Get us the hell out of 2011. The upcoming year may be earmarked for delivering the apocalypse, but ’11 brought cinematic self-destruction. The best of the lot (Melancholia, Take Shelter) pondered the end of life on Earth; the worst (Adam Sandler, please stand up) simply made you wish for it. Not that many of the year’s supposed Oscar contenders were much better.
No one should be shocked when something like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 fails. Cowboys & Aliens? A little more surprising considering its playful concept and A-list creators. On the superhero front, The Greens Hornet and Lantern failed to save the filmic day, instead turning in a lot of CGI and bluster.
But let’s gut the esteemed. Terrence Malick laid perhaps the biggest egg with The Tree of Life, a cosmically and narratively far-out musing on no less than the beginning of life that is so broad in scope, you can read everything or nothing into it. (I leaned toward nothing.) It Man Michael Fassbender started the year strong starring in X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre, then stumbled with the listless twofer of Steve McQueen’s Shame and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Drive? A lot of violence and atmospheric music that captivated only when you were waiting for leads Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan to say something already.
So much of the rest was just…meh. Solid, not spectacular. Among the accused are The Descendants, The Artist, Martha Marcy May Marlene, 50/50, Warrior, Margin Call and The Ides of March. Good job, all, but greatness lies just beyond your grasp.
Here are my 10 favorites, in no particular order. Admittedly, a couple on this list would have been toast in richer years. But transcendence—whether figurative, narrative, but in most cases both—sometimes trumps technicalities, particularly in a disappointing year like this one.
1. Melancholia: Depression as the literal and figurative end of the world. Following his stupid Nazi babble, Cannes persona non grata Lars von Trier vindicated himself with this beautifully heartbreaking and distressing story about a mentally ill bride and the titular planet that may crash into Earth. Kirsten Dunst is mesmerizing as the newlywed whose disease is projected beyond her realm onto her family and humankind itself.
2. Take Shelter: Michael Shannon is paranoid and paranoia-inducing as a blue-collar Ohio man who’s haunted by nightmares of the apocalypse. Tense and gripping, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ story questions its main character’s sanity until its question-mark end.
3. The Future: Don’t give up when the cat talks. Even if Miranda July infuriated you with 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, the writer-director’s follow-up is a creatively devastating reflection on relationships, adulthood, and destructive navel-gazing. Time stops and the moon speaks, and July’s tendency toward preciousness finally moves instead of grates.
4. Beginners: Don’t give up when the dog talks. In a bizarre coincidence, July’s husband, Mike Mills, also included an English-speaking animal in his touching 2011 offering. Christopher Plummer is masterful as a gay man who comes out of the closet after his wife dies; his newfound happiness isn’t to be long-lived, however, as he soon discovers he has cancer. It all sounds like so much hokum, but Mills’ script is rich and direction deft in its portrait of a father and son (Ewan McGregor) who are sometimes clumsily, sometimes gracefully feeling their way through unfamiliar emotional terrain.
5. Midnight in Paris: A Woody Allen fantasy about literary giants in the roarin’ ’20s. Owen Wilson plays a frustrated writer vacationing in France who, when the clock strikes 12 every night, is transported via a time-traveling cab to the days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It’s witty, reverent, and thrilling both for scribes and romantics who’ve never picked up a pen.
6. Another Earth: It’s flawed, to be sure, with a thin script that ventures into please-don’t-go-there territory. But it also asks: If there existed a parallel universe, would you take a peek to see how your other self was doing—particularly if your life on this planet was closer to hell? The question resonates, and so does the film.
7. Super 8: Spielberg-lite, but more entertaining than The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse combined. J.J. Abrams pays homage to his E.T. master (and Super 8 producer) with this adolescents-and-aliens story, buoyed not only by top-rate action that includes a spectacular train wreck, but also by the charm of its young leads. The most impressive is a darling, yet technically brilliant, Elle Fanning.
8. The Adjustment Bureau: A hybrid romance/action flick that amounts to pure escapism. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt spark as the star-crossed lovers whom fate—here represented by devious, beyond-our-senses Men in Hats—is trying to keep apart. Watching the couple open portals that zip them around New York City is breathtaking; watching them swoon over each other is exquisite.
9. The Muppets: The most celebratory movie of the year. Kermit and friends reunite thanks to writer-star Jason Segel to put on one more joyful show and introduce themselves to a new generation of fans. As with the original series, the film’s cameos are half the fun, with goofy appearances from everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to Dave Grohl.
10. Moneyball: Another, ahem, home run from screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian based on the inside-baseball Michael Lewis book. Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman shine as the decision-makers behind the Oakland A’s, turning the team and the very rules of recruiting on their heads to prove that money isn’t necessary to notch a win.