A decade spent working as a professional film critic has brought me here, to my tenth annual obligatory best of the year list. Love my picks or hate them, I'd like to believe my thought process behind making these lists has been consistent all along. Before you bungee cord in, I'll define what that process is by telling you what it isn't.
Every film critic has their own method of making these lists. A few critics use their end of year list as a sort of platform, which ends up being less about picking the year's best and more about promoting overlooked movies they think you should watch. This isn't that kind of sneak attack. Often writers try to make a distinction between the movies they enjoyed and the ones they think were actually good. I won't make that distinction; the better a movie is the more I enjoy it. Some critics build their list, consciously or subconsciously, to legitimize themselves by listing movies they think will win them points with their peers. I don't hang out with other film critics often enough to care whether they think I'm legitimate. A few bloggers break their end of year list up by genre to avoid being forced to compare different styles. To me it never matters what kind of movie it is, I'll love it if it's good. This list has the soul of a hero.
What you're getting here is a list of the 2011 movies which I think were the best. I don't see every movie released in a given year, the days when old media film critics did nothing but watch and review features are long gone, replaced by a world where any quality movie writer wears many multimedia hats and sees only as much as he can while juggling everything else. Still, I'm confident I saw nearly everything which had a reasonable chance of ending up on my best of list. Here they are, the best movies of 2011, as I see it.
50/50 is incredibly accurate in its depiction of the difficulties of dealing with cancer. It captures every nuance, every feeling, every afternoon spent in a chemo room letting evil yet lifesaving chemicals leak into your body. It nails all those little details in a way no other movie has before, without actually being about any of those details. Instead it's about someone living with cancer, taking it on and coping in a way that lets him continue to lead a life. Whether or not his friends and family support him, no matter if he's not actually getting any better, somehow Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character keeps getting stronger. If you bought a ticket and went on this journey with him, you got stronger too.
The really stunning thing about 50/50, and the reason it's number one on this list, is that unlike any other cancer movie ever made you walked out of this one less afraid of the disease than you were when you walked in. It's not because the film, which is at least partly a comedy, tries to minimize the disease by making jokes to seem like less of a threat. 50/50 never does that, it marches into the realities of cancer head on. Yet if 50/50 has a message buried somewhere within it, it's this: You can be stronger. Cancer may be bad, but you can be better. If you saw 50/50 you walked out stronger than you were when you walked in. It's funny, it's heartbreaking and it features yet another brilliant performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It's everything a great movie should be… and it'll make you stronger. 50/50 is the best movie of the year.
2. The Muppets
The Muppets have been gone for so long that I'd forgotten just how good they can be. More than just the best the Muppets have been since the death of Jim Henson, The Muppets is also one of the best movies of the year. If you were there, in the audience, then you know. Watching The Muppets is like being inside joy. More than that, in a sense it's the story of a war on cynicism. Kermit and his friends win by simply being so full of life and hope, that the bitterness of the world can't really touch them. In that context singing and dancing seems completely natural, so natural that this is easily one of the best movie musicals of all time.
I still smile every time I think about it. I can't stop humming the songs. Worse, humming always seems to lead to singing, which might be alright if I had a decent voice. I don't, so I sing loud. This is an anthem not only for everything that's always been beautiful and wonderful about The Muppets, but for everything that's great about life itself. The Muppets isn't just good, it stands for something. It matters. I believe in Kermit. I believe in the things that his world represents. Better still it's all contained in toe-tappingly wonderful musical full of laughter and electrifying life. Life's a happy song. Sing along.
3. The Ides of March
Though it's a story told within the world of politics, Ides of March isn't really political at all. It starts out that way, with George Clooney magnetizing the screen as a perfectly principled dream candidate for president. Then it becomes something else, or rather it starts to reveal the kind of movie it's really been all along. It's about something much bigger and more deeply cynical.
More than a movie about corrupt politics, Ides of March is about growing up and abandoning the often unrealistic idealism of youth. It's about what happens when a young campaign manager named Stephen Myers, played by Ryan Gosling, takes the next step in life. It's a step everyone has to take, when you get to that place where you realize the world isn't yours. You can't change it. You can't fix it and some day you'll have to take your place in it. It's about accepting change. This movie about the extreme circumstances which make Myers see the world as it really is, and what he finally does when he realizes there's no way to escape it. Thanks to a brilliantly sophisticated script and a series of perfect performances from the film's talent loaded ensemble, Ides of March's cynicism rings completely true.
4. Cedar Rapids
Most people never follow their dreams. Some people never even have them. In Cedar Rapids Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a man who stays when everyone else goes; the kind of man who was born content with whatever he has. Thrust into a weekend of new experiences where nothing goes as planned, Tim lives more life in two days than he has in years, but that fundamental contentedness never really changes and somehow Cedar Rapids finds a quiet nobility in it.
Cedar Rapids is a comedy, and a funny one. It's also finds more than that in the story of normal people going about their lives in a place that pushes them outside their normal routine. For some it's an escape, for others it's just a job, for a few it's a revelation. It's also the kind of movie no one ever really seems to make anymore, a film about people who aren't artists or writers or wealthy raconteurs or even big dreamers aspiring to bigger and better things. Shaggy and goofy and smart and quirky in all the best ways I walked out of Cedar Rapids rooting for Tim who, though he leaves Cedar Rapids the same contented man he was, has discovered that somewhere on the inside he may be stronger than he thought.
In Hugo director Martin Scorsese tells the story of what happens when a boy who likes to fix things finds an elderly man who's been broken. One of the most challenging things about Hugo is that every piece of the story is so pivotal, that talking about any part of it qualifies as a spoiler. What I can tell you is that eventually, after building characters worth caring about using the walls inside a train station as a viewing platform, Scorsese creates a movie about the importance of remembering and celebrating the past while also exploring the roots of film itself.
