After a weak 2010, 2011 proved to be a surprisingly good year for movies. To be sure, most of the problems that bedeviled Hollywood at the start of the teens are still there; studios are panicky and greenlighting properties that aren't really movies, distribution for indies is all out of whack, and the MPAA is still taking the bazooka-as-flyswatter approach to internet piracy. But actual filmmakers have risen to the challenge of an increasingly timid industry and turned out entertaining, smart, and sometimes even original films in a number of genres and on scales from the intimate to the epic. Sure, a lot of the good stuff was backwards-looking and nostalgic, but that doesn't mean it doesn't move the medium forwards at the same time. It felt to me that there were more surprises, and while there was surely a lot of crap, I found it easier to avoid.
I was encouraged to see a bit more variety of style. Action movies are apparently allowed to have legible action sequences again, though the Michael Bay approach is by no means dead. The "teal and orange" thing seems to have calmed down a bit. Directors are finding actual uses for 3-D. And the neglected opening credits sequence made a very nice comeback at the end of the year.
The film industry will always have problems and things may get worse instead of better, but at the end of the day, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10.
So, in ascending order:
10. The Adventures of Tintin. Steven Spielberg does justice to the world-famous boy reporter in a sprightly action adventure full of spectacle, with just the right slightly goofy tone. The 3-D adds to the kinetic fun, and the motion capture animation allows for some truly remarkable sights.
9. The Muppets. A glorious return to form for the world's finest entertainers. The film is light on plot but heavy on stupid gags and bouncy musical numbers, which allows both the Muppet performers and the game human cast to tear up the screen while still allowing for moments of genuine sentiment. Also features the finest cover of a Nirvana song I've ever seen.
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Probably the most subversive summer blockbuster of the year- nature revolts against man, and we're actively encouraged to take nature's side. Turning a CGI ape into both the film's protagonist and moral center was a ballsy move, but it's helped by fine special effects and a winning performance by Andy Serkis. The film has a giddy, exhilarating quality, the rush of freedom that comes with a revolution. We're cheering our own overthrow.
7. Rango. One part solidly written, well-executed animated adventure film, and one part mystical fable about identity. Industrial Light and Magic's first animated feature is visually sumptuous, with a great voice cast, and an inventive, engaging script. There's no reason this should work as well as it does.
6. Super 8. Part gripping suspense thriller, part homage to the Spielbergian sense of wonder, and part examination of grief and tragedy- this film's got a lot on its plate. J. J. Abrams manages to pull it off, though, and some really talented child actors help (Elle Fanning is a major discovery). There's still something very bold about its ending, which asks not only the characters, but the audience, to be able to let go.
5. Bridesmaids. While its role as savior of women in Hollywood is probably overstated, this movie is still proof that it's possible for the American film industry to make a movie targeted at the female audience without excessive pandering. More importantly it's a really funny film which balances gross-out humor with solid character work. Kristen Wiig gives a performance which defies the one-note caricatures she's stuck with on Saturday Night Live, and proves herself a legitimate comedy star.
4. The Artist. It's interesting how quickly this was embraced as an Oscar favorite and crowd-pleaser, when it's a black-and-white silent movie shot in an aspect ration that even TV is starting to phase out. True, it's a nostalgia piece, a tribute to Old Hollywood. There's nothing actually wrong with that, even if you want to argue we're doing it because we're in some sort of permanent cultural death-watch. It's incredibly fun and kind of touching, a hopeful reminisce. Maybe we don't have to throw everything old aside.
3. Young Adult. Though I was something of an apologist for Diablo Cody in recent years, I was still blindsided by her newest collaboration with Jason Reitman. Both parties deliver a shockingly powerful black comedy about a woman obsessed with her past, not without reason. Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt give devastating performances, and the film never tips into cutesiness or neat resolutions. Things get very ugly and unpleasant, but in a way that suggests we could all end up there. A downright brutal experience.
2. Drive. Speaking of brutality, this unique thriller applies plenty of it, but only after we've been lured in by a hypnotically understated atmosphere. It's an exercise in minimalistic style, maybe a bit shallow, but the iconic power of the forever-distant Driver is enhanced by our not knowing much about why he is this way. Probably the most original film of the year, and one of the most daring.
1. Hugo. In the end, though, I cannot help but give the prize to Martin Scorcese's warm, lush, imaginative, and thoroughly charming adventure, lovingly adapted from Brian Selznick's book and rendered in dazzling 3-D. A marriage of the old and new, the film is a salute not just to movies or the silent era but to craftsmanship, invention, and the skill required to make magic happen.
Runners Up: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Attack the Block, Captain America: The First Avenger
Not Seen: Tree of Life, The Descendants, Melancholia
My Ten Favorite Performances of the Year:
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Albert Brooks, Drive
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Elle Fanning, Super 8
Kiera Knightley, A Dangerous Method
Michael Fassbender, A Dangerous Method
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Most Underrated Film of the Year: In Time. Andrew Niccol's populist thriller doesn't always play fair with its premise, but it has the graceful coolness which characterizes most of his films. There's something fundamentally viscerally satisfying about the way it addresses our problems of social inequality and economic immobility, however strained the metaphor may be.
Best Opening Credit Sequence: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This unexpectedly became a real horse race near the end, but the combination of twisted imagery with the pulsing beat of a great cover of "Immigrant Song" pushed this over the top. It's an assurance that this is going to be anything but a conventional mystery, and focuses our attention on Salander where it belongs.
Runners-Up: The Adventures of Tintin, Young Adult, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol