1. The Artist
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds me of why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. It makes me feel the wonder, excitement, and joy that I remember feeling when I saw the great movies of my childhood — Star Wars, The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future – for the first time. This is one of those movies. It is pure magic.
The story is a simple one. A silent film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), is pushed out of the way as sound is added to motion pictures. He fights bitterly against the new technology, only to find himself left behind as audiences stop going to silent films and instead seek out “talkies.” But that’s not what the film is about. Among other things, it’s about success and failure, highs and lows; pride; depression; changing times; fear; and getting older. But, most of all, it’s about friendship, love, and loyalty. It’s about the importance of personal connections, and being there for one another. In other words, it’s about all of the great, and not-so-great, aspects of the human condition.
Before you dismiss this movie because it’s silent and in black and white, know that I had that attitude going in. I did not particularly want to see it. I imagined that it would be a self-indulgent, gimmicky affair – the kind audiences suffer through to, at the end, congratulate themselves for seeing an “art movie” and impress their friends during conversations at cocktail parties. I was wrong. The method of telling the story was not a stunt or a faux-artistic device. Instead, the monochrome palette and lack of sound were critical to the storytelling. And, just as importantly, instead of being shackled with 21st-century cynicism, The Artist is utterly earnest.
2. The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is director/auteur Terrence Malick’s meditation on the big universal questions, including the meaning of life and why we are here. Anchored by fantastic performances from the entire cast, this film had some of the most memorable images of any released in 2011. What I really loved about it was that it can be interpreted so many different ways, and that your own views and life experiences will inform your take on the movie’s message. For example, some people may see this movie as religious (or at least theistic), and others might view it as being humanist and secular. But regardless of your personal view, the big questions that it asks are worth contemplating. This film succeeds in both framing the questions and in providing the filmmaker’s view as to how those questions might be answered.
3: Fast Five
This movie may not be “high art,” but it IS the perfect summer movie. Although cars still figured prominently in the plot, the filmmakers (wisely in my opinion) decided to move away from the formula used in the previous outings and made this one into more of a heist flick. The storyline was fun, the stunts were amazing, and the action was nearly non-stop.
I particularly loved that some of the best characters from the previous films returned. Then, the proverbial cherry on top: they added Dwayne Johnson. Genius! To pay it off, we got to see a Vin Diesel / Dwayne Johnson fight (no quick cutting a la Paul Greengrass was used, so we could actually SEE the fight happening). As a film intended to be purely escapist fantasy, this succeeded in every way possible. Fast Five was the most fun I had at the movies all year.
If you believe the previews, this movie is a Seth Rogen comedy. Don’t believe the previews. This movie has its funny moments, to be sure, but to sell it as a comedy in the same vein as Knocked Up is to sell it short. This movie is special.
This movie works so well because of Will Reiser’s semi-autobiographical screenplay. Mr. Reiser, like the main character, was diagnosed as a young man with brain cancer and told that he had only a 50/50 chance of survival. What follows is the journey of the main character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is one of the best actors working today) as he works towards understanding, coping with, and eventually accepting his diagnosis. As is true for all of us, he needs the support and love of his friends and family but sometimes pushes them away. I’m sure it’s impossible to truly understand what a person in that position goes through unless you have lived it yourself, but watching this movie helped me not only to empathize but also to see things from his perspective.
5: I Saw The Devil
I am a fan of revenge movies, movies like Gladiator, Taken, Columbiana, Oldboy, Four Brothers… generally, I love this genre. Indeed, this is the second revenge movie on my best list, the other being Hanna. Of course, my favorite movie of all time (in any genre) is Kill Bill (I treat volumes 1 and 2 together as one movie). “I Saw The Devil” is an interesting and different take on the revenge movie, as it poses the question: where is the line between revenge and sadism? At what point does the “wronged” person who seeks revenge against a monster turn into a monster him/herself?
The story, from director Je-Woon Kim, is fairly simple: a serial killer murders the wife of a law enforcement officer. Driven by anger and a thirst for revenge, the cop tracks down the killer and, instead of killing him immediately, implants the killer with a microchip so that he can follow him and cause additional bodily harm as the story progresses. But the killer is clever, too, and manages to outwit and outplay the officer, and makes a bad situation even worse.
As audience members, we are constantly challenged. While we begin by sympathizing with the wronged cop, as his path of revenge continues to take darker and darker turns, our boundaries are pushed. The line is crossed, but the viewer is left to determine for him or herself how far is too far. Be warned, this movie is not for the squeamish. It is gory to the extreme.
