2011's Top Eleven Films

In preparing this article, I was all set to begin by lamenting how films lacked excitement in 2010 until The Social Network came out. Then I began having second thoughts. I remembered how Toy Story 3 and Inception captured the public’s attention and how I enjoyed some smaller films earlier in the year. What really did it for me, though, was reviewing some of my past “Best of the Year” columns. In too many of them I complained how that year’s offerings were so pedestrian until Oscar season rolled around. A year ago my first sentence read “Much of 2009 looked pretty bleak, and I’m not even talking about the economy.” How can I write about Hollywood’s predictability and unoriginality if I am guilty of the same?

We all know that Hollywood is increasingly risk-averse. Studios are making fewer films, meaning that for their smaller output they will likely pick franchise films or tested formula movies to get the most for their money. For most of the year, intelligent filmgoers will need to look hard for quality, with maybe a couple of big-budget exceptions. Then in the fall, the studios and the indie distributors will release the prestige films. That was the case last year and it will be the case this year, the year after that and the foreseeable future. It’s easy to focus on the crap (I do it all too often). But I remain hopeful that at the end of the year, there are enough talented filmmakers so that I have plenty to choose from for my top 10 (or, in this case, my top 11). That’s certainly the case for 2010, as is evidenced by those that did not make the cut, my Honorable Mention list:

  • Black Swan: Who knew ballet could be this interesting or violent?
  • Cell 211: Gripping Spanish thriller that goes in unexpected directions
  • Inception: Dazzling and inventive
  • The Kids Are All Right: An untraditional family with traditional problems
  • Lebanon: Claustrophobia at its best. Further proof that Israeli films keep getting better.
  • 127 Hours: Virtuoso technical exercise by director Danny Boyle equaled by a career performance from James Franco
  • Rabbit Hole: Powerful examination of coping with loss
  • The Tillman Story: Most infuriating film of the year because it shows the awful crimes committed against Pat Tillman’s memory
  • The Town: Second great Boston crime film from Ben Affleck, after Gone Baby Gone
  • True Grit: Not a fan of remakes but the acting and Roger Deakins’ cinematography won me over
  • Waiting for “Superman”: Scariest film of the year. Shows how so many kids are victims of shortsighted thinking, turf issues, and bad luck. Good educations should not be determined by a lottery.

    Those films made my decisions tough, but I am proud of my final picks for the best of the year:

    11. Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman) – As an actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman always displays great dedication and attention to detail in his work. He demonstrates that same care in his directorial debut. Hoffman stars in the title role as a withdrawn, mild-mannered limo driver starting a relationship at the same time his friend’s marriage is unraveling. Robert Glaudini adapted his own stage play for the screen. He and Hoffman take their time telling the story, building the characters through small things like learning to swim or preparing a meal. They are aided by a stellar cast, including John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and the criminally underrated Amy Ryan. Of course director Hoffman’s best asset is actor Hoffman, who shows no vanity in his performance. As Jack, Hoffman is very convincing as someone painfully shy. We invest in Jack as he attempts to court a woman and broaden his world. Jack Goes Boating came and went from theaters very quickly, but this sweet, tender film deserves a second life on DVD and cable.

    10. Hereafter (dir. Clint Eastwood) – Speaking of needing a second life (no pun intended), consider the strange case of Hereafter. Here’s a film directed by a cinematic icon, featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It gets good-to-great reviews, but fades at the box office. Maybe people didn’t know quite what to make of Hereafter. The public may have thought that it was a film about the afterlife. Instead, Hereafter is a thoughtful, contemplative look at what the living see in the afterlife, what we want from those who have departed. Peter Morgan’s insightful script and Clint Eastwood’s understated direction are a perfect match. Matt Damon, between this film and True Grit, again shows his range as an actor. Frankie and George McLaren also shine as British twin boys who endure an awful tragedy. I know it’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating: At an age that most film directors have long since retired, Eastwood just keeps getting better.

    9. Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich) – Let’s face it: Toy Story 3 should have sucked. It’s the third film in the franchise, a point when even the best series often go downhill (think Terminator 3, or better yet, don’t). On top of that, it was eleven years since Toy Story 2. Somehow, the Pixar folks kept what worked in the first two films: the warmth, the clever humor, and the emphasis on character. Instead of ignoring the time that had passed, the filmmakers embraced it, building off the themes of Toy Story 2 and showing how the toys adjusted to huge changes. What happens when the boy grows up and doesn’t need his toys anymore? Thrown in for good measure is a neat little spoof of prison movies. Last year the beginning of Pixar’s Up tugged at the hearts of audiences. The ending of Toy Story 3 does the same. As with all of the great Pixar films, Toy Story 3 has more heart and humanity than most live action movies.

    8. Nowhere Boy (dir. Sam Taylor-Wood) – OK, I’m a sucker for the Beatles and a big John Lennon fan. So I may not have the most objective take here, but I don’t care. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh worked off the memoirs of John Lennon’s sister, and the story feels authentic. Aaron Johnson’s performance captures the roots of what we remember about Lennon. But what makes the film work is that it’s not about the future legend. It’s about a teenage boy searching for his identity, the way many teenagers do. Taylor-Wood illustrates how Lennon’s convoluted family circumstances shaped him. Her film is serious yet fun and cheeky, just like Lennon. As you would expect, the film also has some great music. There have been no shortage of terrific films about Lennon, both documentaries and features (such as Imagine: John Lennon, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Backbeat). Maybe Lennon was so complex that you need many films to even partially understand who he was. Regardless, Nowhere Boy proves a more than worthy addition to the Lennon movie canon.

    7. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance) – One of the most devastating portraits of a disintegrating marriage ever put on film, Blue Valentine is not easy to watch, but it’s worth it. Cianfrance, working off a script he co-wrote with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, gives the breakup nuance by playing it against the couple first meeting six years earlier. He goes back and forth between the two falling in love and falling out of love, making each that much more powerful. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams breathe so much life into their characters that it almost doesn’t seem like they are acting. There’s not one moment that feels fake or forced. What makes Blue Valentine truly heartbreaking is that it doesn’t take sides. It presents two flawed but likable people who just might not be right for each other. Maybe that’s also what makes the film a little frightening.

    6. Cyrus (dir. Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass) – Another overlooked gem, maybe because the plot sounds like a Judd Apatow retread – a sad sack divorcee finds love with a single mother but faces competition from her clingy adult son. Luckily, the film is much deeper and intelligent than I just made it sound. It gets laughs for sure, but not through cheap gags. John C. Reilly always excels at playing the ordinary everyman type and does so here. Much of the humor originally comes from his character’s insecurities. Then comes Jonah Hill as the son who’s much too close to Mom. Hill exhibits talents he never has before, presenting a character who seems nice but is a little off. He’s a real person, not a cheap caricature. That makes the clashes between the two even more funny. The Duplass brothers, who also co-wrote the movie, show an incredible touch and restraint, especially with the ending. Mark Duplass stars on “The League” one of the funniest TV shows of recent years. If “The League” enables him and his brother to do more films like Cyrus, then the show will be twice as rewarding.

    5. Marwencol (dir. Jeff Malmberg) – 2010 was a banner year for documentaries, many of them such as The Tillman Story, Inside Job and Waiting for “Superman” tackling very large issues. With Marwencol, Malmberg tells a much smaller, intimate story, but with just as much power. Several years ago Mark Hogencamp was beaten to within an inch of his life. He recovered, but suffered massive brain damage and was unable to remember who he was before the attack. Hogencamp then builds a WWII town, “Marwencol,” in his backyard, using dolls, toys, and models. But this is far beyond child’s play. Hogencamp invests his life in “Marwencol,” filling the village with intricate details, and developing storylines for its characters. The film examines how “Marwencol” became Hogencamp’s self-developed, self-administered therapy. Then when people notice Hogencamp’s photos of his village and its stories, his own little world becomes the art in others’ eyes. Malmberg follows Hogencamp around patiently while also interviewing his friends and associates. He patiently reveals more layers of Hogencamp’s story. Do you feel bad for Hogencamp, or do you admire his dedication and creativity? Thanks to Malmberg’s work, you do both.

    4. The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell) – From Rocky to Raging Bull and everything in between, so many boxing movies have been made that it would seem impossible to make an original one. Somehow Russell, working of an excellent script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, pulls off this feat. He does so by focusing less on what happens in the ring and more on the relationship between the two brothers: Micky Ward, an up-and-coming fighter, and Micky’s trainer and older brother Dicky. While Dicky was once a promising fighter himself, he has since become a unreliable, irresponsible crack addict. The film intertwines both of their redemption stories. Russell wisely surrounds Mark Wahlberg, who stars as Micky, with talented actors, especially Melissa Leo as Micky’s overbearing mother and Amy Adams as his tough girlfriend. But it’s Christian Bale who steals the movie as Dicky. He becomes Dicky, in appearance, speech and attitude, so completely, that after five minutes, you forget that this is the same actor who played Batman. The Fighter is set and was filmed in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the movie captures much of the local flavor. Wahlberg did double duty, serving as one of the films producers. It took him and his team a long time to get this movie made and even longer to get it distributed. The film is worth the wait.

    3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (dir. Niels Arden Oplev) – The upcoming American film version of Stieg Larsson’s best-seller has garnered much attention. But it seems redundant after seeing the Swedish version. While Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are gifted actors, I’d bet the farm that they are not topping the extraordinary work of Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist in the lead roles. Yes, the film is violent and graphic, but that’s what’s needed to tell the story. Oplev keeps the story moving briskly, but also gives enough time to explore the characters. He maintains the right atmosphere of dread, that something evil is lurking just under the surface. Rapace simply inhabits Salander, creating an iconic role. She projects Salander’s toughness and skill while also hinting at the vulnerability and pain beneath. Rapace and Nyqvist also co-starred in the other “Millennium” films, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Those films are worthwhile, especially because they fill in Salander’s backstory. It’s Dragon Tattoo, though, that is the only one that works as a self-contained film. It stands alone, as a gripping thriller, a riveting character study, and a monumental achievement.

    2. The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper) – The “Inspiring Story of A Man Overcoming a Disability” has been done so often that it’s long since grown into a cliche. And, on the surface, having a stammering problem might seem pretty minor. But not when you’re the King of England in the 1930s. Not when as king, you’re expected to use the still relatively new medium of radio to address your people. And especially not when World War II is approaching and the people are looking to you for hope, comfort, and strength. That’s the conundrum that The King’s Speech depicts so well. King George VI (Colin Firth) has a disability that most others could minimize by avoiding public speaking. The King has no choice but to tackle his problem and does so with the aid of an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Firth always excels at playing “stiff upper lip” Brits who are hiding doubt and insecurity, but never more so than here. Hooper places the audience in the King’s position, letting you feel how daunting and frightening his tasks seem to him. Firth and Rush have wonderful chemistry in their scenes together, which are both poignant and playful. Helena Bonham Carter also shines as the future Queen Mother. The King’s Speech is one of those rare films that’s intelligent, warm, and genuinely inspirational.

    1. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher) – I’ve never been on Facebook. I never want to be on Facebook. Quite frankly, I completely agree with Betty White, who, on “Saturday Night Live” said, “I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time. I would never say the people on it are losers, but that’s only because I’m polite... Facebook just sounds like a drag. In my day seeing pictures of people’s vacations was considered a punishment.” Yet, despite my feelings about Facebook, I found The Social Network fascinating from start to finish. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, adapting Ben Mezrich’s book "The Accidental Billionaires," wisely uses a flashback structure using a few different, and, in some cases opposing points of view. The film does not take sides among the characters. Sorkin’s whip-smart dialogue crackles on screen, as if words are a form of combat. Fincher’s distinct visual style is there, but he sublimates it to the story and the actors. Jesse Eisenberg plays Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg as someone who’s the smartest guy in the room and knows it. Eisenberg also blends in Zuckerberg’s awkwardness and difficulty relating with people. He, with Sorkin and Fincher’s help, creates a complex portrait of a man with many sometimes contradictory layers. Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Arnie Hammer also stand out in supporting roles. The impact of The Social Network is that it resonates on so many levels. It examines the creation of Facebook as a rebellion against a clearly defined class structure. The film also asks whether Facebook, and sites like it, make us more or less connected to those around us. What about its impact on people’s privacy? The Social Network does not answer these questions, and no film could. But some of the best films, by asking tough questions engage the audience on a level beyond pure entertainment. The Social Network is one of those films and people will be talking about it for years to come.

    Adam Spector
    February 1, 2011

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