Although I am proud to be a voting member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I have a conceptual issue with the notion of “Best” film, actor, etc. Art is way too subjective to be making objective distinctions. For me, it is simply impossible call one film or a performance “better” than another. Who, for instance, is to say that Mozart wrote “better” music than Chopin, or that Gauguin was a “better” painter than Van Gogh?
For these reasons (as well as the incredible personal politics surrounding nominations), I feel much more comfortable using the phrase “favorite film.”
Another criteria for this list is a simple question that I ask myself: Do I feel better about being human after having seen the movie? This personal qualifier is certainly not a part of the Academy voting rules, but it is an essential one for me.
While I respect others who praise the “craft” of slickly produced and directed films that illustrate how violent, cruel and/or awful we can be as human beings, I personally do not want to feel assaulted or depressed by a dramatic film. I acknowledge all the fear, cruelty and negativity in the world and need only read a newspaper or watch the news or any one of several documentaries to see that side of our humanity. For me to enjoy and recommend a narrative film, however, I want it to show that, despite all the challenges and frailties we have as human beings, we can also be a generous, compassionate species that consciously loves, forgives and embraces the wonder and magic of life itself.
Here are my favorite, life-affirming films of 2011:
1. Terrence Malick’s mind-blowingly original and poignant The Tree of Life is so majestically and subjectively emotional that seeing it feels more like a deeply personal and spiritual experience than the mere viewing of a film. One gets the sense that each one of us in the theater embarks on our own internal journey during the film, and, as such, we experience the images on the screen in a completely individual manner.
The plot of the film? Life, death, spirituality, nature, evolution, God, parenthood, childhood and everything in between. Truly, the film has no historical antecedent in its imagery or storytelling and thus simply defies traditional description.
Brad Pitt’s performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button firmly established him as brilliant actor. Now, in The Tree of Life, Mr. Pitt has elevated his craft to a new league of brilliance as he gives one of the most nuanced, evocative and haunting portrayals of a father in recent memory.
All that being said, I completely understand why the film has garnered such polarizing responses. As powerful and uplifting as the film was for me, it is most definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, because of its dazzling originality, deep spirituality and sheer artistry, I would not be at all surprised to see The Tree of Life take on Citizen Kane-like status in the decades to come.
2. The Descendants. Writer/director Alexander Payne made Sideways, one of my all time favorite movies, and he hits another character-based home run here as well.
George Clooney (who is absolutely pitch-perfect) plays a man whose wife is in a coma after having been critically injured in a speedboat accident. Utterly bewildered as he is called upon to care for his two daughters in a way he had never imagined before, he also finds out that his wife had been cheating on him and had planned to divorce him. How he and his daughters deal with those wildly conflicting emotions is the heart and soul of the film.
Set in Hawaii, the film is a beautiful, utterly engrossing and ultimately triumphant family drama that is filled with love, compassion and hope that ultimately illustrates how, as John Lennon once said, “life is what happens while we’re making other plans.”
3. Hugo was a huge surprise to me. I thought it was going to be a kid’s adventure film which, in many ways, it indeed is. What I didn’t know is what a magnificent and enthralling tribute the film is to both The Old Hollywood and also to movies themselves.
The story of the film surrounds an orphan boy in Paris who searches for a key that will unlock the mystery of a humanoid device that was left behind by his father. As the boy (played wonderfully by young Asa Butterfield) searches for just the right parts to bring the device back to life, he encounters a bitter old man who is at first a nemesis and then transforms into a friend. The man (Ben Kingsley) turns out to be legendary filmmaker George Milies, who actually was one of the first silent movie pioneers (From The Earth to The Moon).
Director Martin Scorsese departs his usual genre here (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed). He is so passionate about movies themselves that the film is joyfully infused with that love.
4. Like Hugo, The Artist is a brilliant, innovative salute to The Old Hollywood which is, needless to say, a subject matter very close to my heart.
The Artist is also one of the bravest movies of the year, in that it dares to be a black-and-white, silent film. An actor (played with incredible flair and depth by Jean Dujardin) named George Valentin is a silent film star with a glamorous, movie star life when he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young woman working as an extra on one of his films. He befriends her and helps launch her career just at the time talking movies are replacing silent films. Unable to make the transition to “talkies,” his career plummets just as Peppy’s takes off. Always grateful to George for jump-starting her career, and obviously deeply in love with him, Peppy tries to help George, but his stubborn pride causes his life to careen out of control.
I’m not giving anything away here by saying all’s well that ends well, because every review and ad for the film makes it clear that you will leave the film happy. And indeed you will. The Artist is a delightful love story between a man and a woman, between we as an audience and the magic of movies themselves, and, oh yes, between a man and his dog. Can’t beat that!
5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a heartfelt, poignant film about childhood loss, adventure and triumph.
The film focuses on the son of a man (played by Tom Hanks) who was killed in the twin towers on 9/11, a very challenging subject matter for film makers. The brilliant, under-appreciated Reign Over Me was ignored a few years ago because it dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. Both that film and Extremely Loud deserve a better fate. Aware of audience resistance to a film about 9/11, the ads for Extremely Loud start off by saying that the film is not actually about 9/11. The film mostly takes place a year later as the ten-year-old boy searches for a key (literal and figurative) that connects him to his father.
