The Cynical Optimist’s Top 10 Films of 2011

2011: Le Cinéma Fantastique

Come and dream with me…

“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.” — Hugo Cabret.

This year I saw roughly seventy to eighty films in theaters. Some films I saw multiple times – others I watched on Blu-Ray, DVD or in some rare cases, VHS. If you were to calculate how many hours I spent in the dark (alone or in the company of friends) watching films, I’m sure it would be well over 300 hours (12.5 days), which could be seen as a success or a failure depending on how you feel about film. I love film – it’s my thing – it makes sense to me in a way that nothing else seems to.

With that being said, I am happy to present my top ten films of the year, as well as ten additional titles I would recommend in a heartbeat, should you find the first ten rewarding. That’s twenty films – twenty wondrous works of cinema the year has brought – twenty bits of moving picture and sound that have moved me, and I present them to you now in hopes they move you the same way.

[10] The Descendants

Directed By: Alexander Payne

From the creator of the Academy Award-winning “Sideways,” “The Descendants” is a humorous yet tragic journey for Matt King (George Clooney), an indifferent husband and back-up parent.

When his wife suffers a boating accident off of Waikiki, Matt is forced to re-examine his life and the role he plays in his beyond dysfunctional family. While attempting to reconnect with his two daughters, Matt wrestles with a decision to sell the family’s land handed down from Hawaiian royalty and missionaries.

Payne’s film captures the unpredictable messiness of life and effortlessly blends tragedy with comedy, which is a direct result of such great performances by George Clooney and his on-screen daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.

Great Performances By: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer

[9] Young Adult

Directed By: Jason Reitman

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of teen literature who returns to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota to relive her glory days and reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Returning home proves more difficult than she thought, and Mavis forms an unusual bond with a former classmate (Patton Oswalt) who hasn’t quite gotten over high school, either.

Written by Diablo Cody (“Juno”), “Young Adult” is a powerful (and hilarious) piece of cynicism, a dark comedy that feels authentic, as it provides no easy answers for its characters. Without the brilliant work of Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, Cody’s dissertation on prolonged adolescence wouldn’t be as hard-hitting.

Great Performances By: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Collette Wolfe

[8] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed By: David Fincher

Fincher’s slick and glossy style explores the darkest corners of the human experience, pulling back the curtain to reveal a world that is morose, sinister and gorgeous. From “Se7en” to “Fight Club” to “Zodiac” to “Dragon Tattoo,” Fincher’s obsession with detail gives his films a richness lacking in most American cinema.

Rooney Mara is fearless as Lisbeth Salander, a pale, anorexic techno-punk covered in piercings and tattoos. She is damaged – introverted, anti-social – a rape victim who refuses to be victimized. Mara deserves an Academy Award for her bold portrayal of Lisbeth – a character that embodies the elegant, dark duality of Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers in “Black Swan” and Heath Ledger’s capacity for chaos as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a mesmerizing work of art by a filmmaker who has mastered his craft – a film refined and dripping with gorgeous intensity.

Great Performances By: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer

[7] Midnight in Paris

Directed By: Woody Allen

“You’re in a love with a fantasy.” That’s what Inez (Rachel McAdams) tells her fiancé Gil (Owen Wilson), who replies “I’m in love with you.” At least he thinks he is. Inez doesn’t share Gil’s romantic notions of Paris (preferably in the rain) or his idea that the 1920s were the greatest time to be alive.

When Inez goes dancing with her friends, Gil (a writer) takes a walk at midnight and discovers what could be the ultimate source of inspiration for writing. By some sort of Parisian magic, Gil is transported to ’20s Paris where he rubs shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and even Pablo Picasso.

“Midnight in Paris” is filled with a brilliant ensemble of actors and manages to be a sweet and charming return to form for Woody Allen. It manages to be both romantic and comedic without being your typical romantic comedy.

Great Performances By: Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Alison Pill

[6] Drive

Directed By: Nicolas Winding Refn

Adapted from James Sallis’s 2005 novel, “Drive” is not for the faint of heart. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is a violent and surreal tone poem influenced by Steve McQueen’s “Bulitt” and the work of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is a powerful, unrelenting work of intensity.

