“... As a whole the year in movies was just terribly dull, wasn’t it? The summer was a bust, with all those limp superhero movies — dreary X-Men: First Class, ploddingly dopey Captain America, ludicrous Green Lantern — that wouldn’t create even one Inception if they were all smooshed together into a super-movie. And this awards-movie season has been lackluster in its own way. There have been no must-see movies of quality that have everyone buzzing about Oscars and breakthroughs and all that exciting palaver. Remember Black Swan? For a few weeks last year it felt like everyone was talking about that crazy (and crazy good) movie. There was no analogue to that in 2011; we suffered from a severe dearth of Event Movies, whether we were hunting for summertime popcorn fare or wintertime prestige-ness. Even the finale of the Harry Potter franchise felt a little inconsequential, mostly because the first part of Deathly Hallows, released in 2010, was such a stronger film. ... So few movies in 2011 demanded that we get up off our duffs and brave the elements and the unwashed masses to go to the theater.”
Those were the words of The Atlantic‘s Richard Lawson in his article, “Blame Bad Movies for 2011’s Bad Box Office” (02 January 2012). More than 1,300 people viewed it. Not surprising, many commented. And while the amount of “Likes” for this article onFacebook can be debatable (for some reason, the number won’t pop up on my web browser, no matter how many times I reload the page), we can rest assured that there were at least a few people who felt the need to share and re-share the essay with friends and family through the varying social media platforms.
And that would be all fine and good ... if he wasn’t completely wrong.
Indeed, there appear to be a lot of nay-sayers; “No, 2011 wasn’t the best year for film”, McClatchy-Tribune News Service’s Roger Moore proclaimed in late December. “Has there ever been a year where you felt less inclined to make sure you’d seen every best picture nominee?” the Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever asked after the Oscars were awarded in February. (“Oscar’s wishful thinking”)
Sure, part of the reason critics were sharpening their knives undoubtedly relates to the fact that 2011 was a notoriously down year at the box office. According to Brooks Barnes of The New York Times, ticket sales were down about 4.5 percent from 2010, while attendance dropped a little over five percent throughout all of last year. The more films fail to perform at the theater, the easier it becomes to instinctively write off the entire 12 months as a whole. (“A Year of Disappointment at the Movie Box Office” 25 December 2011) But in spite of those decreasing numbers and overtly negative undertones toward the industry, awards, and cinema as figments of popular culture, the breadth and quality of 2011 film proves to be above average—if not exceptional—when compared with its most recent competitor, 2010.
Yes, much like any other window of movies, that year also enjoyed its share of memorable flicks (the fascinatingly written The Social Network; the excellently acted Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right and Rabbit Hole, just to name a few), but at the end of the year, we all found ourselves applauding Colin Firth for a middle-of-the-road movie in The King’s Speech that seemed like nothing more than a do-over by voters after they robbed him of a trophy for his pitch-perfect performance in A Single Man the year before.
The aforementioned Black Swan was the 2010 version of The Tree of Life because of its polarizing nature. The Fighter provided a couple memorable performances from supporting actors, though neither eclipsed said actors’ best works (Melissa Leo will never get better than Frozen River and with the possible exception of 3:10 to Yuma or Rescue Dawn, how could you possibly argue against American Psycho as the quintessential Christian Bale performance?). And one of 2010’s most highly anticipated efforts, Shutter Island, was a massive disappointment, considering the combination of predictability and expectation to which it ultimately surmised.
So ... what is the problem with movies that were released in 2011? Well, for a while, I was simply convinced the selection was flawed. I shouted from mountaintops how “It just wasn’t that good of a year for movies,” and “There was nothing I saw that left a big enough impression on me to remember”. Waking up early on a Saturday morning to see The Descendants during its opening weekend, only to find that the film as a whole wasn’t nearly the piece of perfection I had hoped it would be, didn’t help.
Neither did the gigantic shoulder shrug most people gave after walking away from Oscar’s favorite film, The Artist, however charming the black-and-white picture may have been. Moneyball felt contrived and generic with its awkward action scenes and Brad Pitt’s subtle bits of overacting. And as for The Tree of Life ... well ... as stated above, you either loved it or hated it, and I resoundingly fell on the latter half of that equation.
With the initial exception of The Ides of March, a movie I completely adored from top to bottom, I was convinced 2011 would ultimately be looked upon as a failure in film. It’s easy to discount the most recent body of work when the most recent body of work proved to be everything but perfect and perfection is what everybody always wants. Combine that with the requisite snobs that exist not only within movies, but also within ... oh ... say ... every single other element of popular culture today—books, music, television, etc.—and what we saw was a year that initially found it hard to have even a fighting chance at winning our collective hearts. That’s what happens when the year’s “best picture” is nothing more than a novelty met with apathy and its “best female performance” comes from a movie a grand total of six people bought tickets to see.
But, when you take a few minutes to look back and consider both the level of diversity and the sheer amount of quality performances that 2011 film produced, it’s hard to ignore exactly how abundantly solid the year was.
It’s April now, four months after 2011 ended and approximately two months since the Academy Awards ceremony — typically the end-all/be-all, Bottom Line of the Year in Film — took place. Enough time has passed to reflect on last year’s movies with a more level head. Sometimes, these types of discussions need a certain amount of separation in order for us to form objective opinions or draw personal conclusions. And while it would be both irresponsible and unfair for me to sit here and claim that there wasn’t a time during which I in fact echoed the same sentiments about 2011 cinema, it’s with an enormous amount of conviction that I now feel compelled to argue in favor of the opposite: The year 2011 gave us a good crop of movies, after all.
Let’s start with comedies. While we have grown accustomed to there typically being only one truly intelligent, well-done romantic comedy per year, 2011 laid claim to at least two. Crazy, Stupid, Love was a smart take on a story that deemed itself truly unpredictable and enjoyed all the star-power any casual movie-watcher could ever ask for, while Friends with Benefits, much to the surprise of every single person in the history of the universe, didn’t “suck” nearly as much as it the anticipation suggested. In fact, it flourished in being labeled as a predictable, yet satisfying modern-day love tale simply because it wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself, granting the film as a whole an intriguing—if not entertaining—layer.
Detaching “romantic” from the phrase “romantic comedy”, the year also had its share of legitimately funny pictures (sans the second installment of The Hangover, which literally couldn’t have been any more unfunny or un-watchable if it tried). Horrible Bosses somehow lived up to its billing as a genuinely laugh-out-loud flick that featured three of the most sought-after names in screen comedy today: Charlie Day, Jason Sudekis and Jason Bateman. Cedar Rapids, meanwhile, provided a springboard for Ed Helms to vault himself into movies full-time and a platform for John C. Reilly prove to us all that he’s still at least kind of amusing. Add in a healthy dose of Wire references and what you had was a fun hour-and-a-half of indie comedy.
Speaking of indie, you might be hard pressed to find a better crop of indie films over the last five years than what we found in 2011. Beginners brought Christopher Plummer his first Academy Award and as far as depressing and poignant coming-of-age tales go, this stood above all others in recent memory. Everything Must Go and Higher Ground followed in step, the former allowing Will Ferrell a platform for his once-every-five-years surprisingly good acting performance; the latter showcasing the lovely Vera Farmiga’s directing talents for the first time, while asking some impossible-to-answer questions in the process.
The year also brought some of film’s most revered names back to the forefront for the first time in a long time. Paul Giamatti refused to be ignored (in the greatest of ways, mind you) with one of the 2011’s criminally forgotten efforts, January’s Barney’s Version. Couple that with the fantastic Win Win and his work in the aforementioned The Ides of March and what you had was a memorable year for one of Hollywood’s most lovable sad saps. He wasn’t the only big name to be behind something of substance last year, though. Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris earned the director a slew of Oscar nominations with its inventive plot and magical premise, even overcoming the burden of having Owen Wilson star in a lead role.
Wait. Did someone say something about stars? Ryan Gosling admittedly had quite the run with both The Ides and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Still, those pale in comparison to Drive easily one of the best movies the Blue Valentine star has ever been involved with. Somewhat of a modern-day Taxi Driver, Drive featured not only an opening sequence that will have audiences hypnotized for years to come, but it also reminded movie lovers of how utterly impressive nonsensical violence can appear on the big screen.
See what I mean? We’re not even close to being finished with the year’s brightest spots and we’ve already spent five paragraphs reminiscing on what 2011 offered. My Week With Marilyn was a tone-perfect movie filled with an extraordinary lead performance form Michelle Williams. Margin Call was deemed “the best Wall Street movie ever made” by The New Yorker. Page One: Inside The New York Times was arguably the most revealing look inside the world’s most prominent newsroom ever created. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy proved to be every bit as suspenseful and original as all its previous incarnations. 50/50 was yet another notch in the impressive belt Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears. And The Help was The Help—a movie that ended up being the underdog phenomenon each great movie year needs to be deemed a great movie year.
I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the point. Sure, you can argue the difference between good and great. And yes, you can even completely discount the awards that were given out to the notable figures of cinema in 2011, if you must. But the one thing that seems more impossible or irrational now than it did, say, four months ago, is an attitude that is covered in cynicism when considering the 2011 year in movies. Was it the best 12 months ever? Of course not. But was it “A bad year for movies and a worse year for oscar movies” as Time magazine proclaimed? (“It Was a Bad Year for Movies—and a Worse Year for ‘Oscar Movies’”, Brad Tuttle, 27 February 12). Hardly.
“‘Overrated’ is something of a dirty word,” David Ehrlich of movies.com wrote before listing the ten most overrated films of 2011. (“The Year in Film: The 10 Most Overrated Films of 2011”, 28 December 2011) “But while most dirty words are drifting further and further away from their original meanings (or from having any meaning at all), ‘overrated’ seems to be slowly coming into focus. I mean, when in the history of our species have things been more obsessively rated? The Romans only had two scores: Thumbs up you live, thumbs down you die”.
Indeed. And with that said, maybe it’s now finally time we realize exactly how under rated 2011’s films actually were.