Alas, we wrap our 2011 Year in Review lists with my favorite annual lists, although it seems to go by a different name each year. I’m not sure how to label it: It used to be the best DVD rentals, then the best movies to Netflix, and then some people confused it with the 11th through 20th best films of the year, while others got angry at me because they weren’t actually on Netflix yet.
It’s none of those, really. What it should be called is, “The 10 Movies I Watched with My Wife in 2011.” Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate is not a huge cinephile. When she’s not watching stodgy British television or catching up on Netflix series that I told her to watch three years ago, we occasionally make time to catch a movie, almost never in theaters (we saw two this year together: Bridesmaids and the number one film on this list). She doesn’t like violence. She doesn’t like scary movies, and she doesn’t like movies that are too intense. She likes comfort films: Friday night on your couch movies. She likes light movies, but not dumb ones. Comedies, but not overly raunchy comedies. Love stories are nice, but if there’s some cultural value involved, it’s even better.
She’s very hard to please, so I’m always thrilled when something in her wheelhouse comes out because it means in four to six months, we’ll have something to watch together at home. I call them comfort movies. They’re hardly ever the best of the year, but because they represent one of the few times that my life and profession converge, they’re often my favorites. (Bridesmaids is excluded because it was on our Best Of list, and though she hasn’t seen them yet, she’s going to go apeshit for 50/50 and The Artist, also on the Best Of list).
10. The Lincoln Lawyer — You knew Matthew McConaughey had it in him. After suffering a decade plus of mostly terrible high-concept flicks, McConaughey returns to the type of role that made him a star in the first place, a sleazy, cocksure defense attorney with a gooey center of humanity. The gritty shots, the handheld cameras, and the seedy surroundings are ideal for McConaughey — they are brutal on everyone else in this film (Marisa Tomei, included), but the sweaty close-ups that reveal pores and forehead veins are perfect for McConaughey — it’s his natural surroundings. They highlight both the man’s strengths and his actorly vulnerabilities. It’s like home, and Matthew McConaughey has finally returned to it. In Brad Furman’s serviceably directed Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a seedy defense attorney who works out of his Lincoln Town Car, and who is not above continuing a client’s trial until his fees are paid. There’s some indication that Haller is in it for the money, and he has a few ambulance-chasing tricks to demonstrate that. But he’s also about the justice system — he comes from a line of defense attorneys, and nothing weighs on him heavier than the idea of an innocent client being sent to prison, even if it means returning a murderer back to the streets. It’s his dedication to thugs and felons that cost him his marriage to Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), a prosecutor and still occasional sex partner, with whom he shares a child. — DR
9. Source Code — Gyllenhaal is very likable, and while most of his performance is nothing out of the ordinary, one strong scene late in film reminds you why he’s more than just a pretty face. Monaghan is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s easy to see why Jake’s Colter wants to try to save her. Farmiga is dependable as always, and though Wright’s performance is a little unnecessarily affected, he serves his purpose. Meanwhile, Jones isn’t tasked with quite as much heavy lifting as he had in Moon, given that film’s bottled-up setting and focus on a single character(s), but the film is still well shot — it looks good, it’s paced well, and it’s able to shift back and forth in a smooth, unconfusing way. While Moon didn’t fully or satisfactorily explore all of the questions its concept raised either, it at least tried. Here, Jones is saddled with a script that doesn’t even try to do more than brush up against the questions it raises, and it hard not to wonder if a re-write by Jones wouldn’t have provided a more rewarding film. That said, although Source Code does not deliver the full extent of smarts or insight contained in the possibility of its premise, it’s neither a dumb nor bad film, particularly for science fiction (and for those who dislike or loathe sci-fi, it should be noted that it’s not heavily steeped in the genre once you get past the whole Source Code business) and although I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to see it in the theaters, you could do far worse once it’s released for at-home consumption. More than anything, though, the film keeps excitement alive for Duncan Jones as a filmmaker and suggests that he may be something greater than a one-hit wonder. We desperately more dependable genre guys like him out there. — Seth Freilich
8. The Help (My wife loathed, loathed, loathed the book, but I made her watch the movie anyway, and thanks to the remarkable performances, it totally won her over) — Ultimately, The Help overcomes the platitudes and the sentimentality for a couple of reasons: First and foremost are the remarkable performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who capture the roles of Southern black maids without reducing them to caricatures. (Note that Minny’s Mhmmhmm in the trailer is the only one in the film, and the use of it as a marketing tool to sell the movie is a crass and manipulative ploy to draw to theaters crowds of white people who want to see black women depicted in ways that make them comfortable.) Moreover, Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the racist Junior League president, is nasty. Viciously nasty. Not a moment goes by when you don’t loathe the woman and want her to choke on her own hate. — DR
7. We Bought a Zoo — We Bought a Zoo is red meat for cynics. Cameron Crowe precariously perches his heart upon his sleeve and taunts misanthropists and skeptics, begging them to take the easy route, to mock the movie for its earnestness, to criticize his dogged efforts to elicit tears. Intelligent audiences will be divided: Some will call it sentimental rubbish while other will buy into Crowe’s brand of idealism, let We Bought a Zoo sweep over them, and give in to one of the most touching, hopeful, and heartfelt films of the year. But it is not fake. Anyone who has followed Cameron Crowe’s career knows that, while it may not be to everyone’s liking, there’s nothing phony about Cameron Crowe’s passion, his sense of romance, and his idealism. Yet, if it weren’t so sweet and life-affirming, it’d probably be annoying as hell. What’s certain is that Cameron Crowe fans — those that bought into Lloyd Dolber’s dare to be greatness, who subscribed to Jerry Maguire’s mission statement, and who long to be Golden Gods — will love We Bought a Zoo. It’s vintage Crowe: A sweet sense of humor, great characters, love and the impossible dream. It teeters on the edge of clever and schmaltzy, it is rousing and romantic, uplifting and inspiring, and goes to great lengths to yank those tears out of your eye sockets, but by God, it succeeds, and it does so without making you feel cheap. We Bought a Zoo is nice enough to buy you dinner before it fucks up your mascara. — DR
