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The Best Films of 2011 – My 2012 List of Favorites

With the 2012 Academy Awards airing tomorrow, I’ve decided to compile a top ten list of my favorite movies of 2011, not necessarily who I think should win (HUGO), just the movies that I felt were the best in show and why. Before proceeding however, a few comments that I feel I need to state, since this is my soapbox and mine alone:

The Descendants was…ok. It was a *good* piece of movie-making but not worthy of being considered for the top honor of the year. Clooney did not deliver the performance of his career, and Payne did not come anywhere close to the work he did in say Sideways.
Ides of March was a much better film as well as a superior vehicle for Clooney.

Midnight in Paris was sweet and charming, but was not even close to Woody Allen’s best work, and as much as I love seeing him up for an Oscar or two, I do not feel that this film is deserving. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a much better pieces of recent work, a film that was essentially overlooked by the Academy. I liked it; don’t get me wrong, but it is not on my top ten for the year.

Extremely Loud… Nominated for best picture? It should not be on any list for any award in any category. It’s amazing what tens of millions of dollars in billboard advertising will get you in Hollywood. It was a polished turd and nothing more. And that kid…I wanted to punch him in his celluloid face. I hated this movie…and the horse it rode in on.

Ok, so now on to the movies that I want all to see. Leave comments below if you disagree…or for that matter if you feel similarly.

#1 – Hugo

I feel that this is the film that was by far and away the best picture of 2011. Due to some of the most misguided marketing missteps in advance of the film’s release, I barely had any interest in seeing it, and I expect that due to that particular fumble, it will end up not winning the top prize at the Oscars this year…when I finally succumbed to see it, within the first few minutes I was completely engrossed. It was pure magic – on every level. Hugo is charming, whimsical, engaging, is perfectly cast and is, without question one of the most inspired films I’ve seen in a long time. The art direction and visual style is otherworldly and the world it portrays is a delight. It is not often that I will describe any movie as “perfect,” but this one nails it. Scorsese has managed to create another film for the ages, one that again will cement hims as one of the great cinematic geniuses of our time. He was clearly inspired making this film and his inspiration permeates every frame.

#2 – The Help

The best ensemble cast of the year is also one of the most heartbreaking and empowering films I’ve seen in a good while. There is an authenticity to The Help that makes the viewer feel like they’re watching a microcosm of history unfold, and it’s not a pretty history to watch. It’s easy to forget the level of prejudice and racism that was so deeply steeped in our culture only a half century ago, but The Help set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s helps to remind us that while we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

#3 – The Artist

The film that has completely won over the hearts and minds of the world this year is another delightful and charming piece of work so completely out of left field that it stands alone in its particular vision. While it is a black and white (almost) silent film, it does not really try to be a film anachronistically out of time. The cinematography and editing are basically modern and beautiful to watch, the characters completely engaging, and the film comes front-loaded with the cutest dog of this year’s batch of films. The music is perfectly set to the film (I expect The Artist will also win for best Original Score), but in the end, I felt that the story was still a little two-dimensional and simplistic. I will watch it again several times I am sure, but I imagine that it’s a film whose story will not hold up over time, thus not making it a timeless classic the way that I believe Hugo will be. I still think it’s one of the best movies of the year: It’s precious.

#4 – The Adventures of Tintin

The single biggest snub of the year continues to get me rankled when I think about it. I was the first person ready to hate this movie. I grew up with the books, and still have all my hardbound copies from when I was a tadpole, so when I first saw that an animated feature was being made, I was hopping mad. I KNEW they would make a travesty of one of my favorite touchstones from my youth. I am very pleased to report that I was wrong. The Adventures of Tintin was executed on every level by people who – it seems – had the same childhood love for the books and really really really wanted to “get it right.” And they did. Between Peter Jackson and Stephen Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin was as true to the books as a mainstream blockbuster animated feature length film could be. I did not feel that their treatment of Tintin (the main character) was how I ever would have imagined him, but remarkably it was perfect for the film. Their treatment of Captain Haddock and Snowy were pitch-perfect, their inside references to other episodes and books were spot-on. The animation and art direction were nothing short of inspired. Thus me being rankled: I would not have only nominated it for best animated feature; I would have nominated it for best film as well.