Great Performances By: Ryan Golsing, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks

[5] War Horse

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Based on the 2007 stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, “War Horse” could have easily become a sentimental, manipulative WWI version of “Marley and Me,” but Spielberg has crafted his finest film since 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

The film is about young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who enlists to service in WWI after his beloved horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry. Albert’s hopeful journey takes him out of England and across Europe as the war rages on.

Technically superb and expertly crafted, “War Horse” is an old-fashioned, emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings courtesy of Spielberg’s signature style.

Great Performances By: Jeremy Irvine, Niels Arestrup, Celine Buckens

[4] Beginners

Directed By: Mike Mills

“Beginners” stars Ewan McGregor as the grief-stricken Oliver, who meets the unpredictable Anna (Melanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away from cancer. This new, exciting love floods Oliver with memories of his father who – after 44 years of marriage – came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full and energized gay life.

Perhaps my favorite film of the year in terms of sheer cinematic catharsis, “Beginners” is such a hopeful story, filled with deep optimism and cheerful joy — both humorous and heartfelt. It will move you in ways a motion picture should but seldom does. See it with someone you love – your father, your mother – recommend it to an estranged friend or family member – share it with the people you have trouble sharing yourself with.

Great Performances By: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Cosmo the dog

[3] The Tree of Life

Directed By: Terrence Malick: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain
Terrence Malick’s latest film, ”The Tree of Life”, serves as an ambitious masterwork that braids the threads of one Texas family in the 1950s with the creation of the universe. The film follows the life of Jack (Sean Penn), the eldest son of the O’Brien family, through the innocence of childhood to the disenchantment of adulthood. Jack attempts to reconcile a strained relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).

Staggering. Beautiful. Malick’s film is reminiscent of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” – a polarizing, hypnotic piece of art that goes beyond the bounds of contemporary cinema. It is a masterful work that encourages speculation yet confirms nothing.

Great Performances By: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

[2] Hugo

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s award-winning novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a heartwarming reminder of the power of cinema. Whereas J.J. Abrams’ bit of summer nostalgia, “Super 8,” was a specific homage to the work of Steven Spielberg, “Hugo” is Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema as an art form, encompassing those magical Georges Méliès films that made the director fall head over heels with the moving picture. I suspect you too will fall in love all over again after watching this endearing, beautiful film.

Great Performances By: Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen

[1] The Artist

Directed By: Michel Hazanavicius

“The Artist” stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo and takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932, when silent films were being replaced by talkies. Dujardin plays George Valentin, a leading man of the silent era who’s on his way out. Bejo plays Peppy Miller, an actress who gets her big break in the age of talking pictures.

The film itself is silent and shot in black-and-white. Hazanavicius employs filmmaking techniques of the ’20s and ’30s to bring the golden age of Hollywood to life. You won’t find any computer generated chaos or steadicam shots in “The Artist” – but what you will find is a wonderful and entertaining piece of storytelling with great actors that will make you fall in love with cinema all over again.
Great Performances By: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie the dog

Honorable Mentions / Recommendations

Another Earth
Directed By: Mike Cahill

On the night of the discovery of a duplicate planet in the solar system, an ambitious young student and an accomplished composer cross paths in a tragic accident. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Brit Marling, William Mapother

Take Shelter
Directed By: Jeff Nichols

Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart

Like Crazy
Directed By: Drake Doremus

A British college student falls for an American student, only to be separated from him when she’s banned from the U.S. after overstaying her visa. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed By: Sean Durkin

Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

Directed By: Thomas McCarthy

A struggling lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach’s chicanery comes back to haunt him when the teenage grandson of the client he’s double-crossed comes into his life. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer

Directed By: Gavin O’Connor

The youngest son (Hardy) of an alcoholic former boxer (Nolte) returns home, where he’s trained by his father for competition in a mixed martial arts tournament — a path that puts the fighter on a collision corner with his older brother (Edgerton). — IMDB

Great Performances By: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgarton

Directed By: Jonathan Levine

Inspired by a true story, a comedy centered on a 27-year-old guy who learns of his cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick

Directed By: Bennett Miller

The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Help
Directed By: Tate Taylor

An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maid’s point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed By: Rupert Wyatt

During experiments to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, a genetically-enhanced chimpanzee uses its greater intelligence to lead other apes to freedom. — IMDB

Great Performances By: Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow

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