6. Horrible Bosses — Horrible Bosses is going to invite comparisons to just about every other movie about rotten workplaces, but it acts best as a corollary to Office Space. Not because it’s on the same level as Mike Judge’s modern classic, but because both films are perfectly of their time, capturing a snapshot of the working world as it was or is. Judge’s film was about a man oppressed by boredom and forced to work overtime to update his company’s software for Y2K, a laughably empty threat even when the movie was made and a nice representation for the kind of banal paper-shuffling forced upon the protagonist. Yet the working men of Horrible Bosses aren’t fighting apathy, but evil, and they’re roped to their jobs because of the recession. Each one wants to escape a cruel manager, but they’re all forced to realize that the costs are too high and that they’d be worse off without their paychecks. Twelve years ago, you could make a movie about a guy trapped at a job because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. Now, he’s stuck because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s a huge change, and the timeliness of the subtext gives Horrible Bosses a nice edge and the ability to go to dark, weird places, which it does in entertaining and often hilarious ways. — Daniel Carlson
5. Crazy Stupid Love — Everything that is associated with — and what many people dislike about — romantic comedies is front and center in Crazy, Stupid Love: Big, schmaltzy romantic gestures; zany misunderstandings; ridiculous makeovers (with the obligatory montage); preposterous leaps of logic; lack of context for the character’s actions; the pour-your-heart-out public speech (at a graduation, no less) and one dumb plot contrivance after another. Under different circumstances with different talent attached, Crazy, Stupid, Love might’ve been no different than any of Ashton Kutcher/Katherine Heigl style romantic comedy to roll out the Hollywood factory every year. And yet it’s not. If you can temper your groans — and the movie is good enough that it’s not hard to do so — Crazy, Stupid, Love is a sweet, low-key love story, the absolute best movie you could hope for given the circumstances. Steve Carell is likable and lovely, Ryan Gosling is douchebag-charming, Emma Stone is sweet and endearing, and Julianne Moore is, well, she’s in it. The performances are so remarkable, and the direction is so sure handed that, despite your brain’s many misgivings, it’s an easy film to like. — DR
4. Warrior (The key to getting my wife to watch this movie was to not tell her what it was about and let the Nick Drake-y opening song pull her in) — Until Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is officially released in a couple of weeks, Warrior will briefly hold the title of “the best sports movie in years.” But unlike Moneyball, which successfully subverts the sports-movie formula, Warrior doubles the formula and quadruples the emotion. It’s Rocky times two: Twice the violence, twice the underdog story, and twice the acting capabilities. There’s absolutely nothing new here, but Warrior capably wrings every last bit of rousing, feel-good energy out of the tired sports-movie template to create an astoundingly entertaining film that just happens to be about MMA. — DR
3. Friends with Benefits — I’m glad that Friends with Benefits came out after No Strings Attached because it perfectly demonstrates that, when it comes to romantic comedies — or comedies in general — it’s not about the premise, it’s what you do with the premise that matters. I’m reminded of those improv exercises where two teams are given the same situation to act out. In this scenario, it’s like having the director of Year One act out the situation followed by the director of Easy A. The results are exactly what you’d expect: One movie is terrible, while the other is outstanding.. Friends with Benefits comes from Will Gluck, who has quickly and quietly — with Fired Up!, Easy A and now this — become the most underappreciated comedic director working in Hollywood right now, and he does it without cramming Apatowian bromance down your throat. What’s even more refreshing is that the only pattern that Gluck has fallen into is making movies with great scripts, less about the high-concept and the big stars and more about the comedy and finding the right people to sell it. In Kunis and Timberlake, he’s struck gold, and the result is a great goddamn romantic comedy. — DR
2. Win Win — Tom McCarthy’s films are about solitary characters and the way in which those around him converge, how these families with holes elegantly find their plugs, and how these plugs find their families. Richard Jenkins in The Visitor Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent. The unknown Alex Shaffer is the next addition in this McCarthy trilogy of lonely souls, and while Win Win may not be the best of the three, it’s easily the most approachable. He’s replaced the quietness that pervaded his previous two efforts with heavy doses of humor, characters that are more instantly likable, and traces of sports movie formula. But it’s McCarthy, and the only real formula McCarthy’s movies fit into are his own. — DR
1. The Muppets — There is nothing to gain by trying to criticize The Muppets. It’s a fool’s errand. Trying to find fault with The Muppets is like scaling a skyscraper made of ice, like swimming up Niagara. I’m sure it’s possible, but anyone that puts in enough effort to find something wrong with The Muppets is probably a spectacularly unpleasant person to be around. It’s not a perfect movie, but the sum of its parts is more than perfect: It’s sublime, capable of bringing the kind of joy they sing about in holiday songs. It won’t kill cynicism; it will transform it into bliss. It will melt the black off of coal. It doesn’t matter how many terrible films you’ve seen in your lifetime, The Muppets is a freight train of emotion and it will make you believe in the magic of movies again. — DR