Silent Films in the 21st Century? One Made Our List for Best Films of 2011

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In my infinite film geekery, I was led to pondering what the best films of last year were. Being mentally steeped in the filmic affairs of our current year (which largely consists of defending/justifying the flaws in The Dark Knight Rises), I was required to reach into the recesses of memory a bit for this one. I was however, able to come up with this quite authoritative list.

5 X-Men: First Class

That’s right, X-Men:First Class proved to rinse the bilious taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-3 from our collective geek palette, and thus reinvigorated a flagging franchise. With the help of a worthy script, two indelible lead performances (James MacAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik “Magneto” Lensherr) and a rousing climactic battle at The Bay Of Pigs, this flick did battle with two of its mighty Marvel brethren (Thor, Captain America) and a colossal DC disappointment (Green Lantern) to emerge the clear critical victor of 2011’s superhero summer, despite some visible flaws (some of the characters lacking development/involvement, the film itself not always being terribly convincing in its period setting). Director Matthew Vaughn took the opportunity to take things back to the Kennedy Era, to tell the story of the formation of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, and the schism that leads to the formation of The Brotherhood of Mutants, and we once again are looking forward to another X-flick.

4 Midnight In Paris

I always say you can’t go wrong with a Woody Allen period piece (Bullets Over Broadway, Purple Rose Of Cairo, Sweet and Lowdown), and indeed it’s hard to find much wrong in this endlessly charming film. Besides being the best thing I’ve seen Owen Wilson’s face in since The Royal Tenenbaums, this ode to the post-WWI Paris literary/art scene is the best Allen film since Match Point. Wilson stars as a nostalgic modern day screenwriter, visiting the City Of Lights with his beautiful but shallow wife (Rachel McAdams) who is magically whisked away to the past by some manner of ghost taxi every night, where he gets to hobnob with his artistic heroes (Tom Hiddleston as an affable F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cory Stoll as an appropriately intense Hemingway, Adrien Brody as Dali) and begins an affair with a mistress of Pablo Picasso played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. All of this is handled of course, with Woody’s trademark wit, and a brilliant use of location and vintage music (which I’m starting to suspect Allen might be somewhat fond of).

3 The Descendants

Here we have another mournful family affair, but with a few more laughs. (OK, a LOT more laughs than A Separation). Alexander Payne, who has long been one of my favorite working directors (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) scores again with his unmistakable mix of heartbreak and hilarity. George Clooney stars as a Hawaiian land magnate whose life begins to crumble after the boating accident that results in his wife’s brain death leads to the outing of her infidelity (she was sleeping with Matthew Lillard). His journey teaches him the importance of “letting go”, in more ways than one. Actresses Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley impress as Clooney’s daughters, and the smart script was honored with “Best Adapted Screenplay”.

2 A Separation

It’s kind of a downer, but what can one expect from a family drama set in contemporary Tehran. The heaviest of issues (divorce, Alzheimer’s, Islamic chauvinism, miscarriages) are dealt with in a most straightforward and naturalistic fashion, and it’s easy to see how this film walked away with a “Best Foreign” statue. All of the performances convince in a truly remarkable way (leads Leyla Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as the separating couple, particularly) in this morally complex tale of a secular middle class family and a poor, religious one who end up in a tense legal battle with one another. You definitely leave it feeling as if you were actually sent to the other side of the world for a couple of hours, for better or for worse.

1 The Artist

The beautiful love letter to the art of cinema every one claimed Hugo was, except not boring as hell like Hugo. Yes, I find myself in an instance of agreement with The Academy on what the Best Picture of this particular year was, and with good cause. This sparkling jewel of a film (and I am not in the habit of describing things as “sparkling jewels”) effortlessly recreates the beauty and energy of the best work of the Silent Era. Lead actor Jean Dujardin, who works the kind of magic one would expect of some joint reincarnation of Chaplin, Gene Kelly and Errol Flynn, plays a gigantic star who stubbornly refuses to adapt to the advent of talkies (much as Chaplin did for a number of years in real life). They don’t make’ em like this anymore.

Honorable Mention

Tree Of Life – Director Terrence Malick’s jarring meditation on (what else) life and death, not at all hurt by the brilliance of Sean Penn at its center.

Drive – Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s crime flick is beautifully shot, with an awesome soundtrack. It tends to take its time building character and tension before exploding in bursts of shocking violence, much like Tarantino’s recent work.

Rango – I was glad to see a talking animal CG flick I could actually enjoy, one with some of the best character design and atmosphere I’ve ever seen, and pop culture references that did not annoy the living hell out of me (It borrows liberally from Chinatown!). Not to mention an often-hilarious lead performance from Johnny Depp as the titular chameleon.

Bridesmaids – A very convincing case for the star potential of Kristen Wiig, who is supported by some of the funniest women around in this pitch perfect comedy.

Warrior – Tom Hardy. That is all.

Thus concludes my fair and balanced list of 2011’s best films. You think you know better? Give it a shot.

Craig Johnson II was born in Los Angeles and is a resident of Brooklyn, NY. In addition to writing for Top 5, the lifelong film and comic book nerd is a freelance illustrator and graphic novelist whose work can be seen at http://craigj2.blogspot.com.

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