Last year was a terrific year for movies. It had some truly memorable films that still coarse through my brain on a regular basis. Black Swan, Toy Story 3 and The Social Network were all worthy of attention. 2011, on the other hand, not so much. Aside from perhaps my number one movie of the year, if the rest of these films had been released last year, they would have been much closer to the ten spot than the one, if they even appeared on the list at all. That’s not to say these movies aren’t great—they certainly are—they just lack the specialness last year’s crop of films possessed. Nevertheless, there were 10 films that stood out above the rest and without further ado, here they are.
Note: Click the title to read my full review.
10. In Time—Certainly the biggest wild card on this list, In Time is, dare I say it, brilliant. Here’s a sci-fi movie with a truly unique and interesting idea, that the currency of the world is time, not money, and the rich can live forever while the poor live day by day, watching as the time on their arm slowly ticks down to zero, killing them. Despite its sci-fi coat, this is a movie about modern times. It’s about the recession and the anger the American people have felt over the corrupt Wall Street business practices that got us in this mess. It’s a political message about spreading the wealth. It’s an allegorical exploration into social Darwinism that asks why, when there is more than enough resources on the planet for all to live comfortably, do we let greed take over while others suffer? It’s a timely film with purpose, not just mindless action and explosions. It might not look like much on the surface, but if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised at just how intelligent In Time is.
9. We Bought a Zoo—There were a handful of movies this year that had memorable endings. A couple of upcoming movies on this list notwithstanding, We Bought a Zoo had the best. It’s an emotional hit that comes out of nowhere and deviates from the simple story of a widower and his family as they buy a zoo and renovate it for opening with an odd flashback, but it nonetheless works. All but the most hardened of souls will be wiping a tear from their eyes when the credits roll around, and for good reason. But We Bought a Zoo is more than an ending. It’s about moving on and coping with the loss of a loved one. It’s about maintaining memories of that person while creating new ones with those still around. It’s about taking what life throws at you and making the most out of it (making lemonade out of lemons, as the old adage goes). When the film begins, the wife of the central character, played sympathetically by Matt Damon, is already dead, meaning almost no time is spent with her, so the fact that so much emotion seeps through anyway is something impressive. Some may find We Bought a Zoo cloying and overemotional, but I found it achingly heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting and lovely.
8. Senna—Largely forgotten by critics circles and unseen by the public, Senna is hands down and by far the best documentary to be released this year. It’s about the life of Ayrton Senna, a Formula One Racecar Driver who is largely considered to be the best to ever sit behind the wheel, and the events that led to his tragic and untimely death. The entire movie, perhaps save for the opening credits sequence, is told completely through archival footage, an effect that is both highly impressive and narratively interesting. It’s like watching any type of drama, except that what you’re seeing is completely real. You’ll become so invested in it that you’ll be praying for a hopeful outcome even though you know it’s an impossibility. Like an upcoming movie on this list, you don’t need to be a fan of the sport to enjoy the movie. You just have to be a fan of a good story. Senna is about corruption, greed, guilt, redemption, sabotage, life, death and more. It packs more in its short runtime than any other movie this year, but it’s not due to over-ambition like many of Hollywood’s fictional efforts. Those themes and story points are there because, well, that’s how the true story unfolded. With all that and more action than any other movie to be released this year, Senna is a documentary for those who refuse to watch documentaries. If you don’t see it, you’ll be missing out.
7. The Muppets—I love the Muppets. The show may have gone on and off the air before I was even born, but I nonetheless grew up on The Muppet Show. Reruns aired all the time when I was little and I don’t think I missed a single one. Their films were all around terrific too, aside from an exception or two (the less said about their desecration of The Wizard of Oz the better), but it was the TV show that captured my imagination. Though certainly accessible to children, their newest theatrical endeavor, simply titled The Muppets, is for people like me who grew up sitting in front of the television watching them. In the film, the old Muppets studio is in danger of being bought and destroyed by an evil oil baron and to save it, the Muppets must raise 10 million dollars. The only way to do that is to throw a fundraiser and put on one final Muppet Show. It’s truly a joy watching the Muppets perform the classic show opening onscreen, a sense of warmness and nostalgia washing over you. To top that off, you have some memorable new songs and a recurrence of some wonderful old ones, including the fan favorite, “Rainbow Connection.” Not to take anything away from the human stars, including Amy Adams at her most radiant since Enchanted, but the Muppets steal the show in this one. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2—For whatever reason, the Harry Potter series and Twilight series are compared all the time. They’re both based on a series of books, they’re both hugely popular and they both draw in many of the same audience members, but there’s one key difference between them. The Harry Potter series is, you know, good. And there might not be a better entry in the series than its slam bang finish, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Emotional, action packed and exciting are only a few of the adjectives that can be used to describe the finale of a story that has captivated us onscreen since 2001. Even for those who haven’t read the books and only partly invested themselves in the story (like myself), this movie will hit you hard. The final confrontation between Harry and his nemesis Voldemort is underwhelming from an action perspective, but it’s the underlying emotions involved in the battle that give it its weight. After eight movies, the story of Harry Potter has finally ended and it couldn’t have ended in a better way.
