2011 wasn't really a superb year for heart-stopping movies. We were entertained, made to cry and laugh, but we weren't shaken until dizzy from a dazzling array of cinema like we were in the last several years. C- seems to be the most common grade of the year, but we did have some jewels that stood out. Maybe some of your favorites made it here, or maybe they didn't. But good, bad, or indifferent, they break down like so...
#15) 30 Minutes or Less (B+)
A pizza delivery guy is kidnapped by two thugs and made to rob a bank or be blown up. It's not just the story in this old-school tribute to "buddy" comedies that is so darn tasty, but its uniquely picked cast and fine performances that feature great writing and bursting character development.
Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari give us more than a good time in a movie that knows how to serve up a great time.
#14) Horrible Bosses (B+)
Three friends get together and decide to kill their horrible bosses. Anyone who has ever had a job can relate to the frustration, which is why they should see this film as it offers a fiercely well-acted ensemble of super stars in its cast.
Cameo appearances include Ron White as “Detective Samson” (White’s appearance as a detective in any movie is more nearly a laugh by itself) and Jamie Foxx whose portrayal of “MF Jones” is not only funny, but perhaps the best performance in the film.
#13) The Debt (B+)
This film about three Mossad agents seeking to capture a Nazi wartime doctor in a mission teetering on failure is a suspense-driven ride of excitement.
With an impassioned cast and performances strong enough to be memorable -- with a series of big and small twists that further intensify viewing -- The Debt makes us feel what it means to be human and heroic.
#12) Melancholia (B+)
As the most grim and depressing (and certainly unique) psychological thriller of the year, Melancholia is about a large planet in line to swallow up the earth--this in the more immediate context of family drama in a marriage.
Sounds weird, no? Well, it is, but it features some of the best performances all year with Kirsten Dunst as lead. It just about qualifies as a horror film and should be considered a must-see for anyone who can dig the very drawn-out despair of a planet facing extinction. This movie is all sorts of awesome!
#11) Paul (A-)
It looks like a completely crappy movie about an alien named Paul that crash-lands on earth in 1947, but this is the stuff of good parody. Everything – from E.T. to bible-thumping fundamentalists, along with the unsurpassable geekdom of sci-fi nerds and crazy UFOlogists – are given a thoroughly humorous lashing.
Indeed, this goes beyond parody with carefulness and keen direction that its subject matter hardly deserves.
#10) Limitless (A-)
Limitless is about a struggling writer who takes a pill and becomes super-super smart (like, make-Stephen-Hawking-look-really-really-dumb smart). Soon, others want it and they come after him.
Limitless, with the talents of Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, is one hell of a good time that gives audience members a high of its own.
#9) Kung Fu Panda II (A-)
It may not be as original as the first movie, but Kung Fu Panda II has much of the same magic with loads of humor and Jack Black.
I was worried when I heard this movie was coming out. The chance of messing up such a sublimely animated and awesomely lovable action-adventure – stockpiled with loads and loads of USA-relevant comedy – was too great to risk. Then I saw the second movie and my fears were soothingly put to rest.
#8) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (A-)
This film, which is based on a Swedish novel series by Stieg Larsson, is about a young hacker who is a ward of the state and a rape victim, but who is picked up by a security firm to investigate a political magazine editor. An intense murder-mystery developments.
Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, and Christopher Plummer star in one of the darkest, most insinuating movies of the year.
#7) Source Code (A-)
A train bombing in one dimension is being investigated by a top secret military sect to prevent a similar thing from happening in another in efforts to stop a series of ongoing terrorist attacks. Yes, it's a complex mystery-thriller, but one where unraveling it is an intended part of what becomes frustratingly fun!
This. Is. One. Hell. of. a. Film!
#6) Our Idiot Brother (A+)
Masterfully directed and screechingly funny, Our Idiot Brother is about a screwy hippie uncle who always ends up messing up the lives of his mother and sibblings.
The film possesses the rare quality of having dry, intelligent humor in a story with enough gravity to make it meaningful, and even irresistible. It’s one of the best films of the year and one that doesn’t have to rely on star power or even character charm for its success, but rather, a story fashioned with class, possessing all of the right combination of winning elements.
#5) Jane Eyre (A+)
Brought to life by poet and author Charlotte Brontë, this Gothic novel-made-movie is more than a strong social commentary and feminist statement on women and a social critique of the misogynism of its time (1820s); in this, its present form (which happens to be one in a long line of remakes of the 19th century work), Jane Eyre is a stellar film with brilliant performances.
It feels like Anne of Green Gables in fence-straddling horror/romance settings. Mia Wasikowska (as Jane), was a perfect choice for the role, as a mousy 18-year-old and plain-but-pretty girl who puts her education to use by taking to a governess-ship after a bleak and bitter childhood. Her performance is second to none in a movie that absolutely refuses to stay in the confines of what we'd expect from a romance.
#4) Hugo (A+)
It's pressing humor may not be welcomed by everyone, but damned if Martin Scorsese doesn't press boundaries. In his film Hugo, Scorsese again brings along his bag of talents in giving us a truly enchanting tale.
Hugo is nearly unstoppable as it goes after the imaginations of every kid – and with an innocence rarely equaled in film today – but there are no subclasses of viewers here. Everyone stands to have a heart-to-heart with a movie that will affect adults in the same eye-watering way it affects kids.
#3) The Descendants (A+)
A Hawaiian land baron/attorney (George Clooney) tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife is involved in a serious boating accident. Faced with the decision as trustee of signing away the land of his heritage, the deteriorating condition of his wife makes this all the more difficult the more he learns of what happened prior to the accident.
There is no question that this is one of Clooney's very best performances in a film that can be funny when it wants to be before reverting to its main status as a powerfully tear-jerking drama. The grace with which the immediate and remote families are shown to interact is more than impressive, as is the ease by which the film can manipulate the viewer's emotions.
#2) Bridesmaids (A+)
Nearly flawless as a romance and ingenious as a comedy, Bridesmaids can take everything from bathroom humor to girly-girl "cat fights" and cram them into the same movie to the delight of everyone in the audience.
This film hits the sweet spot on so, so many levels as one of the best romance movies that also happens to open its doors as a happening chick-flick and all-round comedy.
#1) A Separation (A+)
The best film of 2011 is not even an American film. It comes to us from Iran and is about a man and a wife trying to get a divorce because the father wants to stay in Iran and care for his aging father while his wife wants to take their daughter away to be raised elsewhere for a better life.
The subtitles may not always be spelled out correctly, and as fast as they appear on screen, are hard to read for the first 1/3 of the film, but that is about as far as criticisms go. It is a must-see, a once-a-year, stand-alone presentation that comes along and makes you ask: “How long has it been since I’ve seen a movie this good?”