Here at Cinema Blend, we all have our specific roles. Mine is to wake up early on Friday mornings and head to the theater to see anything not screened ahead of time for film critics. Thanks to this station, I’m reasonably confident in saying I saw more crap than any of my counterparts this year. If it was a truly dreadful studio picture released in 2011, chances are I watched it by myself in a dark theater before noon. But in a way, all those regrettable films are exactly what I love about going to the movies. When those lights first go down, it’s a completely blank slate, and any film, no matter how shitty it might sound, has a chance to be something special.
What follows are my ten favorite movies of 2011. This list started as an unfilled Word document saying “Best Movies” on January 1st , and it ended with over one hundred films that have been obsessively tweaked. There’s no ulterior motives and no efforts to impress behind the choices I’ve made. These are just the ones I liked a little bit more than the rest.
#1: The Ides Of March
Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Meyers grew up believing he was intelligent enough to live life on his own terms. If he attached his sail to the right man and did what he does best, he’d end up with a job in the White House serving a candidate who could make a difference. Ides Of March is the story of how that viewpoint fractures. It’s the story of how winning anything that matters always requires compromise, and why the cleanest and shiniest horses aren’t always the best bets. Life is messy. Getting ahead often requires sacrificing a lamb, or in the world of politics, a fellow wolf. The question is who to offer up.
Best Character: Paul Giamatti’s Tom Duffy. Cunning, aggressive and willing to play dirty, he’s the perfect counterpunch to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Paul Zara and the perfect person to show Stephen Meyers how vicious the world really is.
For a player, success in baseball is measured in championships. For organizations, it’s measured by the matching or exceeding of expectations, which may or may not include championships. That’s why moneyball forever changed the way baseball teams operate, and that’s why Moneyball is so successful despite the fact that it doesn’t end with a parade. When the rest of the world reflects upon that magical season, they see a brilliant general manager overcoming the odds. When Billy Beane reflects upon it, he sees just another fucking loser. Combined together, it’s a jumble of admiration and pity, which is probably fitting for a team that changed the game and still had to watch another celebrate.
Best Character: Brad Pitt’s Beane is a wonderful everyman with a crazy job. He’s got everything to lose, but he makes decisions like a man unconcerned with saving his own ass.
#3: Young Adult
In another movie, Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary would be a hilarious side character, a bitchy and clueless mean girl foil to a likeable female protagonist. Given her own film however, she’s often more painful to watch than funny. That’s the rub of being the center of attention. It’s a whole lot harder for the audience to giggle as the main character throws her life away. Maybe if she had a little less brain power, she could be written off as harmless, but there’s just enough attractiveness and manipulation to ruin another’s world, to say nothing of her own. Still, thanks to some great performances, a well-conceived script and wonderful direction, Young Adult offers just enough fun needed to make the upsetting journey worth taking.
Best Character: Patton Oswalt’s Matt is just as broken as Mavis thanks to a traumatic high school incident, but through booze and cleverness, he’s cultivated a personality worth hanging out with. I’d drink his moonshine anytime.
#4: Win Win
Paul Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty is stressed out. He’s a lawyer with a failing practice, a wrestling coach with a failing team and a man with a scheme so foolish it’s doomed to fail. He’s just lied to a judge and told her he’d take care of an old man with dementia who wants to stay in his house. The plan is to put him in a home and pocket the monthly guardianship stipend, but when the elder’s grandson shows up, it all gets a whole lot more complicated. Wrestling is equal parts strategy and reaction. Life is much the same, and the wonderful and underseen Win Win forces its characters to balance the two in order to stop treading water. It’s moving, surprisingly funny and best of all, honest.
Best Character: Amy Ryan’s Jackie Flaherty runs a tight ship. She yells hard, she loves hard and she parents hard, just the way an invested and caring woman should.
Everyone needs two friends: one that’s stupidly optimistic, and one that’s unapologetically honest. In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Adam has Seth Rogen’s Kyle and Anna Kendrick’s Katie. Kyle reminds him of celebrities that have beaten the disease, jokes about his odds of living being better than casino games, encourages him to smoke pot and wingmans him constantly. Katie listens and asks him to get mad and shares more than necessary about her personal life. These are the weapons Adam uses to maintain sanity in his fight against cancer. Neither, on its own, is good enough, but together, they provide everything he needs.
