Oftentimes, box office-owning movies and the films that make us think, cringe, belly-laugh and get choked up tell two very different stories. Sure, sometimes these two qualities overlap and we're able to share an experience at the theatre that gets people out in droves, not for simple escapism but to watch someone masterfully tell a story.
But when it came time for us to look back at what 2011 offered us at the movies, we set our sights on quality, innovation, acting and wow factor and didn't allow ourselves to persuaded by the mighyt dollar. It was surprisingly easy.
Read on while we give you our list of the year's top films, ranging in tone and genre from clever comedy to quiet ultraviolence, something resembling a true story and at least one Jessica Chastain movie. Girl was everywhere this year.
Read on for our list of the 10 Best Movies of 2011.
As a dyed-in-the-wool Woody Allen fan, I'm delighted (and, okay, relieved) by his late-career resurgence, seemingly finding inspiration in the heart of the European cities where he's recently been filming his movies and achieving what was once not thought possible outside of New York. Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris give audiences the postcard-perfect, idealized version of a historical city and has harried Hollywood gun-for-hire Gil (a superb Owen Wilson) in the middle of it all, yearning for the beautiful surroundings to nudge him towards literary greatness. From there, things get whimsical as iconic writers and artists (think Hemingway, Dali, the Fitzgeralds) are woven into the mix but while Allen uses time-travel as a storytelling device, he never loses his sharp wit and continues to explore the possibility of achieving truth through art.
In a case of separating the artist from his art, Lars von Trier delivers a work of epic proportions, giving us an elegiac film that dazzles the senses while it hurtles its characters towards certain death. Kirsten Dunst gives a mature and bold performance as a chronically depressed woman who seems to be the only one facing the planet's certain destruction - thanks to the titular planet on a crash course with Earth - with honesty, if not dead-eyed acceptance. You won't take your eyes off the screen for a moment and that final scene - profoundly sad, touching and inevitable - is one for the ages.
Tree of Life
Terrence Malick is this known to be this enigmatic, press-shy director who does one film every decade but if it takes him 10, or 20, years to make a film the caliber of Tree of Life, let the man rest. With the feel of a long prayer that never gets preachy, we get the story of the universe's creation and development told through visuals that can barely be harnessed by the big screen. Morphing from dinosaur-era times to '50s USA, the narrative thread is tenuous to be sure, but it rarely matters as Malick poses brain-bursting questions about how to live and what happens when we depart, not to mention an emotionally vital look at fathers and sons. A reminder that movies can still be experiential even when no robots, car crashes or free falls are involved.
No, I haven't seen The Driver, which may very well colour my intense appreciation for Nicolas Winding Refn's slick, quick study on an ultra-masculine modern-day hero (Ryan Gosling) who speaks little, acts out in terrifying bursts of incited rage and quietly falls hard for a girl, though their courtship consists only of stolen glances and one well-timed kiss. Gosling breaks free of the Notebook heartthrob cliche and goes full taciturn icon and makes a surprisingly compelling, believable thug. The star, the soundtrack, the direction that epitomized 2011 at the movies.
Admittedly, this choice seems at odds with the rest of my list, but the heart wants what the heart wants. I suspected from the trailer that Drake Doremus' microscopic view of the first wave of love's powerful persuasion would be a movie that had the potential to impress, and at the very least would boldly stand out from the hackneyed crowd of lesser movies trying to pretend they were saying something about relationships. But then I watched Like Crazy during the Toronto International Film Festival and again in theatre...and by chance a third time, and my suspicions were confirmed ten-fold. All this to say, Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones achieve a level of reality that's sometimes painful to watch and expose the truth about the often-futile fight for love. Sure it has it's twee moments and there may be one too many Paul Simon references but I'm willing to forgive the small missteps for what the movie as a whole achieves.
Writer-director Mike Mills' autobiographical tale about a young graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) whose elderly father (Christopher Plummer) comes out after spending his entire life in the closet could've been an overly sentimental, overdone, tear-jerker of a film. After all after the father comes out, ready to make up for over 40 years of pretense, he's immediately confronted with a diagnosis of cancer. But somehow Mills pulls together a tale of discovery, loss, love and liberation that remains wholly original. With a classic jazz soundtrack that evokes a bygone era of simplicity via the strains of Jelly Roll Morton and Hoagy Carmichel and a performance from Plummer, as a man who'll be damned if he's going to let a little thing like death get in the way of his newfound freedom, that stands out in a career full of quality roles, Beginners was one of the very best 2011 had to offer.
David Fincher had his work cut out for him when he took on Stieg Larsson's best-selling Swedish thriller. From the hurdles of casting such memorable characters to stepping out from the shadow of the critically-lauded 2009 film version, Fincher's final film had to be better then his best to impress audiences and silence doubters. Against the odds, the talented auteur manages to score on all fronts and though it may not be his very best, it's pretty darn close. At the heart of his success is his splendid cast. Rooney Mara, as kick-ass hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander, is a revelation, Daniel Craig at his terse and charming best captures journalist Blomkvist completely and Stellan Skarsgard is as elegant and depraved a villain as you're likely to see this year. Fincher manages to breathe new life and a surprising amount of dark humour (I'll never be able to hear Enya's Orinoco Flow the same way again) into Larsson's now well-known, very adult story and in doing so has given us one of the most memorable films of 2011.
Happiness, thy name is Muppets. From Kermit and Miss Piggy, to the Swedish Chef, to the cranky awesomeness of Statler and Waldorf,
almost every single familiar felt face makes an appearance in Jason Segel's enthusiastic, infectious passion project. I don't know
about you, but I get hit with an undeniable wave of nostalgia as Miss
Piggy takes out someone with her signature karate move. That one never
gets old. But don't be fooled into thinking that The Muppets is all
about a trip down memory lane. There are new stars alongside our old
favourites including Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper, and there's also a new Muppet taking centre stage named Walter. Everything ties together superbly and if, after all the pratfalls, singing, dancing and Wocka-Wocka hilarity, you didn't leave the theatre with a smile on your face and a swing in your step, then you are quite beyond hope.
This occasionally raunchy, consistently witty and surprisingly touching film took the box office and audiences by storm this past May. Wrongly pegged by more than a few critics as just a female version of The Hangover, this big screen tale penned by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo is a brutally honest depiction of contemporary feminine anxiety, friendship, insecurity, and romance that is nothing short of perfect. Though Melissa McCarthy's hilarious performance as bridesmaid Megan has been rightly singled out by many, it is Wiig's star turn as first maid of honour Annie that grounds the film and gives it real heart. As a woman plagued by more than her fair share of bad luck whose explosive downward spiral is triggered by her best friend's engagement, Wiig is note-perfect. With a stellar supporting cast of players including Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd and Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids is a comedy that is destined to stand the test of time...and repeat viewings.
French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius's evocative look at the silent film era has quite rightly taken the movie industry by storm. Little wonder considering it's difficult to believe a big-screen venture with neither sound nor colour ever made it past the pitch stage, given the monetary nature of the business. But to say we're ever so glad it did would be the worst kind of understatement. Whisking us immediately away to the enchanting world of pre-talkie motion pictures, the film follows the emotional, Svengali relationship between a fading matinee idol (Jean Dujardin) and a younger, effervescent ingenue (Bérénice
Bejo.) Through actions and not words, we're transported to a time when films and their stars sought to be that much bigger than life, not just to reflect it. But then again, to paraphrase Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, the stars remained big, it's the pictures that got small.
Which 2011 movies topped your list? Share your top 5 films of the year below!