This was among my favorite films of the year for the first half of 2011, so it's a testament to how strong the rest of the year was that this didn't quite make the final cut. Regardless, this wonderfully charming, witty, and openly moral character comedy absolutely merits discovery. Ed Helms gives a terrific star turn as an isolated country bumpkin, so entrenched in his small corner of small-town USA that a trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa feels like a bender in Las Vegas. Director Miguel Arteta and writer Phil Johnston's surprisingly warm comedy never goes for the crass joke and never allows its characters to go over-the-top. Anne Heche is allowed a three-dimensionality somewhat rare in female supporting characters. Even John C. Reilly, as the token goofball, is allowed moments of humanity and genuine pathos.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II (review)
I can only imagine how much better this series finale would have played for me had I not read the books. If I had not seen the major emotional beats coming, had I not been expecting certain major deaths, had I not missed the major portions from the book that were not included in the film, would I have loved it as much as I expected it to? I cannot say, but I will say that the film improved on a second viewing, that the awful 3D hurt the theatrical experience, and that most of my carping revolves around not what is in the film but what is not. Judging purely by what is in the film, it is a splendidly emotional and sprawling finale, with a massive battle that never becomes bigger than the personal stakes of our main characters and major beats for nearly every minor supporting character. Alan Rickman gets one of the finest scenes of his career, in a performance that in a more 'prestigious' picture would make him an Oscar front-runner. It may not be the best Harry Potter film in the series, and it may not quite have achieved the levels of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but by any rational standard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II is a wonderful and powerful piece of fantastical fiction.
The Lincoln Lawyer (review)
I've talked here and there about how 2011 was a great year for mid-budget adult-centric genre fare, and this top-notch legal thriller was a shining example. Matthew McConaughey delivers a wonderful star turn in this old-fashioned, star-filled legal thriller that was so good and so successful that it spawned a sequel and a television series. Yes, the film tips its hand a bit too early, but what fun it was watching actors like Marissa Tomei, William H. Macy, Michael PeĆ±a, and a number of others digging their teeth into this genre material. It's perhaps 'merely' a pulpy legal thriller, but by god it's an awfully good one.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
This is the awkward part when I explain why a film that made a number of 'best-of' lists only ends up on my 'runner ups' list. The answer is simply that it was merely a really good movie, if not quite a great one. The lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen is being justifiably heralded, and John Hawkes shines yet again. If the 'cult' material felt a little old-hat for a viewer that has actually seen a number of television movies about the subject, the sheer artistry and moody craftsmanship on display makes up for it. This isn't the first film to deal with a young woman escaping from a religious cult. But it is one of the best.
Puss In Boots (review)
This film is the kind of movie that made me want to do a 'runner-up' list. It's not even the best Dreamworks cartoon of the year, but its unexpected quality makes me incredibly excited about the future of Dreamworks Animation. What would have been a quick cash-in spin-off is a gloriously exciting, exceptionally witty, and often just-plain weird fairy-tale adventure that is absolutely beautiful to look at. It's a film by and arguably for cat lovers, and it's the first movie that my 4-year old daughter absolutely loved. It may have been motivated by commerce, but it's absolutely a work of art.
War Horse (review)
This one gets better the longer it lingers in my mind. Yes, I'm not a big horse junkie and I can't say I was all that teary eyed during the moments of horse drama. But hidden beneath this 'boy and his horse' fable is a brutally unflinching look at the madness and carnage that was World War I, delivered in a brutally violent but bloodless fashion that makes it not only a pretty great movie, but an educational one as well. Spielberg may been knocked for the melodrama, but he also deserves credit for the horrifying and somber moments as well, and the fact that this works as a true anti-war picture if only by virtue of refusing to explain or justify why so many young men (and horses) were sent off to die. That a film as good as War Horse ranks in the upper-middle of Spielberg's filmography is a sign of how impressive his nearly 40-year run has been. And he's not anywhere close to finished.
This terrifically acted and thoughtfully written family drama is one of the best 'underdog sports' movies ever made. Yes, Nick Nolte deserves an Oscar nomination and yes Tom Hardy is ferociously compelling as one of two brothers who hash out years of family bitterness in the lead-up to a MMA tournament, but the rest of the package is superb as well. The characters, every single one of them, feel absolutely human and three-dimensional, and seemingly stock characters like Joel Edgerton's sympathetic wife (Jennifer Morrison) and a sympathetic school principal (Kevin Dunn) are given intelligence and opinions of their own that makes the film feel that much more real. As odd as it may be to praise a film like Warrior for its dialogue, the sheer quality of the conversations that take place in this film (where adults discuss their problems and their feelings like adults) is what makes it more than just a well-acted TappOut movie.
Paul Giamatti shines in this thoughtful little drama about a struggling lawyer who commits a genuine wrongdoing in order to keep his business afloat and his family in the dark about his financial problems. The plot thickens when the old man he has agreed to become a guardian for (Burt Young) is visited by his seemingly homeless nephew and the young man ends up taking up residence with the family. Amy Ryan and Alex Shaffer deliver solid supporting turns in this pretty terrific movie that, yet again, probably deserved a wide release.
X-Men: First Class (review)
This is one of the best comic book films ever made, and a sterling comeback effort for the maligned X-Men franchise. Using the prequel format as a way to play around with continuity, Matthew Vaugn and Jane Goldman fashion this '60s-set drama as a old-school 007 caper, with Kevin Bacon threatening the world with nuclear armageddon using the classic 'pit two countries against each other and clean up the mess' scheme that suddenly came back into fashion this year. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are dynamite leads as the young Magneto and Professor X, respectively, and the emphasis of character over action makes this a gloriously engaging and often intelligent piece of pop entertainment. So why is it only on the 'runner up' list? Alas, a second viewing highlighted the seams of a rushed-production and the exclusion of any gender/race commentary in this 1960s fable was even more glaring the second time around. It's still a terrific movie, but there is obvious room for improvement the next time around and there is another comic book adventure that I enjoyed even more this year.
Okay, no more stalling. The next list will absolutely be the best-of 2011 list. As always, share your comments below.
Follow Scott Mendelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ScottMendelson