By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Top Ten lists are arbitrary, nonsensical, and silly. Also useful and irresistible.
So, with all of 2011’s movies either already on video, there and gone from theaters, or still beckoning moviegoers from marquees through the holiday season, it’s time to salute the cream of this year’s crop.
Here are — with votes offered and tallied by the firm of Me, Myself, and I — a list, in ascending order, of one grateful moviegoer’s choices for the Top Ten Moviegoing Experiences of 2011:
(Click the film’s title to read Bill’s review)
Mixed martial arts, of all subjects, is the focus here, and this ferociously intense pugilistic drama, familiar and maybe even predictable, is executed like a well-timed punch — or kick — to the solar plexus. Sibling rivals travel on a collision course in this fractured-family tale that smartly balances convincing conversation with perfectly paced and expertly choreographed fight footage, fascinatingly splitting the rooting interest. Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor gets great work from rising stars Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as the brothers, and Nick Nolte breaks your heart as their broken father.
Writer-director J. J. Abrams’ mainstream gem of escapist moviemaking is an inspired homage to the early movies of one Steven Spielberg, who also just happens to have produced this science fiction thriller about a group of middle-school youngsters shooting their own movie with a titular camera — just like like Abrams and Spielberg used to — who get more than they bargained for when a freight train carrying cargo from Nevada’s Area 51 derails. This super coming-of-age dramedy mixing horror, humor, heart, nostalgia, and wonder is a delicious genre shake.
Director and co-screenwriter George Clooney’s crash course in dirty politics — or, as it’s sometimes called, politics — is a taut, cerebral, thoroughly absorbing political drama and a do-the-ends-justify-the-means morality tale about integrity and loyalty, soul-selling and seduction, compromise and corruption, and betrayal. This dark, cynical take on presidential campaigns from triple-threat Clooney, who also co-stars, boasts compelling contributions from Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti. No need to beware this one: it’s terrific.
The year’s best comedy is a riotously funny wish-fulfillment exercise about frustrated employees in which three friends commiserate because of their respective employers from hell and, because times are too tough to simply quit, plan their overseers’ demise. Director Seth Gordon’s spirited ensemble includes Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and the priceless Charlie Day, who steals the film and announces his imminent comedic stardom. This uproarious workplace romp is the very opposite of horrible.
6. A Better Life
This would appear to have been a labor of love for Chris Weitz, who directed this small-scale, heartfelt father-and-son drama about a gardener in Los Angeles, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who tends the lawns of wealthy clients as he struggles to avoid deportation and keep his rebellious teenage son away from gangs and immigration agents so that he can live the kind of fulfilling life that his father has been denied. This deeply touching character study in devotion and selflessness is anchored by a brilliant, self-effacing performance by Demian Bichir that’s easily worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Not only is the fourth installment in this spyro-technical franchise the best one yet, it also registers — easily — as the year’s best action piece, a mission impossible to resist from animation maven Brad Bird, who delivers photogenic exotic locations, ingenious high-tech gadgetry, dizzyingly exhilarating action sequences, breathless high-octane pacing, and even a dash of tension-release humor. Charismatic and fit Tom Cruise continues his impressive leading-man comeback in an entertainment mission you should absolutely decide to accept.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Dramas dealing directly with the tragedy of 9/11 have been few and far between. This one, based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, soars. Director Stephen Daldry’s film about the effects of the “worst day” in a family’s life offers what seems like an oblique approach, with plenty of chronological juggling, but which ends up being direct enough to be emotionally wrenching. A young boy played by amazingly assured newcomer Thomas Horn tries to solve a mystery involving his father, who perished in the World Trade Center on that dreadful, fateful day. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock play the boy’s parents in a seemingly fanciful tale that packs a slyly devastating wallop.
A movie buff’s delight and a treat for familes, movie meastro Martin Scorsese’s ostensible kidflick is a visually mesmerizing, enthralling and poignant tribute to film artists of an earlier era . Set in 1931 Paris, visual storyteller Scorsese’s first foray into comedy, the 3D process, and the wide family audience is not only a nostalgic puzzle to be solved but a vicarious road trip back through cinema history, a plea for crucial film preservation, and yet enother demonstration of the dream-like quality and power of movies. A wonderfully whimsical and magically mysterious fable for kids of all ages. Including mine. Hugo, girls. Boys too.
Boasting perhaps the year’s best overall acting ensemble, this collaboration between director and co-writer Alexander Payne and the magnetic and effortlessly commanding George Clooney is a smooth, exquisitely surprising dramedy about bereavement and betrayal about a lawyer, a father of two, living in Hawaii whose injured wife is in a life-threatening coma. Clooney is Oscar-caliber terrific, and is supported magnificently by Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, and Judy Greer. Say aloha to a smart, funny, authentic, heartbreaking, and transcendant tragicomedy.
The year’s very best movie and one for the ages, in all meanings of that word, this lifting-you-out-of-your seat fable couldn’t be any more pleasurable. Silent, black-and-white, directed by French director Michel Hazanavicious, starring French stars Jean Dujardin (brilliant) and Berenice Bejo (luminous), supported by American character actors, and eschewing CGI and 3D, this masterpiece of charm, energy, humor, nostalgia and craft about the advent of talkies is a daringly delightful throwback romantic comedy about American moviedom. A joyous, intoxicating reminder of why we love the movies: it’ll take you a long, long time to wipe the blissful smile off your face.
Now bring on 2012.