And then there were 10. After a painstaking process of whittling, ranking, and more whittling I have finally arrived at what were my favorite movies of 2011. So, without further ado...
1. The Artist
It's easy to forget just how loud, noxious and busy our world has become. Then something like The Artist comes by and reminds us, with it's resounding simplicity, how charming and delightful simplicity can be.
Told in a spartan black and white with all the luxuries of the silent film era -- dialogue cards, orchestral backgrounds and all -- The Artist follows an old-time Hollywood star facing the extinction of his career at the dawn of 'Talkies'. In lesser hands, the gimmick may have run out, leaving the plot to sputter on fumes but under the loving, sincere direction of Michel Hazanavicius and with the efforts of his superb cast -- including veteran character actors John Goodman and James Cromwell as well as the best 'movie dog' to ever grace the screen -- the story sparkles from end to end filled with beauty, wonder and absolute delight and reminds you what you love about the movies. Most Americans won't have the opportunity to see this film in theaters, which is a shame, because it is one of the most magical trips to the cinema you'll ever have.
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Much like my #1, Tinker Tailor is a tribute to a long-lost form a storytelling. Before Jason Bourne was jumping through windows and James Bond was cracking skulls, international espionage meant men in dark suits, sitting in rooms, speaking in hushed coded language and observing. It's not flashy but when done right, it's actually more tense, especially as you find yourself realizing ''This is really how it is, this is going on right now."
The film, a remake of a revered caper, stars Gary Oldman at his absolute best, trying to unearth a mole in the upper-levels of British Intelligence (a.k.a. "The Circus"). He is enlisted to do his work on the outside of the organization, after he is forced into retirement by meddling colleagues that bring down his former boss (known simply as "Control").
TTSP will put your powers of observation to the test as almost nothing is explained and what IS explained is done so in veiled spy-speak jargon. The major players are given pseudonyms (hence, the title) and slowly but surely the smoke begins to clear as Oldman meticulously circles his prey. Meanwhile we are treated to one of the best Cold War period pieces ever made and a case study in under-acting by the phenomenal cast. It trades moments of edge-of-your-seat slow burn tension with levity that hits you like a breath of fresh air. The setup is elaborate and the execution is utterly flawless and completely lo-fi. Even without all the glitz and glam, bells and whistles, this movie is, in a word, perfect.
3. The Ides of March
When you hear the word political thriller, what comes to mind? Is it Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series, with its assassinations, conspiracies and threat of nuclear war? Is it The Pelican brief with its car bombs and Stanley Tucci with a pillow in his shirt? Those things happen, of course, but more often than not the thrill of politics means manipulation of the press, backdoor promises and the brushing under the rug of a hot new candidates dirty laundry.
Ides of March is a film that revels in the grit and grime of modern politics. George Clooney plays the hot shot candidate for president riding into the election cycle on his white horse and promises of hope and change and Ryan Gosling is the golden boy assistant, helping behind the scenes and poised to inherit a cushy administration job when his man takes the big chair. Gosling believes in his man, but as the election draws near the stakes rise and the water gets murky and bit by bit Gosling trades in his wide-eyed optimist for a bitter cynicist, willing to do whatever it takes.
Gosling is tremendous, showing the slow steady decline that few films are able to master. Phillip Seymore Hoffman and Paul Giammatti provide some welcome muscle as competing chiefs of staff and Clooney fully embodies the poised man-doll who may be a little too good to be true. Each performance is pitch-perfect and the overall portrait is one of American Politics that we hope isn't -- but know to be -- completely accurate.
4. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen is a master filmmaker. In his long, celebrated career he has had his hits and misses, but there is no doubt that when he is on, the result is something that begs to be seen. In his latest, Allen enlists Owen Wilson as his stand-in and sends him on a romantic love-letter to nostalgia. While visiting Paris with his fiance's family, Wilson finds that his midnight strolls through the city carry him to the roaring 20s where he can rub elbows with Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald.
The frosting is the series of bit performances that pepper the film, with stars like Adrian Brody, Kathy Bates and the sensational Marion Cotiliard stopping by to fill a few minutes with their interpretations of the great figures of world artistic history. The cake, however, is a story seeping with charm as Woody says "It's ok to romanticize the past, just don't get carried away." It's light fare, in the best possible way, and serves as the perfect medicine for those days when you wish you could just disappear and lose yourself to a night of music and cobblestone streets.
A movie about a nameless getaway driver in a bad jam with the mob has no right to be this good. What could have been a simple Jason Statham knockoff is instead a pulpy retro-noir thriller about a mysterious man who finds his humanity as he first loves and then fights for the girl next door. Gosling, clad in a white satin jacket, chewing a toothpick and barely speaking a word gives a riveting performance. He boils over with seething, unpredictable power as a man who cannot be broken from his focused task. The world of Drive is a world where bad mean are bad and living outside of the law is the only life you've got and it's a world that I would love to spend more time in.
