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My 2011 Top Ten List

My favorite time of the year has finally come. It’s the time when I can finally take a break from reporting on other individuals and groups choices for best of the year and actually focus on my own. If any of you missed last year’s, here’s a link to last year’s big list. Over the next week, leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be writing a series of posts that will encompass my feelings on the 2011 year in films. I’ll start things out with my Top Ten List, featured here, followed by two posts chronicling the nominations and winners of the 2nd Annual Edgy Awards. Hopefully, I can maintain concentration and get all of this done before the entire awards season comes to a head.

To be quite honest, this is probably my least favored year of films in terms of quality in at least a decade. I’m not sure what exactly went wrong or rubbed me the wrong way, but there was something lacking in the overall caliber of releases. Disappointing to say the least. Perhaps, it’s not even the overall batch of films, but rather some favorites of the film critic and connoisseur community just did not register in my book. Yet, even with the diminished standard, I still feel compelled to give a shout out of recognition to the films that were more than respectable. The following seven films, listed alphabetically, are some examples of damn fine filmmaking, but had just a few too many flaws that kept them out the final ten.

Here we go. The runners-up are as follows:

“The Artist”

Written and Directed by
Michel Hazanavicius

A delightful and sometimes intriguing romp into the throwback world of silent filmmaking, highlighted by some great design qualities and a stellar lead performance by Jean Dujardin. Yet, the film really suffers from having…well…nothing really important to say or leave us with.

“Bridesmaids”

Directed by Paul Feig
Written by Amy Mumolo and Kristen Wiig

Undoubtedly, the funniest film of the year. The ensemble cast delivers and features, in my opinion, an Oscar caliber performance by Melissa McCarthy. Yet, the film’s waning third act retreats into chick-flick territory, becoming surprisingly lazy and unsatisfying.

“Hanna”

Directed by Joe Wright
Written by David Farr and Seth Lochhead

An unexpected gem of an action film. It’s packed to the gills with non-stop excitement and justifiably heavy-handed direction, bound together by the best sound of the year, both in its mix and score. By the end, however, we realize that the freight train of entertainment just didn’t have anywhere to go with itself.

 

 

“The Ides of March”

Directed by George Clooney
Written by Grant Heslov, George Clooney and Beau Willimon

I’m not sure where along the way this film seemed to acquire such a bad reputation. Solid direction, an intriguing script and fantastic performances by the whole cast. Out of all of Gosling’s work put forth, this year, this is certainly his finest. The film just comes up a tad underwhelming and distant, which is a big no-no for a political drama.

 

 

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

Directed by Tomas Alfredsen
Written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan

A deep and tightly wound spy thriller of a quality not often found in espionage cinema, today. Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch keep the viewer wrapped up in the story’s web. Yet, while this is debatable after only one viewing, the film’s slow unravel seems to become a bit plodding, at times.

 

 

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”

Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Written by Rory Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay

A truly visceral and unnerving film experience, which at times, feels a little too much like nails on a chalkboard to achieve fulfillment in its viewers. Tilda Swinton deserved an Oscar nomination for the film’s final scene, alone.

 

 

 

“Win Win”

Written and Directed by
Thomas McCarthy

A wonderful fairy tale of contemporary suburbia, with a treat of a supporting performance by Bobby Cannavale. One of the year’s most gratifying movies, hurt only by a repetitive third act and a protagonist that is just a bit too likable.

 

 

 

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And now on to the main event. The following ten films encompass my choices for best films of the year; a representation of my taste, I suppose. I’m positive that there are a number of highly popular films that failed to make my cut and many people will dispute their absence. If anyone has any questions or arguments, feel free to comment.

 

10. “Take Shelter”

 

Written and Directed by
Jeff Nichols

Once in a while, a film comes along that works not on an emotional or physical level, but on a cerebral one, which may actually encompass the other two plains, simultaneously. “Take Shelter” is a truly mind-bending cinematic experience. While some films try to tackle paranoia and fear with a surface context, “Shelter” dives straight into its protagonist’s brain and ties us into his own panic and perception with some strikingly terrifying dream sequences. The film features the best of Jessica Chastain’s five performances this year as the worried and confused wife. Yet, she pales in comparison to the towering portrait by Michael Shannon. His stern, yet somehow vulnerable, presence in “Take Shelter” gets under the viewers’ skin like few other 2011 performances have. If nothing else, this is the most unnerving and downright scariest film of the year.

 

9. “The Descendants”

 

Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne and Jim Rash

While it may not be Payne’s best film (“Sideways” still leads that race by more than a few laps), “Descendants” is still a highly enjoyable and fascinating look at the grieving process. George Clooney is the driving force, making all of the tears deeply felt and all the laughs worthwhile. An interesting irony is that most of Payne’s films are about genuinely bad people: the liars, cheaters and pariahs of society. “The Descendants” puts an interesting spin on that concept by examining the lives of those left in the wake of one such person when they die, accepting their offenses and learning to live with what good will that was intended. It’s a film about coming to grips, not just with death, but with life, thereafter.

 

8. “Into the Abyss”

 

Written and Directed by
Werner Herzog

While the previous film strived to find the lighter aspects of death, this one has no fear in diving into the darkest corners of our emotions. Herzog’s death penalty documentary takes a surprisingly unbiased look at its topic, especially when the director states in the first five minutes that he is staunchly against capital punishment. The film uses crime scene footage and witness testimony to exhibit the cruel and heinous psyche of the criminals, while always reminding us that all human life is sacred, even that which we, as a society, chooses to murder. This is the Werner Herzog that I love, who takes a look at the grittiest depths of human nature in search of etherial truths that only he seems to have a way of capturing. The auteur director’s best film since “Grizzly Man.”