Under the incredibly sensitive and human direction of Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliott), child actor Thomas Horn is brilliant, compelling and relatable as we join him on his search for healing and understanding.
Extremely Loud is another film (like Hugo) in which a young boy is looking for a connection to his deceased father. The fact that my own father died when I was four years old is not lost on me and is another illustration of why I think we need to do away with the whole idea of “best” when it comes to film. We all resonate to films from our own personal experiences, so why pretend that we can be — or should be — “objective”? To be objective, we have to disconnect from our own hearts, and why should any of us have to — or want to — do that? Isn’t there enough of that in the world already?
Writer/director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown) makes movies with compassion and empathy for real human beings who take on life challenges that ultimately open their hearts. Mr. Crowe’s humanity literally flows through the screen and into our hearts.
The always-wonderful Matt Damon plays a widowed father of two young kids (yes, much like The Descendants) who decides to completely change their lives by buying a new home that also includes a working but dilapidated animal park. Through the experience of putting the animal park back in working shape (aided by a wonderfully understated and naturalistic Scarlett Johansson), Mr. Damon and his children transform their lives. As an audience, we leave uplifted and happy in the knowledge that we humans can be pretty wonderful creatures, too.
7. Win Win is a poignant reminder of the crushing financial stresses and moral dilemmas those pressures present to so many of us today. How far would we go, how much would we blur — or even erase — the line between our own integrity and our commitment to support our family? What happens when those lines intersect is the essence of the drama of Win Win.
Paul Giamatti, one of my absolute favorite actors, stars in the film and brings to it his trademark everyman wit, intelligence, decency and humanity. His portrait of a man who compromises his own integrity is so real and so compelling that it takes on the aura of a common moral and societal predicament in this age of economic upheaval. Although it unfortunately may not be remembered by others at Oscar time, Win Win was a welcome oasis in spring 2011 for those of us looking for movies with character, wit, heart and drama.
8. Woody Allen’s wonderful, whimsical Midnight in Paris is an inspiring film about a man who yearns to live a simpler life in a different time, and, through time travel, manages to experience just that. At its core, though, the film is about being genuine and true to ourselves. All around us today, we see people’s facades disintegrating because the face they show to the world is not a genuine reflection of their inner being. Owen Wilson’s character in the film has become so disenchanted with his own life that he literally can no longer live in his old persona. What a wonderful message to all of us. Be real. Be ourselves. Trust. Love. Listen to our hearts.
An adult film about adult themes that was actually released in the summer, the film also includes a surprising homage to Somewhere in Time which, of course, delighted me as well.
9. Everything Must Go is a fascinating, dramatic and deeply moving character study of a man (played by the brilliant Will Ferrell) who has literally thrown his entire life away because of his addiction to alcohol. In the first five minutes of the film, we see him fired from his job because of it. When he goes home, his wife has left him, locked him out of their home and strewn all his belongings on the front lawn. In despair, he starts drinking again after six months of sobriety. Oh, just in case you’re wondering, the movie is incredibly life-affirming, warm, poignant and mesmerizing. Everything Must Go is an absorbing film that has much to say about how resilient we human beings can truly be.
In a wonderful, nuanced performance that was little-noted and already all but forgotten, Will Ferrell is utterly brilliant, infusing his portrayal with a deep sense of humility, humanity and heartbreaking honesty. It is just so unfortunate that great comic actors are so often completely ignored come Oscar time when they venture into drama, even when they give phenomenal performances. Mr. Ferrel is a great example here, as was Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me.
10. Dolphin Tale is an enchanting, inspirational film that is based on the true story of Winter, a dolphin that was washed ashore in Florida after becoming tangled in a fishing cage. Winter’s tail was so badly damaged that it eventually had to be amputated, leaving the dolphin little chance for survival. As a result, however, of the loving care of the Clearland, Florida Marine Aquarium and two wonderful young children, Winter learned to swim without its tail. Soon, though, the structural stress on Winter’s spine created a new life-threatening challenge, from which emerged a prosthetic tail (designed and built by a Veteran’s Hospital doctor) with a special gel to keep it in place. That same gel is now used on humans as well.
The film (which happily was a huge commercial success as well) is beautifully directed by veteran actor Charles Martin Smith (remember the good guy government agent in Starman?) and is much more than just heartwarming and uplifting. Winter’s Florida aquarium home has become a haven for children from around the world who also have prosthetic devices. Winter (who plays herself in the film, of course!) obviously relishes her role as she lovingly nuzzles and plays with children who are missing arms and legs and who see in Winter a loving and kindred spirit.
During the final credits, we get to see some of those real-life encounters. Talk about feeling better about being human! A dolphin named Winter gives us some great lessons here in life and love. For decades to come, young children and their parents (and anyone else with a pulse!) will be inspired and comforted by Winter and this film. Learn more about Winter and watch her 24/7 webcam broadcast.
A last quick note here about all the dazzling young actors on display in 2011. Young Messrs. Horn (Extremely Loud) and Asa Butterfield (Hugo) are wonderful discoveries, as are the young actors in The Tree of Life, The Descendants, We Bought a Zoo, Win Win, Everything Must Go and Dolphin Tale. In fact, the only two films on my list without at least one standout performance from some very, very young actors were The Artist and Midnight in Paris, which had no roles for young actors. It was indeed a great year for the next generation of actors.
Want more great movie recommendations? Check out Stephen Simon’s favorite movies of 2010.