My Favorite (and Least Favorite) Movies of 2011

With the Oscars coming up tomorrow, I finally decided I needed to finish up this article that I have been slowly working on for a while. Rather than talk about who’s likely to win the Oscars, it seems more worthwhile to stick to my guns and just provide a list of my favorite films from last year. I should note that in 2011 I think I saw fewer movies than I have in any other year of my life. The basic reasons that contributed to this record-low were

  1. the age of our daughter (4) preventing us from going to the movie theater often (babysitters cost mucho dinero these days)
  2. higher quality television choices, and
  3. a generally uninteresting slate of films released across the entire year.

So with these caveats, I’ve decided to write a little bit about what were my favorite and least favorite films of the year. Granted, these aren’t “the best” or “the worst” but the ones I personally would recommend or chastise.

My Favorites

Beginners

This film will probably get a little more attention in the upcoming weeks, as it has been predicted by many film lovers that Christopher Plummer will receive the Academy Award for Supporting Actor for his performance in this film. That’s probably a good thing, because I simply thought this was a very well-written movie and perhaps the most convincing portrayal of how the world works in all of my movie-going experiences from the year. That being said, this is probably not a film for everyone.

Ewan Macgregor plays the central character, an artist in his 30s whose father (Plummer) recently passed away from cancer. Through a series of detailed memories and flashbacks, we learn that his mother had also passed away several years earlier. After this occurs, his father decides to come out of the closet as a gay man and gradually proceeds to take up with a live-in boyfriend. Meanwhile, in present time Ewan McGregor’s character meets a charming woman at an artists’ Halloween dress-up party, and she is intrigued by his cute, yet deeply troubled demeanor.

The movie interweaves the present romance of Macgregor with his experiences with his father during the later years of his father’s life. We slowly begin to understand why McGregor’s character acts the way he does, why commitment and the risks associated with a serious relationship can be so challenging, and how his approach to this new romance makes him just as much of a “Beginner” as his father was to being openly gay. There’s also a talking dog. Don’t worry, it talks in subtitles and says thoughts that it seems a dog would actually say.

So if you aren’t scared away by this description of the film, then you would probably like Beginners. It’s a hard film to write about, because there’s so much more to it than simply Plummer’s character coming out after the death of his wife. But I’m excited to see more films from Mike Mills, the writer / director.

Win Win

An attorney attempting to keep his family from financial ruin (Paul Giammati) becomes the legal guardian of an affluent and senile client who seems to have no family in Win Win. This unethical choice takes an unexpected turn when the troubled teenage grandson of his client suddenly appears. Just like Beginners, a basic description of Win Win doesn’t seem to do it justice.

I’ve never really liked Paul Giammati as an actor because his performances have always felt like someone laboring to show us he could “act.” You know what I mean. But his skill in a complex role won me over in this film that never felt over-the-top.

It might also be because my job relates so much to “disconnected youth” that I liked this film and its portrayal of a young man with lots to offer, but who had received little of the care and support he needed from adults to succeed.

Between Beginners and Win Win, the later is definitely the more accessible film. It pauses for more laughs and probably is easier to relate to for the masses. I don’t think it received any award nominations, so it’s definitely in need of some more attention given its high quality as a film.

My Idiot Brother

Quite possibly the lowest-stakes movie of the year, watching My Idiot Brother is like going out to breakfast on a Sunday morning. It really goes down easy and doesn’t demand much of a viewer in a good way. Sure, as one relative put it, it has “a couple of chuckles” and is never really laugh out loud funny, but Paul Rudd’s performance is hard not to like. He plays a kind, friendly, biodynamic organic farmer who goes to jail in the 1st scene for attempting to give pot to an undercover cop at a farmer’s market. When he gets out of jail several months later, he tries to get his life back on track and seeks refuge in the homes and families of his 3 sisters. Some funny things happen. This is probably the type of movie that will be played on tv endlessly for years to come, as it’s pretty harmless entertainment and has a warm aesthetic.

