Here are my choices for the best films of 2011. It’s been an unusual year for movies.
Masters like Scorsese and Spielberg are trying new techniques and succeeding gloriously. Filmmakers that proved themselves to be good in the past were shot down with not-so-success blockbusters.
Several films didn’t look like they would amount to much, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, proved be very impressive. Strangely enough, the silent, black and white film made a glorious comeback with The Artist.
You have big, popular stars like Brad Pitt, trying and succeeding with more artistic films like Tree of Life.
This is a list of the best films I’ve seen all year. I can only hope that 2012 will offer a better selection.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley and Chloe Grace Moretz, this marks the beginning of great 3D photography without the need for CGI alien people on the distant moon of Pandora. This film proves how capable the great Martin Scorsese is with any genre. Hugo is the story of a recently orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station, repairing the clocks and watching the people who work and pass through the station. He is not the best boy. But, can this boy really be blamed for swiping a few necessities to live and be happy?
Hugo takes us on a journey of discover. First, Hugo introduces us to a grouchy, old toy-maker, George Melies (Kingsley), who works in the station. Apparently, Hugo had stolen a few of his toys for the parts, and George Melies is not happy about it. Next, we meet George’s adopted daughter, Isabelle, played beautifully by Ms. Moretz.
At this point, the film almost seems to be reveling in the atmosphere and character development. We get to know more about Hugo, George and Isabelle in this time. We get to see why Hugo would be stealing parts. He’s trying to repair an automaton, a robot man, if cranked up, could draw images on a blank page. This contraption is very important to Hugo, since it relates to his late father, as played by Jude Law. Hugo gets the toy man to work and all the automaton gives him is a drawing, a clue to a bigger mystery.
Finally, the film starts getting to the point. Martin Scorsese starts showing us how much he loves making movies and why. He takes us back to the time when film was just starting out. In its infancy, several visionary filmmakers would play with different techniques to express themselves and give real life to these moving images. This was back in the day when the use of special effects was truly magical. George Melies was one of these artists. Ever see the old, post-colored black and white silent picture, featuring the rocket ship, shooting into the eye of the man in the moon? Well, that was made by the cranky, old toy-maker, harassing Hugo in the beginning of the film. At this point in the story, it’s hard not to see that Hugo is a big tribute to filmmaking in general.
Along the way, we get a sense of adventure, excitement, discovery and delight. Borat’s own, Sacha Baron Cohen is constantly chasing after Hugo with his adorable Doberman Pinscher. After all, Cohen is playing the train station inspector and Hugo technically is a thieving orphan. But, we care about the title character, no matter what.
For his first big film, the young Asa Butterfield is wonderful. He truly does carry the film. But, he’s not some blank surface for us to project ourselves onto. Asa actually gives real depth to Hugo and makes us really care about him. As I mentioned earlier, the young, up and coming actress, Chloe Moretz is fantastic as Hugo’s partner in crime and fellow adventurer. And luckily, for the safety of every character, Isabelle is not exactly Hit Girl. And of course, the veteran, Ben Kingsley drives the film home and gives it the big, adult heart it needs by the end. He basically gives Melies the voice of Scorsese himself.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson and Peter Mullan, the story of an English boy, raising a horse to be one of the most capable and efficient creatures, serving in World War 1 is a fantastic treat. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, the film feels like an homage to the old John Ford films, like How Green Was My Valley. However, War Horse has a heart and soul, all its own. And it really is a joy to go along, following the horse, Joey in his adventures, during the first great war. Jeremy Irvine plays Joey’s human brother, Albert Narracott. He gives the character passion for the stud that is rarely seen in movies. Emily Watson beautifully plays Albert’s hard-nosed, old-school, Irish-like “mum,” Rose Narracott. She really does not crap from anyone. God help you if you cross her. Peter Mullan plays the typical, Irish-like drunken baffoon husband and father, Ted Narracott. But, in the capable hands of a master like Steven Spielberg, nothing in the film feels too tacky or cliche.
