Some years, there are maybe two movies that are truly memorable. Sometimes fewer. Perhaps there is no clear Oscar front-runner for 2011, but this year gave us movies to be passionate about. These films do not just entertain, but also reach depths of emotional and intellectual penetration that feel permanent in their impressed profundity. And for that reason, I’d call 2011 a great year for film.
So it’s sort of like director Nicolas Winding Refn took the word “cool” and made it into a movie and called it Drive. Starring the new coolest person alive or a near-enough archetype, Ryan Gosling, Drive is violent and violently polarizing but pulsing with more life than any other film released this year. From the moment it goes, Drive revs with a polished style that speaks to something unforgettable — though, for better or worse, it may vibrate with a cultish vogue for a time.
2. Tree of Life
Terence Malick’s ambitious Tree of Life feels like an astounding achievement that leaves everyone wondering what was achieved. It hardly matters, though, because something potent is detectable through all its poetical obfuscation and there is so much beauty in every frame that the desire to thematically explicate is dissipated and replaced by awe at the intricacies of all things.
3. Midnight in Paris
If it got released in the fall and wasn’t a Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris could and perhaps should win an Oscar. Though it probably won’t win much of anything, it is still a brilliantly delightful movie and pretty much the allusion-loving English major’s wet dream.
Contagion is a clinical rebuke to the adolescence of Michael Bay’s and Roland Emmerich’s recently and regrettably characterized disaster film. Director Steven Soderberg’s take, refined and distant to the extreme, is so anti-bombastic that it verges on lifelessness for those of us trained to expect the most intensified form of anything. But Soderberg’s stubborn distance and refusal to throw cheap punches is, ultimately, what allows Contagion to become the terrifyingly cold film it is. That is, not unlike the disease it so brutally articulates.
5. Margin Call
Perhaps the best screenplay of the year, Margin Call takes place over a single night precipitating the Wall Street crash in 2008. Not unlike Contagion, it is a cold and superbly acted film with a cast of greats (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, etc.) who effectively fill out their smart, and fair, Wall Street roles. If not for Contagion, it would be easy to say first-time director and writer J.C. Chandler has crafted the scariest movie of 2011.
6. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher doing serial killers is like Woody Allen playing Woody Allen. It’s his bread and butter. The interesting thing here is David Fincher being better than ever at being David Fincher and the new faces he brings along for the ride. Those being Rooney Mara as the enigmatic Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig, hallow, haunted facial structure and all, as the in-over-his-head detective lead. Just a phenomenally shot, scored and acted film, proving to anyone who still needs proof that Fincher is one of the best working today.
Warm and beautiful, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has a huge ticking heart. It is also a movie that really loves movies and makes us want to love movies too. Who can argue with that?
8. Like Crazy
Like Crazy is kind of like the profoundly depressing, less-cartoon (500) Days of Summer. Frankly, it just felt real to a point of heartbreaking proportions. Warning: college students are in extreme danger of painful, probably uncathartic relation.
About an awkward fat kid in high school, Terri is an odd and poignant movie that explores life in general. It feels deeply honest and is perhaps one of the best, most intimate viewing experiences of the year. Also, John C. Reilly plays the school administrator/mentor of your dreams.
10. Harry Potter
A truly epic conclusion to a series that seemed to have no end. But what an end it was! How long ago was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? We’re adults now and these movies (or books) have followed us all the way from youth. For that, at least, they should be respectfully acknowledged, if not loved.
JAMES O’HARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.