Some years it's easy to pick the best picture of the year because one movie clearly stood out above the rest, even if that movie doesn't end up taking home the Oscar (ahem, The Dark Knight). Some years, it's not so easy. This year, was an exceptionally good year for movies. It was so good, that I admit I ended up missing half of the award season contenders because of the large volume of critically acclaimed movies that were being released around December.
That being said, here's the top ten of the ones I did manage to catch this year:
10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 2
Yes, I know I'm going to catch hell for putting this one at the bottom of the list, but the decision to break this movie up into two parts apparently meant that the filmmakers didn't feel a strong need to edit the material for the sake of keeping the pace moving along. At least part 2 was the more action packed of the finale, but it suffered a bit because most of the dramatic setup took place in part 1. Still, it was a worthy sendoff for a much beloved film series that had been running for ten years.
9. Super 8
J.J. Abram's film about the love of filmmaking was also a valentine to those 80's movies about kids having wild adventures in their own backyard that they just don't seem to make anymore. It's hard to watch this movie and not want to grab a movie camera and some friends and make a film of your own. This might also be the first movie I've seen Steven Spielberg produce and not direct that actually had the feel of a movie he might have directed himself. I did have one complaint about Super 8. It's clear that this film was two story ideas merged into one. It's a film about kid filmmakers and it's a film about a government conspiracy. We see both stories through the same characters, but as the conspiracy plot takes center stage, the filmmaking plot seems to get pushed to the side, and they never intersect as well as I think Abrams had hoped they would.
8. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Brad Bird is one of the few animation directors out there today who has been able to make a name for himself. (Previous credits include Ratatouille, The Incredibles and the highly underrated The Iron Giant). Naturally, I was excited to see what he could do with his live-action debut, and he did not disappoint. Considering that the Mission: Impossible franchise is so easily associated with explosive action scenes, it comes as a surprise that the best moments from Ghost Protocol are so minimalist in nature. For example, in one scene Tom Cruise and Simon Pegg are trying to break into the Kremlin and only have to outsmart one guard. It's a subtle scene. No big over the top orchestral score, and minimal dialogue, and yet it keeps the tension levels high.
7. Captain America
I can't even begin to describe how glad I was that they chose to set this entire film in WWII instead of just using his WWII days as a prologue for movie set in modern times. Considering how hilariously bad previous attempts to make Captain America movies were it's good that this version managed to hit the mark. I was also impressed that they managed to come up with a reasonably plausible explanation for why a soldier would go behind enemy lines in a getup that is as far removed from camouflage as possible. Best of all, this movie makes me very optimistic about the upcoming Avengers movie, as they managed to work in references to Iron Man and Thor, and have them feel like they're part of the Captain America story.
Everything about this movie felt like director Joe Wright was going out of his way to break typecasting, and it sure worked. Wright is perhaps better known for his adaptations of period pieces like Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley, and the award winning Atonement. With Hanna, he delivers a kinetic action thriller that's a cult classic waiting to happen. The titular Hanna is a girl raised by her father, deep in the Scandinavian wilderness and trained for the sole purpose of assassinating a government agent. Her mission doesn't quite go as planned, and she finds herself on her own, trying to escape a rather flamboyant psychopath hired to kill her by the agent Hanna tried to kill herself. It's a heavily stylized movie with a soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. On occasion the stylized cinematics do start to feel less like you're watching a movie and more like you're watching a music video for a Chemical Brothers song, but for the most part it gives the film a unique look and feel among action movies.
Nickelodeon finally seems to have gotten its act together to make serious entries into the animated film genre. Most of their previous movies were just big screen adaptations of existing shows, like Rugrats or big screen pilots for upcoming shows like Jimmy Neutron. With Rango, Nickelodeon has finally delivered something highly original more than just a movie that you drop the kids off at. I suppose some aspects of a story about a chameleon having an identity crisis may fly over the heads of some kids, (and I would hope that the references to Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas fly over the heads of all kids,) but it's a well animated western with a great voice cast that includes Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy.
4. Source Code
Source Code was certainly a fresh take on the genre of time travel stories. Despite its far fetched plot, where a soldier relives the last 8 minutes of a terrorist victim's life in order to determine the identity of the terrorist, it almost felt plausible. What's even more impressive is that director Duncan Jones manages to create a strong romantic subplot between the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a woman on the train (Michelle Monaghan) despite their interactions together being based over the same 8 minutes.
3. The Adjustment Bureau
2011 seemed to be a good year for sci-fi, with intellectual sci-fi movies like Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau being released. Despite having a sci-fi plot device central to its story, The Adjustment Bureau has a very realistic drama at its core. It's a love story where a man (Matt Damon) has to decide if the sacrifices both he and the woman he loves (Emily Blunt) must make to be together are worth it. The sci-fi twist is that only he knows there's a team working behind the scenes who are working behind the scenes to make sure they stay apart. What I really liked about this film was that it wasn't a love story told over a weekend, where a man goes nuts over a woman he just met. Instead, it's a story told over several years, which allows the audience to really believe Damon's character is truly a man fighting to be with a woman he loves. The movie also takes a pretty serious look into the ideas of destiny versus free will, which usually just get the pop-philosophy treatment in most films.
2. X-Men: First Class
I had reservations about this firm when I first heard about it. Prequels are almost always a disaster. X-Men 3 and Wolverine: Origins were both massive disappointments. It seemed inevitable that First Class would be a disaster. Instead, it turned out to be the best one of the series. It's a mix of a prequel and a reboot, tying in elements from previous movies while abandoning other parts. First Class also touched upon some of the campier elements of its comic book origins without loosing the realistic feel of previous installments. It also produced some standout performances by up and coming actors, such as Jennifer Lawrence's potral of Mystique, or Caleb Jones as Banshee. This film also proved to be one of many breakout roles of 2011 for Michael Fassbender who proved to be a worthy successor to Ian McKellen for the role of Magneto.
1. Midnight in Paris
In other years I might not have picked this movie as my Best Picture, probably deferring to a film that was more epic in scope. However, I think this movie hit a personal chord. It's about a writer, played by Owen Wilson, who wishes he could have lived in the Golden Age of 1920's Paris. One night while wandering around Paris, that wish gets granted and he finds himself schmoozing with F. Scott Fitzgerald, having his work critiqued by Gertrude Stein and trying to steal away Pablo Picasso's mistress. As a fan of so many old-time things, I suppose it's only natural that I be a fan of a movie that's about nostalgia versus living in the present.
Writer/Director Woody Allen managed to pull together a great cast, especially when it came to the actors playing the celebrities of 1920's Paris. Tom Hiddleston's portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald actually drove me to re-read The Great Gatsby, a book that I didn't care for when it was assigned to me in high school, but I now see why it's a classic. However, everybody in the movie took a back seat to Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. I thought it was by far the best supporting actor performance I had seen all year, and was surprised that he was overlooked for the Oscar for the role.