The Top 10 Movies of 2011 I Have Seen

The title says it all right there.  Yes, there are glaring omissions in this list, but that is only because I haven't seen some very obvious choices!  And how can I really plug something I haven't seen?  I'm dying to see THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and yes, I still plan on seeing THE ARTIST, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, THE DESCENDANTS, SHAME, etc etc., but as of the writing of this list I have not seen these, sadly.  But here goes, in no particular order!

dir. Steven Spielberg

Well, I saw this very recently so it is freshest in my mind, but it would probably kick off my list regardless.  I have been a huge fan of Tintin ever since elementary school, and when someone tries to take something you treasure so much and up-convert it into a Hollywood motion-captured animated 3-D movie, well I don't know about you, but it put me on edge.  But if there is one filmmaker out there who can do it well, it is Steven Spielberg (partnered with Peter Jackson).  The film they have created is so full of love and respect for the style, stories, and characters that Herge created so many decades ago.  From the first frame of the opening credits to the last iris-out on Snowy's (Milou's!) nose, I was completely captivated!  The credits are that wonderful Saul Bass inspired style that Spielberg also used in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN that befits a globe-trotter like Tintin, and from there to the first scene involving a portrait artist (looking awfully like Herge himself) I knew we were in good hands!  It is a tremendously beautiful film that again proves what a master filmmaker Spielberg is.  His use of 3D is so unobtrusive that I was able to sink into the film and just sit agog as he transported us across oceans and deserts.  The characters--Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Thompson, Thomson, Allan, Nestor, etc.--were all pitch perfect.  Of note, definitely, was Andy Serkis as Haddock, who after playing various apes and Gollum, has perfected the artistry of body- and facial-recognition acting.  His voicing was also perfect (I never thought of Haddock as a Scot--but it's perfect!), as were Jamie Bell as the boy reporter, and Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the bumbling Interpol twosome Thompson/Thomson, and Daniel Craig as Sakaran.  Do yourself a favour and go and see this immediately!  I have so much more to say about this so expect a full write up in the days to come!

dir. Jeff Nichols

As my review earlier this year summed up--this is a fantastic film.  One of the best of the year.  The acting is as good as it gets, with Michael Shannon as the tormented Curtis, and Jessica Chastain as his baffled, yet determined wife Samantha.  Curtis, who begins having increasingly terrifying visions and dreams, believes a storm unlike any other is coming.  He sets about refurbishing his family's disused tornado shelter, much to the alarm of his family, friends, and employer.  Is the world ending, or is Curtis succumbing to mental illness?  This is a taut, tense, beautiful film, that left my head spinning after the semi-ambiguous ending which I loved.  Grab some popcorn and someone's hand to squeeze and watch this!  Thrilling filmmaking at its best.  Definite Oscar bait for the performances.

dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

I would be remiss to not include this fantastic modern take on the classic nameless protagonist (in this case a getaway driver) made popular by people like Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  Ryan Gosling stars as the wheel-man whose quiet, tough shell is cracked by oh-so-sweet damsel Cary Mulligan.  The Driver becomes so attached to her and her son that even once her (gentleman) thug husband returns from the clink, he vows to help and protect all of them, driving him to extreme violence and car chases.  Some found the violence too graphic (it was prettttty gnarly), the pacing too artsy, and the car chases too few, but I thought it was a perfect stylistic blend of 80s tackiness, Euro-poppiness, and urban-desolation.  This film's soundtrack and its cinematography is enough to make this a recommended movie, and an unquestionable (for me!) purchase when it comes out on Blu-Ray this January.  Great performances for all, especially a breakout one for newly-minted badass Albert Brooks.

dir. Martin Scorsese

Many master filmmakers tried their hands at 3D this year, and if Spielberg is number one, then Scorsese is definitely a close second.  I'm still on the fence with 3D for all the obvious reasons (cost, brightness, you have to wear glasses, the inferrence that a "normal" "2D" movie is lacking something), but these two filmmakers have demonstrated what is possible.  The key, as Spielberg showed us, is basically to make a fantastic, beautiful film, that just happens to be in 3D.  It shouldn't distract.  And despite how counter-intuitive it might seem to make a comic strip 3D, bringing something "2D" like Tintin to life works.  Scorsese's application of it is interesting in an entirely different way.  While most of HUGO could work perfectly viewed non-3D, it was absolutely fascinating to see the real Méliès and Lumière Bros. films from the late 1890s brought to life in colour and 3D (A Train Entering the Station in 3D might emulate for some how an audience allegedly reacted in 1895).  It was a staggering, stunning, reach across a century of film, tying us to them, akin, to me, of that mindblowing transition in Kubrick's 2001 from prehistoric bone to satellite--you know the one.  If Spielberg's film is a tribute to Saturday afternoon adventure serial nostalgia (and possibly recompense for INDIANA JONES 4), then Scorsese's film is an ode to film, all films, especially the origins.  Scorsese is not only paying homage to this pioneers, but also bowing deeply in respect to all who have come before him, after him, and have ever been touched by the magic of cinema.  The sequence in the library where Hugo and Isabelle review the previous years of film history gave me goosebumps.  I'm serious!  Seeing Buster Keaton in 3D was too much to handle!  In a good way.

dir. Joe Wright

I had a feeling I would like this film, but I must say it really exceeded any expectations I had!  As I wrote in my blurb about this earlier this year, the action movie world is overrun with protagonists on the run who can do everything and outsmart everyone (Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, Batman even), but HANNA was smart and original.  I found parts to be very reminiscent of Tom Tykwer's RUN LOLA RUN, and Wright's direction was fresh and exciting in a genre that is oversaturated with cliche and convention.  Saoirse Ronan as the pale but capable character of title was wonderful, and the strong supporting cast of Eric Bana as her secret agent father, Cate Blanchette as a CIA black-ops woman (channeling George W. Bush--I know, but it works!), and many other familiar faces: Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams.  I also loved the Chemical Brothers' soundtrack which drove the film across continents and through subway stations and cargo ports.  Highly recommended.  Local fun-fact: the script was written by Seth Lochhead, a Nanaimo native and VFS student.

dir. John Madden

Here is another great film (that I wrote about earlier this year) that came out of the proverbial woodwork and impressed me.  If nothing else, 2011 was the year of Jessica Chastain, who starred in no less than 7 films released in the calendar year, including TAKE SHELTER and Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE.  She, her publicist, and her agent must be incredibly smart people because in the span of less than a year they have made her a household name with some serious street cred.  And I would not be surprised come Oscar time if she was nominated more than once.  Chastain is America's answer to Kate Winslet and for her a bright future I do see.  Now: THE DEBT.  An exciting, thrilling film about three Mossad agents hunting for an infamous Nazi doctor, that jumps back and forth across decades, from Cold War era Berlin to modern day Israel and beyond.  What impressed me, aside from the captivating performances, was the way director John Madden kept everything coherent.  It really is a testament to him (and his editor Alexander Berner) how I managed to keep track of three different characters, each portrayed by two actors in two different time periods without much trouble.  It didn't hurt that Madden also had, along with the aforementioned Chastain, some stalwart character actors: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds (pronounced "Keer-en"--he's Irish) as well as Jesper Christensen, as the creepy Doktor Bernhardt.  Thrown into the deep end with this talented pool of actors, is Sam Worthington who well proved his worthiness by playing the most mentally tortured of the young Mossad agents.  Worthington, who is most known for turns in action films such as AVATAR, TERMINATOR: SALVATION, and CLASH OF THE TITANS, shows that he has true actors grit, and was definitely a highlight in THE DEBT.

dir. George Clooney

Almost everything Clooney touches turns to gold and when paired with it-person Ryan Gosling he is an unstoppable force.  Clooney's fourth directing effort is a slightly pessimistic, but surely realistic, look at the run-up to the primary election of one Democrat candidate.  Clooney plays said candidate, a seemingly idealistic and forward-thinking individual who is gathering momentum.  Gosling is his chief press manager, a master of spin, who also wouldn't mind rising in the ranks in his own way.  But when scandal inevitably shows its ugly face Gosling is forced to reassess his loyalties and goals.  Along with Clooney and Gosling, the cast is incredible: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, arguably the two best character actors out there, as competing campaign managers; Marisa Tomei as a crafty (read: devious) reporter; Evan Rachel Wood as a pretty and crucial intern; Jeffrey Wright as key senator weighing his options on who to throw his support behind.  THE IDES OF MARCH is a dark film, and as I mentioned fairly pessimistic, but it is a good portrayal of how politics is all about compromise, for better or for worse.

dir. Bennett Miller

Brad Pitt plays the MLB's Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Bean in this great drama about a total revolution in the way a sports team is managed.  With the help of talented young analyst Peter Brand, Beane starts seeing players, not as commodities to be worshipped, but rising and falling stocks, to be assessed almost purely on their statistics and performance projections.  Much to the dismay of an old-guard of baseball scouts, Beane sets about to turn his beloved Athletics around from a group of zeroes to a team of heroes by flouting the time-honoured traditional methods.  Pitt is great as Beane, but the real stand-out for me was Jonah Hill as Brand, the young analyst and recent college grad.  My one complaint is that I wanted to the film to centre more on the Jonah Hill character, I feel like he was the intriguing part of the story: like, what is his background?  Why is he so interested in the numbers of baseball?  Is he actually a genius?  But the Pitt character is the more obvious ingress for American audiences, a once over-hyped failed baseball prospect whose salvation lies in his success at managing a pro team.  America loves second-chance stories.  This is a great film that finally saw the day of light after a troubled pre-production progress.  At some parts it is even reminiscent of JERRY MAGUIRE in the sports-as-business sense, and that is a good thing.  Watch for Spike Jonze in a small role as Beane's ex-wife's new husband.

dir. Asif Kapadia

(NOTE: I just realized this film was officially released in 2010, but not in Canada until August 2011. But I am keeping it here because, well, this is my blog!)

2011 was a year of great documentaries--so I am told.  I am a huge fan of documentaries, but am ashamed to say that I saw a woefully small number of them.  Ones yet to be seen that have received much acclaim include THE INTERRUPTERS, THE CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS and INTO THE ABYSS (both by the prolific Werner Herzog), PINA (in 3D, by Wim Wenders--apparently stunning), and BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK to name a few.  Roger Ebert has a great list on his website.  I think 2012 will be a great year for documentary rentals.  But one fantastic documentary I did see was SENNA, about the legendary and ultimately tragic life of the great Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.  The passionately Brazillian Senna was one of those rare people to come along who could easily stand beside Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan, as an athlete who changed their sport forever.  Senna was a fearless race car driver, one who thrived in the rain, did not fear corners or crashes, and was determined to win no matter what, even if it meant running himself and/or his teammates or competitors off the track.  As a revered as he was for his bravery, he was also reviled for his ruthless and at times reckless driving style, not least by teammate and rival Alain "The Professor" Prost.  Despite his arrogance on the track, Senna sometimes displayed incredible humility and humanity: at a race in Belgium in 1992, Senna stopped his car and jumped out, risking his own life, to assist a driver who had crashed in front of him.  SENNA is a film that documents the driver's life, warts and all, in a way, I believe, that even someone who has never watched F1 in their life can enjoy.  It is also window into the glory days of Formula 1 in the 1980s when the cars were insanely powerful, lacked traction control, as well as many of the safety provisions drivers use today.  This is a captivating portrait of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating sports figures of recent history.

dir. Paul Feig

BRIDESMAIDS is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long time!  It also turned me from a Kristen Wiig fan into a Kristen Wiig super-fan.  Her comic timing, I think, is the best there is, and she easily stands beside Amy Poehler and Tina Fey as one of the funniest female comedians working today.  Many also called this film a game-changer, proving a nearly all-female cast with a female-oriented story could entertain audiences of both genders.  It's a sad reality that in 2011 we are praising a successful film for being female-driven. In the hugely lucrative "gross-out comedy" genre the films are largely written, directed, produced, and starring young-to-middle-aged males with a target audience of young-to-middle-aged males (See: THE HANGOVER 1 & 2, HORRIBLE BOSSES, 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN etc. etc.).  BRIDESMAIDS was co-written by Wiig, and though she is the clear star, her band of friends form a formidable comic posse, including SNL's Maya Rudolph, The Office's Ellie Kemper, and a standout performance by the hilarious Melissa McCarthy as Megan, the bride's future-sister-in-law.  The few male roles in it were also marvelous: Chris O'Dowd as the handsome (and Irish?) police officer love-interest, and Jon Hamm as Wiig's awful and arrogant sometimes-lover.  Just writing about this makes me want to see this again!

So there you have it, ten great films from 2011.  Honourable mentions for being standouts in their genres go to:


Other films which I have not seen but I have either high hopes for and/or have much critical acclaim include:


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