THE BEST FILMS OF 2011:
1. “Midnight in Paris” (written and directed by Woody Allen) – Whoever thought you’d someday utter the words “Woody Allen” and “magical” in the same sentence? After all, it’s been a long time since his “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985). America’s greatest living filmmaker gives us not just his biggest box-office hit in forty years but the longest running movie of 2011. A delightfully literary meditation on time travel and the Lost Generation. No one can assemble a cast like Allen; Owen Wilson channels Allen without parodying his jokes and gestures in the City of Lights.
2. “Drive” (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn) – This ultra-violent vehicle for Ryan Gosling, as the anonymous “Driver,” is a rough patch of LA noir, vicious and thrilling. It also solidifies Gosling as the most versatile leading man to watch – politically mercurial in “The Ides of March” and a sartorial stallion in the comedy “Crazy Stupid Love” – in 2011. “Drive” is on track to become a lasting cult favorite.
3. “Take Shelter” (dir. by Jeff Nichols) – A harrowing meditation on paranoia and climate anxiety with the indomitable Michael Shannon (a sure-fire contender for the Best Actor Oscar) as an Ohio man coming apart. Jessica Chastain (“The Help,” “The Debt”) was the ingénue of 2011, giving here, as a foil to her bubbly Southern belle in “The Help,” a restrained performance as the wife of a man either mentally ill or clairvoyant. You decide. Another powerful psychodrama, set in the heartland, from the writer-director of “Shotgun Stories.”
4. “The Tree of Life” (written and directed by Terrence Malick) – It appears only the “little things” in life matter to Malick (“Badlands,” “The Thin Red Line”). His moving meditation on childhood, love, family, dinosaurs, Texas, the cosmos that had Americans demanding a refund must be worth the price of admission. Believe it or not, in 2011, many movie-houses had to enforce their NO-REFUND policy for those left dazed and confused by 2011’s only poem-on-film (also the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes). Costar Sean Penn even admitted that he had no real idea what Malick’s movie is about. Actors! Like any thoughtful work of art, it demands a lot from its viewer, but this tree’s roots stretch far and wide.
5. “Bridesmaids” (dir. by Paul Feig) – Sure, it’s the female “Hangover” – replete with scatological slip-ups and crudely sexual candor – but “Bridesmaids” will get you to the church on time and, potentially, buzzed on the drive there. Kristen Wiig dropped the over-the-top personae she brings to life on “Saturday Night Live” and surrounded herself with a hilarious ensemble cast that turned the chick-flick genre on its head. That image alone of Wiig riding the automatic gate to Don Draper’s love pad is comic gold.
6. “The Descendants” (directed by Alexander Payne) – After reading George Clooney boast to Rolling Stone that he’d be “surprised” if “The Descendants” didn’t go on to become a Best Picture nominee, I went into a showing of Alexander Payne’s new dramedy with my critical force-field up. Yet its achingly honest tone and gallows humor eventually win you over. Clooney’s light is less intense than newcomer Shailene Woodley as his truth-telling daughter. The family bonds forged here feel real rather than Hollywood hokum.
7. “Beginners” (dir. by Mike Mills) – It’s hard to believe that the man who, nearly fifty years ago, played Georg van Ludwig Von Tropp in “The Sound of Music” has the gumption, not to mention the joie de vivre, to play a newly widowed man who belatedly comes out of the closet. Playing Plummer’s son, Ewan McGregor is on hand to scratch his head and find love (and roller-skate) for himself. Mike (“Thumbsucker”) Mills based the comedy on his father’s own coming out and cancer. A more cross-generational cancer comedy than the also entertaining “50/50.”
8. “Young Adult” (dir. by Jason Reitman) – After stumbling with “Jennifer’s Body,” Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) reestablishes herself by drawing up the virtually unlikable Mavis Gary, a “prom queen psychopath bitch” (lovingly described by a fellow native of Mercury, Minnesota unhappy to see her back in town and trying to break up a marriage). Theron embodies another kind of “Monster” while Patton Oswalt delivers the laughs as a self-described “fat geek” who shares the most surprising love scene of ’11 with a wine-stained, cutlet-wearing Theron.
9. “Hugo” (dir. by Martin Scorsese) – While contemporary Steven Spielberg stretched himself thin with “The Adventures of Tintin” and the mawkish “War Horse,” Martin Scorsese focused his attention – his 3-D attention, no less – on his first children’s film. “Hugo” has a timeless feel, capturing the hurly-burly of an urchin inhabiting the walls of a Parisian train station and the advent of the motion picture in the age of Georges Méliès. Is there anything Martin Scorsese can’t do? Oh, that’s right: comedy (see, or don’t see, his “After Hours” of 1985).
10. “Moneyball” (dir. by Bennett Miller) – After last year’s “The Social Network,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin hits another home-run with Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Even a sports-phobe like myself could connect with a script this dizzy with details and dialogue for grown-ups. It’s probably time Pitt picks up his first Best Actor Oscar and why not for a willful film that venerates all of you who think outside the box – or better yet, the diamond?
THE (VERY) WORST FILMS of 2011:
1. “Abduction” – Sorry, Twi-hards, but Jacob Black of the Twilight Saga film series committed a serious error here in the lobotomizing tale of a kid raised, unbeknownst to him, by secret agents. Lautner is far from ready for his close-up, Mr. DeMille. He has the vacant, Neanderthalic gaze of Kim Kardashian’s short-lived husband, Kris Humphries. If only “Abduction” had felt as short as that marriage.
2. “In Time” – A perfectly acceptable script from Andrew Niccol (“Gattaca”) was marred by the calling-it-in acting style of Justin Timerblake who, like Taylor Lautner, is best kept in the chorus. Costar Amanda Seyfried resembles a dyspeptic goldfish as she and Timberlake chase across rooftops, trying to beat the clock in “In Time.” An acting malfunction.
3. “Shame” – For some inexplicable reason, Michael Fassbender is being praised for playing a Manhattan professional addicted to sex in the impotent “Shame.” Never has sexuality been so boring, characters so undeveloped, and a narrative so negligible as in Steve McQueen’s self-serious sophomore effort. If the audience isn’t laughing derisively by the time Brandon descends into an inferno of gay bars and Sapphic three-ways, they’re not paying attention. I returned to the lobby to dispense liquid butter directly into my eyeballs to blur this nightmare of a “drama.” Shameful, indeed.
4. “I Don’t Know How She Does It” – The one-note Sarah Jessica Parker fails to mix it up a bit (again) in this wannabe feminist twaddle. Parker plays Kate Reddy, a finance executive juggling professionalism and pampers. If only Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha had helped with babysitting duties, we might not have had to once again sympathize with the saccharine sentimentality of white woman bourgeois guilt. Far from a breadwinner, this is a bread-loser that confirms the old adage that indeed you can’t have it all.
5. “Trespass” – What was Nicole Kidman thinking to team up with the execrable Nicolas Cage and hit-or-miss director Joel Shumacher (“Dying Young,” “Phone Booth”)? Cage plays a businessman and diamond-dealer victimized, alongside wife Kidman, during a sadistic house invasion. If it’s pointless violence you’re after, “Trespass” has more than enough gore to go around. If you play this loudly in your house, your neighbors will likely call the police due to its vociferous gunfire and relentless female shrieking.
In a year belonging to Woody Allen, it’s worth remembering a line from “Annie Hall” (1977). (It’s a classic older than I am with insights immemorial.) In the following, replace “television shows” with “movies,” especially the soulless “Trespass”:
Annie, in California: “It’s so clean out here.”
Alvy (Allen): “They don’t throw their garbage away. They turn it into television shows.”