The story follows this amazing animal, Joey as his journeys take him through World War I. Joey is bought, sold, taken and stolen several times, by several different people across Europe. He almost becomes a bad omen for everyone accept the young man that he truly belongs to. One of the most compelling and powerful subplots, is the story of an old, hard-nosed Frenchman and his adopted granddaughter, struggling to survive German occupation. Niels Areststup gives the character heart and soul. But, Celine Bucken, who plays the granddaughter is there to compliment his performance. A few of the other subplots consist of German brothers, trying to escape the war with Joey and his black stallion friend. A warring Englishman and German, bonding and reconciling for 5 minutes to save Joey, which is impossible to imagine, during a battle. But, wild stories like that happen in warfare.
But, finally, when all the chips are down, when it looks like there is no hope for Joey, the film finally comes full circle. Joey and Albert are brought back together, after both have gone through such hell, and the pay off is not to be missed. Whether you are an animal lover or not, I guarantee that you’ll be drying your eyes at the end of War Horse. Just as Hugo shows us why Martin Scorsese is the second best filmmaker today, War Horse reminds us how great Steven Spielberg is when he wants to be.
Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Moneyball follows Oakland Athletics baseball general manager, Billy Beane as he tries to breathe new life into his ball team. He grabs an economics whiz, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) while visiting the Cleveland Indians. Together with Brand, Billy fights against old-style baseball recruiting, embodied by the great, stoic performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the manager or coach of the Oakland Athletics team. They both end up revolutionizing baseball recruitment forever, simply by adding equations and statistics to the process.
Outside of Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane may be his finest performance. He actually has a good chance of winning Best Actor at the Oscars this year and for good reason. Jonah Hill has never impressed me as an actor, until I saw him in Moneyball. And, as I said before, Philip Seymour Hoffman rarely disappoints as an actor. He’s just not playing the most likable guy.
Moneyball plays like the modern Jerry Maguire, without the love story. It’s slick, smart and compelling from start to finish. There are just as many great dramatic moments as there are comedic moments. And, if you love movies about sports, Moneyball should not be missed.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishbourne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Gwneth Paltrow, a compelling, epic film with an all-star cast, following a virus as it passes around the world, killing people, left and right. It has the same structure of a typical disaster movie, but Contagion certainly feels more like an A-quality thriller. Gwyneth Paltrow brings this nasty flu-like bug back to the states, gives it to many of the people around her, and then, dies. Kate Winslet, an investigator for the CDC discovers just how dangerous the virus is, and lets us know a few disturbing facts. Her boss, Laurence Fishbourne makes a few bad decisions, based on the results of Kate’s investigation, and gets into some hot water for trying to keep his wife out of harms way. Matt Damon is Paltrow’s husband. He appears to be completely immune to the virus and they possibly come up a vaccine with his blood. Marion Cotillard is on the other side of the world, trying to help a small Chinese village, sit out the global threat. And then, there’s Jude Law. He’s playing a big-mouthed opportunist / extremist. He doesn’t mind influencing people to do the wrong thing, as long as people actually hear him out on Twitter.
As you would expect, everyone in the cast proves how capable they are. Given her legacy, you might find Kate Winslet’s fate rather heart-breaking. And, you might feel like the ending is a little anti-climactic. But, other than that, Contagion is a damn good thriller. The film succeeds very well in giving the audience the feeling of paranoia.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, and Freida Pinto. A wonderful, fitting follow-up to the original Planet of The Apes series. It is a replacement for the poorly made Conquest and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in which we follow Caesar as he leads the apes to victory over the humans. In this modern version, a scientist, played by Franco is trying to cure Alzheimer’s disease. He ends up creating a drug and a virus that can grow or regrow a brain. Playing Caesar this time is Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. His intelligence was naturally passed down by his mother, an ape Franco was using as a guinea pig. Caesar makes a few understandable mistakes, finds himself in an ape pound, you might say, amongst many others. Unlike the rest of the chimpanzees, the gorilla and the orangutan, Caesar is highly intelligent. He eventually organizes a revolt. To see Caesar’s passion and understanding growing, through the eyes of this CGI creature is amazing. But, when Caesar to pushed too far, he does something that you will not expect. It is a moment that will literally give you chills.
Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams. A really well written fantasy, where Owen Wilson is miraculously transported back in time, to Paris in the 1920s. Amongst such esteemed and famous names as Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Owen Wilson grows to understand that he has to stop living in the past.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. With fun characters, the young criminal investigator, Tintin and his trusty dog, Snowy embark on a few wild adventures in this film. They meet with some fun characters and some dastardly characters. You won’t regret, going along for the ride.
The Tree of Life
Directed by Terence Malick. Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. A very unique experience, like every film by Terence Malick. It combines surrealism and expressionist with some good old-fashion family storytelling. Set in the 1950s and ’60s, The Tree of Life follows a family as they say goodbye to their home and their lives in this community. Look for Brad Pitt to really throw away his pretty-boy image and scare you with his stern, bitter 1950s father-figure.
Directed by Tate Taylor. Starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard. A truly touching film, following the hardships of black nannies and maids in Mississippi as they try to live amongst the most racist community since the Civil War. Emma Stone tries to get these women to open up to her and we get to hear some truly stunning revelations. I honestly can’t look at Bryce Dallas Howard the same way, after having seen this film. Look for Sissy Spacek to make you laugh a few times.
Directed by Jonathan Levin. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Directed by David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes, and Alan Rickman.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Arnie Hammer, Naomi Watts, and Josh Hamilton.
Directed by John Madden. Starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Chastain
Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause.
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman and James Cromwell.
The Ides of March
Directed by George Clooney. Starring Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
X-Men: First Class
Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence.
Personal note: After McAvoy’s amazing take as Professor Charles Xavier, a role perfected by Patrick Stewart in the earlier films, I know who should play the young Jean Luc Picard in any future Star Trek film.
Directed by Duncan Jones. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, and Vera Farmiga.
Directed by Brett Ratner. Starring Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, and Alan Alda.
Directed by Justin Lin. Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Jordana Brewster.
Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh. Starring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Jackie Chan and Seth Rogen.
Directed by Neil Burger. Starring Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Anna Friel, and Robert DeNiro.
Directed by James Wan. Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, and Lin Shaye.
Personal note: This is one creepy, scary movie in execution and concept.
Directed by Olivier Megaton. Starring Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Callum Blue and Jordi Molla.
Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong.
Directed by Greg Mottola. Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, the voice of Seth Rogen, Mia Stallard, Jason Bateman and a cameo appearance by Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Starring Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton, and Jennifer Morrison.
The Adjustment Bureau
Directed by George Nolfi. Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Michael Kelly and Anthony Mackie.
Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Su Elliot.
Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks.
Directed by Tom Hanks. Starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly.
Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, and Alexander Skarsgard.
The Thing (2011)
Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen and Ulrich Thomsen.
Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, and Vicku Krieps.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell.
Directed by Wes Craven. Starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, and Lucy Hale.
My Week with Marilyn
Directed by Simon Curtis. Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, and Julia Ormond.
Directed by Mike Cahill. Starring Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, DJ Flava
The Lincoln Lawyer
Directed by Brad Furman. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillipe, and William H. Macy.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher. Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgard.
Personal note: The directorial style between this Hollywood version and the Swedish version of the same name are virtually identical. However, there are parts of both films that I prefer over the other.
The Rum Diary
Directed by Bruce Robinson. Starring Johnny Depp, Giovanni Ribisi, Aaron Eckhart, and Michael Rispoli.
Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Starring the voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, George Lopez and Karen Disher.
Directed by Tarsem Singh. Starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt, Stephen Dorff and Freida Pinto
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane.
Directed by Seth Gordon. Starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, and Jennifer Aniston.
Happy Feet Two
Directed by George Miller. Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Pink, and Carlos Alazraqui.
Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia