Top 10 Movies of 2011

There's been a ton of blogosphere discussion over the last few weeks as to whether 2011 was good or bad for film. The box office definitely works in favor of the "bad" side of the argument as ticket sales plummeted to their lowest level in 15 years. The Academy Awards, too, seem to indicate a down year as we're likely to see less than the maximum ten films nominated for Best Picture and many of the acting award slots will be handed out almost by default (outside of the Best Actor race, which is thick). For me, though, 2011 was a deceptively strong year. From week to week, it was somewhat rough; I can't remember a year that held more, "I don't want to see any of these movies" weekends than this one did. But at the same time, most of the films I did see managed, at the very least, to provide acceptable entertainment and a number of this year's entries were quite good. I had real trouble deciding which films to put into the Top 10, an issue I don't usually have. I saw a lot of movies this year, I had a lot of fun in theaters, and I only had to see one movie in 3D. In my book, that equals a good year. Please enjoy my Top 10 Films of 2011.

Honorable Mention
Crazy, Stupid, Love - Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Warrior and The Help deserve special mention as films that just missed consideration in my top 10 list. Both were exceptional films and Warrior is one I plan on seeing numerous times. But Crazy, Stupid, Love is the one that hurts to exclude. It is undoubtedly a flawed film but as I said in my initial review, the flaws just make this seem all the more realistic. These are real humans at work within CSL and all of them exhibit strengths and weaknesses throughout the movie. In addition, this movie served as a reminder to me that Ryan Gosling is an incredible actor (more on him in a moment). This is easily the best date movie since 500 Days of Summer.

10. Super 8 - Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

This was the best movie from the first half of the year in my opinion. It contains a fantastic story, some seriously good special effects, and surprisingly good acting across the board. The combination of Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams plays out more beautifully than I could have imagined and every moment of Super 8 wreaks of these two great filmmakers. Elements of Cloverfield, E.T., The Goonies, and Stand By Me are at play here and they all blend together seamlessly.

9. Tree of Life - Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
I debated on where to put Tree of Life on this list. I could have gone as high as second or as low as ten. My opinion on what I think this movie is really about changes on a daily basis but there's absolutely no denying the fact that is a remarkably well-made film. There was a great differing of opinion regarding Tree of Life that waged all year. I've seen it on the top of many "best of" lists but it also occupied a spot on some "worst of" entries. But more than any other movie this year, this is one that you simply have to see for yourself before you form an opinion. The performances are all great, of course, but for me, Tree of Life is all about Terrence Malick. This is clearly a very personal film and one that probably hits closer to home in more ways than I could ever understand. It is also one of the most beautiful films I have EVER seen.

8. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner
This is the most surprising film of the year for me. As a fan of the previous Mission: Impossible installments, I expected to enjoy this movie and then forget about it until it popped up on TNT in three years. Instead, I was treated to one of the more intelligent, pulse-pounding action movies in recent memory. I'm pretty easy to please when it comes to action flicks (as my love for the Fast and Furious movies will attest) but this is an entirely different animal. Ghost Protocol also reintroduces the world to Cruise, who never really went away but certainly needed a hit. If you haven't seen this film yet and you're not sure how you feel about Cruise, action flicks, or anything else, just trust me and go see it now while it's still in theaters. So. Much. FUN.

7. Hugo - Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace-Moretz, Ben Kingsley
Probably the most complex kid's movie ever, Hugo grabbed hold of me from the very beginning. I loved it and I was fully invested in the narrative involving Hugo's quest to unlock the secret of his father's automaton. When the story shifted and becomes more and more Martin Scorsese's ode to the pioneers of film, my affection only deepened. Hugo is beautiful, exquisitely directed (duh), and extremely personal. It bums me out that this film so few viewers but if you get a chance to check it out, I encourage you to do so.

6. The Muppets - Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
I so badly wanted this movie to be good that I was actually nervous for the week leading up to its release. I loved the Muppets as a kid and still make a point of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol every year. "Life is just better with the Muppets", I've always said. To call The Muppets a success would be the understatement of the year. It embodies all of the nostalgic goodness of the original Muppet entries while offering a few new angles that make this a decisively refreshing experience. The music is incredible and it is unquestionably the most fun I had in a movie theater this year (and maybe significantly longer).

5. The Descendants - George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer
When I walked out of my screening for The Descendants, I thought I had just seen the eventual Best Picture winner. I've cooled off of that feeling a bit since then but even still, this is an outstanding film. It is at times difficult to watch as it operates within an often dreary atmosphere and yet director Alexander Payne manages to find humor at just the right times to prevent his movie from becoming depressing. Clooney provides yet another Oscar-caliber performance but the real story is Woodley. In multiple scenes, she goes toe-to-toe with Clooney, a member of Hollywood's royalty, and holds her own. Without her performance, I think The Descendants still nets Clooney a Best Actor nomination but the film itself would fall flat.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth
I'm pretty sure I mentioned this film more than any other film in 2011 with the possible exception of Harry Potter. I was borderline obsessed with it, so much so that I penned 1,500 words about it when I realized I wouldn't be able to see it until a month after its release. I built TTSS up in my mind so much that I didn't think it could possibly live up to expectations...and then it totally did. Intelligent, complex, and tense, TTSS gives new meaning to the term "slow burn" and yet it is incredibly engrossing. The cast is amazing, headlined by the Great Chameleon, Gary Oldman. An absolute must-see for any Oldman fan and (I really hope) the film that finally gets the man an Oscar nomination.

3. 50/50 - Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick
I had the good fortune of seeing 50/50 about six weeks before it opened in theaters. I laughed, I cried, and I came away so impressed that I went back to see it on opening weekend. This is a crowning achievement in filmmaking from top to bottom. JGL is perfect in his role as a cancer-stricken 28 year-old and Rogen shows exactly what he's capable of in the right director's hands. More importantly, though, 50/50 is able to both explore a very tough subject and laugh at the disease itself. It is never insensitive but neither is it pious as it manages to strike the perfect balance. Obviously I have two more films to go but when I look back on 2011, I believe 50/50 will be the first film that comes to mind.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson
Look, I'm biased and I know it. All cards on the table, this film would have had to have been TERRIBLE to miss out on making this list. I admit it. Even still, Deathly Hallows II was everything I could have hoped for in a finale. It brought so many moments to life in just the right ways and serves as a perfect cap to an outstanding series of films. In the future, I'll consider Part I and Part II one big movie (like I do with The Lord of the Rings) and I think that's a darn good movie. But this installment is where the real meat and potatoes comes into play and where the series makes its biggest impact.

1. Drive - Ryan Gosling, Carey Milligan, Albert Brooks
It shocks me to my very core that Drive has been shut out of contention for most major awards. This is exactly the type of film that I would expect committee members to love and yet it has been overlooked over and over again. At the same time, it is an absolute thrill that this film found a fairly significant audience. It's an example of what can happen when Hollywood gives us a chance to embrace this sort of indie film. This is not a movie for everyone due to its stripped-down dialogue and hyper-violence but if you can get past those potential stumbling blocks, it's a phenomenal film. Drive left as much if not more of an indelible mark upon me as any film this year. I loved it. I love the simplistic script, the synthesized soundtrack, and of course, the magnificent central character, Driver. Gosling freaking kills it in this role and embodies every aspect of his character's deceptively multi-faceted persona. For lack of a better term, Drive is just cool, one or two tiny missteps away from a true masterpiece.