 

7. “The Help”

 

Written and Directed by
Tate Taylor

There has not been a single film released this year that this critic has taken more flak for praising. While some call it sappy, disingenuous and cliched, I only saw a gem of pure entertainment and vitality, showcasing an ensemble cast whose collective performance stands miles above the rest. Viola Davis, in particular, deserves every award she has coming to her and then some. Most films dealing with the Jim Crow days of segregation will flagellate their viewers with cynicism and guilt. Instead, “The Help” uses laughter and satisfaction to leave its audience feeling genuinely fulfilled. If there is one film this year where an audience should simply allow themselves to let go and just lap it up, this would be the one to simply enjoy for what it is and how it makes you feel, which for myself was pretty damned good.

 

6. “Margin Call”

 

Written and Directed by
J. C. Chandor

With what is easily the best debut by any filmmaker, this year, J.C. Chandor has crafted a fantastic retelling of the 2008 financial crisis. On a budget of less than four million dollars, the film might just be one of, if not the single greatest narrative film about Wall Street, ever made. A live-wire of quiet suspense, the fuse is lit in the story’s first scene and never comes close to being extinguished. Kevin Spacey delivers his best performance in years, leading an all star cast, whose every member gives it their absolute all. And while Chandor successfully humanizes his characters, he never allows the story to become forgiving or sympathetic. This is a film that demands to be seen and leaves the viewer thanking it for its insistency.

 

5. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

 

Directed by David Fincher
Written by Steven Zallian

Between adapting the source material of an already popular film trilogy and coming on the heels of Fincher’s last masterpiece, I don’t think any film had more insurmountable expectations as this one. Yet, while obviously unable to live up to said bar, the film remains a powerhouse in every regard. David Fincher’s masterfully refined method of direction has made him a true champion of the craft, while his seasoned team of collaborators have perfected their look, sound and feel to a science. Rooney Mara delivers the definitive breakthrough performance of the year while Reznor and Ross once again create a subtle, yet dynamic, score. Perhaps the film’s greatest facet is that, beneath the thrilling and gritty mystery, is the film’s stark message of feminine power and the art of standing out in a cruelly obedient world.

 

4. “The Interrupters”

 

Directed by Steve James

In a year in which the AMPAS’ documentary branch completely imploded and ignored some of the year’s best work, few films have continued to turn heads and change minds as much as “The Interrupters.” The film follows a group of Chicago violence preventers as they put themselves directly into the fray in an attempt to save lives. The film shines a the brightest of lights into the darkest corners of my fair city. Moreover, it paints a portrait of a band of true heroes, and not ones off holding a frontline on a distant battlefield or feeding the misfortunate in a third world country. This doc shows us the battlefield in our own backyards and what people like our neighbors not only can but ARE doing to make a difference. This film is the finest and most moving documentary since “The Cove.”

 

3. “A Separation”

 

Written and Directed by
Asghar Farhadi

If one were to try and name every social, familial and criminal issues at play in Asghar Farhadi’s densely layered contemporary drama, they might suffer a stroke. That’s because this tightly-woven examination of divorce, responsibility and the consequences of one’s actions packs more substance into its story than could even be considered possible. Yet, throughout the film, none of its plot feels like fat that should have been cut. Every human connection is vital, every line of dialogue is pivotal and every plot twist is firmly grounded and believable. Seldom does a glimpse at a country like Iran, so detached and alien from our own lives, feel so personal and universal. Hats off to Farhadi for creating this little work of near-perfection.

 

2. “Shame”

 

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan

When I saw McQueen’s first feature, the overall disappointing (in my opinion) “Hunger,” never would I have believed that the young Brit’s sophomore effort would be vying for the spot at the top of my “best of the year” pyramid. Alas, I have been pleasantly surprised. The director’s stark, visceral approach to sex addiction is a time bomb of a narrative with a slow-burning fuse. For much of the film, the viewer is so gradually dipped into fray that, by the time it reaches its emotional climax (no pun intended), they are so intwined to the characters’ problems and emotions that it’s almost difficult to look at the world the same way when they leave the theater. Carey Mulligan delivers her best work to date, while Michael Fassbender is an absolute revelation. This film will floor you and ultimately affect you to the core.

 

1. “Moneyball”

 

Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian

After “The Social Network” had finished running its course, last year, and Aaron Sorkin had won (deservedly) more awards and accolades than any screenwriter could ever dream of, I had one overwhelming fear. I was afraid that the scribe would be unable to achieve greatness again and that the rest of his career would somehow founder. My fears could not have been more assuaged when Sorkin penned what is indisputably my favorite film of the year for the second year in a row. The phenomenal team of Sorkin and Zallian adapted a pitch-perfect narrative that swells with humor, emotion and panache. Moreover, the two pull off the feat of turning a book of player rosters and statistical graphs into an undeniably human story of inspiration and self-worth.

Yet, a film does not reach this spot on my list without having a lot more talent in its corner, which “Moneyball” certainly has an abundance of. Director Bennett Miller’s approach of dry wit and selective stylization bring an invaluable level of personality to the film. Cinematographer Wally Pfister delivers phenomenal shot after shot, while Chris Tellefsen’s editing adds complexity and vibrance to the story. All in all, however, there is no more irreplaceable an item than Brad Pitt, who delivers a career best performance in the lead role. Pitt absolutely disappears into Billy Beane, becoming the character (something I’ve never seen the actor fully commit to doing). This film is a showcase for Brad’s full potential. In fact, “Moneyball” exercises the full potential for cinema, being the most entertaining, moving and overall best film of the year.

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That’s all for this year’s top ten list. Coming soon are the nominations for the 2nd Annual Edgy Awards, absolutely not to be missed.

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  1. February 21, 2012 at 6:44 pm
  2. February 25, 2012 at 8:31 pm

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