Moneyball

In any other year, Moneyball would have been easily left off of my list, but as I said earlier, it seemed like a particularly weak year for films. The movie, however, takes on a subject that only rarely seems to get covered in movies and yet it is probably a universally appreciated topic (and no, I’m not talking about baseball). Simply put, there are very few movies about work. Moneyball is largely about how it takes some cojones to stand up for new ideas and new ways of doing things in the workplace.

The movie is based on true events involving Billy Bean (played by Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A’s professional baseball team. He adopted a more robustly statistics-driven method of evaluating baseball players and their value. In the past 10 years this strategy has become normalized across all professional sports, thanks to Beane and others who paved the way. It’s hard to believe that what nows seems like such a “duh” idea was rejected as controversial only a decade ago. But I think many people can relate to how challenging it can be for new ideas that seem unconventional to gain support in the workplace. Conservative tendencies and a lack of desire to “rock the boat” can make even the more open-minded shrivel in fear, even when not much is at stake. Of course, there are bad ideas, but Moneyball happens to cover one of the good ones.

Cedar Rapids

Much like My Idiot BrotherCedar Rapids is a low stakes movie. Nonetheless it was one of the movies I enjoyed watching the most in 2011. Ed Helms, known for his roles on The Daily Show, on The Office, and in the Hangover movies is the lead here, and plays a naive, unworldly insurance agent who through a variety of new circumstances is forced to go represent his company at an annual regional Conference for insurance brokers. After arriving at the Conference, our hero is forced into confronting his inexperience with the underbelly of life, and must navigate a world of insurance agents where some appear to be friends and others foes. Alright, so perhaps that doesn’t really describe what this movie is about in any specific way that would make it seem like a comedy, but it’s definitely fun, has some good laughs, and like most good comedies of recent years, takes time to develop characters that eventually possess a depth that is relatable and humane. It’s also just a movie about the power of making new friends, and the funny things that can happen at big conferences.

Honorable Mentions

The Way

In the hands of a better director, The Way could have easily been a Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards. At times amateurish and confused in its messages, The Way nonetheless has a great vehicle for its story that help the film to overcomes its weaknesses and be memorable.

Emilio Estevez (yes! the one you are thinking of) directs his father Martin Sheen in the story of a father who travels to Spain after his estranged middle age son (Estevez in a small, but important role) freakishly dies. His son had commenced a coastal pilgrimage / backpacking trip known as the Camino del Santiago (The Road of Santiago), also referred to as The Way of St. James. On his first night out, the son dies of unusual cold weather in the mountains.

In honor of his son, Sheen’s character chooses to complete the pilgrimage using his son’s backpacking gear. He meets others who are making the trek for their own reasons. We gradually learn what motivates each character’s trek across the course of the film.

One of the strengths of the movie is its cinematography. The beautiful scenery and countryside of Spain made me want to also make the journey. But it’s dialogue like “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one” that made the film seem riddled with cliches from time to time (I also see that it was used on at least one of the movies promotional posters). On occasion, however, Estevez has scripted some great scenes that suggest if he keeps making movies he will get better.

The Big Year

Despite all of its flaws, of which there are many, I still found The Big Year to be somewhat memorable in a year when movies seemed to be lackluster. It’s based on a book about birders, people who love birds so much that they count and track how many species they see in a calendar year. The person in the United States who sees the most species has “The Big Year” and gains tremendous recognition among fellow birders. The movie has Jack Black, Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Rashida Jones among its stars. You really could put Rashida Jones in just about any movie and it will make me happy (but, hey, why aren’t they putting my wife in movies too?*) Anyhow, all of our comedic stars and others are competing to win The Big Year. The movie is destined to become Sunday afternoon fodder for TBS or TNT. It’s pretty easy to palate, but also is a little bit of a one-trick pony movie. The flow is a little tedious, the stakes are low, the jokes are minor chuckles, and  it could have brought a little more nerd to the movie than it did. But then again I’m a “birdnerd,” an enthusiast not quite at the level of a birder, but still pretty high up there in my adoration for animals and birds– perhaps someone else might find the skim the surface level of ornithology slowly permeating throughout the movie to be appropriate. Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the movie.

