I guess I didn't realize it at the time but looking back, I noticed a large number of the films released in 2011 featured some pretty dark and serious subject matter. You would be hard pressed to find many that could be considered light, uplifting or pure escapism. There seemed to be a lack of fun, amusing films that would offer a relief from the realities of our sometimes tough and depressing times. Even many of the broad comedies released were bleak, such as "Horrible Bosses' which was about three friends plotting on how to kill their employers. Now, I certainly don't mind movies with darker stories but I think there should be other lighter options out there as people sometimes just want to get out and have a good, hearty laugh. I have a feeling this might have contributed to the disappointing box office last year.
Having said all that, there were still some strong, interesting films to be found that I really enjoyed. So, here is my list of favorite films released in 2011 (in no particular order) and while some might be considered unsettling but they were still well-worth seeing:
I'm not much of a sports fan and the trailer was pretty vague in depicting what the film was actually about, so I was really not in a mad rush to see "Moneyball". However, after seeing this sharp and highly entertaining film, I should have been waiting overnight to be the first to see it opening weekend.
It is the story of Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt, in one of his best film performances), a former Major League player now the GM of the Oakland A's as he tries to put together a winning team (on a very limited payroll) by using the unconventional approach of sabermetics, which is the use of baseball statistics in selecting the best players. Beane is met with a lot of resistance from the team's scouts but with the help of his new assistant manager (Jonah Hill), he sticks to his plan no matter what the cost. The real surprise is Hill, who is best known for his comedic slacker roles, delivers a really solid performance.
This classic tale of the rise of a new talent (Berenice Bejo) with the help of a Hollywood star (Jean Dujardin) on the decline and how their lives are linked through good and bad times but the difference is that not a word is heard in Michel Hazanavicius's delightful modern take of a film set in the silent era.
This film could be written off as a nostalgic gimmick but "The Artist" offers so much more. It takes us back to the basics of film making and is the perfect reminder of the wondrous power of the moving image.
Michael Shannon, in one of the year's best performances, plays a hard-working family man who begins to have nightmares and visions that he interprets to mean the possible end of the world. Is he simply losing his mind or could it be something else? Jeff Nichols wrote and directed this chilling drama that features 2011's most busiest actress, Jessica Chastain who co-stars as the wife who tries to remain supportive despite herself questioning her husband's sanity.
It has always been said that writers should write about what they know and that was certainly the case with writer/director Mike Mills with his second feature film, "Beginners". The film (which is actually loosely based on his own experience with his father) is about a son (Ewan McGregor) dealing with the recent loss of his father (Christopher Plummer) who had just came out as gay while trying to navigate a new relationship with a free-spirited, French actress (Melanie Laurent).
"Beginners" is a charming dramatic comedy that is filled with sad, sweet, funny and touching moments and it's the kind of film that is not made nearly often enough.
I admit I was a bit resistant to the idea of "The Help", the story based on the best-selling novel about a college educated young white woman (Emma Stone) who wants to write a tell-all book from the point of view of the African-American maids in 1960's Mississippi. I thought it would be just another Hollywood fable that would focus only on the heroic Caucasian trying to save the poor southern Blacks but the film is actually well-balanced and genuinely moving that left me a complete puddle by the end.
"The Help" deals with the issues of race in a refreshingly more honest way and uses humor to lighten the mood and make it all more palatable. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are both outstanding as the two maids who help with the book along with a impressive group of actresses that include Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Cicely Tyson, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain.
Ryan Gosling stars in this dark, intense thriller about a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as the getaway driver for thieves and winds up getting mixed up with a ruthless mobster (Albert Brooks) while trying to protect a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son.
Danish filmmaker, Nicolas Winding Refn takes classic American film noir while adding a slight European spin, combined with shocking violence as well as a surprisingly sinister performance by Mr. Brooks which has made "Drive" one of the most riveting films of the year.
"Bill Cunningham New York" & "We Were Here"
Two of my favorite documentaries of this past year could not be more different; "Bill Cunningham New York" follows the jovial New York Times photographer as he scours through the city in search of the latest fashion trends as well as documenting the parties of the rich and famous for his weekly column.
The more somber "We Were Here" focuses on the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber interview people who managed to stay alive and witnessed the devastation to the gay community first hand. It is a powerful and loving tribute to all of the lives lost to this insidious disease.
Two British gay men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) meet in a bar, go home together and assume that it will be nothing more than a one-night stand but discover that it could actually be something more. Writer/director Andrew Haigh has made a beautifully warm, honest and thoughtful romance that truly has universal appeal.
Michael Fassbender plays a successful New Yorker who has a dark secret; he is a compulsive sexual addict whose life is further complicated by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan) who is just as damaged as he is. "Shame" doesn't hold back as it graphically displays the sexual activity in this fascinating adult drama by co-writer/director, Steve McQueen that features powerhouse performances from both leads.
Although this 1847 British novel by Charlotte Bronte has been filmed numerous times over the years but this "Jane Eyre" by Cary Fukunaga is a beautifully rendered Gothic version with a perfect cast that features Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska as Jane.
"Crazy Stupid Love"
"Crazy Stupid Love" is about a mild-mannered husband (Steve Carell) whose marriage of many years has come apart due to his wife (Julianne Moore), feeling lonely, having an affair. He attempts to get back in to the dating game with the help of a young, smooth-taking player (Ryan Gosling) who gives him tips and a make-over.
This film by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who made a film last year which also made this list, "I Love You, Phillip Morris") plays like a classic screwball comedy filled with tender moments and raunchy humor.
"Pariah" & "Tomboy"
These two films deal with gender and sexual identity that are handled in a way that is enlightened, considerate and respectful.
"Pariah" is the exquisite first feature from writer/director Dee Rees based on her award-winning 2007 short film of the same name. Seventeen year old, Alike (in an astonishing breakthrough performance by Adepero Oduye) struts around the streets of Brooklyn dressed like a male thug but she is also soft-spoken and feminine. She is struggling to embrace her identity as a lesbian as well as trying to begin a romantic relationship. Alike has support from her openly gay friend (Pernell Walker) but at home, her God-fearing mother (Kim Wayans) refuses to accept her daughter for who she is.
Celine Sciamma wrote and directed her second film, "Tomboy", a French-language story about a ten year old girl who moves to a new neighborhood and is mistaken for a male. She decides to call herself "Mikael" and goes around pretending to be a little boy. This totally captivating film features an extraordinary performance by Zoe Heran.
"Tree Of Life" & "Melancholia"
Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" and "Tree of Life" by Terrence Malick were two of the most polarizing films released in many years due to their dark themes and idiosyncratic nature. While I thought there are moments in each that are simply breath-taking but there are also times that are frustratingly convoluted. These are not works that will appeal to everyone as they cannot be easily described or digested but they are certainly something to be admired and appreciated.
Honorable Mention: "Midnight In Paris", "Win Win", "Bridesmaids", "X-Men: First Class", "Sarah's Key", "Certified Copy". "Our Idiot Brother", "The Descendants", "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol".