Best Films and Performances of the First Half of 2011

As I have mentioned numerous times over the past several weeks, I firmly believe that 2011 is one of the best years for movies in a while. That belief is thanks in enormous part to three particular films that would have likely been contenders for my favorite film of the year in any of the past three years. I will get to those films in a minute. As far as performances go, those have been less transcendent. There have been two performances this year that have truly stood out as the type that deserve to be revisited come Awards season, but nothing much beyond that. Those also happen to be the Actor and Actress that top my lists below.

By my count I have seen 31 new films so far this year (I’m on pace to set a record). Here are m five best experiences at the theatre so far:

Best Films

5) Potiche – Directed by François Ozon

The great eye of director François Ozon and the pitch perfect comic timing of both Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu are primarily what make this film a delight. It also successfully manages to make commentary about power struggles within gender and class without ever taking itself too seriously. [Full Review]

4) Bridesmaids – Directed by Paul Feig

Despite being entirely different in tone the qualities that make Bridesmaids a great film are the same as the ones that made me appreciate Potiche. Both films are comedies that do not seem to realize they are comedies. By that I mean the respective roles are portrayed with such an austere sense of realism that there is never a distracting wink at the camera. As an American mainstream comedy Bridesmaids was a glorious breath of fresh air as it was funnier and had more heart that just about anything else Hollywood has put out recently. It also offers a star-making turn for Kristen Wiig who deservedly has been collecting accolades. [Podcast Review]

3) Midnight in Paris – Directed by Woody Allen

Since initially seeing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris I have gone over it in my head dozens of times in order to determine whether I liked it because it had a true heart or because it had smart people references that I could push up my glasses and laugh at. The conclusion that I came to is – does it matter? The film captures the exact essence of “movie magic” that is so rare among mainstream films. The credit can only partially go to Allen as much of it belongs to the title city that can bring inspiration to almost any work of art. [Full Review]

2) The Tree of Life – Directed by Terence Malick

One of the greatest things a film can do for me is reveal an honest beauty in a world I already knew about and this epic film from one of the greatest living auteurs does that in at least three ways. First it uses the camera, expertly directed by Emmanual Lubezki, to show earthly landscapes and human characters in perfectly lit serenity to show the beauty of God. Second it uses visual effects to show the majesty and beauty that can be created by man. Third, and most crucial, it uses an open-ended narrative structure to show how the two can exist in harmony. The Tree of Life is probably a film I will visit yearly and come out of it with a completely different visceral reaction every time and I look forward to those viewings with high anticipation.

1) Certified Copy – Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

The conclusion of Abbas Kiarostami’s romantic drama left me with one of the best post-film viewing experiences I can recount – mouth agape, trying to re-assemble the pieces of the story I just saw. Certified Copy is a perfect product of its time (I challenge anyone to find better commentary about Hollywood), yet also completely timeless. The central couple embarks on an adventure that is equal parts romance and mystery, creating a relationship that may or may not be entirely fictional. This film will be shown in film classes for decades to come to incite a discussion on the value of art and it is easily the best new film I have seen in years. [Full Review]

Best Performances by an Actress

3) Kristen Wiig – Bridesmaids

This Saturday Night Live alumnus earns her keep as a bona fide queen of comedy with this honest and silly performance. As co-writer of the films, Wiig had almost complete creative control over the character and this allowed her bring a great sense of truth. Her character was not a romantic comedy stereotype nor was she too restrained to prevent her from revealing some cattiness.

2) Mia Wasikowska – Jane Eyre

While she may not get an Oscar nomination this year, there are definitely big things in Mia Wasikowska’s future. She became recognizable with last year’s Alice in Wonderland, held her own against Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right, and this year she has already balanced the fabulous Michael Fassbender on this dark interpretation of the classic novel.

1) Juliette Binoche – Certified Copy

Juliette Binoche is unquestionably one of the most daring and talented actresses working today and her performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is one of her all-time best. The dynamic Binoche is able to portray a myriad of emotions with what appears to be incredible ease as her enthusiasm melts into cynicism in a fantastic and heart-wrenching way.

Best Performances by an Actor

3) Mel Gibson – The Beaver

There is no way Gibson will receive an Oscar nomination because of he is a public relations nightmare. However, he should still be recognized for having one of the best performances of 2011 so far. He manages to portray a depressed schizophrenic with such calculated balance that his characters’ uncouth behavior feels refreshingly honest.

2) Michael Fassbender – X-Men: First Class

I currently have Michael Fassbender at the top of my Best Actor prediction charts, but for another movie – David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Whether he does or doesn’t score a nomination he will have to be recognized as the actor of the year with two smashing performances already under his belt (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class) and three more on the way (Shame, Haywire, A Dangerous Method). I chose to recognize him for X-Men: First Class because I honestly believe any other actor in that role would have made the movie less watchable.

1) Christopher Plummer – Beginners

The only performance this year that I feel safe to say is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination is the legendary Christopher Plummer’s work in Beginners is heartbreaking and sympathetic without being too sweet. He reveals himself as a character with flaws and a past he is not necessarily proud of, but chooses to forget instead of regret. His boyish enthusiasm is infectious and his character steals every scene in the movie.

Worst Films

The Hangover: Part II – Directed by Todd Phillips

Apparently the cast were unavailable for a sequel to The Hangover so they just decided to digitally remove Las Vegas and insert Thailand. The result was making a bad movie worse. [Podcast Review]

The Conspirator – Directed by Robert Redford

This forgettable historical drama focused on the wrong characters and made the whole affair less interesting, no matter how much it tried to be a modern political metaphor. [Podcast Review]

Everything Must Go – Directed by Dan Rush

Put every indie movie cliche in a bag, shake vigorously and serve. Don’t forget to remove any subtlety and add some over-acting. [Podcast Review]

What are your favorites and least favorites from 2011 so far?

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