Best Movies of 2011

Movie criticism is a subjective art, to be sure. In choosing the movies I consider the best of the year, I looked for not only excellence, but a little something that moved me and made me glad I’d come to the theater.

Number 10: Super 8

This J.J. Abrams homage to childhood and moviemaking is only partly about an alien invasion. It captures the wonder of creativity, adventure, and an innocent budding first love.




Number 9: Attack the Block

Turns out, all that a group of developing British thugs need to turn them into men is an alien invasion in their tenement. Nobody attacks the block. Nobody.

Well acted and wonderfully written, this film has a delightfully ambiguous ending that plays very differently for urban and suburban audiences.

*Note: Totally different aliens than in “Super 8.” Totally.




Number 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Just because it was a blockbuster doesn’t mean this movie isn’t excellent. It was a fitting and epic end to an epic series. The effects, the acting, and the heart made this my favorite Potter movie and one of the few all year in which I cried.

So long, Master Potter!





Number 7: Drive

Ryan Gosling showed his acting range with this taciturn, reserved, but powerful character who finds a woman worth loving, but also finds that protecting her means potentially losing her. With stylish (but extremely violent) acting, this movie is just fantastic.





Number 6: The Help

A wonderful ensemble cast of women portrayed a difficult time in our nation’s history. I loved how they showed the interconnectedness of white and black women in the South. I also loved how they showed good people could still be good within the confines of the unjust system, that ultimately love is always more powerful than hate, even when hate is integral and entrenched in the system. Plus, it’s funny. Read my review and interview with the director.





Number 5: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Not only does this movie have astonishing motion capture acting by Andy Serkis, but it asks the deeper questions of life: What does it mean to be human or humanlike? What is justice? How does one fight injustice? It was simply fantastic.





Number 4: The Iron Lady

The more I watch this movie, the more I like it. Meryl Streep is astonishing, fearlessly playing not only Margaret Thatcher, but an elderly, confused woman. I also love the heart of the film, how Thatcher never changes who she is, even as she becomes confused about the details around her.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: We could use a Margaret Thatcher right about now.



Number 3: Win Win

This story hits home and is beautifully done. It’s a tale of a lawyer and part-time wrestling coach who thinks he’s a good guy, but finds himself in a moral morass. The easy way seemed, well, win-win. But even tiny moral compromises are never tiny. Paul Giamatti is amazing, as is Amy Ryan as his wife and Alex Shaffer as an abandoned but strong teen.





Number 2: Warrior

Who expected a movie centered on the world of Ultimate Fighting to become an almost Shakespearean family drama? And yet, here it is. Two brothers chasing the same UFC purse, a terrible father and recovering alcoholic trying to atone for something for which there is no atonement. A family fighting, literally, its way back together. Nick Nolte, as the father, deserves an Oscar for his role. Absolutely breathtaking.




The best movie of the year: The Tree of Life

The Tree of LifeTerrence Malick has created something more than a movie with The Tree of Life. It’s a prayer, a song, a work of sacred art. It has reframed my faith in a significant way. It makes an argument for God shining down on everything, even the hard times, in a way that it’s never been made before. Find a quiet, patient place in your heart and watch it. More on my thoughts about it here.

DVD Release: Super 8

The Gist: Five boys and a girl are in the middle of filming a horror movie when a real train wreck breaks out. When the dust settles, they find the spectacular wreck was not an accident, their biology teacher is more than just a teacher, and the train has a mysterious cargo.

Bottom Line: Director J.J. Abrams creates this coming of age adventure movie as a homage to great Spielberg movies. It feels like E.T., and that’s a good thing. There’s something delightful about a group of kids having an adventure. Read our original review.

Be Aware: Rated PG-13, some of the effects and suspense will be frightening for younger children. No sexuality, however one child character swears like, well, a Hollywood producer. It’s charming in his character, but he uses pretty much all the words.

Verdict: Watch it. This is one of the most delightful films of 2011. If you can stand your children hearing cuss words, watch it with them.