Best Character: Philip Baker Hall’s Alan Lombardo has just the right amount of old man craziness to make hours in the waiting room bearable. Try his weed brownies, they’re potent.
#6: Cedar Rapids
Good comedies are often absurd, but the best ones never force it. The truly wonderful thing about Cedar Rapids is how in character everyone behaves, even as the weekend spirals out of control. Ed Helms’ Tim Lippe doesn’t fundamentally change who he is, he just grows up as he’s confronted with new experiences. The convention might as well be his first day of college, filled with strange people and more alcohol and drugs than he’s ever attempted to handle. Those strange people have all been there before. They know what to expect, but through Lippe’s good-natured naivety, they too change, if only a tiny bit.
Best Character:John C Reilly’s Dean Ziegler is a self-admitted jagoff, but he’s also a loyal friend and willing to get drunk in the pool.
#7: The Descendants
Alexander Payne often gives us confused, well-meaning characters who, when confronted with something new, stagger to get out of their ruts. There was Miles in Sideways, offered his first real romance since his wife left. There was Warren in About Schmidt, handling life on his own for the first time in decades and now there’s Matt King, a largely absent father and largely absent husband reeling upon news his wife has a) cheated on him and b) fallen into a coma. His first impulse is to stalk the man who wrecked his home. Through phone calls, drive-bys and one of the more believable confrontations I’ve ever seen, he finds his peace and bonds with his wayward daughter in the process.
Best Character: Shailene Woodley’s Alex King knows she’s made her share of mistakes, but she’s ambling in the right direction. Surrounded by an idiot friend and furious with her incapacitated mother, she too finds her peace, or at least gets as close as a seventeen year-old can.
#8: Midnight In Paris
Midnight In Paris doesn’t make any sense. Its magic is never explained, but thanks to its vibrant characters, beautiful scenery and fascinating story arc, it doesn’t have to be. Woody Allen has always been a whiz at creating people we can’t look away from. In calling on famous faces from the past, he creates dinner parties we’d actually like to attend. By the end, we feel like Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender. We understand his longing to celebrate during a different time, and we ultimately sympathize with his want to create that vibrancy and circle of inspiration in his own life. Most of us belong in our own time and place, just maybe with different friends and lovers.
Best Character: Michael Sheen’s Paul Bates is a contemptible asshole that’s somehow duped everyone but Gil and the audience. He argues with tour guides and makes wild claims about wine. I still hate him, which, I guess, was the point.
You know why Bridesmaids works? Because it’s funny. It’s truly and thoroughly funny in a way most of us would gladly watch again. Every year, dozens of movies come out that make us laugh, but the majority exit stage right either because a) they’re not that funny or b) there’s no rewatch value. Bridesmaids has enough spunk, originality and aggression to hold up and carve out shelf space beside the other great comedies we find ourselves returning to at one in the morning when we feel like smiling. I thought there were eight movies that worked better in 2011, but I’m not sure there are any I’ll end up watching more times over the next few decades.
Best Character: It seems unfair to choose Chris O’Dowd’s Officer Nathan Rhodes in a movie filled with so many funny and vibrant female performances, but it’s because of their overall greatness that he’s able to provide such a natural and relaxed counterpunch. I particularly love all the different faces he makes as Kristen Wiig’s Annie and Rose Byrne’s Helen drive past in the car over-and-over again.
#10: 13 Assassins
Films about men banding together to fight insurmountable odds are often best when the group is small. That’s why The Usual Suspects works so well. By the end of the movie, we know the ins and outs of each man and exactly what he brings to the table. Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins takes the opposite approach, but it still works because the evil we’re presented with is so vicious. Lord Naritsugu is running Japan into the ground with his sadistic lusts and vicious tyranny. He has to be stopped, and the thirteen men who take up the charge fully expect to die as martyrs for honor and decency. They’re outnumbered, but through brains and booby traps, they transform a small town into a graveyard as bloody as Flanders Field. It’s gory, fascinating and most of all, great.
Best Character: Goro Inagaki’s Lord Naritsugu is pure evil. He’s the most heinous villain I’ve seen since Danny Huston’s Colonel in The Warrior’s Way. Part of me wishes I too could have died trying to kill him.
Numbers 11 Through 20 On My List:
American: The Bill Hicks Story, Take Me Home Tonight, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Muppets, Hugo, The Help, Shame, Mission Impossible- Ghost Protocol, The Artist and Drive
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.