Out of 101 films, here are my favorites!
1) Midnight in Paris
This film gets better each time I see it. Woody Allen captures the magic of Paris beginning with a beautiful opening montage of the city in bloom. Owen Wilson gives a balanced and brilliant comedic performance as Gil, an aspiring writer who discovers his literary muses on his midnight walks through Paris. It’s easy to pass over how great he is in early viewings of the film, but I think he brings that trademark Woody Allen neurosis while making the dialogue all his own. Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, and Allison Pill are wonderful as Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. I treasure this film more than any other of 2011 because of the way it admires the magic of cities. The history, personality, and architecture of the great city can enthrall you more than any other art form. See “Midnight in Paris” and then see it again and then go out and discover the wonders of your city.
2) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Everything from the frenetic and beautiful credit sequence to the last surprisingly heartbreaking scene worked for me in David Fincher’s adaptation. This was my first encounter with Lisbeth Salander having not read the books or seen the Swedish films from last year. Fincher’s camera makes you co-investigator with Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist panning across evidence, collecting important details, and keeping you guessing. Rooney Mara undergoes a fierce and convincing transformation into Lisbeth. She gives one of the best performances of the year as the girl you don’t want to cross, but would love to be on your side. Daniel Craig shows a whole new side as the intuitive and sometimes bumbling journalist and investigator. I would watch these two do just about anything. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is perfection, particularly Lisbeth’s theme which plays like a haunting lullaby.
3) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The greatness of Deathly Hallows 2 (and the entire series) is rooted in the brilliant production design by Stuart Craig and the consistently enigmatic performance by Alan Rickman. In the opening Gringotts heist scene, Harry, Hermione, and Ron walk through the wizarding bank lobby which is exactly identical to dazzling sight in the first film. Yet the stakes have completely changed and everything Harry does means life or death. In the Snape’s memory scene, again we the the delicate blend of continuity and character development through Rickman’s work. The scene melds new footage of Snape’s past with footage from all 7 films. We see Snape look at young Harry in Sorcerer’s Stone, noticing now a mixture of disdain and wistful interest. That’s the wonder of JK Rowling’s books: nothing is ever as it seems. The last film was an exhilarating send off for Rowling’s fans. Yet also accessible to Muggles who enjoyed an action packed resolution to Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort. Radcliffe, Rickman, and Maggie Smith lead a cast of top notch performances.
My favorite director created a film that expresses all the things that are special and wondrous about films. Films not only capture our dreams, but also remind us of who we are and what we want to be. Films can bring people together and mend broken spirits. Martin Scorsese takes the story of Hugo Cabret and creates something both personal and universal. The use of 3D in “Hugo” is completely essential. The technology creates greater depth in each frame, enveloping the audience in the comings and goings in this Paris train station. Ben Kingsley is devastatingly good as filmmaker turned toy maker George Melies. Asa Butterfield is an exciting new performer. ”Hugo” is the real deal.
Unbroken takes, long silent stretches, and lots of explicit sex make “Shame” difficult to sit through. Yet, these aspects make the film thrilling to behold. Michael Fassbender gives the best performance of the year as the isolated and broken Brandon. He can barely make it through the day without a sexual encounter. He looks predatory when he’s searching for his next “fix”, yet afterwards he seems empty and confused. His compulsions take him to dangerous places as his volatile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him. Their interactions are so uncomfortable as we try to piece together a relationship plagued by past traumas. It’s a great film that forces us to relate our own brokenness and loneliness to Brandon’s.
Some people see problems and concede change isn’t possible. Others see problems, find solutions, and decide change is the only way forward. ”Moneyball” is a wonderful rendering of the true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. Instead of accepting the status quo, Beane takes a controversial view and lets it guide his entire approach to managing the team. Instead of looking for flashes of talent, the Oakland A’s looked for the right combination of skills and outcomes to fashion a team that could win at a price they could afford. I’m not a baseball geek, but I could relate to Beane’s desperate love of the game, brought vividly to life by Brad Pitt. Beyond all the baseball minutiae what captured me about “Moneyball” was its theme of embracing overlooked talent. We all have something to offer and need someone to unlock those gifts. Pitt as Beane unleashes the talent of Peter (Jonah Hill) to the great benefit of the team. Hill and Pitt make a great screen pairing; sparring and riffing off of each other.
