1: The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick
While the film received much backlash for a script many thought to be pretentious, its meticulously rendered visual effects and strong performances captivated critics and audiences alike. Malick convinced Douglas Trumbull, the guy behind the visuals of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, to end his 30-year break from Hollywood and bring to life the long, meditative space scenes that permeate Life’s narrative. Not much can be said about the film besides “go see it”—if only so you can debate with your friends what exactly Malick is saying about life and the afterlife.
2: The Descendants – Alexander Payne
George Clooney is good. Alexander Payne is good. But it seems to be the critical consensus that it’s been a while since both men have been this good. A dramedy about a man caught trying to balance family and business in the wake of tragedy, The Descendants illustrates Payne’s special talent for humanizing even the characters with the smallest roles in his films, creating movies that are often unmatched in their depth and reality. Perhaps this explains the film’s biggest surprise—that somewhere in th e interim between this and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Shailene Woodley learned to act (and she’s pretty good). Expect tears and laughter in what, in my opinion, is Payne’s best effort since 1999’s classic Election.
3: Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
After a few lackluster years following the Oscar-winning hit Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen got his mojo back with this year’s Midnight in Paris. It’s officially his highest-grossing movie to date (although only seventh in terms of estimated attendance) and one of his most well-received. Owen Wilson stars as a vacationing writer who, on a midnight walk, finds himself stumbling through Paris circa the 1920s, surrounded by literary icons like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The movie as a whole is a warm reflection on humanity and our modern tendency to romanticize the past; it has all the spunk of a Woody Allen classic, but, refreshingly, none of the spite.
4: Martha Marcy May Marlene – Sean Durkin
Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister to the twins who monopolized your childhood, spent years perfecting her craft at Tisch before taking on the lead role in Sean Durkin’s theatrical debut. And judging by her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, perfected it she has. Olsen plays a young woman who has just escaped from an abusive cult, only to find that even within the arms of her family, memory and trauma haunt her as though she’d never left. While Durkin’s direction and screenplay are both startling with the clarity and the frankness with which they handle the hot subject matter, Martha is, from start to end, all about Olsen and her captivating performance.
5: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – David Yates
We’ve read all the books and seen all the movies. Nothing a reviewer could say would matter, because Harry Potter fans are so tried and true, and Yates so enmeshed in the series’ fandom, that Deathly Hallows Part: 2 was bound to be a success long before it hit theaters. And yet, the critics spoke anyway—and they loved it. From start to finish, Hallows is gripping and thrill-packed. Screenwriter Steve Kloves makes no attempt at catching people up to speed before diving straight into the heart of things, logically assuming that anyone seeing Part 2 has, at the very least, seen its predecessor. It’s a good choice, because, at a little over two hours, not a minute of the film is wasted. Part 2’s visual effects are stunning, the supporting cast of British A-listers is flawless (Alan Rickman for the Best Supporting Actor, yes?), and the movie as a whole stands as a prime example of staying true to source material without losing sight of what makes a good adaption. In the words of Rowling herself, “All was well.”
A lot of crazy things happened in the world this past year, the emotional turmoil of which was reflected by silver screens everywhere. Suffice to say, the crop of notable movies from 2011 is equal parts diverse and groundbreaking.
Honorable mentions go to the movies not yet released but which are certain to be amazing–David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Nods must be given to the standout performances, as well—Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady and Michelle Williams as the titular icon in My Week with Marilyn, to name a few. Moreover, 2011 could arguably be deemed the Year of the Gosling. With three critical and box office successes this year alone (Crazy, Stupid, Love., The Ides of March, Drive), Ryan is thoroughly cementing his status as one of our generation’s best. Indie dramas also reigned supreme—Another Earth, Melancholia, and Take Shelter, in particular. Recognition must also be given to commercial hits like Paranormal Activity 3 and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1, which kept the box office afloat when many feared the entertainment industry would sink.