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Best Movies of 2011

PRODIGAL FILM STUDENT’S BEST MOVIES OF 2011:

Well I did it again. I waited to the last minute to make my best of the year list and I tried to do it right before the Oscar nominations were announced and I failed. (argh.) Well, I finally was able to finish my list and there’s still feels like a million movies I haven’t seen yet for as much as it seemed like I went to the movies this year. Movies like Shame and Hugo are notable misses. I tried to catch up as much as I could but it never seems like there’s enough time does it?

2011 was an interesting year for film. I’d say that it was a improvement over 2010 even though there were less movies that seemed to really blow me away and felt like they were very good instead of being great. I’d rather have a bunch of above average films than a stream of mediocre ones. I was definitely more picky about the films I saw this year and Netflix turned out to be an even greater resource for peering into some independent horror, drama, foreign, documentary films that might have otherwise gone overlooked. In 2010, much of my list was compromised of movies I saw at the tail end of the year while surprisingly my list features many movies that came out in different time periods. My best of list was also very formulaic to the best movies of the year and my top ten featured most of all the Best Picture nominees. (yawn) This year was all over the board and featured more movies you may and may not find on best of lists which is a fun little change. This list was definitely hard to compose but surprised me that a majority of my list is comprised of movies I actually saw in theaters. I saw many mediocre movies this year too but nothing to really constitute it as worst of the year (like i said, I was picky) so I don’t think I’ll be composing a worst of list. Overall this year’s really big winner was independent cinema which makes up a majority of my list and really shined this year in terms of endearing movies that outshined big budget hollywood movies, which appeared in more theaters and had an advantage of being VOD too, but it made for an extremely mediocre summer in terms of Hollywood fare. This year was a lot about nostalgia featuring many movies that reflected on the past and different eras of movies whether it was 80’s noir, a silent film, or 70’s paranoia, this year was the year we looked to the past for inspiration and dissection.

Instead of a traditional top 10 I extended it to 15 so think of the 5 after ten as quasi winners/runners up for the top ten. I also tried to refrain from using documentary picks (like the outstanding Senna) and foreign language films, which I hope I can make separate lists for.

Runners-Up: Young Adult, Hanna, Warrior, X-Men: First Class, Source Code

15. Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol

“Overall, this film is probably the best action movie of 2011 and will be held as a standard for blockbusters. Director Brad Bird (in his first live-action film) knocks it out of the park in terms of technical quality and a great script. Brad Bird definitely sets the bar for how an action film should be made and then leaps over it.”

Original Review

The best action film of 2011 and some of the most fun I had at the movies all year. Tom Cruise is still a formidable action hero and screen presence and this time brings the best team he’s ever had in form of a Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Paula Patton. The story is pretty been there, done that but it is such a fun, exhilarating over-the-top spectacle it feels like a breeze at over 2 hours. Tom Cruise hanging from the tallest building in Dubai is among one of the most terrified I’ve ever felt during a movie.

14. Bellflower

An insanely dark and hypnotic mumblecore drama about ordinary 20 something best friend male slackers in California who spend their time building flamethrowers and badass muscle cars in preparation for the oncoming apocalypse. When one of them falls in love and gets his heart broken by a local girl, their lives take an inevitable path of destruction and betrayal. This low-budget gem was written, produced, edited, directed and stars the lead actor, Evan Glodell who created the camera used for the film that gives it one of the most distinct film looks seen in a long time. The film is definitely love or hate it and doesn’t always feel cohesive story wise but it is an effectively disturbing motion picture that crawled under my skin and burrowed itself deep in my brain. The film may not affect you the way it did for me but there is no denying that Glodell has potential to be the Robert Rodriguez of the YouTube generation. Now who can tell me how to build a flamethrower?

