Don't forget to check out Steve's Top 10 Movie Picks for 2011, Part I before you read the final four!
4. The Descendants
Of any setting featured in any film in 2011, the one I’ll remember most is Hawaii. The 50th state serves as the backdrop for The Descendants and the way director Alexander Payne presents it, focusing on the ordinary suburban habitats of his characters as much as the picturesque beaches, it challenges your perceptions. You see that there’s more to Hawaii than travel brochures would have you believe. People live there, work there, and die there—just like anywhere else.
Challenging perceptions is what The Descendants does best—especially in regard to the characters. The thrust of the film is about George Clooney’s character, Matt King, connecting with his two daughters in the wake of his wife slipping into a coma as a result of a boating accident. One of his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), is abrasive and disrespectful, and it’s easy to find her intolerable. That is, until it’s revealed that her bad attitude stems from having caught her mother cheating on her father before the accident. Alex is angry at both her mother and the man with whom her mother was having the affair. I thought Alex’s bad attitude was simply teen angst, but turns out to be much more complicated; as the film progressed, my perception of her changed dramatically.
The film memorably does this with other characters, too—notably, Alex’s exasperating friend, Sid (Nick Krause) and Matt’s taciturn father-in-law, Scott (Robert Forster). The Descendants powerfully reminds us that there’s often more to things than meets the eye in life. Even in Hawaii.
Perhaps the most underrated film of 2011, director Steven Soderbergh assembled an all-star cast led by Matt Damon, and thrust them into a world that’s dealing with the spread of a lethal virus. I was taken aback by the scope of this film. Soderbergh adeptly juggles multiple storylines, showing the audience how characters in various parts of the world are responding to the virus and what they’re doing to combat it. Soderbergh also paces the film well, which takes place over the timespan of a year. It’s an incredibly ambitious film, and the way it charts the early spread of the virus to the deterioration of society once the virus reaches pandemic status is a chilling reminder of humanity’s capacity for both creation and destruction. The film ends on a hopeful note and dovetails with the beginning in a tender, beautiful way that I didn’t expect. Now that it’s out on DVD and Blu-ray, I hope that Contagion finds an even larger audience.
The closer we get to the Academy Awards, the more I lament that Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive went unrecognized by the Academy. Gosling, playing the film’s mysterious, unnamed driver, turned in the best performance of any actor in 2011. He portrays the driver as a largely stoic, unemotional figure; it’s his base state for the character. But the driver is capable of both profound compassion and profound violence, and watching Gosling allow external circumstances dictate which way his character pivots on that spectrum is extremely fun. It’s a constant guessing game as to what will provoke an emotional response from the driver and that aspect of Gosling’s performance shoots sparks of excitement throughout the film.
Carey Mulligan plays the mother of a young boy and is a trigger for the driver’s compassion. On the other side, Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman are ruthless west coast mafia members—representing a threat to Mulligan’s character and her boy—serving as triggers for the driver’s violent side. Mulligan, Brooks, and Pearlman support Gosling’s performance with their own, and if Gosling had been nominated for an Oscar, they would deserve to be among the first people he thanked in his acceptance speech. Alas.
1. Young Adult
The pursuit of happiness seemed to be a recurring theme in 2011 films. It took center stage in Bridesmaids as Kristin Wiig’s character tried to make sense of her life. Even in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Shia Labeouf’s character tried to do the same with his.
In Young Adult, Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a successful ghostwriter living in Minneapolis. Despite her success, she’s unhappy with her life; that she’s divorced and approaching her forties has a lot to do with this. She’s slipped into depression and is on the road to becoming a full-blown alcoholic when she gets an e-mail informing her that her old high school sweetheart, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and his wife have just had a baby.
This is where the film takes off and the point at which you get your first taste of how twisted Mavis Gary is. Mavis decides that Buddy is what her life is missing. So, she sets off for her old hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to win him back.
This is something only a crazy person would do. There’s something scary about characters who grow to be so obsessed with something that they lose touch with reality. Such was the case with has-been actress Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and her obsession with making it big again.
With her performance as Mavis Gary in Young Adult, Charlize Theron creates a modern day Norma Desmond. What makes both characters so scary is that they’re both pursuing unattainable things and they’re the only ones who don’t realize it. It not only speaks to how deranged they are, but sets up each character’s film for a volatile climax.
Young Adult was my favorite film of 2011 for the way it acknowledged how we all take inventory of our lives in the pursuit of happiness. It’s not surprising to see something like this come from director Jason Reitman, as all of his films have touched upon some truth in regard to the human condition. It’s what makes him one of the best directors in Hollywood.
That Mavis ultimately, so horribly, miscalculates what she thinks she needs to be happy is what makes Young Adult entertaining. But it’s the way the film explores the critical process of self-discovery that is part of all our lives—though we may rarely think about it—that makes it great.