7) King of Devil’s Island
This Norwegian film was the biggest surprise for me this year. Based on the true story of a revolt at the Bastoy boys prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a powerful story of friendship and triumph over abusive power. At every level, the boys of Bastoy surrender their freedom to the oppressive rule of the Governor (Stellan Skarsgård). His power is challenged by a defiant new inmate Erling (Benjamin Helstad) who is determined to escape. When model inmate Olav (Trond Nilssen) begins to challenge the sanctimonious Governor for the crimes he wishes to ignore, the walls of control come crashing down. Despite being opposites, Erling and Olav build a friendship that keeps them from surrendering to despair. The score by Johan Söderqvist is a haunting and beautiful piece of music. I want fly to Norway just to buy it. ”King of Devil’s Island” won Norway’s Oscar equivalent for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Nilssen, and Score. I hope it gets a release in the US.
My opinion of Nicolas Winding Refn’s violent film has changed so drastically since I saw it. Leaving the theater, I could feel the film pounding against my chest, as if I had been shot. Yet, it has some of the most dreamy and beautiful scenes of the year. That close mixture of sweetness and savagery makes “Drive” impossible to ignore. The soundtrack of retro electronic pop ballads have permanent rotation on my iPod. Every time I hear the songs, I’m back in the theater, amazed and horrified by what is on screen. More than any other film, “Drive” got under my skin and finds a way to pop up in my day to day. As the nameless driver, Ryan Gosling is perfect. His piercing eyes let you know he will never relent. His sleek white Scorpion jacket becomes stained with the blood of so many enemies who underestimated his silence for disinterest and weakness.
No film made me laugh more than Paul Feig’s ”Bridesmaids.” Screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo bring to the screen real female characters and relationships. The fear of being out of sync with the person who knows you best is explored with heart and humor. Wiig gives a brave lead performance, taking Annie to some dark places for our comedic enjoyment. The diverse cast of female talent in “Bridesmaids” shows a range of comedic power. In each woman you find something wholly familiar and unique.
10) Jane Eyre
This was my favorite film for much of 2011. Mia Wasikowska perfectly brings forth Jane’s fierce integrity and longing for happiness. Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation brings the right amount of Gothic terror and romance. His vision brings the dark Thornfield Manor to life, leaving us wondering what is really going on with Mr. Rochester. Michael Fassbender is also great as the brooding and temperamental Rochester. He and Wasikowska build a cerebral chemistry in their long verbal matches, which explodes into a physical one.
11) Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s ”Martha Marcy May Marlene” will have you questioning everything you see and feel. As Elizabeth Olsen’s troubled character becomes more unhinged between her past in a cult and present with her distant sister, we also become confused. Martha’s paranoia bleeds into the story and film making. It’s the best kind of manipulation. Olsen gives a completely open performance. The camera puts every inch of her under our examination, making this difficult character impossible to not to emphasize with.
12) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Forget international espionage and jet-setting to exotic locales. The real danger is the person you’ve known and trusted for years who holds the power to destroy you and your country. In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” George Smiley must uncover a mole bleeding British intelligence to the Russians. To find the source, he must wrestle his darkest memories and question everything he thought was secure. Gary Oldman gives a masterful performance as the economical and exacting Smiley. For the first 20 minutes, he hardly says a word, but when he does he commands the screen. On the surface, Smiley seems passive and still, yet Oldman brings a steady urgency to the character. He conveys a sense that this mild looking bureaucrat could take off at any moment. The supporting cast is full of Britain’s best actors all at top form.
13) Bill Cunningham New York
The best discovery of the year was meeting the legendary New York times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham in Richard Press’ documentary. On bike or on foot, Bill Cunningham is documenting the runway of New York streets and finding the eccentric, fun, inventive, and special tastes of ordinary people. Cunningham could care less about celebrities and lives a life of remarkable simplicity. He lives for his work; dedicating each minute to finding something beautiful on the streets to celebrate. ”Bill Cunningham New York” is the film I want everyone I know to see and love. More than that, Cunningham has become a personal hero with his overwhelming integrity and loving personality.
14) Fright Night
I like my vampires like Colin Farrell’s Jerry: deadly, intelligent, and sexy as hell. “Fright Night” is the most fun I had at the movies. It builds suspense, while keeping you laughing at the clever lines and vampire mythology. Anton Yelchin is great as the sardonic former nerd trying to save his loved ones from the bloodsucker next door. Farrell is doubly deadly as he can hunt his victims with reckless ferocity, but gently seduce them into his bloody embrace.
15) The Descendants
Alexander Payne finds a whole new side to George Clooney’s cool persona in “The Descendants.” Here we see him failing to connect to his teenage daughter, while becoming unglued as they search for his comatose wife’s lover. ”The Descendants” makes great drama and tender comedy of the strains in our closest relationships. The way back for Clooney’s Matt King is forgiveness and Payne takes us on an engaging journey through Matt’s anger, denial, and acceptance of his wife’s indiscretions. Shailene Woodley is a brave new talent as Matt’s caustic older daughter.
16) Win Win
What does it take to do the right thing? Tom McCarthy’s excellent film “Win Win” answers “Whatever the fuck it takes.” Paul Giamatti plays a small town lawyer drowning in financial troubles of a small practice, broken boiler, and two kids to raise. Everyone is passing him by, taking the short cuts he neglected to become a respected member of the community. Since respect does not pay the health insurance bill, Mike decides to take guardianship of Leo, a disoriented and feisty old man, and pockets the $1500 monthly fee. When Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, Mike’s luck begins to change as Kyle makes his rag-tag wrestling team a contender, but complicates the benefits he’s getting as Leo’s guardian. McCarthy’s “Win Win” explores the stresses and the challenges to doing what is right.
17) A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg’s film creates a full and engaging portrait of a great thinker by exploring the most important relationships in his life. Carl Jung begins the film as the eager healer, teeming with enthusiasm for Sigmund Freud’s talking cure. The volatile patient Sabina Spielrein allows him to work with his idol, but also challenges his professionalism. These pioneers of human behavior are revealed to be as petty, obsessed, and damaged as we are. Jung most of all, played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender, is a hypocrite and victim of his pride. Jung tries to reject Freud’s theories, wanting their to be “more than one hinge to the universe” while also engaging in an affair with Sabina that proves the sexual roots to his identity. The film is seriously funny with a series of quotable lines and verbal skirmishes. Keira Knightly gives her best performance here, embracing Sabina’s madness, but also her intelligence and grace.
18) The Interrupters
"The Interrupters" as a film does exactly what you might expect. Through Steve James’ camera we are taken into communities plagued by violence. Yet, "The Interrupters" isn’t an issue film or cultural vegetables to be taken with our noses closed. It’s a film about a city- my city- and the people that live in it. The people featured in the film, especially the three leads Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, will stay with you long past your screening. I would place the film closer to Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee’s cinematic portraits of New York. Like "Mean Streets" or "Do The Right Thing" "The Interrupters" agitates the heart not the head and will change how people see Chicago by simply showing it truthfully.
19) We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” may be one film I love but cannot recommend to anyone. How could I knowingly encourage someone to witness the unending suffering Tilda Swinton’s Eva goes through? How could I lead a friend to meet the cold Kevin and be forever haunted by Ezra Miller’s murderous stare? Despite the grizzly subject matter, there is great beauty in the film. We float between Eva’s memories of raising Kevin, constantly wondering why Kevin is so dangerous. Between her recollections, we struggle through Eva’s lonely life as a pariah in the community. Eva takes abuse from everyone and never fights back, as if she deserves punishment for giving birth to a murderer. Tilda Swinton gives one of the best performances of all time.
"Beginners" is an incredibly touching and inspiring film that balances quirky indie qualities with great humor and drama. I was completely involved in the film and affected by many scenes. There is so much to love about this specific slice of life. I think by getting the details so right of these people and their conversations, Mike Mills makes an emotionally accessible and enchanting film.
I could easily rearrange the films on this list or exchange with ones I had to leave off. Just missing the cut were “The Trip”, “Super 8”, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Melancholia”, “Attack the Block”, “Tree of Life”, “Higher Ground” and “50/50”.