IAR's Top Ten Films of 2011

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 21:05 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR's Top Ten Films of 2011

Another year has come and gone, and what a year 2011 was for movies! We’ve had sensational sequels (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), impressive comic book adapted projects (X-Men: First Class), fascinating documentaries (Page One: Inside the New York Times), amazing animation (The Adventures of Tintin), groundbreaking 3D (Hugo), high-octane action (Drive), homerun hitting sports films (Moneyball), terrific dramas (The Descendants), hilarious comedies (Bridesmaids), blockbuster alien robots (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), movies that celebrate the art of cinema itself (The Artist), and the return of some true Hollywood legends (The Muppets).

The following is a look back at some of my favorite films of 2011. While my job as Managing Editor of IAR allows me to see almost every movie that is released, I was not able to see all of them (sorry Young Adult, and J. Edgar). The list I’ve compiled is based on the films that I did see this year and which of those are my favorites overall. I’m not necessarily saying that these are the ten best films released this year, but they are the ten I enjoyed the most.

However, honorable mention goes to The Rum Diary, The Devil’s Double, Attack the Block, The Artist, and Moneyball, which all came extremely close to making the cut.

IAR’s Top Ten Films of 2011

10) Warrior

A lot has been said about one of this year’s best sports movies - Moneyball, which will probably be nominated for Best Picture, and did come very close to making my top ten. But I really loved the MMA fighting movie Warrior, which was released just a few weeks before the Brad Pitt vehicle. While the story itself is a bit predictable, it is actor Tom Hardy’s unpredictable performance as fighter and ex-marine Tommy Riordan that electrifies the screen. Not to mention veteran actor Nick Nolte’s equally excellent performance as Tommy’s alcoholic father, which deserves awarding the actor his long overdue Oscar-win. Even if you’ve never watched a MMA fight before in your life, you’ll be glued to the edge of your seat during the film’s heart-pounding fight sequences.

9) Shame

There haven’t been many films this year more polarizing then director Steve McQueen’s Shame. In fact, I had to see it twice just to decide how I really felt about it. I didn’t like it at first; it is the kind of film that challenges you and the way you think about society. But upon second viewing I really appreciated it and began to fall in love with the movie. McQueen has made a daring film, which showcases actor Michael Fassbender’s equally daring performance. While I, and I assume most people, cannot directly relate to the problems and issues that Fassbender’s Brandon is dealing with in the film, the movie is able to transcend the difficult subject material and make the characters and their problems accessible to the audience. In addition to Fassbender’s performance, which is one of the best of the year, actress Carey Mulligun also shines in a difficult but important supporting role.

8) Super 8

J.J. Abrams’ loving tribute to executive producer Steven Spielberg’s earlier films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and The Goonies, is both heart-warming and fun summer entertainment. While Super 8 is clearly paying homage to the ‘80s movies produced by Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, the film works on its own nostalgic levels giving us something which is both old and new again, combining the “group of kids on an adventure” plot along with aliens and resulting in a touching family film. The children are perfectly cast and while you have seen this ”monster” before, it’s really the fully developed characters and emotional storyline at the heart of the film that makes the experience worthwhile.

7) Hugo

Much has also been said about Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece and it is definitely a spectacle for the eyes, but Hugo is more than just another 3D film … its about the way we look at cinema altogether. Leave it to Scorsese to make a 3D film about…. well, film! What the audience is left with is not only an entertaining story, and visual delights, but they actually get to learn something about the history of the craft from one of the great masters, and arguably one of the greatest living historians on the subject. Ben Kingsly is marvelous as the once great Papa Georges, and Sacha Baron Cohen is hilarious as the inspector, but it is Scorsese’s vision and passion for the medium he helped define that comes shining through the celluloid and makes this movie an absolute pleasure to watch.

6) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A tightly knit spy thriller that will keep you guessing from beginning to end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features some of the greatest British actors of our time. Gary Oldman gives his best performance to date (in a long list of amazing performances), as retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to hunt down the mole working amongst his former co-workers. The stellar cast includes Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarian Hinds, Toby Jones, and Benedict Cumberbatch who gives an Oscar-worthy supporting performance. But it is Oldman who truly deserves Academy Award recognition this year. If the actor were nominated, unbelievably it would be his first nomination in an impressive career spanning back over thirty-years.

5) Beginners

It’s not often that a small independent film released in early summer is remembered come Oscar time, so I think it speaks volumes about the movie, the writer/director, and the cast’s wonderful performances, that people are still talking about Beginners now. I fell in love with this movie from the first moment I saw it. I fell in love with its non-linear storytelling, the father/son theme, and of course, Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor’s remarkable performances. Not to mention that it was shot in my local neighborhood of East Los Angeles. The film’s title says it all …Beginners, that’s what the movie is about. When Christopher Plummer’s eighty year-old Hal finally comes out to his only son, McGregor’s Oliver, he is beginning. As is Oliver, years later when he is dealing with his father’s death and finding new love with Melanie Laurent’s Anna. No matter your age, sexual preference or geographical location, there is a lot to relate to and love about writer director Mike Mills’ extraordinary film.

4) The Descendants

Director Alexander Payne has become a master of mixing drama and comedy into one film that cannot truly fall into either category. After exceptional outings like Election and About Schmidt, it seemed that the director had made his finest film to date with the Oscar-winning Sideways, but as hard as it is to believe … The Descendants is actually Payne’s best film yet. Heartbreakingly funny and completely realistic, the movie possesses Payne’s signature mix of comedy and drama, while utilizing the director’s eye for beauty, both in his actor’s performances and in the gorgeous Hawaiian landscapes that serve as the story’s backdrop. The movie is grounded by the best performance of George Clooney’s career, as well as excellent supporting work from Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, and newcomer Shailene Woodley. Clooney gives a mature, and complete performance as a man dealing with his wife’s imminent death, her terrible secret, and his two young daughters. Payne won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Sideways, but I think he definitely deserves consideration this year for Best Director, while Clooney is probably the current frontrunner for Best Actor.

3) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I never read the books, and I only saw the first of the three Swedish films once, so maybe that is why I loved David Fincher’s retelling of the late Stieg Larsson’s popular novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so much. It’s a great story with a fantastic mystery, and some truly fascinating characters. I enjoyed the original Swedish film a lot but because the plot is so intricate, it’s easy to get confused when you are reading subtitles. Perhaps that is why I felt more connected to this version, because I could understand what was going on easier. Fincher is the only director that could have pulled this off and I did have my doubts, but remember this is the man that brought us Seven and Fight Club. Instead of making a carbon copy of the book, Fincher was able to inject his specific style into the material and make it his own. While Lisbeth Salander is one of the most celebrated characters in modern literature, actress Rooney Mara found away to make the role fresh, and new again, while still possessing the necessary anger and vulnerability needed to play the role. Equally excellent is Daniel Craig who sheds any doubt that he is just "James Bond" with his outstanding and commanding lead performance.

2) The Muppets

I’m a huge fan of the Muppets to begin with, so I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a bit worried during the first ten minutes of their new film, when there were no classic Muppets in sight and just Jason Segel, and Amy Adams breaking into song with a new Muppet named Walter. But quickly I realized what was going on … I was watching a Muppet musical! The film is absolutely brilliant, and breathes new life into the treasured characters. Co-writers Jason Segel and Nick Stoller were able to infuse their script with all the fun and good nature of the original Muppets outings while bringing Jim Henson’s loveable creations back to the fold in pop culture. Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Conchords) music is a perfect fit and if “Pictures in My Head” is not nominated for an Academy Award, then there is truly something wrong in the world. Chris Cooper’s hip-hop rap alone is worth an award. But the most impressive thing about The Muppets is, the Muppets themselves. It’s odd to say, but they are really good actors. There was more emotion on Kermit and his friend’s fuzzy faces, than on any of the actors in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1. Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, and even an obscure Muppet named Uncle Deadly had full character arcs, which is very impressive for any film of this size servicing so many beloved characters. They say what is old is new again, and that has never been truer than in the case of The Muppets! Welcome back guys … and pigs.

1) Drive

In addition to Shame, I would have to say the other most polarizing film of the year is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which also happens to be my absolute favorite movie of the year. Everyone I’ve talked to about this film either absolutely loves it, or emphatically hates it. I fell in love with it when I first saw it this summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Since then I’ve seen it three times … I even took my father to see it. He loves Michael Mann movies and first introduced me to classics like Thief, and Manhunter when I was just a kid. Drive reminds me a lot of those early Mann films, especially Thief, the James Caan classic. But Drive is it’s own film, possibly inspired by movies of the past, but infusing a retro feel that is also very contemporary. Refn shows us a Los Angeles that does not often get displayed on the big screen, a complicated no man’s land of lights, entertainment, crime, flawed people, and broken dreams. The Denmark born director has an eye for locations and an ear for music, with the film featuring (next to The Muppets) the best soundtrack of the year. Ryan Gosling gives an explosive performance reminiscent of Steve McQueen (the actor) in The Getaway, and his almost silent scenes with an equally impressive Carey Mulligan demonstrate what great actors can do with only a look or a glance. Speaking of McQueen, the film's action-packed driving sequences are very reminiscent to those found in Bullitt, which probably has the best car case scene of all-time. Albert Brooks will most likely be nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year for his against-type performance, and well he earned it, but I believe that it is Bryan Cranston who deserves the credit for a more difficult and incredible supporting performance. But it’s the film’s noir tone and almost comedic violence that makes it a truly fascinating piece of work. Gosling’s career-defining performance, and Renf’s remarkable work behind the camera make Drive a must-see and my favorite film of 2011!

From everyone at IAR ... have a safe and happy New Year!

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