Rod Lott's picks
With even fewer great movies in 2011 than 2010, I was unsure whether I’d be able to find enough to fill the standard 10 slots. (Oddly, Tom Cruise to the rescue!) I’m also unsure what it says about me that I know general audiences would not be able to handle four of these films, starting with the top three.
1. “Drive” — Three months later, the adrenaline rush I received from this new crime classic has yet to subside. It’s simply that electric. I highly recommend Ryan Gosling’s channeling of Steve McQueen cool ... provided you can stomach the elevator pancake scene.
2. “I Saw the Devil” — Not since 1995’s “Seven” has the serial-killer thriller been rendered so skillfully. Coming in at nearly two and a half hours, the South Korean epic is, like its subject, cold and calculated.
3. “Shame” — While I can’t say I relate to Michael Fassbender’s fascinating portrayal of a sex addict, I can say I was floored by it. Not easy to forget, “Shame” gets under your skin and stays there. It hasn’t played Oklahoma City, and with its NC-17 rating, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
4. “Bridesmaids” — Comedy is hard, but Kristen Wiig and company make it look effortless. After three viewings, it’s still hilarious and deserving of at least four Oscar nominations it won’t get.
5. “Hanna” — Block-rockin’ beats meet James Bond, but in the body of a 16-year-old girl. Its propulsive storytelling à la “Run Lola Run” deserves more eyeballs.
6. “Dream Home” — Not to be confused with the Daniel Craig bomb “Dream House,” this Hong Kong export that never made it here addresses the country’s housing problem ($3,200 per square foot!) with a mean satirical streak and acts of startling violence. If you’re a wuss for spillage, don’t even try.
7. “Insidious” — One of the few horror films that truly qualifies as horror, “Insidious” may be the most effective haunted-house effort since 1982’s “Poltergeist.” Full of tangible menace, even its daytime scenes, it works like a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine — all the more remarkable given its low budget.
8. “Tabloid” — In a year of so many terrific documentaries (“Page One” and “Beats Rhymes & Life,” to name just two), this examination of a late-’70s cause célèbre involving a beauty queen accused of kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
9. “In a Better World” — Not for nothing did this Danish drama take home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in March. It’s a shame so many people won’t read subtitles, because this story hits home, despite taking place on the globe’s other half.
10. “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” — Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Forget Tom Cruise’s offscreen high jinks and give in to the pure pleasures of this Christmas present of an action blockbuster. A franchise best, it breaks into smithereens the law of sequels’ diminishing returns.
Phil Bacharach’s Picks
Not one of the better years for movies, 2011 ultimately might wind up best remembered as the year everyone finally got a collective migraine from 3-D. Still, there were some outstanding films here and there:
1. “The Tree of Life” — “2001: A Space Odyssey” for a new generation, Terrence Malick’s meditation on existence was either deeply spiritual or maddeningly pretentious — possibly both — depending on your receptiveness to this sort of thing. For me, this tale of parenting, death and, um, dinosaurs was one of those rare masterpieces that reveal the full power of cinema.
2. “The Descendants” — Alexander Payne captures humanity at its most endearingly screwed-up. In his first film since 2004’s “Sideways,” the writer/director gave audiences another bittersweet, smart and unflinchingly honest portrait of a man falling apart. In this case, George Clooney did the seemingly impossible and seemed believable as that guy on the edge.
3. “Drive” — Stylized to the point of fetishized, “Drive” is a mesmerizing oddity — brutal, violent and broodingly beautiful. Director Nicolas Winding Refn paid homage to 1980s neo-noir such as Michael Mann’s “Thief” and “Manhunter” in this thriller starring the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling as an enigmatic stunt driver mired in one of those ill-fated capers.
4. “Source Code” — Unfairly maligned by some critics because of an obviously tacked-on ending, this sophomore effort from “Moon” director Duncan Jones was a simmering, surprisingly poignant brew of suspense and time-travel.
5. “Hugo” — Martin Scorsese’s big, fat, sloppy, 3-D kiss to the early days of cinema. The legendary director’s first foray into family-friendly territory had its flaws — overlength, for one — but its visual artistry packed an almost dizzying high.
6. “The Artist” — They say silence is golden, and, not to get all Gene Shalit about it, silence just might prove to be Oscar-golden in this case. Writer/ director Michel Hazanavicius’ loving tribute to the movies (yes, Hollywood onanism was in vogue this year) celebrated visual storytelling while eliciting superb performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo.
7. “Hanna” — Pity the films that came out early in the year with criminally little fanfare. “Hanna” was a crackerjack thriller filled with memorable characters, wicked humor and tremendous set pieces, courtesy director Joe Wright.
8. “Project Nim” — The year’s best documentary chronicled the curious case of Oklahoma-born chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky, the subject of a high-profile social experiment in the 1970s. Documentarian James Marsh pondered who was less evolved: Nim or the humans who did him wrong.
9. “Shame” — Talk about your nakedly courageous performances, Michael Fassbender was all that in this quietly intense study of sex addiction at its least smirky.
10. “Arthur Christmas” — In a generally dismal year for animation came this fresh, funny and touching gem that nicely explained all those probing questions your kids might have about Santa.