Top 10 Movie Picks for 2011, Part I

10. Fright Night

I never have more fun at the movies than I do when I watch something about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. That’s the case in Fright Night. Though, I wouldn’t want to be switching places with Anton Yelchin’s Charley Brewster anytime soon, who finds out that his new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Colin Ferrell), is a bloodthirsty vampire. Much of Fright Night’s charm comes from watching Charley observe Jerry and ready to defend his loved ones from the attack he senses is coming. Yelchin makes a likeable in-over-his-head lead and Farrell a creepy, unrelenting villain. Director Craig Gillespie strikes a great balance between humor and horror, and this film, a remake of the 1985 Fright Night, works in all the ways that the original film, largely an exercise in camp, doesn’t.

9. Thor

Much to my surprise, Thor emerged as my favorite superhero film of the summer. I didn’t know much about the character going in and I like how clearly director Kenneth Branagh states at the film’s outset that the only thing you need to know about the god of lightning is that he needs a lesson in humility—badly. That made it easy to invest in the character and his journey. And what a journey it is. Thor does, indeed, get a much-needed lesson in humility and seeing him cease to be defined by his selfishness and start being defined by his selflessness makes for a powerful character arc. Chris Hemsworth does great work here as Thor and it’s nice to see him deliver on the promise that he first showed in Star Trek. Throw in dazzling visuals and sensational action sequences and you’ve got the makings for not only the best superhero film of the summer, but Marvel Studios’ best film to date, surpassing even the original Iron Man.

8. Bridesmaids

Like many great comedies, the humor in Bridesmaids is derived from watching the main character suffer. In Bridesmaids, that character is Annie, played by Kristin Wiig, and her life is a mess. Single and broke, her only sources of happiness are her friendship with Lillian (Maya Rudolph) and her status as Lillian’s maid of honor for her upcoming wedding. So, when bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne)—the seemingly perfect wife of the groom’s boss—starts competing for Lillian’s friendship and upstaging Annie in her duties as maid of honor, Annie’s life starts unraveling even further, as you might imagine.

Wiig’s performance as Annie is hilarious and it’s largely because she is so unafraid to make a fool of herself. It’s what the role calls for, more than anything, and I can’t think of many other actresses who would’ve turned in as fearless of a performance. What made Bridesmaids worthy of inclusion on this list, ultimately, is that director Paul Feig eventually stops playing Annie’s misery for laughs and he presents a portrait of someone who is profoundly sad with her station in life. One of Annie’s fellow bridesmaids, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), administers some tough love to a sulking Annie late in the film and I think the line she uses (“You’re the problem, but you’re also the solution.”) is kind of beautiful. It’s revelatory in that you see Bridesmaids take the time to build Annie up just like it did to bring her down and it makes for a comedy that’s not only funny, but unexpectedly soulful.

7. 50/50

Something that had a lot of people curious in the days leading up to the release of 50/50 was whether or not Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Adam, a 27-year-old cancer patient, would beat cancer by the end of the film. While I won’t reveal that answer here, I will say that watching that battle makes for some compelling drama. I was invested in few other films in 2011 the way I was invested in 50/50. That’s a credit to Gordon-Levitt, who cements his status as one of the finest actors of his generation with this performance, and to the writing by Will Reiser, which expresses that cancer doesn’t just spread throughout your body, it spreads throughout your life—putting your future on hold, indefinitely—and that that’s one of its most tragic effects. Anna Kendrick is good here, too, playing Adam’s wet-behind-the-ears psychiatrist, and Seth Rogen, as Adam’s best friend, is used to great effect by director Jonathan Levine as the film’s needed source of levity.

6. The Tree of Life

While The Tree of Life isn’t number one on this list, if I were to make a list of the top trailers of 2011, its trailer would likely top the list. A juxtaposition of celestial imagery and shots of a dysfunctional family in 1950s Texas, The Tree of Life instantly became one of my most-anticipated films of the year after seeing the trailer. It was such a weird combination of things and it left me really curious to see what the actual film would be about.

As it turns out, the actual film isn’t about much beyond what’s represented in the trailer. And that’s actually not a bad thing. The film may not have had the conventional narrative I expected, but it frees it up to do what it does best by serving as a vessel in which to pour all of your life experiences. Because the film isn't overly concerned with making some kind of grand statement—director Terrence Malick's hand in the writing and direction is virtually imperceptible, making the film feel like a car without a driver—it allows you to take the wheel and construct your own experience.

For instance, during scenes where Jessica Chastain’s character is comforting her sons, I thought of my mother comforting me; during scenes where Brad Pitt’s character is giving one of his sons instructions on how to do something, I thought of my dad doing the same thing to me. In this respect, The Tree of Life is unlike any other film I’ve seen, and it’s that uniqueness that secures it a place on this list.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

From a critical and monetary standpoint, the Harry Potter franchise is one of the most successful of all time—and deservedly so. It’s a franchise that placed a premium on bringing in some of the most talented people in Hollywood to work on its eight installments. For the most part, each Potter film was better than the last. Accordingly, the final film of the series assumes the mantle of being its best installment. It’s clear that this film is the product of people who have been with the franchise for a while, namely director David Yates (with the franchise since the fifth installment), screenwriter Steve Kloves (scribe of every Potter film but one), and the main cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe, whom audiences have watched grow up on screen. Because of them and others, this film works across every front for me—from the writing to the acting, the art direction to the visual effects. It’s a filmmaking opus where all the elements of the craft come together in a really beautiful way, unmatched by any other film in 2011.

Stay tuned for my top four films of 2011 to be revealed in my next article.