13. Another Earth

“While, Brit Marling may not be there on Oscar night, this film is an indication she will be one day soon. A sci-fi film with heart, an independent film with ambition, and an ending that left me completely blindsided, hopefully this film will not go overlooked. “

Original Review

A low budget sci-fi drama that really shows the potential of a new age of filmmakers. Brit Marling co-writes, acts, and produces this film that takes a high-end concept and ends up being a low-key drama about forgiveness and grief. Marling is the star of the show who dominates every frame she is in and has one of the best breakout roles of the year. A film that really shows how a good script, good actors and a lot of heart can shine through the constraints of a low budget. The composited image of a floating Second Earth hanging in the sky has been seared into my mind all year long.

12. Win Win

“Many of the characters are faced with situations that force themselves to make a compromise to do what is essentially the “right” thing. That is basically the principle behind the “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” and the principle behind the film “Win Win.””

Original Review

Paul Giamatti is one of our generation’s best actors and Thomas McCarthy is becoming one of our best directors. A film about Giamatti as a small-town lawyer/high school wrestling coach (does anyone else play such a good lovable schlub?) who has fallen on hard times and takes in a young teenage runaway who happens to be a wrestling prodigy. From the plot, the movie sounds like it has potential to be a made-for-tv drama that surprisingly turns out to be a film without the usual sitcom cliches we are used and in turn becomes a hilarious and realistic movie that ends up being about choices and compromises instead of easy resolutions.

11. Ides of March

“The movie may not bring anything new or noteworthy to the list of political films, but like last year’s “Social Network,” anytime a movie can put me on the edge of my seat from two characters having a conversation, I cherish it.”

Original Review

I normally don’t seek out political movies but when a movie features a cast of Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman that is based on a renowned stage play and directed by Clooney himself it’s worth taking note of. The story of an idealistic campaign worker who gets a lesson in dirty politics while working for a Presidential candidate is a tense drama/thriller that is a showcase for great acting and is comprised of mostly well-written scenes of dialogue. Clooney’s best directorial effort doesn’t bring anything revelatory to the Political genre but with a 2012 election around the corner, the movie is probably more accurate than we’d like to think.

10. Midnight in Paris

“A likable, fun, diversion. A love letter to Paris, as much as it is a love letter to a golden age, while being a study of our modern relationship with nostalgia.”

Original Review

This was the year I really began to consider Woody Allen as one of the best directors of all time. After a period of mediocre films, Allen returns to form with a film that’s part romantic comedy, part Paris travelogue and is as charming and magical as any film this year. Owen Wilson is probably the best Woody Allen acting surrogate to grace the screen and gives one of his best performances. A film about a screenwriter vacationing in Paris who at night is able to travel back to 1920’s Paris is a classic Woody Allen story that combines great cinematography, Jazz Music and an eclectic cast of actors playing famous playwrights and artists. Although the film is lightweight comedic entertainment it still manages to include a great subtext about living in the past and not appreciating the present.

9. 50/50

“Some movies use cancer as a joke or punchline. 50/50 knows that even with the anger, fear, and pain that comes with cancer, people can still have a sense of humor.” 

Original Review

Cancer is never good subject matter for a comedy but the surprising thing about “50/50″ is that it is a more honest and realistic portrayal of dealing with cancer I’ve ever seen in a movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a 27 year old unexpectedly diagnosed and gives a wonderful, emotional performance. The reason the film works so well is its actors and a true life screenplay by Will Rieser. The Bromance between Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hilarious and unexpectedly heartfelt without being overly sentimental. Anjelica Huston as JGL’s mother and Anna Kendrick as a love interest/therapist are roles that seems like comic relief and turn out to be full of more depth than you’d expect. A successful comedy about the touchy subject matter of cancer that made me shed a few tears as well.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“The film is a great homage to 70′s era political intrigue thrillers that never compromises the integrity of its story for modern audiences.”

Original Review

Tinker Tailor is not the fast-paced thriller you’d think it would be. Based on an acclaimed spy novel and adapted into an acclaimed BBC series, the movie is condensed into a two hour drama that is probably the most accurate portrayal of cold war spies of MI6. Gary Oldman stars in a career best of already great performances as George Smiley, a semi-retired agent who has to figure out a soviet mole placed in the high rankings of MI6. A british masterclass of acting thats complimented by great editing, directing, production design that feels like a film right out of the 1970’s. The movie is hard to follow and at times confusing but one that will reward after multiple viewings.

