VIENNA, VA, December, 30, 2011— So many yearly Top 10 film lists have an air of elitism about them. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the reviewer. They see so many more films than the average moviegoer that their movie smorgasbord varies considerably from the norm. A number of the films they see don’t get a wide release despite being excellent films. This ends up creating a disconnect with the general public when it comes to assessing which films were really the best.
Keeping that in mind, this list has a more populist intent. The films here were given a wide release, with a few exceptions, and were easily available for mass audience consumption.
This following Top 10 list is still populated with smaller films, with two exceptions. It seems like 2011 was just one of those years where the major blockbusters didn’t quite live up to the same level of quality we’ve come to expect. So here’s the list.
10. The Muppets – This is a sentimental pick. While not as visually stunning as a few other family-oriented films were this year, this was a film that knew exactly what kind of movie it intended to be. In a year where Pixar dropped the ball, this was probably the most enjoyable all- ages film of 2011. “The Muppets’” collective heart is always present. Whether it’s the obvious but refreshing jokes or the original songs that make this film stand out, it would be hard to find a film more fun than “The Muppets.”
9. The Descendents – This film was viewed as something of a disappointment because of the high expectations attached to anything Alexander Payne does. It didn’t quite live up to “Sideways” in many people’s eyes, but it deals with tragedy and the revelations that occur as a result of that tragedy in a understated and confident way. There’s a lot simmering underneath the surface here, but it never stoops to bombast while still showing how a somewhat broken family can bond despite incredibly rough times.
8. Midnight in Paris – It’s reasonable to assume Woody Allen is in the twilight of his career, so a film about the attractions and detractions of nostalgia seems appropriate. Allen’s best-known work has consistently used New York City as a backdrop. But the New York he so lovingly filmed in the late ‘70s no longer exists for him. In reaction to this, over the last decade he’s moved his films to Europe in an attempt to capture the feeling he once had for New York. “Midnight in Paris” encapsulates exactly why it’s impossible to live too much in the past and why it’s necessary to continue moving forward no matter how important those past times were. The film is also greatly helped by Owen Wilson making the lead role his own instead of attempting an impression of Woody Allen.
7. Warrior – On the surface, this was just the typical kind of sports drama people have seen so many times before. The underdog is revealed, after which the film hits all the beats an audience would expect from a good sports film. What sets “Warrior” apart from the average, run-of-the-mill sports drama rests on the shoulders of its two leads, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. Edgerton’s excellent work as struggling father/husband will probably get overlooked because Hardy is just a force of nature here. While his character is fairly monosyllabic, what Hardy conveys through body language is simply overwhelming. The fight choreography and cinematography is also top notch and realistic, which helps lift up the quality of the film.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – For a while now, the spy/thriller genre has been co-opted by action movie aesthetics. Films that have covered the same ground as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” usually have big action set pieces grafted on to them in the vein of a James Bond film. So while it’s not necessarily new, it’s refreshing to see a spy movie fall back on tension and suspense rather than pounding, gut-wrenching action. This may be the most meticulously set up film released in 2011, commencing with Gary Oldman’s restrained performance and blossoming into thickets of complexity from there.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene – If not for “Shame,” this would’ve been the best controversial film of the year. Elizabeth Olsen has been getting plenty of praise for her work in this film as the shell-shocked, former cultist title character. And rightfully so. What essentially amounts to character study of an individual recovering from cult indoctrination, becomes that rare film that deals with difficult subject matter with such a delicate touch. The acting is on point, and the film retains its uniquely claustrophobic feel throughout its duration.
4. The Artist – One of the most unique and daring films to come out all year despite seeming, on the surface, to be inherently unoriginal. The movie details the end of the silent film era, accomplishing its narrative almost entirely in the vein of a silent film itself. This approach may seem a turn-off for some viewers. But if that’s their excuse for skipping this film, they’ll be missing out on an energetic and fun experience. While it rarely needs dialogue to narrate its story line, it really comes alive when stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are able to cut loose and really express their feelings through mime and motion.
3. Beginners – This quiet and understated film deals with a son coming to terms with his dad’s coming out and subsequent death while at the same time recognizing his own faults. Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer shine under Mike Mills’ assured direction. It’s a quirky film that doesn’t overstay its welcome, drawing its characters fully and with supreme confidence.
2. Shame – Easily the most controversial film of the year. Michael Fassbender plays a man with a sex addiction that results in his an inability to deal with any sort of emotion in his life. First time British director Steve McQueen never cuts any corners when dealing with this tricky subject. As a result, this film for the most part earns its NC-17 rating. At the same time, however, both Fassbender and McQueen are able to pack the film with an emotional punch that very few others can match.
1. Drive – Director Nicolas Winding Refn turns in the best film of his career thus far. En route, he manages to turn the action/thriller genre squarely on its ear. Ryan Gosling turns in a great performance as a stuntman/part-time getaway driver, expressing his character with a slight but knowing nod at Clint Eastwood’s famous Man with No Name. There wasn’t a film this year that boasted more style or had a firmer idea how to effectively employ that style than “Drive.”
Honorable Mention: The omission of “The Tree of Life” here might rub some people the wrong way. It was easily the most visually stunning film of the year. But it wasn’t Terrance Malick’s best film, and its narrative was hit or miss. The film packs plenty of value, but that value may only be for a limited number of people.
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