by Bob Devine
What are the best films of the past year? A question asked of me recently that made me pause to consider which movies moved me the most. Of course I haven't seen all of 2011's offerings, but I can share what my personal favorites are.
I'll preface my list by saying that for me, movies have to mean something deeper than just a frenetic jaunt through an action packed, fright filled, shoot 'em up, or a recycled romance. The great films have to have some underlying ethical or moral theme, or involve a winding tale that ends with some realization, or be about the portrayal of some noble quality. They can be harsh, violent or ethically messy if need be to make the ultimate point as long as the method is used to amplify the message. Films also get kudos for having a bit of subtlety and not hitting the moviegoer over the head with melodramatic cheese.
So with that said, here are my 2011 favorites that I think anyone who likes movies for their stories or messages should see.
1. "The Help" - A multifaceted feast of a film that brought out the full gamut of emotions as a young debutante bucked the racial system in the South to go in search of a story and found the cooperation of several maids whose courage brought their plight to the forefront of American culture. I would say it was the most soul satisfying experience I had at the movies this year, and so profoundly moved me that I then took my young children to see it despite some of the mature themes because of the educational values contained. They both loved the movie, as well.
2. "Everything Must Go" - Usually comedic Will Ferrell surprises with his emotional range in a story about a man who loses everything - wife, job, and home - and must sort out his life while spending a week camping on his front lawn holding a yard sale to get rid of all of his possessions.
3. "The Way" - Emilio Estevez directs his father Martin Sheen in a story that involves an emotionally closed American doctor whose son dies while travelling on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), a 500+ mile pilgrimage route through Europe. When the father goes to retrieve the son's body he decides to make the journey in his place and thus enters on his own soul searching and awakening trip that involves meeting new friends and experiencing the beautiful vistas, back roads and villages along the way.
4. "Moneyball" - If you think this movie is about baseball, think again. While it certainly involves a story that happens to a baseball team (the Oakland A's), the real story is about people who buck the status quo and decide to try and change the way things are. It's also about a father and his daughter, and it's about taking a dream and trying to make it work despite long odds.
5. "Of Gods and Men" - A powerful tribute to the real life story of several French Monks whose service at a monastery in Algeria was disrupted by civil war and militant extremists whose incursions destabilized the area, but the Monks chose to stay as a sign of solidarity with the surrounding community despite the potential consequences.
6. "Super 8" - While there is plenty of popcorn fun and fright to be had in this tale that involves an angry alien on the loose, the camaraderie of a youthful band of movie makers, combined with the protagonist's working through the death of his mother, makes for a poignant tale about letting go and moving on with life, both for the boy and the alien.
7. "A Better Life" - A powerhouse performance by Demian Bichir as an illegal immigrant father earned him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a dad who struggles to raise his son in L.A. and make a way for them in America. Honestly, he should have won the Oscar. Hands down, he laid waste to the competition with his performance.
8. "I AM" - A little known documentary by Hollywood filmmaker Tom Shadyac gets at some truths that aren't often reflected upon in our diversion filled society. What is the root of the world's problems? And solutions? He spends 75 minutes with some philosophical, scientific, and spiritual folks contemplating universal reality and for those willing to listen, they will get an alternative view to the consumption filled rhetoric we get spoon fed daily.
9. "War Horse" - I hated the trailer. It looked so melodramatic that I thought it would be a cheesy or syrupy movie about a horse that would try to capitalize on the Secretariat success from the prior year. Instead, the story of a horse and his boy are really the backdrop for a far deeper story that de-glorifies war via the lens of WWI and shows the killing and wounds that both soldiers and civilians face when national disagreements and pride escalate into violence.
10. "Small Town Murder Songs" - I have to give kudos to this courageous offbeat film about a small town sheriff whose violent past comes back to haunt him when a young girl turns up murdered and he must sort out who did it. The film's soundtrack is elevated to the level of co-star as the newly redeemed in Christ sheriff struggles between his faith and violent tendencies when his suspicions fall upon the likely perpetrator.
11 & 12. Tie - "The Descendants" and "Midnight in Paris" - Wonderful movies with truly insightful moments, but whose story lines sort of fizzle in the last act, which drops their status a few notches. Despite the letdown, however, the powerhouse performances of a grief filled family in "The Descendants" and the witty dialogue in "Midnight in Paris" make these both films worth seeing.
13 & 14. Tie - "The Artist" and "Hugo" - I liked these films, but not nearly as much as the Academy Awards. I perceive that both films whose content is about the early days of making movies enraptured Hollywood afficionados so much that they could even give Best Actor to a man in a movie with no sound. I hope the Academy didn't hurt themselves patting themselves on the back. Perhaps I wouldn't be miffed if I hadn't witnessed the virtuoso performance of Demian Bichir in "A Better Life" whose nuances in voice, action, and body language were all so visibly and audibly present. To say a movie with the sound turned off could produce a better acting performance is a bit over the top.
15. "We Bought a Zoo" - In no way did I think I could like this movie as it appeared to be another cutesy animal fest, but somehow Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, and crew pulled off a movie that had more insight than I thought possible. Are there cliches? Yes. Are there puff moments? Yes. But when the characters interact there is a chemistry that builds, particularly in the power of people working together for a common goal, and Damon's portrayal of a father willing to go to great lengths to set his family back on track after the loss of his wife brings the emotional substance that carries the movie over its lighter moments to something more meaningful.
I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to one disappointment of the year in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" which carried some emotional power in a young boy's journey of discovery following his dad's death in the twin towers, but which sacrificed its integrity toward the end by shifting and stretching the story line to try and make everything more tidy.
So that's it... agree or disagree, they are the films that moved me in 2011, and I'm looking forward to what may come in 2012.
Bob Devine is the coordinator for the Pocatello Film Society. Contact Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.