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tops of 2011: the 25 best films

And it all ends, to borrow a tagline from one of my 25 favorite movies.  Here are the best of the best of 2011 in one person’s humble opinion.  Here I come 2012!

#1: Super 8
dir. J.J. Abrams

#2: Higher Ground
dir. Vera Farmiga

#3: Young Adult
dir. Jason Reitman

#4: The Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick

#5: Jane Eyre
dir. Cary Fukunaga

#6: The Help
dir. Tate Taylor

#7: Bridesmaids
dir. Paul Feig

#8: 50/50
dir. Jonathan Levine

#9: The Interrupters
dir. Steve James

#10: The Skin I Live In
dir. Pedro Almodovar

#11: Moneyball
dir. Bennett Miller

#12: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
dir. David Yates

#13: The Muppets
dir. James Bobin

#14: Rango
dir. Gore Verbinski

#15: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
dir. Tomas Alfredson

#16: Source Code
dir. Duncan Jones

#17: Hugo
dir. Martin Scorsese

#18: A Separation
dir. Asghar Farhadi

#19: The Artist
dir. Michel Hazanavicius

#20: Drive
dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

#21: War Horse
dir. Steven Spielberg

#22: Midnight in Paris
dir. Woody Allen

#23: Crazy Stupid Love
dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

#24: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
dir. Stephen Daldry

#25: Insidious
dir. James Wan

top 10s of 2011: best film leading actresses

Just two more categories to go in my countdown before I wave goodbye to 2011.  And in a traditionally competitive category, we have the 10 ladies that contended for a nomination and win for my awards this year…

#1: Charlize Theron, Young Adult – C’mon, people.  Whether your into comedy or drama, you have to admit that this performance was one for the ages.  I knew that Charlize could make a powerhouse gritty drama work, but I always hoped she’d utilize her comedic gifts more.  And clearly she’s got skills.  Her Mavis is a completely damaged person with nary a redeemable quality in sight.  She’s fascinating, darkly hysterical, and an incredibly written character.

#2: Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground – Again, I can’t say this enough.  If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you must.  It’s a surprisingly smart, preachy-less, respectful film about growth in religion and faith that just plain works.  And Farmiga’s confidence in the project is evident in her performance as Corinne, the doting wife and mother who’s finding herself a new position in her congregation.  Farmiga is typically astounding.

#3: Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur – As a big fan of her bit-part work as the goofy Doris in Hot Fuzz, I was not expecting this.  As the loving consignment store clerk Hannah who feels a connection with an angry violent type, Colman is so measured and so subtle.  There’s so much to love about her delicate performance, and she has to be one of the purest of heart of the characters this year.  Please let her do something like this again!

#4: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin – Let’s be real.  Swinton can do no wrong.  And Kevin is no exception.  Though the material is a bit touchy, Swinton has no trouble painting a complicated character with at times questionable and at other times sympathetic tendencies.  From scene to scene Tilda commands the material with incredible expertise, despite what you may think of the movie as a whole.

#5: Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre – The girl is going places.  After starting out with a big-budget blockbuster of questionable quality, she’s forayed that into several impressive little parts in wonderful movies (namely Kids Are All Right and this).  Sure, the Bronte story has been done before many times, but Wasikowska and her co-star are brilliant chemistry-wise, and Mia is nuanced and breathtaking in her own way.

#6: Viola Davis, The Help – Much has been made of her performance, the film itself, and her surprise loss at the Oscars, but one thing’s certain in my eyes.  On further viewings, Davis’s role as Aibileen, the downtrodden housekeeper with a rich past and story to tell, is performed beautifully.  One viewing might not register the intricate details the gifted actress instills in the character.  So watch it again, and throw the woman a bone, if you’re a naysayer.

#7: Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids – Though she’s gotten crap for her over-exposure and over-use on SNL (which in my mind is an “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” situation – she happens to be the show’s anchor, so why wouldn’t she be used frequently), no one can deny her big-screen coming out party had a lasting effect.  Annie is a strangely relatable and comedic gold type that is atypical of most ensemble comedies of this nature.  A groundbreaker that wasn’t expected.

#8: Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn – What seemed like it could be her big winning break with Oscar now that she’s become a frequent invitee, it didn’t quite pan out.  But let’s not forget that her take on Marilyn was somehow both spot-on and completely her own.  She didn’t impersonate tics and phrases; she fully impersonated the spirit of her character.  Not that we should be surprised after seeing her in Wendy and Lucy and Blue Valentine.

#9: Jodie Foster, Carnage – The movie didn’t gain much traction outside of a couple stray Globe nods, but it’s a pity more wasn’t made of this return to excellence from Jodie Foster.  Not since Contact, really, has Foster reminded us of why she was considered one of the best of her generation.  And stepping out of the box for the uptight control freak in Carnage, it’s a breathtaking reminder.  Doesn’t hurt that she’s best in show.

