Top 10 Films of 2011 - Elisabeth Rappe Edition

You might remember how utterly nervous I was last year to post my top ten.  Well, consider the nerves doubled this year, purely because I felt enormous gaps in my viewing. There were a number of buzzed about films that I simply didn't get to, or didn't get to me (I do live on the high plains, after all) in time to see them.  (Hugo, Warrior, and Young Adult are three that spring to mind out of many.)   That's the hard part about this time of year ... there's just too many good movies.

And to be bitterly honest, there's a lot of "big" films I saw that didn't deeply resonate with me.   One of the best examples might be Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- a film I can appreciate on a technical level, but couldn't get behind emotionally or intellectually. I found a lot of films just left me cold this year, and as always with relationships one embarks on, you're left wondering if it's you or them.

So, when you approach this list, please do so with the understanding that it's my favorite films of the year, not necessarily anything approaching the best films.   These were just the ones that stuck out to me, and I find myself revisiting -- or eager to revisit -- again and again.

10.    Limitless

I've referenced this flick (and its star) way too many times over the past year, and I apologize.  But I liked it a lot. (I fully admit this may have been due to the circumstances under which I saw it. It's rare for me to just pick a random movie and see it, and not watch it for work or keeping up with the cinematic Jonses.)  It's not earth shattering, it boasts its share of plot holes, and there are times it could go a lot further and darker than it does.   But Limitless reminded me a lot of the slick potboilers we had so many of in the 1980s and 1990s, and had some fun visual tricks up its sleeve. I really hope it signals a return to the cheap-but-engaging stories of old.  And yes, Bradley Cooper's eyes were probably the prettiest thing onscreen that wasn't filmed by Terrence Malick.

9. Beginners

This film contains everything I hate – a quirky artist, an idiosyncratic actress, their adorable and offbeat romance, and a lot of goofy asides that called attention to themselves.  But it did it so well, and with such a great dose of heart and humanity by Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Goran Visnjic and a dog named Arthur that I found myself utterly charmed by it.    It has its flaws – Plummer's new life as a gay man is far more compelling than anything with the lonely actress – but I can't scold it too hard.  Also, isn't it nice to see Visnjic again?

8. Bridesmaids

Seeing as I picked Going the Distance last year, I think it's fitting I give a shout-out to another romantic comedy that I found funny and striking in its bitter realism.  Unlike the rest of the world, I didn't enjoy Bridesmaids because of Melissa McCarthy or the food poisoning scene,  I liked it because it was painfully real.  I can't remember another film from the last ten years that captures the lonely reality of being single amid a stream of married (and marrying) friends, or of being the person in a particular social circle who seems to be hitting every rung on the way down.  There's a lot of moments in this film that resonated with me, so much so that I barely got through a second viewing.  (Jon Hamm's "lap nap" joke? Been there. Oh, man.)

7. The Descendants

The Descendants is another film that I wanted to hate based purely on its premise. I loathe weepy family dramas.  But The Descendants has humor and anger in the right place, and that exhausted dry-eyed feeling of having to cope with too much at once.  George Clooney proves he can do rumpled and dorky, and it's the first film I can think of that had teenage girls who recognizable as real teenage girls, who can be likeable one minute, and absolutely beastly the next.

6. Captain America:  The First Avenger

This is another film I've rattled on about here, but in a summer where every blockbuster seemed riddled with disappointment, Captain America was the rare film I actually walked out of smiling and wanting to see again.   It's full of retro charm, romance, and the icy thrill of war adventures like Where Eagles Dare. (Like Westerns, war movies used to use global conflict as an afterthought rather than a Very Serious Subject.)  Any comic book that manages to reference Indiana Jones and A Matter of Life and Death while being entertaining and staying true to pulp origins gets my vote.

5. War Horse

War Horse was not the film I thought it would be.   It's syrupy and childish where I was hoping it would be epic and delicate, and it acts like you won't notice a leap of improbable missing time.  But it's old-fashioned sensibility is something to admire (it feels like a Lassie installment or Wonderful World of Disney product), its cinematography is stunning, and Joey encourages tears with turn of his noble, gentle head.  It was a powerful reminder of all the afternoons I spent with Marguerite Henry books, and for that alone, I have to salute it.

4.    Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom

I wasn't a fan of the first Kung Fu Panda.  It was cute, but I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm that everyone around me had for it, and so I shrugged off the sequel.   I'm sorry I waited for DVD.  It's sweet, heartbreaking, adorable (I firmly believe baby Po was the cutest thing put onscreen this year), action packed, well-voiced (Gary Oldman!) and beautifully animated.  Its cliffhanger makes it the one DreamWorks movie I actually want a sequel to.

3.  The Tree of Life

I've struggled with whether or not to put this as number one.  I've knocked it down a peg because I fully agree with the criticisms lobbed at it (long, ambitious, a weak story) and yet it was one of the most astonishing things I saw this year.  The connection between dinosaurs and a 1950s family is tenuous at best (and tenuous seems generous) but I hate to knock a film for striving for the stars, particularly when it filmed them so beautifully.

2.    Melancholia

I've juggled Tree of Life and Melancholia in the top spots, and very nearly did a one-two punch that ranked them equally. But that's dorky.   I'm not a big fan of Lars von Trier (I'm genuinely afraid of much of his oeuvre) and yet I rushed into this one eager for the punishment. And it wasn't punishing.   Instead, Melancholia is a bombastic, darkly funny, deeply depressing and gorgeous trip down apocalyptic lane.  I suspect it resonated with me so strongly because it echoed my 2011 mood, and there's a grim part of me that shares Dunst's cool acceptance of the world burning. I find the last image comforting and horrific.  When planets collide, don't you want to be holding hands with someone?

1.   The Artist

I want to end this list on a high note (it nearly ended on Melancholia), so here we are. The Artist is currently occupying a rather reviled spot in the year end discussion, and I get why. As with The Tree of Life, I fully understand (and even agree with) the criticism of the film – it is slight, it is little more than an extended homage, it is cinema gazing upon itself...but that didn't stop me from enjoying it.  It's glamorous and it left me smiling, which is something I sorely needed. It also has introduced the wider world to the debonair talent that is Jean Dujardin, and if he ends up having a massive global career, I will forever be grateful to its mugging.   Plus, there's a lot of bits with a dog.



Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Muppets

The Ides of March

X-Men: First Class

The Muppets

Rango (purely for one scene and one scene only -- and that's The Spirit of the West sequence)