Top Ten Movies of 2011!

10) “50/50”

I’ve been a fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s since I saw “Brick,” an incredible film that I usually describe to people as “the best film noir set in a high school I’ve ever seen, starring that kid from ‘3rd Rock From The Sun.'”
I’m down for anything Gordon-Levitt sets his mind to, and “50/50” rewarded my blind loyalty.
It’s the story of Adam Lerner (Gordon-Levitt), a 27 year old journalist who discovers he has a rare form of cancer and must undergo chemotherapy. Upon hearing this news he is abandoned by his girlfriend and left to seek solace in his best friend Kyle (a perfectly cast Seth Rogen). Kyle does his best to keep his friend from sinking too deeply into depression, often with funny/sad results. For instance, Kyle convinces Adam that he “could totally use the cancer thing to get laid,” playing the sympathy card with girls they meet in bars. The fact that it actually seems to work made me laugh so hard I was choking on my popcorn.
The story is based upon screenwriter Will Reiser’s own experiences in dealing with cancer at a young age, and Rogen just so happened to be one of the friends who tried to help him deal with it. Needless to say, the film is a excellent mix of comedy and drama. The fact that it was completely overlooked by the Oscars is a shame, really.

9) “Win Win”

I love Paul Giamatti. He’s one of those rare actors who I will blindly follow into the depths of hell and back. Well, maybe that’s a wee bit dramatic, but you get the idea. He’s always fantastic and usually picks interesting projects to be a part of. Whether it’s playing President John Adams in an HBO miniseries or playing Miles Raymond, a heartbroken writer with a passion for fine wine in “Sideways” (one of my favorite movies of all time, I might add), Giamatti brings an earnestness and gravitas to everything he does. I love him for it.
“Win Win” is no exception. It’s the story of a small town lawyer Mike Flaherty (played by Giamatti) who just so happens to coach youth wrestling. When the opportunity presents itself to Flaherty to make some money on the side as a guardian for his client’s troubled teenage son Kyle (played by a terrific Alex Shaffer) he jumps on the opportunity. After all, the court offers to pay a stipend of $1,500 a month, money that he desperately needs to keeps his law firm afloat. It turns out the teenager who he is appointed is one hell of a wrestler, and Flaherty convinces him to join his school’s struggling wrestling team. The kid does and leads the team to victory.
One thing that draws me to this film is the fact that it doesn’t apologize for Flaherty’s unethical behavior at all, and the scene where Kyle discovers the reason behind Flaherty’s fatherly care is heartbreaking. A wonderful film.

8) “Take Shelter”

Michael Shannon is one creepy and intense dude. In this film he does what he does best, embodies a level of intensity and focus that many attempt but few master. Shannon is one of the lucky few who seems to have built a career on being “the creepy neighbor” type. Luckily for film nerds such as myself Shannan gets a chance to really show us what he’s made of as the always supporting character actor gets a chance to take center stage.
The result is a fascinating look at what first appears to be mental illness, but as the movie progresses, turns out to be merely a foreshadowing of things to come. One of the most daring movies of the year, without a doubt.

7) “Attack The Block”

One of the most unique science-fiction films I have ever seen, this side of “District 9!”
It’s the story of a gang of London youths whose city block is invaded by aliens. Add one of the hippest soundtracks of the year and Nick Frost as a pot dealer and you’ve got yourself a classic sci-fi comedy, my friends! The fact that it’s director Joe Cornish’s debut film makes me excited to see what the British mastermind has in store for us next!

6) “Midnight in Paris”

If you’ve ever talked to me for more than five minutes you will know that I am a huge Woody Allen fan. My favorite Woody Allen movie? “Manhattan,” which takes some people by surprise (“Annie Hall” is the usual answer most Allen fans give).
Woody Allen has been on a hot streak these last few years, with a plethora of well received thrillers (my personal favorite being “Cassandra’s Dream”) and comedies, each one reminding us of what a diverse director Allen can be.
“Midnight in Paris” is no exception. I would argue that “Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s most sentimental film since “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” I always liked Allen’s sentimental side. I’m a bit of a sentimentalist myself.
The film centers around Gil Pender (played with gusto by Owen Wilson), a successful but unhappy Hollywood screenwriter who travels to Paris with his beautiful bride-to-be Inez (played by my future wife Rachel McAdams). While the two are there Pender is struggling to find inspiration to finish his first novel, which is set in an antique shop. His bemused wife dismisses his melancholy as “romantic nonsense,” leaving Pender to go on long walks late at night looking for inspiration. While on one of these walks Pender comes across an antique car filled with people dressed in 1920s garb, who urge Pender to join them “for a fantastic party.” Pender joins them and is whisked away to 20s Paris, a time where Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald rub shoulders at dinner parties, and a splendid time is had by all. Needless to say, Pender becomes entranced with 1920s Paris and is no longer happy to be in the present, but longs for midnight when he can join his “true friends” in the past.
It’s a charming tale told by a master storyteller. It also became Woody Allen’s biggest hit to date, surprising even Allen himself. I can honestly say that when I went to the theater I was one of the youngest people in attendance. I’m strangely proud of myself for that. Most of the people there that day probably saw “Annie Hall” when it was in theaters and have been watching his movies ever since. I’m a little jealous of them for that, actually.

5) “Beginners”

Christopher Plummer has a few tricks up his sleeve after all, it seems. In Mike Mills autobiographical tale of a stately gentleman Hal (played by Plummer, naturally) who, after the death of his wife of over 40 years, comes out of the closet as a gay man to his 30 something son, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor), then is promptly diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Sounds depressing, right? Wrong! It’s actually one of the sweetest films of the year, I felt. The joy you feel watching Hal embrace his true self during the last few years of his life brought a smile to my face as I watched it unfold on my TV in the comfort of my own apartment. It was the kind of film that makes you happy to be alive, and grateful for every day that you have. In short, it was the kind of film that my mother would love for “making her feel good about herself” after it was over. That reminds me, I need to recommend this movie to her…

4) “The Descendents”

Let me get this out there: I used to hate George Clooney. You know, maybe “hate” isn’t a strong enough of a word. I used to loathe George Clooney with every fiber of my being! Why, you may ask? “Have you ever seen ‘Batman and Robin'”? would be the answer to that. Arguably the worst Batman film ever made, it soiled the franchise, until Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale came along years later and dusted it off and turned it into a thing of beauty.
But I digress. George Clooney. I used to hate him, now I love him and everything he does. What changed my mind? Five words: “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He redeemed himself in my eyes with that movie.
Clooney’s been on a bit of a hot streak in 2011. Besides starring in “The Descendents” he also co-wrote and co-starred in another excellent political drama: “The Ides of March.” Again, another fine example of his prowess as a director.
As an actor George Clooney digs deep in “The Descendents.” His character, Matt King, is an absentee father of two girls whose family owns a large portion of land in Hawaii. The film centers around King learning that his wife, who is now in a coma, had been cheating on him. As King, Clooney displays a humanity and vulnerability that I have never seen before, especially from one as confident as Clooney usually appears to be on screen. A beautiful family drama. I was very impressed.

3) “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”

The darkest movie of 2011 also happened to be one of my favorite movie experiences of the year. I went to the theaters alone that night. It was a cold and rainy Oregon evening and the film had just come out 3 days prior. It didn’t even occur to me to invite anyone to see it with me, this was a movie that I wanted to really sink my teeth into, so to speak. I went to the coffee shop in the theater and ordered the tallest cup of black coffee they had, then went into the movie theater and proudly took a seat in the second row. The coffee was a good idea, not because the movie was boring, far from that. The movie took place in Sweden in the dead of winter, so for some reason I found it to be very comforting to sip coffee while watching Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara freeze while they investigated a murder.
But enough about me, let’s talk about the film for a minute or two, shall we? It’s directed by the always intriguing David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”). One of the reasons I like Fincher’s work is that he seems to be as obsessed with film noir and crime stories as I am.
The movie centers around Mikael Blomkvist (played with steely-eyed intensity by Daniel Craig), a journalist who has been hired by Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer!) to investigate the murder of Vanger’s grandniece, Harriet, that happened 40 years ago. To do this Blomvist enlists the aid of Lisbeth Salander (played with unnerving intensity by the fantastic newcomer Rooney Mara WHO SHOULD HAVE WON AN OSCAR FOR THIS BUT DIDN’T BECAUSE THE UNIVERSE IS UNFAIR! Also, she was up against Meryl Streep, whose work I enjoy but feel that the Academy should have shown respect to the BEST ROLE OF 2011!). Whew! Long rant there. Sorry about that, I just needed to get that off my chest. I’m fresh off the Oscars and it’s on my mind, what can I say?
Anyway, without giving too much away, Blomvist and Salander team up with great success and I cried like a baby at the end, partly because of how sad I found the ending to be, and party because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to THE BEST CHARACTER OF 2011!!! Sigh… Stupid Academy.

