The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


This is my favorite thing I write all year. Why? Because I'm talking about nothing but great movies. There weren't as many of them in 2011 as there were some other years (1999 and 2007 come to mind) but there certainly were enough to easily create this list. I even had to leave one or two titles off – a process that's always painful. This year, as always, I have tried to make my list diverse. Any kind of film is eligible, so long as it blows me away. These all blew me away. Here are my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2011:

10. Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski) - The year's sharpest, funniest, best-looking animated feature didn't come from Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks; this Paramount/Nickelodeon production was animated by Industrial Light and Magic. Johnny Depp provided the voice of the titular lizard, who finds himself in a predicament that's a cross between The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Chinatown. The animation is stunningly detailed, while the screenplay is packed with inventive jokes that pay homage to the Western genre. A second viewing prior to finalizing this list made me realize just how brilliant Rango is.

9. Shame (dir. Steve McQueen) - This drama got a lot of attention for its NC-17 rating, but that's not the real story here. The real story is how Michael Fassbender gives a fearless performance in a picture that is like Leaving Las Vegas with sex instead of alcohol. The actor plays a sex addict whose life spirals out of control when his sister unexpectedly comes to stay with him. The NC-17 rating is needed to accurately convey the depths to which he sinks. Shame is not a prurient film, though; it's an incisive look at how a life can be taken over by too much reliance on a destructive emotional crutch.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin) - Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) made one of the year's most explosive breakthroughs with her performance as a young woman who escapes an abusive cult and tries, with great difficulty, to assimilate back into the real world. MMMM is a movie of great mystery, from the meaning of the title, to the ambiguity of its ending. That gives it a hypnotic feel I found irresistible.

7. 50/50 (dir. Jonathan Levine) - A comedy about...cancer? Yes, indeed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a twentysomething young man faced with a potentially deadly diagnosis. His best friend (Seth Rogen) tries to help him through. His advice? Use the illness to pick up chicks. Most movies about cancer are somber affairs. 50/50 is different, in that it finds humor in dark places, while still remaining true to the emotional core of the premise. Humor really is the best medicine; this film proves it.

6. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick) - The year's biggest love-it-or-hate-it experience. Terrence Malick eschews traditional plotting to explore how a Texas couple (played by Brad Pitt and the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) raise their young sons. There's also a time-out to show the creation of the universe and some dinosaur action. Someone described The Tree of Life as the world's most beautiful screensaver. I understand that sentiment, but I also think the movie is a deeply moving mediation on God, faith, the universe, and our place in the scheme of all those things. The strength of its themes equals the majesty of its visuals.

5. Win Win (dir. Tom McCarthy) - I love all kinds of movies, but my absolute favorites are the ones that blend comedy and drama into something that feels true to life. Win Win was a prime example of that in 2011. Paul Giamatti did some of his best work as a financially struggling attorney who bilks an old man out of some cash, then takes on the guy's runaway grandson as a charity case to make up for it. This is a heartfelt story that addresses the inherent human need to compensate for our poor choices by going something good as penance. The film is funny and heartwarming, and also shrewd about human motivation.

4. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne) - Here's another fine example of what I was talking about with Win Win. George Clooney plays an emotionally absent father who's forced to find a way to bond with his two daughters after his wife falls into an irreversible coma. Upon learning that she was cheating on him, he takes his brood on a search to find the other man. I went through the emotional wringer with this film: I laughed, I got choked up, I felt sad, I felt happy, and so on. Clooney does some of the best work of his career, and Shailene Woodley is phenomenal as his petulant teen daughter. The Descendants does a lot of things all at once, and it does them all exactly right.

3. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) - Most movies just play out in front of you. The best ones seem to come alive right before your eyes. They take you beyond mere sitting and watching, giving you a full-fledged experience that affects you on visual, emotional, and sensory levels. Drive is a movie like that. On the surface, it's the story of a getaway driver-for-hire (played by Ryan Gosling) taking on the proverbial “one last job” after falling in love. Underneath the surface, though, it's about a guy who has done bad things and now finds the inspiration to better himself. Director Nicolas Winding Refn gives the film an immaculate sense of 80s-influenced style, both visually and through the use of music. Plus, Albert Brooks gets cast as a gangster – and shows a heretofore unimaginable ability to convey darkness. An electrifying work.

2. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) - A black-and-white silent film? In 2011? You bet! Although that might sound gimmicky, the end result is anything but. In fact, it's magical. The movie is about a silent film star (played by Jean Dujardin) whose career goes on the downslide when he refuses to make the transition to “talkies.” Meanwhile, a young woman who made her screen debut as an extra on one of his pictures becomes a star in the new medium. The Artist takes an intriguing approach: it deals with its subject matter by becoming an example of it. The style and form of silent cinema are used to tell a story that has surprising depth; if you've ever been in the position of either capitalizing on something new or feeling like you were being put out to pasture, you'll likely identify with the themes. This is one of the most creative motion pictures I've seen in years, and I look forward to seeing it again.

And my choice for the Best Film of 2011 is:

1. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese) - A master filmmaker's gift to children. Scorsese tells the story of a young orphan who lives inside the walls of a Paris train station and fixes all the clocks. His journey eventually causes him to cross paths with a legendary film director (Ben Kingsley) who changed the face of the movies with groundbreaking special effects. Hugo addresses, in an age-appropriate way, the importance of film history and the desperate need to preserve vintage works. While it serves as a great primer for movie-loving kids, it also works as a tribute to classic cinema that adults will cherish. Scorsese gives us the best use of 3D ever, using it to tie into the overriding theme of technical innovations in movie-making. Watching Hugo was one of those occasions where I was completely transported in a theater. I became fully absorbed in its world. Not just a kids' movie, it is a bold and passionate statement of purpose from a man who has devoted his life to cinema. Simply magnificent.

Those are my top ten films. If I were making a top twenty, the next ten movies would be: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Warrior, Bridesmaids, The Help, Melancholia, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Moneyball, Bellflower, The Muppets, and Midnight in Paris. If you missed any of the movies on this list, I hope you'll make an effort to seek them out. And I sincerely hope they bring you as much joy as they brought me.

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