Friday, December 30, 2011

The Ones That Mattered: The 10 Best Films of 2011 (1-5)

Now that i've lashed out on the worst of the worst, it's time for me to honor the best of the best of what 2011 had to offer. There was nostalgia this year at the movies, from a love letter to Paris and the Roaring 20s, all the way to a a big, fat kiss to the silent movie era. We said goodbye to a beloved wizard, and one director said hello to the future of movies, and an all-female cast put the boys to shame in the comedy war. These are the movies you should have seen, need to see, and the types of movies that the Suits at Hollywood need to make more of.

1. The Artist - Of all the movies that came out this year, none made me more hopeful for filmmaking or stood out more than writer/director Michel Hazanavicius' love letter to the silent movie era. The Artist is exactly what you think it is: it's a silent, black-and-white movie, about a silent movie superstar in George Valentin (the brilliant Jean Durjardin) on the brink of obscurity as the talkies replace silent movies as the new way foreword in filmmaking, a wave the young, energetic Peppy Miller (an incandescent Berenice Bejo) rides to become Hollywood's newest and brightest star. How these two lives cross and collide lies at the heart of this musical/romantic-comedy/melodrama. I know what you're thinking: Everything that i've said so far sounds like this movie is a nice gimmick with heartwarming performances and a luscious scenery, but where's the substance? The substance is that The Artist reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place: we want to be entertained; we want to laugh, feel for the characters on-screen, and get lost in a world that we've not seen before. In this film's case, it's a world we've longed forgotten about, yet still feels familiar. It's often funny, it tugs at your heartstrings without being sappy, and its poignant and sentimental without demanding that you take out your hankey. In short - this movie is damn-near perfect.

2. Hugo - Martin Scorsese, the same man who uses gangsters, mob bosses, deranged degenerates,  crime and corruption as a torchway to the human condition, made a family film? And it's in 3D!? If it sounds like the man who made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed has jumped the shark, prepare to be wrong and make room for this enchanting, visual and emotional masterwork that ranks alongside all the movies mentioned. Based on the story, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese's take on a orphan boy (a revelatory Asa Butterfield) trying to piece together a mechanical writing machine in 1930's Paris is more than what its synopsis reveals: It is a lovely, passion-filled ode to magic of cinema itself. Watching a never-better Ben Kingsley as the magician/filmmaker, turned toy mechanic in a montage of his days as a filmmaker with his wife is wondrous to behold, as is Scorsese's masterful use of the 3D technology, DanterFerretti's gorgeous art direction, and longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's top-notch level editing. Hugo shines a light on film's glorious past and gives you hope for it's future.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II - How do you put a capper on this generation's equivalent of the Star Wars saga after 10 years? By going out with an emotional and thrilling bang that deserves a Best Picture nomination the Academy has denied the franchise all this time. While Part I acted as a mere teaser to the final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Finnes, capturing the malice of You-Know-Who to a "T"), Part II races towards the finish line with a thrillingly-staged battle between the Death-Eaters, Voldemort's dark army, and the staff and students at Hogwarts. Yet, it is the film's quieter moments - the aftermath of the battle as Harry sees death and destruction fills the Great Hall, to the epilogue 19 years later, that give the film it's haunting, bittersweet and cathartic power. Everyone from Radcliffe, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron bring their A-game, but the actor who triumphs here is Alan Rickman, as his true nature is finally revealed to Harry in a flashback of Snape's life, and his grieving heart. Of all the blockbusters to come out of 2011, it's the last installment of the Potter franchise which really stays with you, even after the credits roll. That's the film's real magic act.

4. Drive - In a year where Ryan Gosling played a disillusioned spin man for a Presidential campaign (The Ides of March) and a smooth-talking womanizer helping a soon-to-be divorced 40-something man get back in the dating game (Crazy Stupid Love), it's his role as a Hollywood stuntman/getaway drive for the bad guys protecting a mother and his kid from the mob that lands him in my 10 best list. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn borrows from other crime movies like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Michael Mann's Collateral, Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo and Sergi Leone's Man with No Name trilogy to create a stylistic, ultraviolet crime noir tale of a heist gone wrong and car chases that put to shame all of the Fast and the Furious movies. And who knew Albert Brooks could play a mob boss with such malice and menace?

5. The Descendants - Alexander Payne follows up to his dramedy 2004 classic Sideways with this hilarious and bruising Hawaiian family drama about a workaholic lawyer coming to terms with his wife's infidelity as she lies in a hospice about to be taken off life support, and his overall absence as a father. George Clooney scores a career-best performance as the weary husband dealing with his wife's impending death, his two daughters; reckless teenager Alexandria (a touching Shaileen Woodley) and ten year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), and a looming decision on whether to sell his handed-down 250,000-acre Kauai land for a big payday. In lesser hands, this would've been a sappy family melodrama. In Payne's hands, not a moment rings false or reeks of sentimental overkill.

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