From Lion Kings to Lethal Lisbeth -- Julie's 10 Favorite Films of 2011

Truth be told, I don't enjoy ranking films -- especially at the end of a year that disappointingly lacked a single title that moved me to tears, gut-busting laughter or some kind of profound existential realization. (However there were quite a few films that inspired hopelessness for the future of cinema. See Just Go With It and Bucky Larson: Born To Be a Star. Actually, don't see them.) But there were some titles I'd recommend and even some I wouldn't immediately regift if they found their way under my Christmas tree/menorah this season. Behold, my fave films of 2011. As always, let me know how much you disagree with this list in the space below.

10. The Muppets
In a year that lacked decent romantic comedies, The Muppets filled the feel-good movie void for me. Jim Henson's fuzzy characters -- who made their long-awaited return to the multiplex in this Jason Segel/Nick Stoller-scripted picture -- have the uncanny ability to make audiences forget their cynicism -- even after paying the $12 ticket price. That special power is priceless, especially when combined with the overpowering nostalgia that Kermit, Miss Piggy and the entire Henson gang induce.

9. African Cats
For the record, I would watch any nature documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson because this Oscar nominated-actor's intense delivery could make any non-event seem suspenseful. But this Disneynature release exceeded my expectations. Chronicling the lives of a pride of lions (led by Fang, their grizzly, fearless, snaggle-toothed superior -- the equivalent to The Lion King's Mufasa) and a rival family of cheetahs led by a single mother Sita, this story was at once informative and breathtakingly beautiful. The real-life footage depicted a majestic African savannah so gorgeous that it was hard to believe it was not computer-generated and a tale of death, reunion and fiercely protective paternal impulses so moving that it was difficult to comprehend that it was not scripted. Furthermore, the story of Sita's single motherhood in the majestic African savannah is the most compelling story of single parenthood I've seen all year.

8. Contagion
Steven Soderbergh's cautionary virus film is my favorite horror flick of the year, mainly because it continued to inspire fear and nightmares long after my first screening. Any film that can weave together another award-worthy Kate Winslet performance and Matt Damon as an overly protective dad who stages a home prom for his quarantined daughter complete with U2 dance mix is a film friend of mine. In addition to being all of these things (and the best-paced film of the year, in my opinion), Contagion established itself as one of the best-worst cautionary tales for adulturers ever.

7. Crazy, Stupid, Love
Ryan Gosling in a well-tailored suit. Emma Stone playing a head-smart female who can miraculously bait emotionally closed-off men into mature romantic relationships. Steve Carell as a dejected divorcé. Josh Grobin. A brilliant, if totally impractical and unrealistic, scene involving the Dirty Dancing lift. What I could have done without -- in this Dan Fogelman-scripted film -- is every other peripheral storyline including Julianne Moore's romance with a work colleague played by Kevin Bacon, a babysitter crushing hard for Carell and makeshift miniature golf courses. Regardless, this is one of the smartest films to fall under the romantic-comedy umbrella this year.

6. Warrior
Full disclosure: I am partial to any film set in Pittsburgh because I am a Steel City native. That being said, Gavin O'Connor's sports drama was not just a welcome dose of nostalgia but a tale of repressed familial feelings and resentment told against the gritty 'burgh backdrop. Although the whole Moby Dick audiobook situation may have been a little heavy-handed for my taste, Nick Nolte's performance as a recovering alcoholic and sinner was crushing. Also, I prefer Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton's portrayal of tragically competitive brothers over Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale's any day of the week.

5. 50/50
I was hesitant to see a film branded  a "cancer comedy" -- even if it starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick and Anjelica Huston. But when I finally did get to the theater, I discovered one of the sweetest films of the year. One that was able to tackle cancer with a heaping dose of comedy that never felt inappropriate, thanks in part to Will Reiser's touching script and each supporting cast member who seemed responsible for bringing one major component to the movie each: Angelica Huston (sympathy), Seth Rogen (laughs), Bryce Dallas Howard (bitchiness) and Anna Kendrick (hope). Do not be afraid of 50/50 -- it is one of the few films this year that really earned its uplifting ending.

4. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Because of the number of tabloid pages dedicated to him, I always end up discounting Tom Cruise as an actor...until I get into a movie theater and realize again, just why he is and deserves to be a movie star. Tom Cruise has a unique screen presence that demands your attention and ticket money -- and when paired with Brad Bird's impeccable direction and the stomach-churning action sequences in this fourth Mission: Impossible installment, was a sight to behold, and one that I hope I can experience very soon again.

3. Young Adult
In addition to boasting one of the smartest, hilarious and most devilishly complex protagonists of the year, Young Adult introduced the wonderful Patton Oswalt as the kind of unoriginal male lead that thinking movie audiences deserve. Thank you to Juno filmmakers Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody for giving us a fresh female character who can be manipulative, bitchy and yet completely relatable -- in that she understands how dulcet the nasal-y narration of Kourtney Kardashian can be when you are stained sweatpants-level depressed.

