"There's a hundred thousand streets in this city. If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, then I'm yours, no matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you're on your own. Do you understand?"
The opening lines of "Drive," the best movie I saw in 2011, set the tone for the entire picture.
Like the Driver's (Ryan Gosling) approach to his nighttime gig as a wheelman, Nicolas Winding Refn's filmmaking is deceptively simple and direct. Dialogue is spare. Action is sudden and brutal. Car chases appear to be composed solely of stunts.
The tight-lipped Driver remains a mystery to the end, even as he romances his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), bonds with her young son (Kaden Leos), tries to help her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) out of a jam and runs afoul of two gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks).
The supporting actors, Brooks foremost among them, provide the personality Gosling forcefully holds back from the Driver.
Refn works with silences, stretching them out as the Driver weighs every word, using them with Cliff Martinez's addictive electro-pop score and Newton Thomas Sigel's warm nighttime cinematography of Los Angeles to create a hypnotic tone.
"Drive" is an action movie that has nothing in common with the latest "Transformers" or "Fast and Furious" sequels. It is more intense and suspenseful than any of those big-budget franchises because its focus is character—yet its central figure is defined completely by his actions. Refn and Gosling use this compelling contradiction to draw in the audience, placing us in the Driver's seat as those five minutes tick away.
The following films, listed alphabetically, fill out my top 10 of 2011.
The most daring movie of the year employs filmmaking techniques as old as the art form, though that's not why it makes this list. "The Artist," from French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, is a black-and-white silent film, yes, but it's the joyful performances—chiefly among them, Jean Dujardin as a silent movie star and Berenice Bejo as a young dancer who becomes a sensation when "talkies" are introduced in 1927—and an unabashed love of the movies that make this a special experience.
"Cedar Rapids," from director Miguel Arteta, presents a group of characters so inviting you just want to hang out with them. Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), Dean "Deansy" Ziegler (John C. Reilly), Ronald "Ronimal" Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) make a convention of insurance salesmen in Iowa seem like the party of the year. The good-natured, likable vibe starts with Helms and filters out through the entire movie, making it the best pure comedy of the year.
Set in a Hawaii that actually feels like people live there, Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" presents George Clooney, in one of the year's top performances, as a real estate lawyer who must sell off his family's 25,000 acres of undeveloped land while trying to find the man with whom his now-comatose wife was having an affair and reconnecting with his two daughters. Like life, "The Descendants" is both happy and sad, and often inhabits the gray areas of morality.
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Dark, pulpy, slickly made entertainment by David Fincher. The American adaptation of Stieg Larsson's international bestseller gives birth to a new star in Rooney Mara as the iconic character of the title, computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, while Daniel Craig gives a more workmanlike performance as Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist brought to solve a decades-old murder. Fincher digs deep into his bag of tricks to breathe new life into a story many already have seen on the screen and even more have read.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"
Ten years after the first movie, the boy wizard's saga comes to a spectacular end with the Battle of Hogwarts and the inevitable final showdown between Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Though this second half of the final book in the series is the most action-packed Potter movie, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves never lose sight of the beloved characters brought to life by actors we literally have watched grow up on the screen. Powerful, emotional filmmaking on a grand scale.
"Midnight in Paris"
Woody Allen continues his sojourn in Europe with this fanciful tale of Gil (Owen Wilson, in the performance of his career), a Hollywood screenwriter who longs to be a novelist. With his imagination and sense of nostalgia running wild while on a Parisian vacation with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), the clock strikes midnight and each night he's whisked away to the 1920s, where he befriends F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo).
Director Bennett Miller finds the human story in a book about using statistics to build a winning baseball team. Brad Pitt is at his best as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, presented as brash and bullish in public but plagued by self-doubt in private, and Jonah Hill flexes his dramatic muscles impressively as an economics major who sells Beane on a new approach to scouting. "Moneyball" is a classic underdog story and a baseball movie that isn't really about baseball.
It is animated and its characters are talking animals, but no, "Rango" is not a kids' movie. It's a Western in every sense and features a hero, a little lizard who calls himself Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), with a bent more toward existential pondering ("Who am I?") than action. Celebrating genre conventions and referencing movies such "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown" and "Star Wars," this is about as ambitious as it gets for major-studio animation.
The deconstruction of superheroes continues in writer-director James Gunn's independent feature starring Rainn Wilson as Frank, a man who strikes out with his wife (Liv Tyler) and decides to win her back by becoming a masked crimefighter called the Crimson Bolt. Armed with a pipe wrench and with help from his demented sidekick, Boltie (Ellen Page), Frank takes to the streets, seeking out evildoers and people who cut in line at the movie theater. With wild shifts in tone—the movie careens back and forth from comedy to horrific violence—"Super" is one of the year's most interesting and disturbing films.
BEST ACTOR: Ryan Gosling, "Crazy, Stupid, Love," "Drive," "The Ides of March"
BEST ACTRESS: Michelle Williams, "My Week with Marilyn"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Patton Oswalt, "Young Adult"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"
BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE: Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
BEST COMEDIC PERFORMANCE: Paul Rudd, "Our Idiot Brother"
FUNNIEST MOVIE: "Horrible Bosses"
PLEASANT SURPRISES: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "Fright Night"
ANTICIPATED IN 2012: "The Avengers," "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Bourne Legacy," "Lincoln," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Django Unchained"