This is the story of a professional stunt driver who, in his spare time, also does “getaway car” driving for criminals. From the previews, we are misled into believing that Drive is an action movie of the Fast and Furious ilk. Not so (and not that there’s anything wrong with that). Although there are some highly explosive (and gory) action scenes, Drive is really a character study. We are not told much about the personal history of the main character, played by Ryan Gosling, who is simply named “Driver.” Driver is a man of few words; almost everything we learn about Driver we learn through his actions and interactions with the other characters in the movie. This leaves us to fill in the details for ourselves, instead of having them spelled out for us.
In addition to Ryan Gosling (who is very good, as usual), this movie has a great supporting cast including Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks (who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in this movie). And it also features one of the best scenes in any movie, all year (the last meeting in the garage between Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston).
7: Martha Marcy May Marlene
My favorite film from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy Mae Marlene tells the story of Martha, a young woman (played by Elizabeth Olsen) who has been involved in a cult. Martha manages to escape, fleeing to the house owned by her estranged sister and brother-in-law. In the midst of trying to start a new life free from the cult, Martha is constantly plagued by vivid memories of her experiences with the cult, and is often unable to distinguish between reality and dream / memory. Martha is convinced that the cult’s charismatic leader (John Hawkes) is determined to get her back, and that he will stop at nothing to do so. The movie is a mesmerizing psychological thriller that very effectively conveys the confusion and disorientation experienced by its main character. Riveting to the very end, you will be left wanting more.
8: Crazy, Stupid, Love
Every year, Hollywood releases a number of big-budget romantic comedies that are enjoyable enough on the surface, but in the end are nothing but pure disposable entertainment. They all follow the same formula (start by introducing the main characters and show what is missing in their lives, followed by the “cute meet,” then the complication, etc.). Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily; if the movie provides a pleasant diversion, then mission accomplished, right? Having said that, the characters in the vast majority of rom-coms lack depth and authenticity. As a result, these movies are both instantly forgettable and virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Crazy, Stupid, Love is not a rom-com, nor is it disposable entertainment. The film opens on a professional married couple (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) who are apparently stuck in a rut. The woman confesses to the man that she cheated on him; unable to deal emotionally with this news, he moves out. Newly single and in his mid-forties, the man tries to figure out how to get back into the dating game and is coached in that effort by a young ladies’ man (another excellent role for Ryan Gosling).
What works so well about this movie is that it is real. It deals with the characters’ emotional arcs as they try to figure out how to live apart, and if they want to keep doing so. Relationships worth keeping are hard work, and the couple has to decide whether they are better off apart, or instead whether they are willing to make the effort to get back together. As the married couple’s story unfolds, at the same time, the ladies’ man finds himself smitten with a young woman (Emma Stone) who does not fall for any of his usual tricks. The lothario finds himself tongue-tied and off-balance as he falls in love for the first time. The film’s ending is as memorable as it is surprising.
The movie that Kick Ass and Defendor didn’t have the guts to be. Super tells the story of an clueless introvert (played by Rainn Wilson, in one of my favorite performances of the year) who refuses to accept that his wife has left him for a “bad boy” (played by Kevin Bacon). In response to his world being turned upside down, he creates an alter ego, a “crime”-fighting superhero with a homemade costume and no super powers. Of course, his view on what is a “crime” is open to interpretation. Soon, he is joined by a sidekick, an admiring comic-book store employee played by a doe-eyed (but sexually aggressive) Ellen Page.
What I loved about this movie was that, even though the main character is unquestionably a sociopath with a shaky grasp on reality, it also portrayed him as a sympathetic human being who is struggling to cope with his situation and make some sense of the world, in his own way. It shunned a traditional happy ending in favor of a realistic, and surprisingly touching, ending that was happy for HIM. I’m a big fan of this movie, but be warned, it’s not for the squeamish. The violence is horrific and realistic — the consequences of the main characters’ actions are not downplayed.
Hanna is the story of a teenage girl who grows up in a remote frozen landscape, raised alone by her father to be skilled in the deadly arts. As the movie opens, we don’t know why Hanna has been raised under these conditions – we know only that her father is wanted by a government intelligence agency. After escaping from a detention facility in a dramatic fashion, Hanna is forced to live on the run and wait until she can rendezvous with her father. In the process, she connects with a traveling family that has a teenage girl of their own. Spending time with the family gives Hanna the opportunity to be a kid for the first time in her life.
Capably directed by Joe Wright, a veteran of such “tea cozy” movies as Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, this movie features some of the most interesting locations and settings of any movie this year. And it has a really interesting soundtrack.
X-Men: First Class