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Sam’s Top 10 Films of 2011

by on December 24, 2011
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2011 was a generally weak year for movies. However, it did offer a few films ambitious enough — even a few profoundly moving cosmic statements — to fill the gaps left by many studio releases. Here is a handful of the best.

10. “50/50”

“50/50” often laughs at the abyss, but the issues within it are no less troubling. Although it may seem like a sugarcoating of cancer, the film is actually a painfully accurate depiction of it — a portrait of how people use humor, often clumsily and unsuccessfully, as a refuge from such a hardship. As the sufferer in question, Joseph Gordon-Levitt slowly peels away the mask of machismo, revealing the unsettling truth that disease reduces everyone, even the strongest, to a state of youthful uncertainty.

9. “Fright Night”

Juggling humor and suspense as seamlessly as the original “Scream,” “Fright Night” is an absolute blast — and the kind of film horror junkies, such as myself, have been eagerly anticipating for years. Among its many treats is the charisma-exuding Colin Farrell as the vampire next door.

8. “Super 8”

Infused with the kind of youthful exuberance largely lacking in today’s blockbusters, J.J. Abrams’ love letter to Spielberg came as both a warm nostalgic embrace and a breath of fresh air. While the third act is a by-the-numbers monster mystery, the first is such a transcendent, touching trip back to childhood that it redeems, and even elevates, the rest of the film.

7. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Essentially a James Bond film with the gritty edge of a Nine Inch Nails video, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” boasts a cooler vibe than almost all of this year’s thrillers. As in a Bond film, the story is incidental, basically serving as a mere catalyst for the characters’ collision. But the characters are so rich and fascinating that you’d happily watch them read the phone book. As goth-punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Rooney Mara is a revelation, displaying grit and vulnerability through one bat of her simultaneously fearful and threatening raccoon eyes. David Fincher also draws a wonderfully subdued performance from Daniel Craig as her fellow detective.

6. “Beginners”

Smaller than most of the dramas on this list but no less powerful, “Beginners” is the tale of a sensitive artist (Ewan McGregor) whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet at age 75. Presented without a hint of the hipster detachment or irony that could have easily infected this story, the film is tenderly funny, casually profound and quietly devastating. As in real life, the conflicts aren’t wrapped up in a neat package. And the title certainly doesn’t apply to the lead actors or writer-director Mike Mills, all of whom prove to be masters of emotion in this poignant, elegant film.

5. “Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure”

In 1987, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. recorded their neighbors’ drunken arguments. You can’t blame them for eavesdropping because when their neighbors went at it, they were like the Odd Couple on steroids — a microcosm of the country’s fractious society. When their fights leaked out into the public, a phenomenon was born. This documentary, directed with exuberance and panache by Matthew Bate, creates the same visceral feeling of discovery as the audio it chronicles. It’s fascinating to watch the history of this pre-YouTube sensation unfold — and a relief to know that voyeurism isn’t a modern, Internet-age invention.

4. “Drive”

The year’s most stylish thriller, “Drive” plays like the best ’80s film Michael Mann never made. But it’s also strikingly original, presenting a quietly exhilarating, candy-colored world of crime that, despite its surreal nature, feels lived-in and achingly real. In short, this film is one of the sharpest, most surprising turns in the revisionist direction that action-thrillers are heading. It rides along with the “Bourne” trilogy and “The Dark Knight” in a new wave that mirrors the subversive New Hollywood movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

3. “Another Earth”

This little film arrived like a punch to the gut, proving that sci-fi spectacles don’t always have to be big and loud to blow audiences away. A refreshing change of direction from bloated epics like “Transformers,” “Another Earth” is a quiet, intimate film that uses sci-fi elements to stir its already simmering drama pot. The mirror planet of Earth in the film is far more than a visual marvel. It is a poignant symbol of hope and redemption. For Rhoda (co-writer Brit Marling), the parallel planet hangs over her head like a chance for another life, a chance to possibly find the family she killed in a car accident. (It also effectively serves as a metaphor for this age of doppelgangers, in which people exist in multiple worlds at once, such as the physical and the virtual, on Earth and in cyberspace.) Beyond its thought-provoking subtext, “Another Earth” is a superbly acted, starkly beautiful tone poem and slice of the human spirit. Mike Cahill’s stunning debut film is a rare specimen — a triumph of style and substance.

2. “Moneyball”

Another drama with universal appeal, “Moneyball” resonates because, at the end of the day, everyone wants to hit a home run no matter what field they are in. Although it lacks baseball bats carved out of lightning-stricken trees, this film has all of the inspirational magic of a sports drama like “The Natural” without any of the schmaltz. Unlike most films in its genre, “Moneyball” engages and focuses on the head as much, if not more, than the heart. And like many films coming out of Hollywood these days, it’s ostensibly a big, juicy drama, but really a refreshingly intimate one with an indie sensibility.

1. “The Tree of Life”

Great art links the particular to the universal. In that sense, no other 2011 film felt as ambitious as Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which relates the evolution of a 1950s family to that of the Earth itself. Here, Malick takes his hypnotic artistry to new heights, literalizing the magnitude of family through images of the cosmos as visually and viscerally exciting as anything in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And he finds his earthbound match in Brad Pitt, whose searing performance makes us understand how a father’s bearing can feel as heavy as the weight of the universe.

Honorable Mentions: “The Artist,” “The Beaver,” “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Guard,” “Take Shelter,” “The Trip,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “Win Win,” “Young Adult”