11 January 2012

Alan Waldman : My 10 Favorite Films of 2011

Octavia Spencer in The Help.

The Help is powerful, complex:
My 10 favorite films of 2011

By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / January 11, 2012

As was the case last year, some of the films I was most anticipating (The King's Speech then, The Descendants now) hadn’t played in my hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, by the time I was compiling my list, so they will be eligible for next year’s list.

In addition to those 2011 films listed below (in order of preference) my wife Sharon and I also really enjoyed these slightly older films that we saw via Netflix: the 2007 French film Farewell, the 1998 Australian film 15 Amore and the 2007 American film Honeydripper; we strongly recommend all of them to you.

Years ago my list of favorite films numbered as many as 30, but it has gotten shorter as more stupid films are made for teenagers and fewer good, smart films for adults make it to U.S. screens. And this year, as for each of the past dozen or so, we have seen many more excellent TV series (including foreign ones, via Netflix) than we have feature films, because TV writers are given more creative freedom and are constrained much less by studio executives who are trying to replicate what worked previously with audiences.

(Most of the listed films are currently available on DVD and Netflix.)
  1. THE HELP, justifiably nominated for more than 60 awards -- many of them for stunning newcomer Jessica Chastain -- is a powerful, complex, wonderfully detailed period drama about middle-class racism in the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were outstanding and also have numerous award nominations for their performances as maids who reveal their mistreatment by their white employers to a young book writer. This film is extremely moving, but it also has humor, drama, surprise, and lots of fascinating characters. This topic has been covered many times before, but this film brought a fresh take to it that makes it especially satisfying.

  2. THE KING’S SPEECH was nominated for 12 Oscars last year, winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor (Colin Firth). It should also have won for best supporting actor (Geoffrey Rush), who took the top two British acting awards for it. Fully 95% of the 215 critics polled at rottentomatoes.com gave it thumbs up. It wonderfully dramatizes the true story of England’s King George VI, who went to an eccentric speech therapist in order to overcome a terrible stutter and be able to powerfully address his nation on the radio at the brink of World War II. Outstanding and not to be missed.

  3. THE GUARD is a hilarious Irish film, brilliantly written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (whose brother Martin McDonagh wrote and helmed the great 2008 film In Bruges). In both films, the dialogue is unexpected, fresh, intelligent and very, very funny. The Guard stars Irish treasure Brendan Gleeson as a rural Western Ireland cop who is partnered with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle -- terrific as usual) in pursuing international drug dealers. This comedy thriller is satisfying on many levels and is constantly surprising. It was a hit with 95% of critics and has been nominated for 18 awards in six countries so far. (I recommend watching the DVD with the English subtitles, because the jokes come fast and are sometimes a little difficult to catch in the Irish accent.)

  4. TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is a terrific, smart, gripping remake of the classic John Le Carré novel and miniseries about the Cold War search for a mole near the top of Britain’s MI-6 spy agency. Gary Oldman, one of Britain’s finest actors, leads a strong cast, including Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, and Mark Strong. The script is wonderfully twisty and suspenseful, and everything about the production is first-class.

  5. P0TICHE (TROPHY WIFE) is an excellent French comedy starring Catherine Deneuve as the woman who is forced to replace her tyrannical umbrella factory owner husband when the workers strike and take him hostage. Gérard Depardieu, France’s greatest actor for the past 37 years, is superb, as always. This is a zestful production with a witty script and fine performances.

  6. Michael Nyqvist stars in As It Is in Heaven.

  7. AS IT IS IN HEAVEN is a charming, Oscar-nominated Swedish film about a symphony conductor, well played by Michael Nyqvist (co-star of the Girl With the Dragon Tatoo trilogy and villain of the latest Mission Impossible) who retires to his small hometown in northern Sweden and is lured into listening to his church choir and giving them suggestions. Great characters; great fun.

  8. THE CONCERT is a highly enjoyable Russian/French film about a Bolshoi Orchestra conductor who was fired years before for using Jewish musicians, but who now intercepts an invitation to perform in Paris and who puts his old orchestra back together. This film is full of quirky characters, great music and charming surprises.

  9. HUGO is another monumental film from America’s greatest filmmaker, Martin Scorsese. In 3-D or the 2-D version, it is visually stunning, emotionally stirring, and very well played by a diverse cast including Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Emily Mortimer. It tells the story of an orphan who secretly winds the clocks at a Paris railroad station and who meets an eccentric toy shop owner who turns out to be the legendary French filmmaker Georges Méliés. Among the many, many delights in this masterwork are the recreations of Melies’s pioneering movies. Hugo was loved by 94% of critics.

  10. THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a sharp, suspenseful, beautifully realized treatment of an outstanding Michael Connelly novel. Matthew McConaughey is very good as a lawyer who works out of his car and who seeks to defend a realtor (Ryan Phillipe) who is accused of rape, but who may not be innocent.

  11. BRIDESMAIDS is one of the funniest movies of the year, starring and wonderfully co-scripted by SNL’s Kristin Wiig. A Canadian critic called it “touching and funny and a little bit sickening -- just like a real wedding." Contains some outrageous comedy bits.
We saw and loved lots of top TV series (mostly British) via Netflix, including episodes of Poirot, Law & Order: UK, Identity, The Robinsons, Reggie Perrin, Kavanagh QC, Murder Investigation Team, Gavin & Stacey, Inspector Lynley, Midsomer Murders, Murderland, Damages, Justified, Leverage, Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, New Street Law, MI-5, Boomtown, Life, Nurse Jackie, Luther, The Hour, The Pillars of the Earth, and The Tudors.

[Houston native Alan Waldman is a former editor at Honolulu Magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.]

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