Sports movies are the masculine equivalent of chick flicks. By and large they involve a team of misfits who triumphantly come together, put aside their differences and emerge victorious. The few that break from the pattern are the ones that stand out and Moneyball is possibly the best of them all.
What we get is a completely un-romantic view of Baseball where players aren't people, they are a combination of confusing statistics that are, hopefully, maximized for maximum profitability. That is Billy Beane's (Brad Pitt) motivation. He is in business to make money, or more specifically to win games, and his team is having trouble doing it but with the help of a sidekick analyst (Jonah Hill in his best performance) he changes the way he looks at the game and utilizes his players like the faceless pawns they truly are.
The beauty here is the interplay between Pitt and Hill. Pitt shows us why he continues to be one of Hollywood's most bankable stars and Jonah throws his hat into the ring as a man capable of serious and mature fare. The result, is one of the freshest takes on a tired genre that I've ever seen.
7. Margin Call
There's something incredibly dynamic about a true ensemble piece and Margin Call is the cream of the crop. It creates a world, populates it and brings the pieces of the puzzle together for one single night. In a way it is the feature-film equivalent of a bottle episode as the movers and shakers of the Big Bank come together to plan a path through the impending financial implosion of 2008.
Quinto shines as the mid-level sharpshooter that raises the red flag but his performance is only bolstered by Stanley Tucci, the fall guy, Demi Moore, the woman in a man's world, Kevin Spacey, the oldtimer that just wants to make things right, Paul Bettany, the jaded cynic and a host of others. In one night, they grapple with the guilt they feel for the hurt they are about to unleash upon the world and the fear of knowing that come morning they may very well be unemployed. We, the audience, are moved to sympathize at first, only to remember that these men make more in a month than we could dream to in a year. But is it their fault? We make their lives possible by refusing to live within our own means, then demonize them when the party stops.
It's an eye opening, heady drama. It's the movie that Wall Street 2 SHOULD have been but failed and as our politics are still being shaped by the choices these men made it's possibly the most relevant film to hit theaters this year.
8. Like Crazy
Like Crazy won big at this year's Sundance Film festival, and rightly so. Few filmmakers are able to tell a story about young love with this kind of honesty. Shot with a handheld style as though the viewer were eavesdropping on a private conversation, Like Crazy tells the tale of Jacob and Anna, thrown together by chance and torn apart by circumstance. When she, a English student, overstays her visa she is blocked from the United States, initiating a long-distance relationship that ebbs and flows through good times and bad as the two struggle to reunite, or move on, whichever comes first.
Working off a mostly improvised script, director Drake Doremus' film, released with Paramount's backing in a easy-to-swallow PG-13 format, is the rare romance story that makes you both hope for and fear true love.
Much like Margin Call, Contagion is a spectacular ensemble piece but instead of close quarters Director Steven Spielberg spreads his characters across the world in a series of loosely-connected storylines as civilization grapples with a catastrophic, global epidemic. The film boasts more Oscar nominees than a Weinstein party and Soderbergh makes good use, allowing each room to make their mark in their relatively brief screen times.
In many ways, Contagion is the scariest movie of the year. While the fictional disease is explained to be extremely unlikely, it still shows just how susceptible we are as a race and how our modern international lives, in the wrong hands, can facilitate our demise. No matter how prepared and organized our governments may be, it means little in the face of a bodiless terror that strikes indiscriminately. You'll leave this film afraid to touch your own face and eyeballing every person on the street as a potential, unwitting, murderer. Also, best use of Gwyneth Paltrow's head since Se7en.
10. Crazy Stupid Love
It's getting harder and harder to tell a good story of Boy-meets-Girl. After so many decades and interpretations there's only so many ways to skin that cat, which leaves you with two options: change the story with a gimmick (I have amnesia and can't remember my spouse! I met the perfect guy but he thinks I'm blind and Japanese!) or tell the story truer and more sincerely than your predecessors.
Crazy Stupid dips it's toe in the gimmick-water, but mostly avoids the typical pitfalls of Rom-Com land by serving up a constant stream of believable human characters and laughs that stem from emotion and not situations. Steve Carell is the over-contented man, woken up by his own cuckolding. Julianne Moore is the cheating wife, who blames herself despite knowing that she was unsatisfied in her marriage. Ryan Gosling is the smooth player that takes Carell under his wing (or is it the other way around?) and the gorgeous Emma Stone is the perfect girl that slays the dragon.
It begins to unravel a bit toward the end, but by that point you're so intoxicated by the charm and invested in the characters that you don't mind a small detour into cliche-land. When all is said and done you get your message that love is something worth fighting for, worth changing for and that we are all, at times, the heroes and the villains of our own stories.
2011 MVP: Ryan Gosling