#10: Monia Chokri, Heartbeats – The French-Canadian indie romance provided a lot of entertainment, and no part more so than Chokri, whose quirky best friend was awkwardly funny and stylish and the perfect yin to Xavier Dolan’s yang.  Her doe-eyed stares and sneakily brilliant spoken and unspoken competition for the person of interest’s attentions is both actorly impressive and a great joy to watch.

top 10s of 2011: best film leading actors

As my annual best-of comes nearer and nearer to a close, I present to you the last of the male actors, the leading stars of the movies for 2011…

#1: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50 – This was a tough call, as the performances in this arena were so varied, but perhaps my most pleasant surprise, as well as my favorite leading actor performance of the year, was easily Gordon-Levitt.  As someone who felt Zooey stole the show in 500 Days, I was readily impressed with his ability to amuse and muster up considerable emotion as the cancer-ridden central character.

#2: Hunter McCracken, The Tree of Life – It was a close call.  The completely green young actor was so incredibly believable as the arguable central focus of this artsy epic, his performance rivaled his adult co-stars’.  Though it’s entirely possible we may never see him in anything else, McCracken was a quiet, subtle scene-stealer, and his starkly different relationships with both Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain made for a thoroughly auspicious debut.

#3: Ryan Gosling, Drive – I think all those out there in the blogosphere will agree that Drive was a stylistic and story-telling triumph.  But thanks to its uber-talented leading star, the quiet, disturbing role of The Driver, a stunt man with a brooding personality and a protective mentality with his young neighbor, Gosling excelled with nary a piece of dialogue in sight.

#4: Joel Courtney, Super 8 – Speaking of auspicious debuts in believable, lived-in performances, heading up a rather impressive cast of kids in the ’80s-traditional Super 8, I was just as surprised as anyone that the very green cast played so well with hardly any adult supervision on screen.  Courtney’s portrayal of Joe Lamb, the nerdy, monster-makeup-loving youngster who falls in with some alien trouble, is fantastic, and the product of some great natural instincts and direction.

#5: Anton Yelchin, Like Crazy – Rounding out my unusually young nominee slate in this category is Yelchin, whose heartbreaking take on the long-distance boyfriend with little hope for the future of his relationship, demands much of his abilities of expression, with little dialogue to throw around in many key scenes.  Don’t get me wrong – Felicity Jones was fantastic and clearly could be a bright new star – but Yelchin stole the show for me.

#6: Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre – People went gaga for Shame, and a few went for Dangerous Method, but in Fassbender’s mammoth year as the busiest man in movies, I was most impressed with his work as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre.  His incredibly chemistry with stellar Mia Wasikowska and his darkly mysterious aura kept me interested.  This one definitely demands some repeat viewings to appreciate fully.

#7: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – We’ve all seen Oldman go nuts with the scenery chewing – see Dracula or Air Force One for the proof – but who knew the endlessly entertaining actor could be so effective in the role of virtually silent George Smiley.  The cool effect of his glances and his even-tempered performance made him a formidable lead of a fantastically assembled cast.

#8: Jean Dujardin, The Artist – The eventual Oscar winner certainly wasn’t overrated.  As the star of the innovative Artist (okay, maybe that’s the wrong word, as it banked on the past, but still…) Dujardin remarkably made a lasting impression when the film itself could’ve easily been the star.  A charmer and an expressive performer, he made his George Valentin a future classic character.

#9: Brad Pitt, Moneyball – He’s certainly had an excellent year.  One that, I’d argue, is quickly becoming the pinnacle of his famed career.  Delivering two of his best performances within months of each other is something I don’t recall seeing since Nicole Kidman in 2001.  But thanks to Billy Beane, the charming, if sometimes demanding, manager of the central baseball team, Pitt was able to use his own natural talents to an effective extent.  It may feel like it’s just Pitt playing Pitt, but methinks that’s just a testament to how well he’s doing here.

#10: Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo – The movie didn’t receive any awards attention, had mediocre box office results, and reviews that were tepid at best.  And I certainly don’t understand it.  I found the film, and particularly Damon’s typically wonderful performing, a treat – a surprisingly potent combination of adorable funnies and truth-ringing familial drama.  Damon hasn’t seemed to miss a beat as he ages into a mature actor, and this is just another example of that.

top 10s of 2011: best film supporting actresses

The fun keeps coming – now that the supporting actors are out of the way, it’s time for the traditionally competitive supporting actress area.  There were some tough calls this year, but some female ensembles truly excelled…

#1: Jessica Chastain, The Help – What a debut.  Breaking out onto the scene in an incredible year, you’d think a newbie with such beauty and red-carpet glamor would be a throwaway pretty face, but instead she delivered one startlingly different performance after another.  And this one was my definite favorite.  As Celia Foote, she takes the “dumb blonde” routine beyond the silliness and creates a character with a lot of heart and surprising depth.