#5 – Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I watched all three of the original Danish films and consider them just short of brilliant, so when I heard there was going to be a U.S. version (especially so on the heels of the success of the original trilogy), I was dubious. I have not read any of the books, but everybody who I know who have, said that the original moves were great adaptations…so like I said…I was dubious. When I heard that Fincher was going to direct, I began to adopt a different suspicion about the treatment he would deliver. I have loved many of Fincher’s movies (Zodiac, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, The Social Network), and so I felt like he would undoubtedly be the best American director to pull it off. And pull it off he did.

We’ve come to expect Fincher’s movies to look GOOD. And his version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does, however there is a richness to the cinematogrpahy that almost feels more of a European treatment thatn your standard American fare. This is a good thing, considering that they wisely kept the film in Denmark as opposed to re-casting in in Pittsburgh or some other American city. The choice to use Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score was a good call as well. The music is heavy and powerful giving the movie an unnerving and slightly more industrial feel.

Last, Rooney Mara was a fantastic choice to play the Lisbeth character, and what ultimately made it work was the choice to not try to replicate the character as originally delivered by Noomi Rapace, but instead interpret the character as seemed fitting for a new director, a different actress and a different audience.

Whether you’ve seen the original or not, this is a great film full of good tension and release, one that leaves me in eager anticipation for the next two films in the series.

#6 – Rampart

In Rampart, Woody Harrelson pulls off one of the best performances on his career. Co-written by L.A. native son James Elroy, Rampart is – above all else – a dark and complex character study. The film follows a deeply flawed and troubled cop, Dave Brown whose life and career is not-so-gradually unraveling over the course of the film. It’s not until after the midpoint of the film however that we even start to think that Brown may not get through unscathed. There is a certain moral ambiguity to the film as we watch him engage in reprehensible behavior, and yet somehow accept it; His character is at once sordid and strangely charming, so within the context of the character, his actions somehow seem “normal.” I found this fascinating because what I experienced was not so much a moral ambiguity with the character as much as a moral ambiguity in myself. This film will not likely appeal to a mainstream audience, as it is a gritty and unsettling portrayal that only Elroy could fully pull off.

#7 – Hanna

This is one of those films that sadly got lost in the shuffle having been released early in the year, and that’s unfortunate, because I found it to one of the more compelling movies of the year, one that has already been largely forgotten. Saoirse Ronan plays a deadly 16 year old assassin, already a departure for your typical run-of-the-mill central character in a revenge thriller. The film opens in the Arctic where we learn that Hanna has spent her life being trained by her father as a human weapon: Essentially a Femme Nikita sort of character. As the movie kicks into high-gear, Hanna sets out to avenge her father against a CIA operative played by Cate Blanchett. You can figure what happens over the course of the film.

Having been raised in relative isolation from the world, Hanna is not normally socialized as you would expect with your typical teenager; as such her character is played with an interesting disassociation that gives an air of mystery, similar in some regards to Lisbeth Salander in either of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. This particular character choice makes for an interesting juxtopotion against the backdrop of a razor-sharp action thriller. I thought it was great.

Saoirse Ronan’s performance is solid and commanding, the film is immediately satisfying for revenge/action/thriller fans, but it stands out from many other films of this ilk, just as the Bourne movies have also done. This may not be as strong as the best film in that trilogy, but I have no problem recommending it wholeheartedly.

#8 – Moneyball
Brad Pitt is really good but he doesn’t deserve the win for best actor. Jonah Hill is really good but he doesn’t deserve the win for best supporting actor. I don’t really have any interest into the inner workings of baseball, but it doesn’t really matter. The individual pieces of the film are not what make it great, as the whole seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Moneyball is a good story, well told, nicely directed, and well-acted, but again, not because of the individual performances, but because of all the characters collectively. Like the team the film portrays, Moneyball is a small film, but one that explores themes of motivation and determination, and it leaves you feeling that with enough drive and perseverance, any of us could pull off the seemingly impossible. Moneyballdeserves to be nominated for its wonderfully adapted screenplay, and ended up one as of the more pleasant surprises of the year.

