It’s hard to describe 2011 as anything other than a disappointing year for movies. Most years start out slow, see a few pleasant surprises in spring, the usual mix of mega-budget hits and misses during the summer, followed by the doldrums of fall, and a busy holiday season of Oscar contenders and blockbuster tentpoles.
But 2011 never achieved liftoff. A deserted February through April gave way to a particularly weak summer. And the late-year pickup in quality never materialized – not when the second Friday in December welcomed the fugly one-two punch of “The Sitter” and “New Year’s Eve.”
Still, some fine filmmaking took place, though audiences sometimes had to hunt around for it. Here is my take on Cinema ’11.
- The Artist – The only movie to which I gave my top rating, “The Artist” is French, black-and-white and silent to boot, but it’s anything but a snooty art film. It’s a highly enjoyable ode to old-fashioned Hollywood, and the most purely rapturous emotional experience I had at any movie this year.
- A Better Life – I very much enjoyed this little immigrant story by director Chris Weitz and writer Eric Eason when it first came to theaters – leaving quickly with hardly a trace – and it’s only grown in my estimation since. It’s an homage to “The Bicycle Thief” that leaves aside the politics of illegal immigration for a very human story.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close -- A late addition to this list, the adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel about a precocious boy dealing with the death of his father (Tom Hanks) in 9/11 is one of the most emotionally gripping journeys of the year.
- Moneyball – Another movie I don’t think got its due, this terrific look at the numbers men behind baseball contains what is probably the best performance of Brad Pitt’s career, and the best screenplay of the year. An in-the-park homer.
- The Skin I Live In – Pedro Almodóvar’s most unique, vibrant film in years, this kinky potboiler about a plastic surgeon and his very special patient is simultaneously disturbing and thrilling. Alfred Hitchcock would be jealous.
- Rango – A weird, twisted animated film ostensibly for kids, “Rango” was easily one of the most original movies of 2011. Johnny Depp voices a lizard caught up in a Western spoof with a little (OK, lot of) Salvador Dali stirred in.
- The Descendants – Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) seems to be making films on a Kubrickian time table, but this black comedy starring George Clooney as a father vexed by familial trials was well worth the wait.
- The Rise of the Planet of the Apes – What looked to be a hammy spin-off of an antiquated film franchise turned out to be the best movie of the summer, a cerebral prequel to a world of damned, dirty apes. With a terrific CGI motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis.
- Margin Call – Unlike some critics, I don’t relish picking obscure films just to show off my snooty bona fides. But this little-seen drama by rookie director/writer J.C. Chandor, which gives a fictional take on the economic crash that launches the Great Recession, is top-notch. Think “Glengarry Glen Ross” moved up to the executive suite.
- War Horse – Steven Spielberg returns to form with this sweeping epic about a horse who must suffer through the atrocities and vagaries of World War I, separated from the boy who loves him. I dare you not to shed tears.
Making lists of favorite things is fun, but it also means leaving off worthy films that didn’t quite make the cut. Here, in alphabetical order, is my lucky 13 of the rest of the year’s best.
“The Adventures of Tintin,” "Anonymous," “Arthur,” “The Beaver,” “Coriolanus,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Drive,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” “The Help, “The Iron Lady,” “Larry Crowne,” “Sarah’s Key,” “Welcome to the Rileys,” “Win Win.”
Amid any triumphs, there are always catastrophes. The truth is I don’t see many of the absolutely worst movies of the year, since the studios don’t screen them for critics. And, frankly, I prefer not to take time out of my weekend to catch up on “Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.”
But here are 10 of the most inadequate films I saw in 2011.
- Green Lantern – An abject lesson in how not to make a super-hero movie. Start by trying to wrap decades of comic book mythology around the smirking star persona of Ryan Reynolds.
- The Smurfs – This cringe-worthy remake of the 1980s TV cartoon follows in the “Garfield” and “Alvin and the Chipmunks” mold.
- Fright Night – A terrible remake of a not-particularly-good ‘80s vampire flick. That’s a whole lot of suck.
- Red Riding Hood – A sexed-up take on the classic fairy tale. They lost me during the medieval lambada scene
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – I’m no tween vampire hater; I actually gave a positive review to the previous “Twilight” flick. But this penultimate film is all exposition with no payoff.
- Your Highness – Stoner comedy meets sword & sorcery. What an epic downer, man.
- Friends with Benefits – Am I the only one who thinks Mila Kunis is a horrible actress? Her pairing with Justin Timberlake in this flaccid romcom didn’t bring sexy back.
- Kung Fu Panda 2 – I will always remember “Kung Fu Panda 2,” because before I could brag that I never walked out of a movie and never fell a sleep during one. At least I can still say I never walked out.
- I Am Number Four – This YA sci-fi/romance is like a bad mash-up of “Twilight” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
- Cowboys and Aliens – Certainly not a bad movie, but tops my list for biggest disappointment. Audiences wanted tongue-in-cheek fun; we got a dreary Western with lasers.