The Best and Worst Films of 2011

Posted by Michael Parsons on January 18, 2012 in / No Comments


(This article was originally published on January 18, 2012 at The Rogers Revue)

It’s that dreary season between The Golden Globes and The Oscars when we commiserate about another crappy year of football, fight our annual urge to move south and pick at the remnants of last year’s cinematic bounty.

From Sundance standouts to an unnecessary double dose of Sandler’s comic sacrilege, 2011 was almost as frustrating as it was creatively fertile. After some anticipated franchise wrap-ups, redeeming sequels and disappointing remakes, and with some great films now in the purgatory pipeline between theatrical and DVD release, it seems that the well of On Demand offerings from 2011 has temporarily run dry. So, on the verge of playing rental roulette with “Shark Night” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It”, I regained my wits and decided that it was time to reflect on last year’s cinematic achievements, as well as its atrocities.

It’s a tricky business comparing apples and oranges, so I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite films followed by what I consider to be the ten biggest disappointments (including a few flat-out abuses of celluloid), neither in any particular order. For better and worse, enjoy.

The 10 BEST FILMS of 2011

The Debt – Extreme tension from director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”in this rattling, unusually sensitive spy thriller with compelling performances, most noteworthy from then newcomer Jessica Chastain as the younger incarnation of the central character played by Oscar Winner Helen Mirren.  READ REVIEW

Moneyball – A feel good yet relatively cliché-free true story from a solid screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”). Based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, the film centers around a financially impaired 2002 Oakland A’s team whose management throws conventional scouting methods to the wind in order to harness affordable talent. Equal parts interesting, touching and funny with a stellar lead by Brad Pitt as coach Billy Beane and standout (and Golden Globe nominated) performance by Jonah Hill as the prodigious analyst that he recruits. This is “The Natural” turned inside out, where baseball is really a by-product of what happens behind the scenes. Directed by Bennett Miller.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – As cerebral and intense as thrillers get, with Elizabeth Olsen delivering a dark, complex and conflicted character recovering from a traumatic experience with a cult. Quiet and unnerving in its realism with an incredibly creepy performance by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”). Oscar worthy on multiple levels. READ REVIEW 

Drive –  Violent and visceral, director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Valhalla Rising”)sets the stage for a familiar story with a tweaked progression, layered with an unusual style of action. An unpredictable performance by Ryan Gosling, playing his nameless character as both calculated and compassionate with a hint of instability. “Drive” has an unlikely and very effective supporting cast, including Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Carey Mulligan. The film alternates between long, haunting takes, retro-style lighting and soundtrack and intermittent graphic violence.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – A taut adaptation of the John le Carré classic, with Gary Oldman taking on an Oscar worthy lead role as MI6 agent George Smiley. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) helms an unflinching adaptation of the book. This one requires some patience; it’s difficult to follow for the first half but pays off in the end.READ REVIEW 

The Help –  Set in early 1960′s Jackson, Mississippi, “The Help” centers around a group of African-American maids who share their struggles with a young aspiring author named Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone). At first reluctant, the women chronicle their experiences with the wealthy white families that employ them. Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes for her role as Minny Jackson, a character whose interaction and subsequent friendship with untarnished, uninfluenced white community cast-out  Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain of “The Debt”) has the most gripping dynamic. It adds a balancing chemistry and compassion to the otherwise antagonistic country club stereotypes depicted in the film and the aggressive racism common during the Civil Rights era. With intervals of  humor to temper its often anger-eliciting subject matter, “The Help” alternates between tear-jerker, feel-good story, and sobering drama. Viola Davis plays the other focus character, Aibileen Clark, employed by the central antagonist, the outwardly racist Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). Tate Taylor writes and directs, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

The Descendants – George Clooney plays a clueless dad in crisis, balancing comedy and tragedy with a breakout performance by Shailene Woodley. Alexander Payne’s first film since “Sideways”. Golden Globe Winner for Best Picture and Best Actor (George Clooney). READ REVIEW