#2: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids – Easily one of the toughest calls of the year, McCarthy clearly was a favorite.  Ever since falling for her as Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls, I’ve wanted her to get some props.  And at the prime of life, Melissa is a comedic force beyond many of her more traditionally starworthy peers.  In Bridesmaids, McCarthy is clearly outrageous and hilarious, but she’s also surprisingly enough the most grounded lady of the bunch.

#3: Anjelica Huston, 50/50 – She’s got a pretty minimal role in the surprisingly heartfelt comedy, but she works her magic on each scene she’s present for.  As the overbearing but well-meaning mother of a cancer patient, Huston is so familiar and so typically great.  Though she’s got a regular TV role now, I’m thinking that she wasn’t really all that far off from an Oscar nod this year, so let’s hope she makes a return to the big-screen very soon.

#4: Octavia Spencer, The Help – She got all the accolades this year for her turn as the mouthy yet vulnerable southern gal Minny in The Help, and, though she didn’t make my top three spots, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the underused character actress take such a dominant role to task.  She plays so well with Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, making me hope for more return trips to big, talented female cast chemistry.

#5: Anna Kendrick, 50/50 – I had my doubts.  After Up in the Air gave us another young actress who pulled out a killer performance, it seemed like it’d be quite easy for Kendrick to fall into the “one and done” syndrome rampant in so many young actresses.  But thanks to 50/50, she’s proven that she’s a performer who makes smart decisions and has incredible wit when it comes to awkward comedy.

#6: Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life – So close, Jessica.  So close to that rare double nod.  But her co-star and the 50/50 women pushed her out.  Which is not to say that Chastain’s polar opposite, quiet delicacy take on the mother in the groundbreaking Tree of Life wasn’t fantastic.  She’s so gut-wrenching with so little to physically say, and her work with the young actors is totally believable.

#7: Vera Farmiga, Source Code – Surprised?  So was I.  Not only was the early-year release Source Code a strangely compelling and underrated flick, but it also boasted a performance that went above and beyond necessity in Vera Farmiga.  As a potentially flat plot-mover keeping Jake Gyllenhaal’s storyline going, Farmiga bucks the trend instills some great instinctual tics to what could’ve been a bland portrayal.

#8: Helen McCrory, Hugo – In a movie that excelled in the visual arena, it was unclear whether any particular performance would stand out above the beautiful noise.  And in a surprising turn, a British character actress outdid the bigger names to become the true heart of the days-gone-by central plotline.  McCrory is brilliant as the former leading lady and steps beyond the “wife by my side” prototype.

#9: Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help – I’ll be honest: Sometimes Bryce Dallas Howard makes me nervous.  Having been unearthed in a couple of M. Night Shyamalan’s most reviled movies, it’s easy to forget that she does actually have talent.  And amongst the many players in The Help, she doesn’t attempt to make her villainous Hilly likable or redeemable – which is strangely admirable.  She’s cold and cruel, and she’s pivotal to everyone’s arcs.

#10: Judy Greer, The Descendants – Talk about your small but impressive parts.  As a big fan of Greer since her days as the hysterical Kitty Sanchez, I’m so glad she managed to find a high-profile, surprisingly meaty role as the aloof wife of Clooney’s wife’s cheating partner.  Greer only has a couple of scenes to impress, but she milks them effectively.  She’s able to muster up what the rest of the cast has more than three times the screen time in which to do so.

top 10s of 2011: best film supporting actors

Let’s get the ball rolling on the film categories!  As the best of television has come to a close, there are only a few more categories to go before I focus my sights on 2012.  So I’m just going to relish in the end-of-year fun a bit longer, starting with the best supporting actors…

#1: Christopher Plummer, Beginners – Yep, I’m going to have to concur with the Academy on this one.  Plummer has been around the block, but never before quite like this.  As a dying father rediscovering himself in his 80s, the actor truly stretched himself to an endearing and revelatory result.  It’s always nice to see an Oscar win for a senior star that has nothing to do with a lifetime achievement and everything to do with the greatness of this particular role.

#2: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life – I will admit – this was a close one.  The typically weak Supporting Actor category was invigorated by two seeming career-best performances, and Pitt goes completely out of his element as an aggressive, dark-hearted ’50s poppa.  His interplay with his on-screen youngsters is inspired, and he’s hit his career stride in 2011.

