1. A Separation
Looking back on 2011, I never would have thought an Iranian foreign film would be my pick for film of the year. Lo and behold, I have been proven wrong: “A Separation” beat anything Hollywood put out this past year – and by a landslide to boot. There’s no real violence, action or Oscar bait of any kind here. All that audiences have is raw and real dialogue: a drama between two families that conveys more emotion than most films in the past decade. You could wait for the inevitable American remake that brain-dead Hollywood will churn out in a year or two, or you can see a masterpiece of cinema that touches the humanity of all viewers.
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
This one oozes style and depraved sophistication. Everything from the direction by David Fincher of “Fight Club” and “The Social Network” fame, to the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, to the dark and provoking themes surrounding a journalist hired to solve a murder, propels the story to mystifying depths. I have not read the book or seen the highly acclaimed Swedish version of “Tattoo,” but Rooney Mara’s portrayal as Lisbeth Salander, the story’s protagonist, is one of the most confounded, yet addictive characters of the year, entrancing viewers with an unmatched draw.
Unlike Ryan Gosling’s other movie on this list, audiences see a much more reserved and poignant performance out of the unnamed stunt driver he plays in the best indie film of the year. From the opening scene, which I would argue as the most suspenseful sequence of the year, “Drive” succeeds as a low budget film with high budget thrills. There’s some of the best action of the year in this one, albeit between a slow-moving love story. The few violent moments in the film come in gratuitous and terrifying bursts, leaving the viewer in shock. This is one drive you don’t want to miss.
4. The Artist
In a time where blockbuster budgets top $100 million and Hollywood studios churn out 3D replays of old films, a silent film made from a largely unknown cast and crew takes the cake for this year’s best in class. The acting by Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo is truly exemplary, considering the lack of spoken dialogue and the emphasis on facial expression. Each emotion displayed, from romance to despair, is shown beautifully behind the added film grain and black & white style for authenticity. The film’s original score serves as possibly the most important actor in the film, with Ludovic Bource’s work carrying the film.
5. The Ides of March
This political thriller from George Clooney, who serves as writer, director and actor in the film, shows the right way to both entertain and entrance an audience. Each twist and turn adds another layer to this dark drama, and it’s only as successful as the ensemble of skilled actors at the story’s disposal. Ryan Gosling stars as a young campaign worker who ends up too deep within both sides of the political spectrum. Soon enough, Gosling figures out neither side is what it seems and becomes engrossed in a scandal like no other. It won’t make viewers support America’s political system any further, but “Ides” entertains on all the right notes.
They said it couldn’t be done, but a comedy about cancer proved to be one of the most heartfelt and rewarding films of the year. The movie revolves around Adam, played with a certain introverted subtle prose by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given the odds of a coin flip to live. The film’s immensely personal touch stems from writer Will Reiser’s personal experience with cancer, who Seth Rogen, who co-stars as Adam’s best goofy stoner bud Kyle, helped through in real life. Many scenes were inspired by interactions between Reiser and Rogen in real life, which can be seen through the multiple humorous and heart wrenching moments in the film. A comedy treat.
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
While this condensed version of the John le Carré trilogy takes the cake for the most complicated film of 2011, it is also a damn good one. Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a retired British secret service agent who is called back into duty after learning of a spy deep within the organization. The movie goes back and forth, between numerous montages and sequences, often coming off highly confusing. But the film keeps viewers guessing, and most importantly, interested. The desire to learn the mole’s identity is what makes “Tinker Tailor” such a well crafted and executed drama.
8. Midnight in Paris
A Parisian gem from Woody Allen, a writer/director notorious for the cute, yet the absurd. “Midnight” is a unique rom-com starring Owen Wilson, a conflicted writer who wanders the streets of Paris while visiting with his fiancee. What he finds instead of scenic views is a deep journey into the depths of his own personal problems and questions of life. Wilson’s character, Gil, is pragmatic yet deprived: an uneven blend of blissfully content and deficient of self-purpose. “Midnight” is by far Wilson’s best role to date and one of Allen’s best films in recent memory.
9. The Descendants
George Clooney has starred in many films over the past few decades, including another on this list. But his acting in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” truly shines and could potentially nab him this year’s best actor award. Clooney stars as Matt King, a man with a plethora of problems. While attempting to satisfy his cousins and other family members with a money-making settlement on some Hawaiian land, Clooney deals with a falling out between his wife after she is put on life support. King attempts to reconcile his children, only to find out more and more about his estranged wife. While it does lean towards the melodramatic, the movie succeeds on Payne’s witty and convincing writing.
10. Red State
Expanding far beyond his traditional style of film, writer/director Kevin Smith gives a sinister vision into the mind of kooky right wing extremists with disturbing realism. Don’t expect any stoner or comic humor here. Smith creates arguably his best film yet, filled with everything from sadistic scenes of violence to intense action sequences that fixate the audience.
It isn’t easy creating an Oscar-caliber sports film, but with the help of Brad Pitt’s strong acting chops and intense dialogue, “Moneyball” accomplishes the feat in more ways than one. The story revolves around the real life story of Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane, who is faced with monetary and internal issues after the A’s best players leave the team. Jonah Hill also shines here, and although he does serve primarily as the comic relief audiences have come to know and love, he is able to keep up with Pitt in every scene, and is excellent as the young, yet knowledgeable assistant.