Inexplicably marketed as a magical family movie, Hugo is actually a serious drama full of wit, wisdom, and heart. Ben Kingsley delivers one of the best of his career performances as a man who needs fixing, developing a surprising chemistry with Asa Butterfield as the orphaned Hugo. Even Sacha Baron Cohen is good here, used not just for his considerable comedic talents, but for his ability to take an obvious buffoon and find something deeper and more sympathetic inside him. Scorsese's film is passionate, unexpected, and beautiful.
6. Attack the Block
This little indie movie from writer/director Joe Cornish takes the worn out alien invasion genre and injects new life. In large part it's because, though it has plenty of it, his film is about more than reveling in man on alien violence. Attack the Block goes its own way by creating characters who don't fit any of the usual stereotyped molds. Instead our heroes are a bunch of teenage thugs, completely unlikable idiots who only become worth rooting for after they've been changed by their experience. Attack the Block is content to let you hate everyone in it when the movie begins, certain you'll love the kinds of people they're starting to become by the time the movie ends.
Attack the Block manages to come up with something new in a genre that hasn't even been trying. From creature design to story structure to its completely unflinching take on some pretty scary alien violence, it succeeds. A violent, gory, action movie which also comments on the lives of frightened people living in a crummy apartment complex full of absent parents and pre-teen drug dealers? What's not to love? Cornish's sci-fi movie is a grand mix of alien entertainment and subtle social commentary. It's relevant without being preachy, violent without being gratuitous, and action packed without skimping on character. Attack the Block is proof that you don't need a big Hollywood effects budget to do science fiction right.
7. Young Adult
Charlize Theron delivers one of the best performances of her career as Mavis, a high school mean girl who returns to her home town in an attempt to win back and ex-flame. That he's happily married with a new baby in the house is to her, merely an obstacle they can overcome. The movie's title is almost ironic since Theron's character is a grown woman and anything but young. Yet she seems to have missed the memo about growing up.
Patton Oswalt shows up as the crippled kid she used to pick on and, as good as Theron is, manages to steal scenes. Together they form an unlikely duo as he roams around town with her and simply laughs at the ridiculousness of Mavis's pathetic attempt to ruin the lives of everyone she encounters in the name of feeding her aging ego. It's the sad desperation of the character which saves her from being completely unlikable. Diablo Cody's sharply written script never shies away from making her a villain while also asking the audience to understand her. The feelings Mavis has towards the tiny town she escaped ring true to anyone who escaped the place they grew up in for the big city. Everyone who's ever dreamed bigger has a little Mavis somewhere inside them.
8. The Descendants
Matt King's home life is a mess. He thinks it's because his wife is in a coma but, as he and his two daughters come together to deal with her fading health, Matt starts to understand the way things really were all along. The Descendants could have been just another a movie about grief, about a broken man trying to come to grips with the loss of a loved one. Instead something interesting happens along the way to mourning: it makes the King family better.
His 17-year-old is a mess of substance abuse and hatred. His youngest is a bully. George Clooney plays Matt as man struggling to keep it together. Stoic and in control on the outside, but inwardly full of fear and regret, he looks for a way through the end of the family life he knew and into something else. Matt bonds with his daughters as they ponder their family and the family that came before them, wandering the beautiful islands of Hawaii and discovering the truth about who his wife really was. The result is a movie both heartwarming and powerful, a meditative story about losing a loved one and becoming better person by moving on.
It was a good year for Marvel but Thor still sits with me as their best superhero movie so far. There's never a dull moment in a film that finds a way to remain always in motion without ever losing the audience. Every frame is packed with eye-popping achievement in telling the story of mythical gods who are actually aliens living on a far off planet connected to Earth. On Asgard the family intrigue between Thor, his father, and his brother plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. Maybe it helps that Thor is directed with verve by Kenneth Branagh.
On Earth it's a more traditional superhero movie and the story flips almost seamlessly between the fantastic, beautifully realized outer space world of Asgard and a rather more normal small town in New Mexico. Chris Hemsworth is utterly convincing as Thor, a born fighter with a heart of gold, and the film's anchored by firm performances from talented actors like Portman, Hopkins, Skarsgaard, and Idris Elba as Asgard's fiery-eyed guardian, in supporting roles. Thor never gets bogged down in rehashing complicated comic book mythology, the movie asks its audience to be smart enough to accept things as strange and wonderful as the Rainbow Bridge as fact. Thanks to perfect pacing, stunning visuals, and great performances from the cast it all works to create one of the most engaging and purely fun superhero adventures yet.
Shame is the story of a sex addict but there's also enough of the average, non-sex addicted man inside the struggles of Michael Fassbender's Brandon Sullivan that whether he's a sex addict or not almost doesn't matter. Unflinchingly NC-17 the movie shows Brandon's difficulty in getting through daily life with sex always on his mind. He survives through a carefully cultivated routine of pornography and prostitutes, but his privacy is thrown into chaos when his sister, Carrie Mulligan playing against type, shows up and announces she's moving in.
More than a realistic and uncompromising look at the male libido Shame is also in its own way about the demands on men in the modern world. It's also the story of two damaged siblings, dealing with the problems of a messed up past in two very different ways. The film features one of the best performances of the year from Michael Fassbender, but even without him the film is smart enough and risky enough to be worth seeing anyway. Mix Fassbender really going for it with auteur Steve McQueen's sharp direction and end you end up with one of the most resonate and brave movies of the year.
Other good movies which didn't quite make the cut: Captain America: The First Avenger, Paul, X-Men: First Class, Source Code, Bridesmaids, Fright Night, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Moneyball, Hesher, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Melancholia
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.