Super 8: Nostalgia and Fun

Do you remember? Do you remember standing in line to watch “ET: The Extra Terrestrial” and seeing the boy on his bike float over the moon? Apparently, director J.J. Abrams remembers because it’s exactly the kind of feeling he infuses into his new homage to late childhood, adventure movies, and Steven Spielberg in his new movie “Super 8.” Similar in tone, but not plot, to “ET” and “Goonies,” this film works on multiple levels and gets them all right, making it the best movie so far of 2011.

We meet Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) on the worst day of his young life. As he teeters on the verge of adolescence, his life has been upended by the death of his mother in an industrial accident. His father (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff, is left with a vulnerable boy he can’t quite understand. The small Midwestern town of Lillian, circa 1979, rallies around as they can.

As the months go by, Joe finds distraction in a project spearheaded by his best friend. Charles (Riley Griffiths) has a Super 8 camera, something modern and cool for 1979. He lives, breathes, and sleeps the zombie movie he wants to film and submit to a local competition. Joe makes models, which gives him skills at makeup, so he becomes the effects guy. Charles also recruits to his cast the nerd Preston (Zach Mills), the future jock Martin (Gabriel Basso), and the firebug with an unhealthy obsession with fireworks Cary (Ryan Lee). With all the ego of a future Hollywood player, he invites Alice (Elle Fanning) to join the troupe, partly because she’s pretty and he needs a wife character and partly because he has a crush on her.

That’s how it comes to be that the five boys and one girl are filming their amateur horror flick in the middle of the night on a deserted rural train depot. As they shout their lines over the noise of a passing train, they suddenly find themselves at the very center of a bigger, truer story. The train crashes, sending flaming rail cars and flying shards of metal all around them. When the dust settles, they find the spectacular wreck was not an accident, their biology teacher is more than just a teacher, and the train has a mysterious cargo.

The town of Lillian awakens to find itself at the center of an Air Force occupation made all the more puzzling by the disappearance of most of their appliances and some of their population. Something sinister lurks in the shadows, something the Air Force wants, something not from this world. The children, with their footage of the mysterious crash, are the only ones with the information to figure out the puzzle.

There’s something delightful and old fashioned about a film centered on children having an adventure. The link with “Goonies” and “ET” begins there, and also with the fact that Spielberg is a producer. But nostalgia also comes from the late ‘70s setting. From the Pacers in the parking lot to the cords on the phone, Abrams gets the era right. He throws in a few wry observations on how the world has changed: The magic and danger of having your music in your ears via the new-fangled Walkman player; the impossibility of developing film in 24 hours. Heck, even the concept of needing to develop film is foreign to the new generation. This adds a level of fun to the movie for adults and some wonder for children.

Another level Abrams adds to the movie is a subtext of a meditation on the very craft of storytelling. The movie within a movie gives Charles, his budding director, a chance to fuss about camera angels and keeping batteries in the camera. Sprinkled in his pontifications, however, is an instinctive knowledge of what makes movies great: The story and characters the audience cares about.

Abrams follows his young self’s formula well. While the production values are top notch – the train wreck scene is particularly well done – he builds excellent characters. Some background characters, like Charles’ father, only get a line or two, but they are enough to reveal everything you need to know about the gruff but compassionate man. The kids themselves exude authenticity and likeability.

One way the movie makes the kids likeable is by not sexualizing them. There is a romance, but it’s a very young teen romance. Joe spends much of his time looking at Alice in a sort of stupefied awe as she reveals more and more of her talents and personality to him. He can’t quite figure her out but he wants to be around her. He doesn’t necessarily want to kiss her, as would be in some movies where kids are too aware, but he is drawn to her. As the kids say, he “likes” her. It would be funny if it weren’t so tender. Scratch that. It’s both.

Rated PG-13, the film has no sexual content. It does have a kid who swears frequently. It’s cute and part of his personality and not central to the movie, but he does use pretty much all the words. One older character uses pot, but it ends up being a bad thing for him. The scenes with the Thing That Goes Roar in The Night will be scary for younger kids, especially a few good jumpy thrills the movie throws at the audience.

The best part, though, is the feeling the movie creates, part awe, part tenderness. It completely captivates. “Super 8” may be an homage, but it stands on its own as the best movie yet of 2011.