With 2011 officially in the books, it’s time once again to look back and reflect on some of the best films that have come out in the past year. As with all movie writers, coming up with a list like this is usually expected, but also damn near impossible. To me, reading and writing these types of articles are only beneficial in spreading word about titles that really had an effect on me, while stirring up debate between those who strongly agree with my choices, or vehemently disagree. No one list is ever truly definitive; what is considered great to one may not register the same way to another. The only real truth is that 2011 had a wide range of very interesting and fascinating films, and just like every year, there’s always a good handful worth noting.
I’d like to consider the past year as The Year of Nostalgia. Just about every other month there was a release that called back to the “good old days.” Whether it was the style, music, or context, there seemed to always be a film that paid homage to the movies that came before it. In fact, a good number of the selections here benefited from doing just that. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see everything that I had wanted to, often being because the film simply has not played near me yet. I have not had a chance to see Steve James’s highly acclaimed documentary The Interrupters, or Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, but you better believe that they’re on my radar for this year (my 2012 list is already stacking up pretty quickly!). Too many films to see, not enough time.
With that, let’s jump into the list:
10. Into the Abyss
No other director stares more deeply into the human soul than Werner Herzog. He is not so much interested in the details of a story, but rather the inner elements that drive human beings to do unbelievable acts. 2011 brought two incredibly well made documentaries from this director, the first being Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and this being the other. Into the Abyss examines the story of Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, two young men convicted of killing three people for the simple fact that they wanted to gain access to a Chevy Camaro. Through intensely intimate interviews with family members of both the victims and of the perpetrators, the law enforcement officers assigned to the case, and with surprising access to crime scene footage, Herzog has created an evenly made film that does not argue for or against the death penalty, but is a moving examination showing how such a devastating crime can create a black hole that all near will succumb to. While certainly sad and depressing at times, I couldn’t help but feel the power of it, and leave with a sense that life will somehow—someway—overcome.
Writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine have done something remarkable with their film 50/50, and that is to essentially create a comedy about cancer. Obviously, with a film about someone contracting such a disease, there is a level of manipulation that could come off as extremely inappropriate if handled the wrong way. I had my hesitations about it, but found myself entirely engrossed, laughing at certain times and in near tears at others. Based upon the real life story of Reiser, the film details the story of Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a twenty-something-year-old whose world comes crashing down when he learns that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. We follow Adam’s journey as he tries to deal with both the physical and emotional turmoil of fighting the disease. Gordon-Levitt adds yet another fantastic performance to his resume, one that is heartbreaking and funny at the same time. Seth Rogen hasn’t been this good in a long while, wanting to help his friend the best way that he can, but not knowing how to go about doing that. And Anna Kendrick also does a very good job as Katherine, Adam’s counselor, the one person actually willing to listen to what Adam has to say. Don’t let the premise of the film fool you; this is a very entertaining and moving cinematic experience.