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene

“This film is truly a great low-budget arthouse drama that is propelled by an extraordinary lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen in the kind of breakthrough dramatic role that must young actresses dream of.”

Original Review

Not the horror movie you think it would be, Elizabeth Olsen stars as the titular character who escapes a cult and tries to readjust back to normal life with her sister and fiancé while dealing with repressed memories of her past. First-time director Sean Durkin crafts a beautifully complex drama that throws us in the mindset of the title character and with great directing, editing, and cinematography makes us wonder what is real, a memory, or side effect from paranoia. The story isn’t your average cult movie but feels more authentic and is carried by a breakthrough role by Olsen and an insanely creepy supporting performance by the underrated John Hawkes as the cult leader.  An absorbing first-time independent film that is hard to not think about long after it’s over.

6. Like Crazy

 “Like Crazy” is much like last year’s fantastic “Blue Valentine” where the film is more of a drama that’s almost documentary-like. The look and relationship of the characters feels so real that we feel like voyeurs in these character’s world that feel all too close to some of our own real life relationships.”

Original Review

“Like Crazy” is your typical Indie romance about young adults in love. Maybe because I’m in that same age range but this film resonated with me more than any romance movie I’ve seen in awhile. Newcomer Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin create a believable, adorable, and ultimately tragic couple. Shot handheld and mostly improvised this film feels like a documentary more than a feature film. The film also adds in an additional layer of frustration with a subplot about immigration laws that keep the couple long-distance and put up many road blocks for them. The film is overflowing with raw emotion that sucker punched me in the stomach and reminded me all too much about my own relationships. I walked out of movie theaters this year with endings that emotionally affected me but this film was the only one where I could say “I know exactly how you feel.”

5. Moneyball

Baseball and Sports movies are the easiest go-to for a feel-good movie especially if its a true story. What’s so great about “Moneyball” is that it barely spends any time on the field and is as fascinating and feel-good as any other major baseball movie. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the real life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, and how him and Peter Brand (a shockingly good Jonah Hill) used economics/mathematics to create a winning baseball team on a small budget. The screenplay by Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin is expertly written mixing the right amount of emotion and technical jargon to show a behind-the-scenes look at the politics and drama of running a baseball team.  Even though I don’t follow Baseball that much, the true story is so well-told that it is always fascinating, full of good humor, and has moments of good old fashioned crowd-pleasing entertainment. It’s up for debate if it’s one of the best baseball films every made, but all I know is that I’ve never found myself so engulfed in talking about baseball statistics.

4. The Descendants

“Overall, the film is a great example of a good American drama. A film that is equal parts depressing, comedic, heartwarming, and honest. “

Original Review

George Clooney is amazing for the simple fact that he plays more or less the same character in every  movie and is able to give a brilliant performance each time. This movie was also Alexander Payne’s return to filmmaking after a long hiatus and shows what a skilled, talented storyteller he really is and what a shame that his films arrive so few are far in between. His films always deal with male characters in sort of mid life crisis’ and this time it’s Clooney’s character as a hawaiian lawyer/landowner who must deal with his two daughters after his wife falls into a coma from a boating accident and then finds out she was having an affair. Tough subject matter that Payne and Clooney transform into heartbreaking drama and laugh-out-loud comedy. Clooney has the gift of the playing an everyman and is endearing to watch in every scene. Alongside him are many memorable supporting turns including Shailene Woodley as his teenage daughter. The movie also features one of the most unique portrayals of Hawaii as i’ve ever seen in a movie and is a perfect backdrop to the film. Director Alexander Payne has had a seven year gap between this film and his last, but it’s worth the wait for such a well-acted, well-made film.

