On December 24, 2010, I diligently posted a list of my ten favorite moves of that year. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time on it; the list pretty much wrote itself. 2010 was a very good year for very good movies.
I don’t take back any of them; they were all fantastic.
For a while, I’ve been thinking that 2011 was a mediocre-at-best year for cinema. So many bloated-budget action-adventures and superlame superhero franchises (Transformers, Thor, Captain America — terrible, expensive time wastes). When December rolled around, I felt totally uninspired to create a top-ten list. That is, until Tuesday, when the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards were released.
This gave me a serious case of what the fuck, and I realized that I really did love a lot of movies in 2011. They just happened to be comedies, family, sci-fi and action movies.
I didn’t love a single documentary or foreign language movie, let alone one that was nominated for Best Picture. In 2011, my tastes ran completely populist.
The Ten Movies I Enjoyed Most in 2011
(in no particular order)
Best Period Piece; Best Movie as a Substitute for Reading the Book
When I was 15 years old, Jane Eyre was my favorite book ever. It was romantic, exciting, shocking. In college, it occurred to me that the story is terribly sexist and that locking your wife in an attic and pretending that she doesn’t exist because she has a mental illness is totally inexcusable.
Adult me understands that high school me and college me were equally correct.
The movie is gorgeous, and truly captures the spirit of Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska), as well as the brooding misanthrope Mr. Rochester, played by the dashing Michael Fassbender. I loved everything about this movie, including the art direction, the cinematography and each and every actor. Most of all, I loved Fassbender — and I am still in shock that he wasn’t nominated.
Best Kids’ Movie that Isn’t Really for Children
This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. If the Coen brothers and Alejandro Jodorowski were to collaborate on an animated film, it would probably turn out looking and sounding exactly like Rango. The chameleon hero is a fast-talking schmoozing charmer, whose dialogue seems yoinked from half a dozen Coen movies. But he’s also the star of his own movie, both the one on the screen and the one in his mind, as in Jodorowski’s Holy Mountain. The movie makes great use of the surrealist possibilities contained in the stark vastness of a desert.
I honestly loved several other kids’ movies in 2011, namely The Muppets, Winnie the Pooh, Rio and Kung Fu Panda II. They are all great and much more appropriate for younguns. But for sheer bizarre, creative cleverness, I give my top spot to Rango.
Part I came out toward the end of 2010, but the saga reached its glorious conclusion in July 2011. It is the third highest grossing film of all time, so chances are you’ve seen it. But if you haven’t, do yourself a favor and watch Part I first. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the other six (!); the last two are by far the best. Together, they are better than any movie nominated for best picture.
For ten years and eight movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint held it together in the face of a constantly changing cast of directors and (excellent) supporting actors. A bad director could have made a bad movie out of The Deathly Hallows, but only three excellent actors could have allowed for a fantastic finale.
This whole enterprise has been a victory — for good children’s literature, artistic production, exciting storytelling and for all of the fortunes it has made. Maybe that should be the real takeaway: You need not make bad movies/books to be wildly popular and make tons of money.
X-Men: First Class
Best Franchise Reboot
X-Men: First Class is a superhero movie that strikes a perfect balance between the bleak depths of The Dark Knight and the sunny silliness of Iron Man. It also helps that, excepting January Jones, the cast is rock solid … and there’s Kevin Bacon. (I know what you’re thinking and don’t worry: This is one of the rare times that Kevin’s bacon stays safely tucked inside his trousers.)
The movie traces the long-lost friendship between Magneto (Michael Fassbender, still sexy) and an unparalyzed Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his adopted sister Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, always amazing to watch).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves a serious honorable mention in this category. The part where Caesar opens his mouth and speaks for the first time made for the best collective gasp I’ve ever been a part of.
Best Dose of Alien Nostalgia
Something I know from riding the subway is that middle-school boys (and also girls) are just as big of ass-faces now as I remember them being. How are they always so adorable on film? Sweet, sensitive, creative, misunderstood little dewdrops instead of the farting, ass-grabbing sociopaths I know them to be. Maybe it’s because of this massive suspension of disbelief required, but any movie starring a squadron of grubby, brace-face tweenlets is bound to excellent. Add a genuinely terrifying alien and some old-fashioned family melodrama, and we’ve got a real keeper on our hands.
Super 8 is a star. Even on a first viewing, the movie is like a smash in the face of your childhood. I wasn’t even born when this movie takes place, the late ’70s, but it seems so familiar: inconsistent parental supervision, an entire family sharing one phone, a bike that can take you anywhere you want to go.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Most Stylish; Best Use of Gary Oldman
Understated, stylish and supercool, this modish spy drama will only appeal to Americans who have a strong, embarrassing affinity for British things. And it wouldn’t hurt if you have read the book, written in 1974 by real-life spy John le Carré. The book is long, and the movie presupposes a passing familiarity with le Carré’s world, something most British people probably have.
The cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy couldn’t be better (Firth, Cumberbatch, Hardy, Hinds). But the one thing that makes this movie is Gary Oldman, who, thank Ebert, was nominated for Best Actor. Of course, we know him as a chameleon actor who can disappear (to the point of being completely unrecognizable) in roles as diverse as Sirius Black in the Harry Potters, James Gordon in The Dark Knights, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and especially as the scary and gross Drexl Spivey in True Romance. The repressed spy-bureaucrat George Smiley might be his best ever.
Best Thriller; also, Elizabeth Bennet
Contagion is a horrifying movie, one of the scariest that I’ve ever seen, for the simple reason that it’s entirely realistic. What would happen if a new virus, more contagious than flu, but less than measles, were to descend upon the world? What would happen if about 20 percent of the people who got it died?
Contagion answers these questions, and friends, it doesn’t look good.
It’s so fascinating, well-acted and visually stunning that you forget to feel too bad. Like an episode of Nova, say. Amidst the panic and confusion, a few heroes emerge. They are, of course, the people who retain their decency and humanity when everyone else starts behaving like monsters. And the the biggest hero among this all-star cast? Jennifer Ehle (holla!).
For the geeks: Contagion is the first movie to be shot using the RED MX digital camera. And I’ll tell you what, it looks fantastic. I’m still reeling that this wasn’t nominated for anything, either.
Bridesmaids is based on a simple premise: Women aren’t so different from men — not when it comes to things that are funny. Humor is based on a shared culture, not shared privates. This isn’t news to people, such as Kristen Wiig, who make their living from being funny. She wrote Bridesmaids with Annie Mumolo, also a woman, and it was directed by Paul Feig, who seems to be a man, but who has nevertheless directed numerous episodes of hilarious TV shows, such as Arrested Development, The Office, Weeds and Bored to Death. It would be easy and convenient to compare Bridesmaids to its cinematic brothers, to call it a female version of such and such Apatow etc., a raunch-fest “for the girls.” But that would be unfair to the movie and to male viewers, who may think that the movie is off-limits to them. Boys? It’s okay. You can see this movie. It’s good.
The Adjustment Bureau
Best Guilty Pleasure; Best Romance (that Men Can Enjoy)
The Adjustment Bureau is a sci-fi fairy tale set in New York City. It’s kind of lovely, surprisingly funny, very well written — and in no way should it be taken seriously.
Oh, please don’t take it seriously! Because then it will just seem lame. Likewise, if you’re expecting a mind-screw along the lines of The Matrix or Inception, no, that’s not what this is either.
I’ve seen it like, four times. I think partly because it was playing over and over on the TV when I was imprisoned on a luxury ocean liner over the summer. But after so many viewings, I realized that I liked it just as much as the first time. That says a lot for a silly movie.
I’ve seen Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have terrible on-screen chemistry in other movies, but together, they crackle. They are attractive and sexy, but most importantly, we believe their relationship.
My honorable mention in the Guilty Pleasure/Romance category is nominated for all kinds of Oscars. It’s called Midnight in Paris, and it’s also a fun fairy tale. But I’m positive that I would be tired of it after four viewings.
Best PrettyHappySad Family Values Movie
This is the category most loved by the major awards committees. Take The Descendants — a very good, humorous, sad, gorgeously shot movie; it has been nominated for around ten million awards so far. Beginners is a much better movie — it’s funnier, sadder and more creative. Best of all, it left me thinking something that The Descendants did not: “This is art.”
Christopher Plummer was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this movie, but it deserved a lot more recognition.
Beginners is strangely gentle and visually beautiful and I highly recommend it — unless you are one of those people for whom the sight of two men kissing makes your skin crawl (also known as a “closet case” in the parlance of our times). It seems strange to say that Beginners feels old-fashioned, given its highly new-fashioned subject matter, but I haven’t seen this kind of father-son devotion in a movie since the Lion King.
The father and son in question are played by Ewan McGregor, as a nice man who prefers the company of his dog, and Christopher Plummer, as his father, who at the age of 75, has just come out.
The funniest parts in the movie are those that revolve around Plummer’s character, with his elderly out-and-proud attitude, naively trying to explain aspects of gay culture to his son, Oliver. Being a sophisticated LA artist, Oliver, though straight, is in many ways more in touch with the gays than his dad: His father can’t believe that Oliver knows who Harvey Milk was or that the rainbow flag is a widely known symbol of gay pride.