It’s the time of year for lists, and all of the movie review sources are launching their top ten movies of 2011. Most of them are filled with tiny independent films that never made it to a theater near you or movies that got a wide release but were so outsider-cool that they’re the film equivalent of hanging out with someone dangerous and emotionally unavailable. Oh yeah, and documentaries. Our list contains movies that got a wide release, most of them got a lot of mainstream press, and all of them succeeded in the most fundamental principles of successful filmmaking: They were very entertaining, told an involving story, and I was emotionally invested in the characters. Included are snippets of my previous reviews of the films.
10. Water for Elephants
Unlike almost everyone in a book club on the North Shore, I’ve never read the source material that Water for Elephants was based on, so I had no pre-conceived notions of it. The movie version is a wonderfully moving story filled with heartfelt performances and brought to the screen with conviction and style. Although surprisingly violent, it’s mostly a beautiful story of forbidden love, and even though the market is pretty detrimentally saturated with that right now, I completely bought into this one, and by the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
My personal opinion: I’m actually surprised at how much I liked this movie. I highly recommend seeing it. And it might not hurt to bring a little Kleenex with you.
9. The Beaver
I’m afraid that the legacy of The Beaver will be summed up with a sentence I heard a woman say in the row behind as the lights went down: “I’m surprised there are other people here.” The only fatal flaw this movie is suffering from is having A-list actors and a real budget behind it. Toss an R-rating on it and sneak it in the backdoor of Toronto or Cannes with a group of talented no-names attached and this thing would have cleaned house.
This isn’t like other movies. It isn’t easily definable, explainable, or marketable. It’s a dark and fascinating look at severe depression using a guy with a ridiculous beaver puppet on his hand. When I say it’s dark, I mean DARK. I’ve seen other reviewers call it messy, but that’s because the script barely complies with the traditional three-act structure and it’s tonally complicated. I think it’s a five-act story that unfolds more like a meticulously constructed parable than anything aspiring to seem like reality. It’s essentially the screenplay equivalent of literature, which translates to unproduceable, and it’s a credit to Jodi Foster as a director that she saw it through.
My personal opinion: Well worth seeing. It’ll stay with you for a while. We’re just not used to seeing such recognizable people tell such unconventional stories.
8. Jane Eyre
I’ve heard that this rendition of Jane Eyre is reasonably faithful to it’s source material. Having never read Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, I can’t say. But the exquisitely executed, highly involving, gothic love story that I just saw is one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.
The Jane and Rochester relationship is the headline news here. Wasikowska and Fassbender play really well off each other and watching the romance steadily escalate is a real pleasure. When Jane can finally let drop her carefully honed armor and smile at him with genuine affection, we gratefully smile with her. The dialogue between the two of them at their most passionate is practically poetry and it’s twice as effective when combined with the performances of these actors.
My personal opinion: The 2011 film version of Jane Eyre is an awesome love story served in rich hues of black and gray with tense gothic undertones. I loved it. I’d see it again.
7. The Help
The Help is an absolutely wonderful movie about love that can cross all boundaries and finding the courage to go against the grain and do what’s right.
My personal opinion: It’s time for the book group to head to the movies. Fantastic acting and a heartfelt story make this a must see. Just a heads up though, bring some tissue in your purse; the lights come up directly after the most emotional scene in the picture and you’re going to want a little time in your seat to collect yourself.
6. Midnight in Paris
Since he abandoned farce in the mid-70s, Woody Allen movies fall into three sub-categories:
1—Everyone has affairs. How does it affect discourse?
2—Here’s how to get away with murder. Now you’ll be tortured by the meaninglessness of the universe.
3—I have a fairly literary existential crisis. I will explore it through a magical deus ex machina.
Midnight in Paris falls into the third sub-category and it results in the most entertaining and substantial Woody Allen film since Match Point, with the benefit of being fun instead of dark.
My personal opinion: Superb writing, enjoyable characters, and a love letter to Paris make this a wonderful time at the theater. The three Woody Allen sub-categories from above belong in three categories:
1–Self involved and pretentious.