2. Melancholia
So Lars von Trier's epic end-of-the-world endeavor may not be the kind of film I'd rush back to see again anytime in the next few days -- but that is because I am still digesting the dichotomy of the wildly beautiful images and disturbing apocalyptic tale of one depressed bride (Kirsten Dunst) and her improbably tolerant sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who see a planet approaching their own. This is the most nightmarish cinematic screensaver ever -- and I mean that in the best way possible. Also, Kiefer Sutherland's comedic relief contributions are something to be admired. (On an unrelated note, can someone please give me a final bath count for this movie? I've never seen depressives take to the bathtub more eagerly than the bed.)

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
After reading Stieg Larsson's Millenium series, and then sincerely enjoying the original Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo -- directed by Niels Arden Oplev -- I did not know how David Fincher would improve upon such a solid film released so recently (2009). I should have known better than to doubt Fincher and his new muse Rooney Mara though, who transformed into the film's dark, damaged, kick-ass heroine under the filmmaker's expert care. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is easily the most electrifying and interesting thriller of the year.

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  • julie says:

    I'm Julie too! So when I see an article claiming to list "Julie's Favorite Movies" I was intrigued. Love your list. Warrior is my #1 so I'm glad to see it included on a list at any number.

  • Julie Miller says:

    Yay! Are you a Julie from Pittsburgh too?

  • Morgo says:

    the big surprise for me on your list is Crazy Stupid Love, I loathed it with an absolute passion. Definitely one of my worst viewing experiences of the year. The only reason I like compiling best and worst lists is to remind myself of what I've seen - otherwise I'd probably forget the truly awful ones

  • AS says:

    I disagree with many of your choices but I'm so happy to see Contagion listed and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at no. 1!!!!!

  • Charles says:

    It's an interesting top 10 insofar as I don't expect to see movies like "Crazy, Stupid, Love," "50/50" and "Mission: Impossible" on many other lists. And I'll be seeing 3 of your top 4 before year's end. Kudos for uniqueness!

  • JAB says:

    Totally agree with you on "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". The biggest shock was that Fincher made a harder "R" rated movie than the Swedish version & that Rooney Mara made for a better Lisbeth Salander than the excellent Noomi Rapace.
    HOWEVER from start to finish "Moneyball" is my favorite film of the year.

  • BruceD says:

    Just as there was something about Mary, I sense there is something about Steve Carell. I dont fully get it, and I know he is still clinging to his comedy roots, but somehow, somewhere he slowly creeps up on me with a presence overshadowing his body of work so far. He often plays in original films as awkward characters and seems to fill in the dull parts by just being there. I look forward to many more years of this maverick.

  • KevyB says:

    Yeah, there weren't even a lot of movies this year that I CHOSE to leave the house for, so it's nice to hear someone point out just how underwhelming this year was. Though Crazy Stupid Love was quite good, even with its annoying parts. Whenever a movie can surprise me, I'm happy. Though as far as saying the year lacked decent romantic comedies, I would say it had more than usual. CSL, Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached. Were the last two great? No, but they had some clever writing, good casts and were certainly more entertaining than anything Katherine Heigl's ever been in. And, yes, that includes Bitches VS Losers... I mean Knocked Up.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Re. Patton Oswalt - did you actually mean 'unoriginal'? Or 'unconventional'?

  • celluloid seven says:

    Seriously, though Girl/Tattoo is interesting, moody and mega-Hollywood - and I really really enjoyed it - it is not high caiber filmmaking. The change to the script didn't really help: Robin Wright's character's visit to the Vanger estate was clearly added to give Robin, her beauty and her horrible Swedish accent more screen time, Lisbeth buying the leather jacket for her 'crush' does not work at ALL (the character is too controlled, too self-knowing for this) and the pulpy nature of the source book does no favors.
    Yes, I'll watch again and again, for the shots, enthusiastic acting and MOOD. Much like 80s vampire flick 'The Hunger', Girl/Tattoo has incredible mood and a little too much schlock to be considered a serious, successful film - by a critic or anybody else!

  • Charles says:

    I've now seen 5 movies on your list (Tattoo, M:I, 50/50, Crazy and Contagion) and so far our lists have nothing in common. I'll be seeing "Young Adult" tomorrow.

  • ejherr says:

    Hey Julie. I check Movieline every day but I'm sorry that I haven't made a point of your name and your articles. I will now, predominantly because our best 10 of the year lists are surprisingly similar. You have good taste. I guess a smiley face would be appropriate after a statement like that to point out the tone of jokey irony, but instead I wrote this sentence.