I love the movies and I love to love movies. But I’m one of those people who don’t think 2011 was anything close to a great year for movies. Not as good as 2004, 2007, or 2010. But, as in every Oscar season, it’s easy to over-correct and end up trashing on good (and even very good) movies just because they weren’t as great to me as they were to someone else.
This year, for me, those movies included The Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, The Arbor, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certified Copy. I see their intentions and they have some merit, but I just didn’t find them as enthralling as I’d hoped to. Hugo, on the other hand, is just simply a bad movie that happened to have been made by a master of cinema. All of this, of course, happens every year and so it goes and oh well.
Looking over my Top 20-30 films, 2011 was still a good year at the movies, with moments of greatness. Here are the Top 10:
10. Take Shelter
Jeff Nichols, in his second film as writer and director, solidifies his focus on the fragility of the working class, mid-western family. The plot revolves around the violent, apocalyptic visions of its main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), but the heart of the film is in his relationship with his wife, Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain (in her best work in a busy year). Nichols builds the tension gradually, as Curtis’ actions begin to have damaging effects on his family. Because of the scale of his visions, the big question would seem to surround their validity and its implications for his mental state, but that’s not what Nichols is driving at, here. Whether Curtis is right about the visions or not, there is severe hardship on the horizon for his family, so the big question isn’t if the storm will come, but how he’ll deal with it when it does. And the scenes that surround that singular question are tense, emotional, and quite powerful.
10. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
I missed a lot of 2011’s big ticket comedies, but this is definitely the funniest movie I saw this year. It’s a great twist on an old concept. A bunch of dumb, whiny kids go camping, and are haunted by weird backwoods people. Only the backwoods people this time around are innocent simpletons, who just want a relaxing weekend at their lake house fixer-upper. It’s not just the concept, it’s really the performances that sell this one. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk are a fantastic comedic pair. With clever setups and witty dialogue, this one’s a lot of gory fun.
2011 has been unusual because it’s my first year as a film critic thanks to Battleship Pretension, yet I’ve only seen one or two of this year’s big movies. The list of 2011 films I’ve missed includes glaring omissions like Hugo, Moneyball, The Descendents … and so many more. So what did I see? Thanks to David and Tyler it’s an odd mix of independent and foreign films with a sprinkle of mainstream fare. What follows may not be a comprehensive 2011 list, but you might find a few smaller and odder films that are worth seeking out on DVD in 2012.
10. The Help
People are trashing this film for being historically hollow and perhaps even racist at its core with hints of the “magical negro” and “Mammy.” Still, it’s the performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain that make this film so very entertaining. This may be the glossy Disney version of Ghosts of Mississippi, but while some may be correct in their racial criticisms, The Help does provide a positive mainstream studio movie rarity: a big budget movie with a bang-up, all female, cast.
For further thoughts on these, some other films (including two that I’d happily include on this list), and the year in general, click here.
10. The Arbor
This is a documentary about Andrea Dunbar, who became a renowned playwright at age 18 and died at age 29. It is also about her daughters. It is composed of recorded interviews, over which director Clio Barnard hired actors to lip-synch. This is not as weird as it might sound. In fact, in doing so, Barnard has not only given us welcome distance from the horror of the content, but also created a natural extension of Andrea’s original play – using the words from primary accounts and building an aesthetic through which they become a piece of performance. I watched this thinking I’d be in for a fascinating intellectual exercise, and came out emotionally ravaged.
10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
While generally I hate titles that purport the rising of some entity or another, this one was actually justified. This film did an amazing job of making a group of CGI, Mo-Capped apes come across as not only sympathetic, but far more compelling than any of the human beings involved. There are enough tiny nods and references to keep us fans of the original Planet of the Apes movies happy without being too inside, and even though it’s essentially a remake of the fourth film in that series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it can and does stand alone for those who have never heard of Caesar and company. When the apes inevitably rise toward the end of the film, it’s exciting and majestic and you find yourself truly cheering for the furry guys, even though it means you’re cheering for the fall of the planet of men.
10. Everything Must Go
Dan Rush’s sobriety dramedy Everything Must Go didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it came out earlier this year. Could be that moviegoers took one look at Will Ferrell’s sad-bastard “serious” face on the poster, remembered how bad they’d been burned by Stranger Than Fiction, and simply said “no thank you, sir!” Too bad, because Rush’s small-scale Raymond Carver adaptation is a beautiful little character study, one that will undoubtedly ring true to anyone who’s ever struggled with the highs and lows of addiction—sad, sweet, and more than a little bit funny.