Featuring gay romance, some surprisingly intelligent apes, and a murderous Albert Brooks.
People inclined to complain about the state of cinema didn't have to look very far in 2011, as all the ugly trends of recent years continued. Once again, endless CGI sequels, formulaic romantic comedies, and "origin stories" about guys in tights drifted into theaters, highlighting an ever-more-impressive gap between money spent and fucks given. Yet looking at the movies that crept in around the margins, it wasn't such a bad year at all. Our top fifteen don't seem to add up to a zeitgeist, but they're collective proof that interesting films are still out there if you know where to look.
Brad Pitt gives the best and most likable performance of his career as Billy Beane, the baseball manager who wears his love of the game like an albatross around his neck as he tries to figure out how to win in the major leagues without access to the fortunes his biggest rivals have in their coffers. In one of his last fat performances, Jonah Hill earns a special citation as sidekick of the year. — Phil Nugent
14. A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg delves into the early history of psychoanalysis, and finds a very creepy professional triangle between the aging Sigmund Freud (a serenely authoritative Viggo Mortensen), his heir apparent, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and a patient-turned-analyst (Keira Knightley). A fascinating, illuminating historical drama, complete with spanking scenes. — P.N.
Even before Lars von Trier put both feet in his mouth while promoting the Cannes premiere of Melancholia, I was never exactly a fan of the scandal-baiting, misery-loving director. Yet the opening and closing minutes of his latest apocalyptic vision are breathtaking, and the story between those bookends (about a doomed bride embodied by an Oscar-worthy Kristen Dunst) works both as a chilling end-of-the-world drama and a haunting symbolic depiction of clinical depression. Sounds fun, right? But don't worry — it's nowhere near as dreary as that description makes it sound. — Andrew Osborne
The first family film from a guy better known for taut violence, Hugo is surprisingly moving. Martin Scorsese channels his lonely childhood to tell a story of rescue that's also a loving tribute to the early days of cinema. — Rick Paulas
British writer/director Andrew Haigh doesn't shy away from the gay sex (or the unique challenges faced by same-sex couples in a generally homophobic society) in this bittersweet tale of a weekend-long one-night stand. Yet the sexuality of the central couple (portrayed in star-making turns by Tom Cullen and Chris New) is secondary to the film's universally relatable take on giddy first attraction, intensified by time constraints. — A.O.
10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Sorry, Stan Lee: the franchise tentpole of the year was the sequel/prequel/reboot of a forty-year-old sci-fi series that had been lying dormant for a decade. A lot of recent movies, from 2012 to Contagion, have shown how the human race might end, but this is the only one that got audiences cheering at the prospect. And Andy Serkis' motion-capture performance as Caesar the game-changing chimp is worth all the arguments about who does and doesn't deserve to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar that you are about to be bored by. — P.N.
9. The Descendants
Director-writer Alexander (Sideways) Payne's first film in seven years is unexpectedly open-hearted and gentle-spirited, though it does feature the prickliest monologue you're likely to ever see a man deliver to his comatose wife. It's set in Hawaii, with George Clooney in the lead, so you know that it's also pretty easy on the eyes. — P.N.
Can we officially retire that whole tiresome "chicks aren't funny" debate now? And can we all stop pretending it's a surprise when movies with female characters and a female perspective do well at the box office? While we're at it, can we please have more movies like Bridesmaids, where the women seem like smart, complicated, raunchy versions of actual people, and not just shrill romantic-comedy stereotypes? Thanks. (Oh, and very nice to meet you, Melissa McCarthy!) — A.O.
7. The Future
Oddball indie auteur Miranda July's feature debut, Me and You and Everyone You Know, was a charming, offbeat ensemble dramedy with a darker, weirder edge than your average Sundance Institute concoction. But things got even more surreal and thought-provoking in July's sophomore effort, in which an otherworldly cat derails the relationship of two aging slackers afraid to face the film's titular concept. In one of the year's most memorable scenes and performances, Hamish Linklater literally stops time in an effort to stave off the couple's inevitable break-up. — A.O.
6. Young Adult
The great thing about this second collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody (following 2007's Juno) is the way it simultaneously venerates and mocks the humble pleasures of suburban tranquility. Representing the former perspective are former high-school jock, Buddy (Patrick Wilson), and his sweet wife (Elizabeth Reaser). On the other side of the white picket fence is Charlize Theron's overgrown queen bee, Mavis, who winds up bonding with a nerd she barely noticed in high school (Patton Oswalt) thanks to their shared love of home-brewed bourbon. Young Adult presents a familiar story from the "villain's" perspective, as Theron's defiantly unlikeable character fights to get her mean girl mojo back. But Oswalt steals the movie with, among other things, a nude scene way braver than Shame's Michael Fassbender at his most NC-17. — A.O.
Drive didn't reinvent the crime movie wheel, yet its '80s style and '70s pace were a refreshing break from the hyperkinetic ADD editing and CGI excess of contemporary action movies. The film's cooler-than-thou, silently judging loner antihero is right in Ryan Gosling's wheelhouse, Bryan Cranston is predictably great, and it's fun to see Christina Hendricks dirty up in a, um, startling cameo. But the real draw is comedian Albert Brooks cutting loose (and cutting arteries) as a frightening yet oddly sympathetic West Coast mobster. — A.O.
