Here's my year-end list. Of course, I did not get a chance to see every single film that came out this year. Here are the movies that have been getting some love on others' top ten lists that I did not see: War Horse, Hugo, The Help, A Separation, Contagion, Certified Copy, J. Edgar, The Skin I Live In, Albert Nobbs, Carnage, and A Dangerous Method. I can't say for certain if my list would change one way or the other if I had seen these films, so once I've seen them, if I find them to be quite good, I'll just give them a proper review and possibly consider them for my 2012 list. Speaking of proper reviews, I've already written full reviews for all of these films so I'll try to keep it as short as possible. Now, to the list.
Nicolas Winding Refn cemented himself as one of my favorite directors with this stylish film. The intense scenes of tension and extreme violence had elements of Kubrick to them. Some complained that these scenes ultimately made the film an exercise in style over substance and to those people I would say, "So?" Let's face it; you can trace back the plot of nearly every movie out there to some other story. So Drive didn't have a complex plot, but it looked and sounded great and did enough to make you care about the characters. It helps that Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan inhabit the two leads. They have to give mostly silent performances and they're both great at it. The standout of the film, though, is Albert Brooks in a surprising turn as a frighteningly sadistic criminal. And then there's that great soundtrack that sets the mood for the entire film. It all boils down to Refn, though. He is the star of the film and I can't wait to see what he does next.
2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This was the surprise of the year for me. It's not that I expected it to be bad or anything, I just thought it would be a good spy film but nothing special. What I watched was the most addictive movie of the year. True, the film is almost utterly incomprehensible the first time through, but it's still fascinating. Watch it a few times and it all makes sense, even if you haven't read the book. Also, it has Gary Oldman giving a rare subdued performance that turned out to be my favorite of the year. It helps that Oldman is surrounded by one of the greatest casts in recent memory. Director Tomas Alfredson places his stamp on the film just as brilliantly and quietly as Oldman's performance. It's a moody, dark film and I have a hard time putting my finger exactly on what it is that makes me love it so much. (Rare thumbs up for the Academy for giving Oldman the nod, by the way.)
3. The Tree of Life
This is the most divisive film of the year and understandably so. This is a disjointed dream of a film and you're either on board with it or you're not. It is a film that could easily be dismissed for its lofty connections between childhood and the creation of Earth. Years ago, I would have dismissed the film for just that, but now I trust in writer/director Terrence Malick to take me on a beautiful journey that will leave me thinking about it months later. And I will certainly be revisiting the film for years to come.
4. Super 8
J. J. Abrams's ode to childhood completely worked for me. I only wish I had been a child the first time I had seen it. Still, the nostalgia I felt for the old Spielberg classics was strong enough to make it one of my favorite films. The child actors did a fine job and seem completely natural for the most part. Elle Fanning is real find. Plus, I'm a sucker for lens flares.
Lars von Trier is a challenging filmmaker who divides audiences nearly as much as Terrence Malick. This film contains some of the most beautiful moments of the year but it is really about depression and while von Trier likes to make himself as important as the stars of his films, he had a hard time with this one as Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg own this film. Dunst actually gave my favorite female performance of the year, which is why this film made it into the top half of the list. It is a joke that she was not even nominated for the Oscar.
Criminally under seen, Warrior is unfairly saddled as "that MMA (or UFC) movie." Sure, it's easy to describe it as the Rocky of MMA, but to call it that belittles just how good this movie is. That's not to say that Rocky is a bad movie (I love it, actually), but Warrior is its own film and it deserves a much larger audience. Now that it's on video, there's no reason to miss out on this one. Also, Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte are all on their A-game.
7. X-Men: First Class
After the disappointing third film (which I don't think is nearly as bad as others make it out to be) and the mediocre, sometimes awful Wolverine spinoff, there was not much hope for this prequel. Then that awesome trailer came out and the film itself accomplished the rare feat of living up to the trailer. Setting a mutant battle in the midst of the Cold War worked so well and the cast is great. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are perfect as young versions of Magneto and Professor X, respectively. Comic book movies can be truly great sometimes.
8. The Descendants
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Alexander Payne's films. I loved Election and Sideways, but his last film came out in 2004 and audiences (i.e., me) tend to have short memories. I quickly remembered that I loved Payne's films for their heartfelt portrayals of people in depressing situations and the humorous way these stories played out. It helps to get a strong performance out of George Clooney and a surprise turn from relative newcomer Shailene Woodley (who was laughably snubbed by the Academy this year). This is a touching, great film that fits right in there with Payne's impressive filmography.
9. The Adventures of Tintin
Okay, I'm not going to lie; I only went to see this because I was bored over the holidays and I had a coupon for an IMAX ticket. I had no idea I was in for one of Steven Spielberg's most exhilarating movies in recent memory. The visuals are amazing and the action is simply awesome. And I mean that in the strict definition of the word. I was awestruck a few times. Don't be fooled by the "kiddie" look of the film. This is Spielberg in classic Indiana Jones mode, and that's a good time for everyone.
10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I should just reserve a spot each year for director David Fincher, although this is his weakest showing yet on my end of the year list (he's three for three since I've been doing this). That doesn't mean this film isn't fantastic. It is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If anything, this film stands as a sign that Fincher doesn't have to be in your face with his style to make an effective film. I must say, though, his more stylish fare is more impressive. It's Rooney Mara's performance (surprisingly Oscar-nominated) that soldified it's spot on my list.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
I take forever to make my top ten list each year (one year I flat out cheated and made a top fifteen), so of course there are plenty of other films that nearly made my list. If this was written on a different day, any of these films could easily have made the cut.
50/50 - They really managed to pull off a cancer comedy while still remaining emotionally captivating.
The Conspirator - An interesting and historically accurate courtroom drama.
Coriolanus - A great Shakespeare adaptation and a promising first directing effort from Fiennes.
Hanna - Joe Wright has become a must-watch director with this stylish action film.
Hesher - Gordon-Levitt is hilarious in this strange film.
Midnight in Paris - Not a Woody Allen fan, but this magical film was just great.
Moneyball - Brad Pitt makes it look easy in this interesting and unlikely baseball film.
Red State - So close to making the list if only because Smith showed such a different side.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - This one was on and off the list multiple times. Fought the urge to make this a top eleven just to keep this film on there.
Shame - Fassbender!
Young Adult - A funny drama featuring great turns from Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.