#9 – The Tree of Life
A visual masterpiece of cinematography and editing: Exactly what one would expect from Terrence Malick. The Tree of Life however is one of those films that feels almost self-congratulatory, as if it’s winking at you, fully aware of how breathtakingly beautiful it’s stream of consciousness flow and movement is. The story attempts to explore existential themes and is an introspection, seemingly questioning our whole reason for why we are on this earth…and it is interesting, but not compelling enough to stick with you over time or really make you think all too hard about any of these themes. Stylistically it is among the standout films of the year, but substantively, it sadly falls short. I’d still recommend seeing it, just don’t plan on getting an answer to the question “why am I here?”

#10 – Win Win

Tom McCarthy directs his third film, Win Win, and like his first two, The Station Agent and The Visitor, he delivers yet another thoughtful, interesting and entertaining film.

I hardly ever tire of Paul Giamatti whose performance in the under-appreciated Barney’s Version made my top ten list last year as well. In Win Win, Giamatti plays a struggling New Jersey lawyer (Mike) who coaches the high school wrestling team in his spare time, a task that he finds disheartening, considering that his players are generally pathetic.

In an ethically questionable move, but motivated by the monthly stipend that the job ultimately pays, Mike decides to take on the roll as a legal guardian for a teen who – as it turns out – was once a wrestler of formidable talent. While this synopsis sounds trite and predictable on the surface, the film is not: it is earnest, heartfelt and a deeply human portrayal of people doing what they have to do to get by in life, sometimes making decisions that are less than perfect. Giamatti’s character is flawed, and imperfect to say the least, but we feel for him and we root for him, as we do for the other characters as well.

This was another film that I thought for sure would register with the Academy voters, but by the time awards season rolled around, it seems that this little gem had all but disappeared from the collective conscience. Unfortunate since this is a sweet film, one that deserves to be seen if you missed it the first time around.

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9 Responses

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  1. dede says

    Thank you Daniel, so well written and explicit, love it.!

  2. Josh says

    We’re going to Hugo tonight on your recommendation! Also, I loved Win Win and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

  3. Wendy says

    Great writing Daniel! I appreciate the comments. I rarely get to see anything above a PG rating and you have helped me decide which ones are worth the effort. Thanks!

  4. Daniel House says

    Wendy, I only hope that my recommendations are in sync with your sensibilities. Josh, I hope you guys like Hugo as much as did I…guess we’ll be talking about it VERY SOON! 😉

  5. Gayle says

    I like your take on Tree of Life. Very similar to my own. Haven’t seen a couple of films on this list. Will get to them soon. One of my top films that hasn’t gotten much attention was Meek’s Cutoff. Have you seen it?

  6. Heather S says

    Great work, Daniel- I really loved getting your perspective.

  7. Thomas V Davis says

    I gave up on Tin Tin as soon as I saw the 100% CGI look of the film, but will give it another shot based on your recommendation. Seems like the classic series would have been better served by careful casting of live actors.

  8. Sandra Garcia-Pelayo says

    I agree that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a much better choice for a nod, although I liked Midnight in Paris well enough, and it is nice to see Woody Allen get continued recognition in this day and age. Hanna was a phenomenal surprise that I accidentally came across On Demand. Wow. And now that I’ve read your take on Hugo, I’ll set aside my prejudice….the trailers left me NOT wanting more. Hadn’t heard about Rampart Trailer and look forward to finding it to see. Tree of Life? Just as you said. Thanks for adding all the trailers too Daniel.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The Best Documentaries of 2012 – My 2014 List of Favorites | Daniel House linked to this post on March 2, 2014

    […] For the year before, check out The Best Films of 2011 – My 2012 List of Favorites […]

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