Contagion – This is Steven Soderbergh doing what he does best: the multi-character story, this time exploring the realism of a global health catastrophe. With an Oscar-heavy cast including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, “Contagion” has an entrancing score, cringe-inducing close-ups, and is likely to give your average germaphobe a coronary.  READ REVIEW

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Impressive all around, director Brad Bird parlays his prowess with animated features into the best popcorn action film of the year. Solid performances from Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton. If you have an aversion to Tom Cruise, put it on hold and get to an Imax; the cinematography is something to behold.READ REVIEW

War Horse – An epic adaptation of the acclaimed play, “War Horse” is a multi-character tale about an English farm horse’s journey through World War I France. Steven Spielberg is the master of rendering the realism of war, though the real connection is in a boy’s relationship with the horse, who is the only constant throughout the story. The film’s battle sequences resemble the grittiness of “Saving Private Ryan” if captured with creative, less blatant angles to satisfy the MPAA’s PG-13 requirements. At its core, we find Spielberg revisiting the tenderness of “E.T”. and the beauty of Ballard’s “The Black Stallion”.

My noteworthy surprise films of 2011 are “Limitless”, “Attack the Block”(read review) and “Fast Five”. An honorable mention goes to “Warrior”, which undoubtedly would have made my top ten had I seen the film prior to writing this. It’s a surprisingly emotional piece, one of the best of the year.

 The 10 WORST FILMS of 2011: 

The Hangover Part 2 – The darker side of its predecessor and an inferior ripoff of itself, a most disappointing choice by director Todd Phillips. A frustrating reminder that we’d rather be watching the original. READ REVIEW

The Change-Up – Though by contemporary standards not as bad as it could’ve been (see the final two entries on this list), Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman still couldn’t save this lazy and annoyingly unoriginal comedy. It’s too bad “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin already used his mulligan on “Fred Claus”.

Green Lantern – As a huge fan of Ryan Reynolds’ snide humor, it saddens me to put his name on this list twice. A nonsensical, disjointed mess, “Green Lantern” is more like “The Mask” meets “Masters of the Universe” than a DC Comics adaptation. Everything is amorphous and green, like the script, perhaps making it difficult for a talented director like Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) to read. Arguably as bad as 1997′s “Batman and Robin”, ironically funnier than “The Change-Up”

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – A fitting title for the least scary film of the year, with dull characters making bad decisions to avoid comical monsters.READ REVIEW

My Week With Marilyn – A safely executed, unsexy account of Marilyn Monroe’s first visit to England. Regardless, it seems this film is going to garner a few Oscar nods. But despite noteworthy performances by Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench, the content feels almost devoid of realism or relatable emotion. The Hollywood Foreign Press would disagree with me, as Michelle Williams garnered a Golden Globe for the lead role. READ REVIEW

The Sitter – More of the same unwitty banter, a film that attempts to ‘outclever’ itself in a ridiculous story with only a few laughs. This brand of comedy seems to be driving itself into the ground. Typical of this new wave, “The Sitter” is all but devoid of likable characters, a scenario that could have been funny if handled properly. Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases. Good thing Jonah Hill was exceptional in “Moneyball”. READ REVIEW

Killer Elite – Director Gary McKendry has potential, but a wasted effort here with sloppy, sometimes cartoonish performances, choppy editing and poorly choreographed action sequences. READ REVIEW

Real Steel – What begins as an interesting popcorn flick about fighting robots turns laughably corny, with only a few redeeming points for the special FX. Many critics noted that the film “knows what it is”… unfortunately that doesn’t change anything. Not even for Hugh Jackman.READ REVIEW

Just Go With It – Adam Sandler films continue to besmirch the already fragile integrity of the American comedy. I didn’t see “Jack & Jill”, but only imagine that could be worse. I guess as long as Sandler and director Denis Dugan continue to vacation together, we’ll continue to see these films. Let’s pray we don’t see a ‘Grown Ups 2′.

Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son – Come on. As I’ve already addressed the Adam Sandler phenomenon, I have no energy left to comment on Martin Lawrence. Though it’s certainly no surprise, it is easily one of the worst of the year.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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