2) “Drive”

Confession time: I have a bit of a man-crush on Ryan Gosling and I don’t care who knows. And guess what? I blame this movie for it! Yeah, that’s right! I said it. I’m a little gay for Gosling. Why, you might wonder? Well, he’s one of the best actors of his generation, for one. Also, he’s pretty easy on the eyes. Just sayin’.
Another thing I love about Gosling is that he doesn’t seem to find a need to star in “big summer blockbuster” type movies. He only picks movies that speak to him and are unique in some beautiful way. If you need convincing of this go see “Lars And The Real Girl” and tell me I’m wrong.
“Drive” was one of the most startling and unique films of the year. Part film noir. Part heist film. Part art house fare. All parts awesome!
It was one of the most beautifully violent movies of the year (and I saw “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” twice!) and I loved every minute of it. It felt like it could have been made in the 1970s with Steve McQueen, and I mean that as very high praise. The film feels both modern and classic at the same time. It’s strangely timeless and beautifully shot.
The film centers around a Hollywood stunt performer (an unnamed character simply called “the driver” played by my man-crush Gosling), who just so happens to offer his unique services as a getaway driver (no questions asked) to whomever will pay his price. Add Carey Mulligan as a lonely single mother whose father of her child is in prison, Bryan Cranston as the man who hires Gosling to work in his garage and arranges all “the drivers” other work, and the fantastic Albert Brooks as a mobster and you’ve got yourself one hell of a picture! I walked out of the theater in a daze after I saw it, speechless by what I had witnessed.

1) “Moneyball”

Director Bennett Miller turned a book about baseball and math into the most compelling movie of the year. Bravo! Well done! Though, I must admit, I’m a bit of a baseball nut (Go Giants!), so I was on board with the movie before I even stepped into the theater.
The movie centers around Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his assistant GM Peter Brand (a surprisingly compelling Jonah Hill) and his revolutionary tactic of embracing Bill James’s theory that baseball players can be given a mathematical value. In short, using math Beane and Brand attempt to find players who the rest of the league overlooks for one reason or another and assemble a winning team on a modest budget. Long story short: It works and the A’s become the first team in the history of baseball to win 20 games in a row!
The beauty of this film is that it manages to humanize all the players and make you really care about the fact that players are people who are traded from one team to the next at the drop of a hat. Players are treated like goods, as managers buy and sell and trade players to each other on one whim or another. I never really thought that much about how being traded to a team on the opposite side of the country might actually affect the player’s lives until this movie came along. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but this movie made me realize just how unsure the life of a professional athlete could be at times. It was fascinating.
The script, written by Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steven Zaillian, is based on a book by Richard Lewis, captures the “human element” of baseball in a way that I’ve never seen before.
As GM Billy Beane, Brad Pitt is exceptional. After getting used to reading about him in the gossip columns I almost forgot what a great actor he is! Wow. Never again. Pitt finds the character of Beane fascinating and you can see it on screen. It’s great to watch long shots of Beane sitting in the empty stands after the games, frustrated and thinking about his life and all that he hoped to accomplish. You don’t get to see that much with major movie stars, it seems. Pitt finds Beane’s humanity in the details, and it’s wonderful to watch! Equally impressive is Jonah Hill as assistant GM Peter Brand, the young upstart who convinces Beane to adapt the “moneyball model” to the A’s in the first place.
“Moneyball” hits all the right highs and lows that a modern masterpiece should. You laugh, you cry. You leave the movie feeling like you learned something about America’s pastime and you learn a little something about yourself as well. Is there anything better than that?