Assassins” was the year’s best action film. If you have any interest in samurai films, Takashi Miike’s take on a timeless genre deserves your time. Even if you find Feudal Era Japanese politics boring, subtitles painful or keeping track of characters too much of a chore , it all pays off in the end with a 45-minute battle sequence pitting 13 men against an army. If you want to see how good “300″ could have been, here you go. The fact that “13 Assassins” is so clearly an action film yet never loses sight of its historical context and themes centered around a waining system of government had me thoroughly impressed. Read my review.
4. The Help
I am beyond thrilled to name “The Help” the best ensemble film of the year. The performances given by its leading ladies should not be understated for any reason. Some might find Tate Taylor’s take on the best-selling novel to be another feel-good race relations story, but I see it as anything but. Viola Davis leads a slew of convincing and shaking performances from Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard. Even Sissy Spacek is a delight. Few films accomplished what “The Help” did in 2011: take a story that came off as pandering Oscar bait and actually convert it into something of undeniable substance. Its insistence on maintaining a lighter tone also helped it resonate in a year where audiences and critics tended to side with comedic fare. Read my review.
I had high expectations for Martin Scorsese’s latest effort, even if it was a film intended for a family audience. I just never expected them to be met, let alone exceeded. I’ll be the first to admit that its surprise of being a love letter to cinema played into my biases, but its enjoyment is not limited to cinephiles by any means. “Hugo” boasts emotion, adventure, ceaseless optimism and dazzling visuals. A good old historical-fiction fairy tale was precisely what the doctor ordered for 2011, something magical without being kitschy. And considering the last year of a beating 3D has taken, “Hugo” also offers proof that in expert hands, an extra dimension can be a powerful storytelling tool. Read my review.
Balancing drama and humor is always a lauded accomplishment in storytelling, especially in film; balancing cancer and raunchy humor is another feat unto itself. The amount of genital references undoubtedly kept “50/50″ from being named among the year’s best, but I refuse to let traditional views of criticism and awards acknowledgement stop me from holding a banner for a film equally as laugh-out-loud funny as it is cinematically responsible and expertly crafted. Hopefully Will Reiser will get the recognition he deserves for his script that handles cancer in such an honest way that Hollywood never thought possible. Still, all the actors — even Seth Rogen — deliver believable performances. “50/50″ has its cake and eats it too, with its poignancy going pound for pound with its entertainment value. Read my review.
1. The Descendants
Having completed our third calendar year as Americans in a poor economic state, it’s been no surprise (as I’ve alluded to) to see comedies take center stage as well as other films that aim to whisk us away from real problems. “The Descendants” does the exact opposite, centering around a family whose matriarch is dying in a coma but had previously been adulterous, which could explain why the general public hasn’t raved about it. But I’ll stand by Alexander Payne, who makes a deeply emotional and resonant splash having abandoned us since ”Sideways.” George Clooney gives one of his best performances ever in a story that’s harsh in the way it looks at its characters and ideas, but undeniably true. Somehow it manages to redeem all its characters’ awful flaws and show us how we can go on living despite them all. Read my review.