2—Superbly written and pretentious, but worth it.
3—Must-see filmmaking by one of the masters of the medium.
This belongs in the third category. I mean, the guy is currently directing his 43rd film and he has 68 writing credits. The fact that he still has something to say is remarkable.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Full discosure: I am a Harry Potter fan; I’ve read all the books and I went to the midnight screening of this. It wasn’t the best film in the series, but it was a fitting and satisfying final chapter to an astounding decade-long film franchise.
They couldn’t have ended up with a better director to close out the series. David Yates (Nothing Americans had seen before the Harry Potter franchise) took the helm for the fifth film and made the movies what they always should have been. He knew the characters, the tone of the books, and what we were supposed to feel better than any of the big name directors (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newel) who came before him, AND the wizard battles got much cooler. His affection for the series shines through above everything else and the cinematography and stark color grading for the final two films was simply gorgeous.
My personal opinion: I loved it. I don’t think seeing it in 3D would make much difference, it wasn’t shot for 3D. Anyone who has read the books HAS to see it. Anyone who hasn’t will feel a little dissatisfied and in the dark. The most amazing part of this 10-year, eight-movie feat is that, with the exception of a death, they did this without recasting any of the major roles. The hardest part about seeing the movies come to an end is saying goodbye to the three main kids, who have felt like part of my inner-circle for the last decade.
You don’t need to know or care about baseball to love Moneyball. But in grand sports-movie tradition, it has you rooting for the black sheep of the underdog team.
Everyone does an outstanding job on this movie. Brad Pitt is terse and clever, Jonah Hill is so understated and likeable, the writing is top notch, and it unfolds with confidence at every turn. At two hours and 13 minutes, I thought this movie would feel a little long but it’s paced perfectly.
My personal opinion: It’s funny, it’s real, it’s human, and it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain of the baseball industry. I want to see it again.
3. Super 8
Here’s how I feel about Super 8 in one sweeping oversimplification: If you love movies, you’re going to love this movie.
It has everything I want in a movie. Adventure, action, suspense, humor, and relatable characters who experience things the way humans do. Sure, there were a couple moments at the end where I thought, “Really?,” but J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and the gang were savvy enough to put almost every objection my overly-rational, grown-up mind had throughout the picture and put skeptical words into the mouth of a nearby character, thereby stealing my ammunition.
My personal opinion: It felt like I was watching early Spielberg again, like ET and Close Encounters. Abrams is one of my favorite writer/directors and this was his love letter to the movies that made him want to make movies. A fantastic time.
2. The Descendants
Writer/director Alexander Payne has a track record of wowing critics with unapologetically independent films that seem to speak singularly to upper/middle class adults over 30 (Sideways, About Schmidt). The Descendants is probably his best. It’s funny, it’s heart wrenching, and it’s honest.
Clooney has never been better. I don’t think he’s ever played this vulnerable before, and watching him try to keep it together as his world falls apart is spellbinding. The supporting cast is outstanding. I’m going to blame the minutes upon minutes of expository voice over in the beginning on the fact that this was based on a novel, but it’s the only weak part in what’s probably going to be The Help’s main competitor for Best Adapted Screenplay this year.
My personal opinion: The Descendants is Alexander Payne and George Clooney at their best. It shouldn’t be missed.
1. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Advertised as “the feel bad movie of the year,” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo pulls none of its punches, bringing to horrifying life the most stomach churning moments from the international bestselling novel and holding the audience spellbound in their seats for all of its 158 minutes.
I’ve read the books, seen the Swedish language trilogy, and this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is my favorite. Everything about it comes together beautifully. David Fincher’s meticulous direction, the gloomy black/white/gray color palate, the impish score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the pitch-perfect performances of the actors, the writing of the adaptation, the locations, the sound design, this is simply masterful motion picture making.
My personal opinion: I’m a die hard Fincher fan, so maybe it’s no surprise that I think this is one of the best movies of the year. –Jake Jarvi