#3: Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris – What a great embodiment.  Beyond just mere mimicry, Stoll has picked up on the sheer spirit of Hemingway, namely in that backseat scene with Owen Wilson.  He’s dry and wordy and incredibly funny.  He’s been around a while, but clearly this is his big breakthrough.  I’m excited to see what he does next.  Woody Allen has done him some favors, that’s for sure.  A standout in an stellar cast – no easy feat.

#4: John Hawkes, Higher Ground – For those few of you who actually saw this movie (shame, really) you might be wondering why I’ve chosen such a minimal role in my top 5.  It’s a role that easily could’ve been phoned in by any actor.  But Hawkes is so reluctant to let himself fall into that, and it’s made evident in his performance as a loving but often-anger-drive father.  And that scene late in the movie with Donna Murphy is pure facial expression brilliance.

#5: Laramie Eppler, The Tree of Life – First thing’s first – how is this kid not related to Brad Pitt?  The casting on this movie is out of this world.  Second, how great was this year for young male actors?  After last year’s wonderful octogenarian set (Duvall in Get Low, Guilbert in Please Give) we got the opposite in this year’s crop.  Eppler masters his limited dialogue with startlingly realistic responses, particularly with on-screen brother Hunter McCracken.

#6: Colin Firth, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – One of the great casts of 2011, Tinker offered up some great departures from many of its actors.  Firth abandoned his usual endearing self seen in Love Actually and King’s Speech in favor of this shady character who’s equal parts charm and smarm.  Like everything else in this film, it’s subtle to be sure, but Firth uses his vaguely shrouded character to great effect, particularly in the latter half of the movie.

#7: John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene – The stellar year for Hawkes continues with this total opposite character.  As the persuasive leader of a quietly evil commune, he’s charming and convincing, making his role within the cult all the more eerie and disturbing.  From his interactions with Elizabeth Olsen’s title character to his serenading in the barn, Hawkes is subdued, but uses his craggy looks and sinister smile to harrowing effect.

#8: Patton Oswalt, Young Adult – Sure, he relied on his real-life persona at times in this painfully funny movie, but his lonesome loser was so convincing and so endearing that by the time the film reaches its character climax, nothing about it seems strange.  Oswalt is a Jiminy Cricket to Theron’s Mavis, granted with a slightly rumpled suit.  Though he spews out funnies throughout the duration, his Matt is heartbreaking and meaningful.

#9: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – He’s starting to get his footing as, at the very least, a recognizable face stateside.  In his two major movie roles this year, the other being in War Horse, he shows incredible range and promise.  And having seen him in Stuart a Life Backwards last year, I can tell he’s a future talent for the Brits.  In Tinker, he plays very well with Oldman and makes his most powerful scene believable, beautiful, and a punch to the gut.

#10: Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Let’s throw Andy Serkis a bone.  His Gollum was iconic, his King Kong was humanizing, and now his Cesar is a little of both.  I was as shocked as the rest of you that this movie ended up being so excellent.  On its face it seemed like a bad idea.  But thanks to the lived-in performance as an ape reaching a new level of sentience, Serkis continues his stellar filmography.  It’s not as memorable as Gollum, but then again, it’s virtually dialogue-free.

top 10s of 2011: best television series

Getting back to my countdown of the best of last year, we’ll round out the television areas with the top prize – the 10 best series of 2011.  And believe me when I say, as someone who watches excessive amounts of TV, making this list is no easy feat:

2nd annual film bloggers’ choice awards: WINNERS

It just dawned on me that the Oscars had come and gone and the winners of the Bloggers’ Choice Awards were still mum.  Well here they are, ladies and gents!  How will last year’s eight wins for Black Swan and five wins for Best Picture winner The Social Network be followed up?

Best Picture
WINNER: The Tree of Life

Best Director
WINNER: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Lead Actress
WINNER: Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy

Best Lead Actor
WINNER: Tom Cullen, Weekend

Best Supporting Actress
WINNER: Jessica Chastain, The Help

Best Supporting Actor
WINNER: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Original Screenplay
WINNER: Midnight in Paris

Best Adapted Screenplay
WINNER: Moneyball

Best Art Direction

Best Cinematography
WINNER: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design
WINNER: Jane Eyre

Best Sound Editing

Best Sound Mixing

Best Visual Effects
WINNER: The Tree of Life

Best Animated Feature

Best Documentary Feature

Best Film Editing

Best Foreign Language Film
WINNER: A Separation

Best Original Score
WINNER: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Original Song
WINNER: “Life’s a Happy Song,” The Muppets

Best Makeup
WINNER: The Iron Lady

So the wealth was definitely more spread this year.  BP winner Tree of Life leads the win count with five, while nomination leader Drive picks up three.  Hope you enjoyed this year’s outing!