5. Kung Fu Panda 2—Every year, Pixar has been able to do something incredible. There’s a reason they’re the go-to animation studio for moviegoers and critics. With Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, the Toy Story franchise and more under their belt, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Even their most lackluster films, Cars and A Bug’s Life, are only lackluster in comparison and feature plenty of imagination and wit. But this year, they released Cars 2, which is by far their worst (and only bad) film. That’s why I thank the movie gods for giving us Kung Fu Panda 2, which easily made up for the rest of the year where the best animated movies were only legitimately labeled “good” and nothing more. Although the first movie was a fine adventure in its own right, Kung Fu Panda 2 expands on the story of Po with a journey of self discovery. The whimsical nature of the original is still intact, but this movie finds profundity and heart to add on top of it. But for those not interested in those aspects in an animated movie about a fighting panda, Kung Fu Panda 2 offers lots of exciting action scenes and a plethora of hilarious jokes that spoof traditional kung fu and action movies. I wouldn’t say it ranks among the best animated movies ever like some of Pixar’s best, but it’s certainly the best animated movie of the year.
4. Drive—One of the things many of the movies on this list have in common is how surprising they were. Who would have thought a science fiction thriller starring Justin Timberlake would be as profound and provocative as it was? Who expected The Muppets to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a story revolving around the old Muppet Show? Would anybody have expected Kung Fu Panda 2 to finally bring a stop to Pixar’s streak of animated domination? But even after considering what those films had to offer, none were more surprising than Drive, a film that had no buzz leading up to it, a leading character with no name and a story with numerous tonal shifts. It blended so many genres together, it was likely to not find a distinct voice, but it worked just the opposite. It stood out from the crowd thanks to its refusal to stick to one genre or tone. That refusal didn’t translate to a lack of focus like it would in other movies, however. On the contrary, Drive may have been the most focused, contemplative movie of the year. On top of that, it’s masterfully directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, with a visual style that can’t be compared to any other movie, and Ryan Gosling once again knocks it out of the park with his brilliant portrayal of the nameless protagonist. It’s not for everybody due to its sudden explosion into violence halfway through, but if you can stomach it, Drive is all kinds of amazing.
3. Midnight in Paris—Woody Allen has been the subject of a lot of criticism in recent years. Most people prefer to think back to his earlier works like Annie Hall when discussing him, as his most recent endeavors have been too mediocre to remember. But that was before Midnight in Paris, which is easily his best film in at least 10 years and, in my opinion at least, may be his single greatest achievement. In the film, Owen Wilson, who is spending some time in Paris with his fiancée Rachel McAdams, is transported back in time where he meets famous people like Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Luis Bunuel, the man responsible for the terrific Spanish film, The Exterminating Angel, and his trip is pure delight. For those with knowledge of classic film, art, and literature, Midnight in Paris will be captivating. For those without that knowledge, no worries. The film is just as wonderful thanks to steady direction, a whimsical script and a number of terrific performances. It's the only movie on this list I didn't review and I tried not to include movies on here I didn't review, but Midnight in Paris is too great to ignore.
2. Warrior—It’s criminal how overlooked Warrior is. It’s not as underrated as In Time—it did, after all, get glowing reviews—but it’s not getting the awards nominations it deserves. Multiple critics organizations who have released their end of the year awards, including my own, the Washington Area Film Critics Association, neglected to give this film even one award nomination, despite a trio of brilliant performances, a deep, gripping, emotional story and a unique ending that strayed from your typical sports drama. It may have been recently usurped by my next pick for best picture of the year, but that in no way diminishes its greatness. It’s emotional without resorting to overwrought histrionics, it’s powerful without cheating and it gets to its bittersweet ending without relying on contrivances. It reinvigorates the sports drama genre after so many “based on a true story” films that all followed the same trajectory to their predictable conclusions. And the beauty of it is that you don’t have to be a fan of mixed martial arts to enjoy it. I hate MMA. Despise it actually. I just don’t understand the fascination of watching two men beat the living daylights out of each other. To me, it’s barbaric, unnecessary and a sad statement on humanity, but Warrior makes MMA something more than encouraged cruelty. This movie is about the characters and their emotional struggles, the MMA merely a tool for dealing with them. And if you can make me like a movie revolving around the sport, then you’ve really accomplished something.
1. The Artist—By far and away the best film of the year, The Artist is magical. It can be argued that it hasn’t been a great year for movies, but any faith that was lost in such a lackluster year will immediately spring back to life after watching this movie. In fact, it’s the rest of the year’s poor performance that makes The Artist so grand. It reminds you why you love movies, even when they’re not so good. It reminds you of their grace, their beauty, their pleasures and their free spiritedness. Aside from one or two moments of crassness that wouldn’t be present in silent films past, watching The Artist is like being transported to the 20’s, when the world was just learning about the power of film and what it could do. Yes, it’s black and white and (mostly) silent, but it’s more entertaining than the biggest, loudest, most expensive CGI spectacle to be released this year. It has a wonderful story about love and fame and the score is absolutely brilliant, simultaneously evoking the musical stylings of classic silent films while never falling into repetition like so many of them did. If you don’t like The Artist, you’re either too young to appreciate it, too stubborn to acknowledge it or too cynical to care because it’s truly wonderful and is the single best movie of the year.