3. Tree of Life

“Many people will claim that it is long, has no story, is boring, and makes no sense, and for many people this will be the truth, but for some people who are willing to sit back and be engrossed in a rare motion picture, the experience will be extremely rewarding.”

Original Review

When arriving into the theater for “Tree of Life” I was expecting a unique drama about a family in 1950’s Texas. While I didn’t get the traditional drama I thought I was, instead I sat through one of the most abstract, beautifully shot, mesmerizing films I’ve gotten the chance to see on the big screen. A movie that is definitely not for everyone and it does indeed feature a family in the 1950’s Texas but it is more of a series of snapshots of various childhood memories that feel more authentic than any narrative could have, featuring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain giving outstanding performances. This is one film impossible to categorize but affects you so viscerally with a depiction of the creation of the universe and ending with a vision of the afterlife. The film is long, doesn’t always make sense, and has more voiceover than dialogue but is unlike any movie I’ve seen this year. Simply put, it’s pure art translated to a cinema screen, that has numerous philosophical and religious subtext. Director Terrence Malick‘s passion project is a one-of-a-kind film that tries to sum the meaning of life, but to me it’s amazing to think we are small ripples in the grandness of the entire universe.

2. The Artist

“The film is a testament to the power of cinema and how as an art form it can affect us in such a way that emotions, actions, humor, and a sense of imagination can transcend language.”

Original Review

In an age where digital is replacing film, IMAX and 3D versions seem to be attached to every new film and countless remakes, reboots, and sequels are churned out, “The Artist” is a breath of fresh air. A grand love letter to a forgotten age of cinema. A silent, black and white film about a silent actor’s downfall when talkie motion pictures become the newest, biggest trend is an ironic film that has no ulterior motive or hidden agenda except to entertain. This film could have been a joke or a one-note concept stretched out to feature length. Instead is a wonderfully crafted piece of film that never has a dull moment from beginning to end. With great actors like Jean Dejardin and Berenice Bejo, who are irresistible on screen, the movie is impossible not to love. It is exactly the kind of film needed to remind us of the simple joy of  watching a movie and the powerful grip a good movie has to thrill us, make us laugh, put us in suspense, entertain us, and let us leave the theater completely satisfied. “The Artist” meets all of these requirements.

1. Drive

“While this might sound like the plot of a B-action/revenge thriller from the 80′s/90′s, the movie finds it’s depth in it’s simplicity. While it’s drawn from a novel that lends itself to be a straightforward action drama, the film shifts between a chase movie, a revenge drama, a love story/modern fairy tale, superhero origin story, love-letter to L.A., and a homage to the 1980′s.”

Original Review

Drive” is a movie I anticipated all year and once I saw it opening weekend it has been one that hasn’t left my subconsciousness. Director Nicolas Winding Refn takes a cliche plot and creates a visual odyssey of a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. It may be the most overrated movie of the year as I’ve seen it on nearly every top ten list as number 1 or close to it and there’s good reason for it. There’s not much to say that hasn’t been already said about it, but I agree with every word. Some people might not appreciate the sparse dialogue or minimal action sequences but to me, it’s what makes it so appealing. It’s a film so gorgeous to look  even when a head is being smashed. From the direction to the cinematography to the editing it is a film lover’s wet dream. Starting with the opening chase scene to the opening credits to the open-ended ending, not a single frame is wasted or useless. Every character from Gosling’s silent hero to Albert Brook’s frightening mob boss to Carey Mulligan’s angelic next door neighbor, is pitch-perfectly cast. Like “The Artist” it’s the kind of film that makes you appreciate filmmaking and the reason why we go to the cinema. Part samurai film, part cheesy 80’s action movie, part art-house, “Drive” is a game-changer for cinema. Thousands of action movies that are in theaters or direct to video have plots that are nearly identical to this one. So what makes “Drive” so special and so worthy of all it’s praise? It’s a movie with affection for it’s story and characters pouring out of each frame, a movie dedicated to itself without compromises or care what people think. A film so stylish and so cool that it feels timeless and over time will only become more discussed, analyzed, and appreciated.

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