The Least Favorites

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

How can you fuck up a pirate movie so badly? Seriously, this movie was so boring we turned it off with about 15 minutes left to go. There are few things in this world that have the inherent magic of pirates. It is the sort of thing where if you just say the word, it will instantly get people excited and bring a smile to their face (think dinosaurs, spaceships, magicians, etc…) I’ve always found that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been a bit middling (although I thought the 2nd movie was fun). My guess with this one was that the bad reviews would lead me to have such bad expectations that the movie would turn out to at least be entertaining. But boy was I wrong. The movie was without any sense of joy or wonder. It appears that this 4th Pirates of the Caribbean film has a new and amateurish director at its helm. The pace of the movie is one speed the whole way through. The only thing good about this movie was looking at Penelope Cruz– but we can look at her in any movie right? The movie was also about journeying to the FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH! How did they fuck this up so badly? Strongly recommend avoiding this one.

Friends with Benefits

Can men and women have sex and just be friends? This movie explores the novel topic with less gusto and heart than the similarly-themed and rather crappy No Strings Attached, the Ashton Kutcher / Natalie Portman movie from earlier in 2011. If that line doesn’t scare you away, you should know that Levi Novey thinks the script for this movie was incredibly bad, lazy, and a waste of time. He stopped watching at about the 45 minute point, angry that he had wasted 45 minutes of his life. At least Mila Kunis isn’t that hard on the eyes. Here’s an idea: how about putting her and Penelope Cruz together in a movie with Rashida Jones about birdnerds walking the Camino del Santiago that’s actually good. If you understand this idea, I’m proud of you for reading this article so completely.

Your Favorites and Least Favorites?

So what were your favorite and least favorite movies of 2011? Any you are looking forward to in 2012? I’m looking forward the most to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Alright that’s it! Thanks for reading.

* Token note to get cover for making that statement. Love you honey!

4 thoughts on “My Favorite (and Least Favorite) Movies of 2011

  1. Some nice choices here — it’s good to see that you’re seeing non-mainstream films with your limited viewing time. I’m a Thomas McCarthy fan after seeing The Visitor, so I’d like to see Win Win, and Beginners is on my list as well. (And, as an aside, I really want to see A Separation.) Some films I liked that didn’t get a mention here: Drive, Tree of Life, Margaret, Hugo, and Meek’s Cutoff. Did you catch any of those?

  2. Hey, thanks Crazymonk. I did see a lot of mainstream films as well, they just were not particularly memorable. I didn’t realize that Win Win was made by the same person as The Visitor. Both are very good films.

    As for the other ones you mention, yes I definitely still want to see some of those that I missed including Drive, Hugo, and Tree of Life. We rented Tree of Life once but ultimately did not feel like we had the energy or as much time as we would have liked for a Terrence Malick film. I’ve heard it’s either a love it or hate it kind of affair, much like all of Malick’s ambitious films. We will definitely rent it again soon though. Drive is probably next on our list.

    We saw 50 / 50 last night, and although I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites of 2011, it definitely was one of the better made films we saw. After seeing it, it’s somewhat surprising that Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his performance. He’s probably due at some point though– although maybe like Leonardo DiCaprio he’s going to have to wait a while… Seems like the Academy might have a bias against younger actors, although I guess James Franco did get a nomination for 127 hours last year (and it was probably deserved).

    Did you see A Better Life by any chance? I want to see that one too. It’s been kind of under-the-radar. I still need to see The Interrupters as well. We haven’t seen as many documentaries and foreign films as I would have liked this year (including a Separation).

  3. Yeah, I had to see Tree of Life twice before I was really sold on it, although even on the first viewing I found great beauty in it. It’s a film that is really rewarding to view in the theater, but if you must watch it at home I recommend avoiding as many distractions as possible.

    No dice on A Better Life, I only heard about it fairly recently, during the pre-Oscar talk. 50/50 I’m vaguely interested in, but I have to say that I’ve never really liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt in anything I’ve seen of his (including Brick and 500 Days of Summer).

    1. That’s interesting that you don’t like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but I guess it’s just as random as my own personal likes and dislikes (for instance Giamatti).

      I’ll make note of what you say about Tree of Life. That’s kind of what I figured. Not a good movie to start late in the evening.

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