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For Josh's Top 10 list, go here.
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As both a film critic and reporter, I have to sit through a lot of terrible movies. This year I spent hours of my life watching movies like New Year’s Eve, Spy Kids: All The Time in the World, Abduction and Waiting For Forever. But it’s the good movies that make it all worth it, and this year there were some truly brilliant films in release. But among those great titles, what were my favorites? Well…
You’ve seen Katey’s list, you’ve seen Josh’s list, and now it’s my turn to tell you what I think are the ten best movies of the year. You may hate all of my selections, and you may love them, but that’s the beauty of opinion.
As much as I love the performances, the characters and the story, though, what keeps my brain coming back to the film is its technical brilliance. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has captured Los Angeles like no other director I’ve seen and the movie’s style, complete with neon pink title cards and synth-pop soundtrack, is one of a kind. The cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, the score by Cliff Martinez, the action, the drama… there’s nothing about Drive that doesn’t work. Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’ve long admired due to his work in movies like Brick, The Lookout and (500) Days of Summer, is at the best he’s ever been in this film, playing a character who is slowly falling apart, but fighting to keep everything together. But Gordon-Levitt is far from alone, as Seth Rogen, Anjelica Huston, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard make up one of the best supporting casts of the year. Will Reiser’s script, which he based on his own experiences with cancer, is the best original screenplay of the year and one of the most uplifting stories of the year. The film didn’t do well in theaters, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t discover or rediscover this one when its released on home video.
The movie presents George Clooney with a type of role he’s rarely played before – no longer the alpha male bachelor on the prowl – and the result is the best turn of his career. While there are many times that the Oscar-winning actor’s public persona gets in the way of his performance, Clooney completely envelops himself in the part to the point that you see him only as his character. The setting, the beautiful state of Hawaii, is captured by Payne unlike any movie you’ve seen before, finding reality in the tropical paradise by both filming on the beautiful sandy beaches as well as in the urban industrial areas. Tying it all together is the script by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, which is perfectly paced, both in the sense of story and tone, succeeding in never alienating the audience. It was hard to think that Alexander Payne would ever top his remarkable 2004 film Sideways, but he did with The Desendants.
Quickly establishing himself as one of the best actors in Hollywood, Michael Fassbender’s performance as Brandon Sullivan, a sex addict living a life of solitude and confinement in New York City, is blistering and leaves an impact that you won’t be able to shake for days. While the film is graphic in its depiction of sex (but never to a gratuitous level), what makes Shame hard to watch is its depiction of utter and total loneliness. McQueen accentuates New York City to trap Brandon in a sea of skyscrapers and the effect is mind-blowing. I may never have the nerve to watch the movie again, but it definitely won’t be film that leaves my consciousness any time soon.
It all starts with the script, and in that department Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller absolutely rocked it. Displaying their love of Jim Henson’s creations right on their sleeve, the movie doesn’t betray the characters in the slightest and dismisses the idea of modernizing them in any way. This makes the movie magical in the sense that parents can watch the film and recognize the Muppets that they grew up with while sharing the experience with their children. The film’s soundtrack, written by Bret McKenzie, is filled to the brim with both classic Muppet tunes as well as original songs that are far too damn catchy for their own good (I still find myself humming “Life’s A Happy Song” on occasion). Expectations for this one were incredibly high and it met every single one.
Featuring a script that is tight as a drum, much like 50/50 and The Descendants, Moneyball is equal parts comedy and equal parts drama, but it’s the way they are so deftly mixed that makes the film so impressive. Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as the constantly-snacking Billy Beane, but the movie’s true revelation is Jonah Hill as Beane’s assistant, Peter Brand. The two have impeccable on-screen chemistry, vital when reading Sorkin dialogue, and the final result has you both hoping for the characters’ success to the end. The Oakland Athletics may not have ended up winning the World Series, but they changed the game forever thanks to Beane’s work. It’s a story definitely worth telling and Miller tells it brilliantly.
It’s impossible to start by mentioning anything other than the turn by Michael Shannon, who, as a man haunted by dreams of a coming apocalypse, puts on a terrifying performance. What makes the film work so well is its gradual pacing, which allows the audience to connect with Shannon’s slowly deteriorating mind. While the scares tend to be more psychological than horrific, there were more than a few instances that nearly had me ducking for cover under the theater seat. The CGI is beyond impressive for such a small film, making the aforementioned apocalyptic visions look ultra-realistic and even more frightening. It’s a shame that more critics groups aren’t paying attention to this film, but with any luck the Academy will come through with at least a nomination for Shannon.
Much like Black’s films, the movie entirely depends on the performances and chemistry between its two lead actors, and Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle are perfect in that capacity. Also exceptional is Mark Strong, who takes the stereotypical villain role and turns it on its head, playing a drug dealer who’s experiencing an existential crisis and trying to figure out if there’s more to life than what he has been doing. This was one of the greatest years for R-rated comedy in recent memory, but no other candidate in the category released in the last 12 months was better or funnier than The Guard.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, the title is an utterly bizarre mix of the western genre, lizards and Chinatown, and it’s one of the best cinematic rides of the year. Voicing the titular character is Johnny Depp, who sounds like he’s having more fun with the part than he’s had in years. The real feather in the film’s cap, however, is the aesthetic. The first animated feature film from Industrial Light and Magic, Rango is visually stunning and takes computer animation to a whole new level. It’s the greatest achievement in animation we’ve seen in years.
Telling the story of O’Brien’s nationwide comedy/musical tour following his departure from NBC, the documentary is an unflinching look at what it’s like for a person to constantly feel “on” and have a never ending desire to entertain. Far from a loveletter – some scenes actually portray the star as kind of a jerk – the movie has no agenda or bias, instead choosing to show what O’Brien is like behind the scenes and when dealing with fans (the transitions in his mood from exhausted reluctance to jovial acceptance when it comes to signing autographs is nothing short of mind-bending). Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the kind of film I wanted from Judd Apatow’s Funny People: insightful, captivating, and hilarious.
Other great movies that just missed out on the top 10:
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Meek’s Cutoff, Winnie The Pooh, Bridesmaids, Hesher, Attack The Block, and Hugo
For more of our end-of-the-year coverage, visit our Best of 2011 page.