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The Best Movies of 2011

January 9, 2012

By John C.

Some critics have said that 2011 wasn’t an overly great year for movies.  But if this is true, then why were there so many that had an undeniable impact on me?  Last week I shared my picks for the worst movies of 2011, and now it’s time for the ten best movies of last year.  Some might see no physical connection between the more artistic and popular films on my list, but I can assure you that this is a genuine representation of the many different emotions that I felt at the movies this year.  These were the films that left me thinking about them for days and weeks after I left the theatre, and ultimately had an undeniable impact on my own life.  Every one of these films proved to be unforgettable in its own way.

Please note that these are only films that were actually released in Toronto over the past year.  I saw a couple of great ones at Hot Docs and TIFF that I could have included, but I’m holding off because they won’t be officially released until later this year.  So watch for the great Jeff, Who Lives at Home and the powerful documentary Bully to appear somewhere on next year’s countdown.  I saw a lot of movies in 2011, so narrowing it down was an exhausting experience.  First up are my picks for the ten best films of last year, and below that I have included twenty honourable mentions.  At a certain point in time, any one of these ten films could have been my number one, so please note my choice to profile them in alphabetical order.  Enjoy!

50/50:  As I left the theatre after seeing 50/50 for the first time, I found it impossible to remember a single moment that didn’t work in this raunchy comedy about cancer that profoundly moves us with scenes of heartbreaking drama.  Will Reiser’s semi-autobiographical screenplay is one of the best of the year, and the leading performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick are excellent.   Whether it was the laughs found amidst the heartache or the tears that weren’t far behind throughout every scene, 50/50 is a film that masterfully handles every emotion without ever hitting a false or manipulative note.  It’s truly unfortunate that more people didn’t see the film in theatres, but I think it’s about time that we call it a masterpiece.

The Artist:  The story of a silent film star becoming painfully aware of his fading place in the world of the talkies, The Artist is a piece of moving, inspirational and ultimately unforgettable entertainment that deserves every award starting to come its way.  The experience of watching a black and white silent film in this day and age is nothing short of mesmerizing.  Jean Dujardin allows pathos and believability to shine through his perfect smile and slick mustache, delivering one of the best performances of the year.  The music by Ludovic Bource that effortlessly carries both the dramatic and upbeat moments in the story is nothing short of brilliant.  Put simply, The Artist is a great movie and one of the most unforgettable theatre experiences of the year.

The Descendants:  The seamless blend of heartache and humour that is on display in The Descendants is handled so well by director Alexander Payne, that every second of the film feels undeniably real.  Both brutally honest and brilliantly observational, this is a great adaptation of the equally excellent source novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, that never once loses its tight grip on the fully realized characters.  George Clooney delivers one of his best performances to date, and Shailene Woodley is his match, as the young actress seamlessly walks the fine line between teenager and adult.  This a moving and beautifully acted film, that believably deals with issues of grief and loss without ever once veering into melodrama.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:  Many will disagree with my inclusion of Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on my top ten list, but for me this adaptation of the great novel by Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most moving films of the year.  Newcomer Thomas Horn is brilliant as a boy trying to find the lock that fits a key left behind when his father was tragically killed in 9/11.  Does the key unlock one last message from his father?  This isn’t really the point of the story, which beautifully shows us how one boy can bring together hundreds of different people in New York.  I don’t know how mainstream audiences are going to react, but Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a deeply moving film that means a lot to me on the purest emotional and personal levels.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2:  The epic Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a stunning finale to one of the greatest film franchises of all time.  In adapting the second half of the final book by J.K. Rowling, director David Yates has crafted a film that thrills us with darkly beautiful action sequences and has a beating heart beneath all of the tension.  The way that the final few scenes are able to wash over the audience is deeply moving and ultimately unforgettable, making this a breathtaking masterpiece that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll.  Forever in print and immortalized on film, Harry Potter will live forever as a defining classic of our generation.

The Help:  Based on the popular novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is a moving film and one of the five book adaptations on my list.  Telling a powerful story that is undeniably humbling and even inspirational, the film is beautifully carried by the sublime performances of a great ensemble cast.  Every actress here deserves recognition, particularly the leading performance of Viola Davis and the supporting work of Jessica Chastain.  Davis provides some of the most heartbreakingly powerful scenes and Chastain is sincere and unforgettable without ever sidestepping into cliché.  From the opening scene right through to Mary J. Blige’s deeply effecting song “The Living Proof” over the end credits, The Help is a beautiful film every step of the way.

Hugo:  When I first read Brian Selznick’s magnificent novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret several years ago, I immediately knew that the stunning mixture of text and pictures would be in good hands with master filmmaker Martin Scorsese.  From beginning to end, Hugo is a movie that reminds us why we fell in love with movies in the first place.  Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of visual effects pioneer Georges Méliès is simply brilliant, and the way that Scorsese allows the history of cinema to wash over us throughout several beautifully done montages is unforgettable.  From the story to the mesmerizing visuals, Hugo is a magical film that uses modern technology to make a strong case for the undeniable importance of old movies.

The Muppets:  As a long time fan, I can safely say that The Muppets is the best comeback that we could have hoped for from Jim Henson’s beloved characters.  I’ve seen the film twice in theatres and both times have felt the same emotions while watching it.  Filled with great humour and excellent musical numbers, this is a joyous celebration of how the world should be.  Jason Segel and Amy Adams are the perfrect human match to the lovable Muppets, but what really strikes me about the film is the amount of genuine heart on display throughout every scene.  In the words of the joyous song that bookends the film, “everything is perfect, it’s falling into place, I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face.”  And that’s exactly why The Muppets gets a spot on my top ten list.

Super 8:  My time spent watching Super 8 on a beautiful summer morning in June remains one of my favourite movie experiences of the year.  With every image of J.J. Abrams’ film lovingly steeped in youthful nostalgia and paying tribute to executive producer Steven Spielberg, this is a thrilling and emotionally resonant old school blockbuster that instantly feels like a modern classic.  From the brilliant cinematography to the beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, this is a film that rockets us right back to the excellent kids adventures of the 1980’s.  Even after a second viewing, Super 8 still represents many things for me, but most importantly it succeeds above and beyond the call of duty when it comes time to deliver a piece of smart and exhilarating blockbuster entertainment.

The Tree of Life:  When I wrote about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life back in June, the article sparked a passionate and always interesting debate amongst commenters.  Some were deeply moved by the film and others felt very differently, and the article remains what I personally believe to be one of my best of the year.  The Tree of Life is a singular achievement that plays as a visual symphony of breathtaking images onto which the audience is able to project their own feelings, emotions and memories.  Watching it is a visually breathtaking and spiritual experience, that manages to evoke feelings in an audience that often would be lost in translation.  This is a deeply moving film that inspires and even haunts us as it connects everyone through the common unity of existence.

Honourable Mentions – Last but certainly not least are twenty films from last year that I highly recommended, even if they did just miss my top ten list.  Some might have wondered why no animated films made my list this year, but my seven personal favourites are included right here.  As I enjoyed a lot of the very diverse movies that 2011 had to offer, there will always be others that didn’t get their due.  But here’s a selected mix of twenty excellent films that ultimately deserve a special category all their own:

The Adventures of TintinArthur Christmas, Attack the BlockCars 2, Drive, Kung Fu Panda 2, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Our Idiot Brother, Rango, Rio, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Take ShelterTerriThor, Warrior, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, Young Adult.

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