Audiences didn’t have to wait until December to see the best movies of 2011. In some cases, this year’s finest films were ready for their Blu-ray inspection by the time Oscar season officially began.
That tells you a little something about the quality of Oscar-bait films in 2011 (sorry, “J. Edgar”) but also proves that the film industry needn’t back-load the best for Christmas consumption.
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The following 10 films remind us thrillers don’t have to arrive in theaters with every scrap of intelligence scrubbed from the narrative, and that the horror genre is still capable of giving us a jolt. You also won’t find a sequel or reboot here, although films like “X-Men: First Class” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved marketing-friendly projects don’t have to be lowest common denominator affairs.
- “Martha Marcy May Marlene” – Did the film’s laborious title shred its box office hopes? Hard to say, except there needs to be some explanation why “MMMM” failed to draw a crowd. Elizabeth Olsen didn’t merely avoid the looming shadow of her famous siblings, the once ubiquitous Olsen Twins, she announced to the world there’s a new starlet in town. Olsen mesmerizes as a woman who escapes a cult only to find she can’t stop thinking about life under its oppressive regime.
- “The Descendants” – Welcome back, Alexander Payne. The brain behind “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” returns with the same kind of warm, thought-provoking fare that puts most of his peers to shame. George Clooney makes us forget he’s super-rich, super-famous and super-handsome, dissolving into the role of a man who finally learns his wife is cheating on him.
- “Win Win” – Writer/director Tom McCarthy is officially three-for-three as an auteur, but his latest film marks the most audience-pleasing film in his impressive resume. Paul Giamatti shines, as usual, playing a morally conflicted wrestling coach given a star athlete out of the blue. “Win Win” can’t stop charming us, and it doesn’t insult our intelligence with a paint-by-numbers final act.
- “Rango” – This animated wonder might not have made my list if not for my son insisting we watch it again – and again. And, with every viewing, the film’s stunning visual landscape and rich humor keep me thoroughly engaged. Johnny Depp may be on career autopilot these days – hey, where’s my Jack Sparrow eyeliner? – but his keenly aware vocal performance as the cowardly Rango proves he can still razzle dazzle us.
- “The Debt” – The smartest thriller of the year got lost in the cineplex shuffle, but here’s betting the film will thrive on home video. A trio of Israeli spies try to capture a Nazi monster living a comfortable life as a gynecologist. Two generations of great actresses – Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain – spark a hugely appealing adventure.
- “Hanna” – Can someone please connect director Joe Wright with a comic book franchise (just not “Green Lantern”)? Wright clearly knows how to finesse larger than life heroes, even from the waif-like Saoirse Ronan. Yes, the final third doesn’t measure up to the rest, but how many finales could match that blistering pace?
- “Margin Call” – A gut-wrenching thriller that recalls the 2008 financial meltdown sounds like the standard politically charged fare we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. Big speeches. Bigger performances. Lessons delivered on steroid-enhanced soap box. Not even close. Writer/director J.C. Chandor doesn’t skimp on the chills, but he makes Wall Street monsters all too human and reminds us how intricately flawed even the nicest people can be when the stakes are impossibly high.
- “Bellflower” – The most original film of the year is also the most inscrutable, but that’s part of its dizzying appeal. Writer/director/star/tinkerer Evan Glodell tells a “boy meets girl” story that you’ll never forget. It’s like a mental tattoo you’ll never want to laser away.
- “The Other F Word” – What happens when tatted-up singers become daddies? Diapers rule in this beautifully crafted documentary that extols the values of fatherhood over the need to rock, roll and trash the Man at every turn.
- “Insidious” – The folks who helped slay the horror genre by sparking the “Saw” franchise return to apologize, and then some. This original, made on the cheap shocker delivers the kind of armrest gripping sequences audiences crave but too rarely receive. But please … don’t make a sequel and spoil its freshness.
Honorable Mention: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” – The latest adventures of Ethan Hunt and his spy pals isn’t a great movie, nor does the script invite repeated viewings. It’s just a great action movie.