4. Win Win
Sweet, sharp, and sometimes explosively funny, Win Win concerns how we live now, what living like that can drive a good man to do, and what it's like when he comes to his senses. Dependable pros Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and Jeffrey Tambor give terrific performances, but eighteen-year-old Alex Shaffer may be the newcomer of the year. — P.N.
3. The Artist
Making a black and white, mostly-silent film in 2011 is a risky move, even if the gimmick is a big part of the allure. But The Artist is greater than its gimmick — it's more unpredictable, idiosyncratic, genre-spanning, and genuinely entertaining than anything else I've seen this year. — Maura Hehir
2. Midnight in Paris
For a die-hard Woody Allen fan like myself, the biggest box-office hit of the director's career is more than just a clever, charming fable about the perils of nostalgia. What makes this wistful time-travel tale extra-special is how the film itself embodies its own theme about not living in the past, with a reminder that even artists who've jumped the shark (more than once!) can sometimes find a way to jump back. (Plus, Adrien Brody is hilarious in his all-too-brief cameo as Salvador Dali.) — A.O.
1. The Trip
On its surface, this English comedy looks like a demonstration of how easy it can be to make a movie: just stick two comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, in a car, send them on a tour of restaurants, and record their conversations, their thoughts on life, their dueling Sean Connery impersonations. But the results are more entertaining than they have any right to be, and, by the end, surprisingly poignant. — P.N.
NEXT PAGE: Honorable mentions, overrated/underrated, and the worst movie(s) of the year.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
There’s plenty of entertainment value in this backstage chronicle of Team Coco's "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on TV" tour. But O'Brien's spiky, live-wire persona (and his willingness to reveal his nastier, needier side) makes the film more than just a supersized, empty-calorie episode of his nightly talk show. What could've been a pop-culture puff piece becomes a fascinating rumination on what separates the guy on stage from the audience laughing in the dark. — A.O.
Of Gods and Men
Slow but deeply engrossing, Of Gods and Men follows a group of French monks living in Algeria, and their struggle to remain focused on their commitment to their religion and the needs of the local families — even as the violence of civil war edges closer and closer onto their turf. It's based on a true story from 1996, but it's as timely as the latest Twitter feed. — P.N.
From Quebec comes this big yet emotionally intimate, sometimes harrowing film, about a dying woman who asks her children to deliver a letter to the brother they didn't know they had. The ending delivers a punch, but the wonder of the movie is the journey, and seeing how much one life can contain, and withstand. — P.N.
Page One: Inside The New York Times
Andrew Rossi's timely documentary frames traditional journalism's struggle for survival as a clash of cultures rather than technologies. On one side is Tribune Company chairman Sam Zell, depicted in the villain role as a pure capitalist who apparently sees no value in news that doesn't turn a profit. In the good guy role is the hardboiled old-school reporter David Carr, representing the Fourth Estate's importance to the health and integrity of culture in general and America in particular. But the issues surrounding the future of media are far from black and white in the film's lively depiction of the Gray Lady's ever-shifting fortunes. — A.O.
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Forgive the stupid and ungrammatical title; the smartest and most satisfying romantic comedy of the year made you believe that Steve Carell could be a stud. Watching Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone falling in love defines rom-com heaven. — P.N.
Worst Movie of the Year:
I'm guessing I Melt With You or Jack & Jill would have a lock on this spot if I'd masochistically gone to see them. But my worst of 2011 has to be this Morgan Spurlock-style stunt documentary about a young American filmmaker masquerading as an Indian guru. It's hard to root for a director who arrogantly dupes his vulnerable real-world subjects for months, hoping his improvised pop-psych homilies will lead to a feel-good ending (instead of just humiliation or worse for the poor suckers who fell for his self-aggrandizing publicity stunt). — A.O.
To be fair, there were probably stinkier films than this released this year, but some of them were honest failures that had a reason to exist. This half-baked superhero movie got lost in a crowd of other superhero movies, and that was all too transparently the work of people who'd have been just as happy making a movie about cops or hooking up at New Year's Eve or anything else, if that's where they thought the money was that week. At least the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens was memorably if unintentionally funny. — P.N.
Most Overrated: The Tree of Life
Two hours and twenty minutes of very pretty nature photography; a mood of romanticized, depressive nostalgia; gassy New Age philosophy; and some very cool but too-briefly-glimpsed dinosaurs. If you're trying to figure out what it all means, the glowing reviews praising The Tree of Life won't help much; most of them are as vague as the movie itself. That suggests they were written by people so hungry for a cosmic-scaled masterpiece by a maverick director that they weren't about to think too hard it. (They also tend to be sheepish about the dinosaurs, in spite of the fact that the likable critters should have played Brad Pitt and Sean Penn's parts.) One exception is Roger Ebert, who claimed that he loved the movie for it's "deep humility," thus proving that he's finally lost his mind; it's the most pompous thing you'll ever see in your life. — P.N.
Most Underrated: Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau
It's easy to pick on films that serve up a little metaphysical food-for-thought alongside the usual genre thrills and chills. And, sure, it's a lot cooler to be cynical and nihilistic than hopeful and optimistic. But the similar existential themes of these two films about rewriting destiny in a universe that's not as bleak and pointless as it seems (combined with unusual plot devices like The Adjustment Bureau's supernatural life maps and Source Code's eight-minute Groundhog Day time loops) made for intriguing, unpredictable entertainment. — A.O.