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Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column

2011—It’s a wrap!


Opposite Photo:
Rooney Mara in
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Selecting my favorite films of 2011 proved easier than I had initially thought.

Going into the final screening of the year I already had a baker’s dozen titles ruminating in my mind, but had high hopes I’d need to make room for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. While I found much to admire about the film (including young Thomas Horn's impressive performance), it left me rather cold--which seemed to be a running theme this year with certain eagerly anticipated movies.

The most exciting films of the year proved to be the ones that dared to probe the dark side of human nature and explore themes that made audiences wiggle uncomfortably. Cinema too real, too disturbing. The more I was rattled, the more exhilarated I felt.

The best motion pictures of 2011 rarely provided happy endings or feelings of safety and security. They contained characters that were deeply flawed and grey-area-exploration abounded. And yet, despite the seemingly nihilistic notions depicted onscreen, there was also a rewarding catharsis to be had for those bold enough to take the complete journey. And somewhere in the mix of those audacious and edgy treats we were also exposed to wonderful celebrations of the art form itself. And two veteran directors proved, despite their age and iconic status, that they were still creative forces to be reckoned with. And, ironically, both of their films were set in Paris.

2011 was a year where “good” films outweighed “great” films. What follows are my choices for the best of the good, followed by the great. These are my Favorites since the term Best is so subjective. And I’ve selected 13 favorites-- a lucky 13 if you will since numbers are arbitrary and…I found 13 gems to admire most in 2011.

Runners-up (alphabetically):

The Artist


A Dangerous Method

J. Edgar

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Le Havre

The Help

In a Better World


The Kid with the Bike

Margin Call


Sarah's Key

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tree of Life


War Horse



The Whistleblower

Win Win

Young Adult

Very Special Mention to:

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which almost cracked the Top 13. I get the feeling the full three-hour cut would skyrocket up the list as I found the film to be one of the most ambitious of the year with some of the best acting. Bu it felt too rushed--especially in the last third. This could be because I went in knowing the messy history of the film and the fact that Lonergan wasn't allowed to present his full vision. I look forward to a director approved DVD/Blu-Ray in 2012.

My Top 13

13. Moneyball

Brad Pitt gave his most mature, nuanced performance to date in Bennett Miller's study of modern baseball politicking. Because it told such a distinct and highly personal story, Moneyball resonated a universality without trying to do so. The crisp and clever script helped knock this one out of the cinematic park.

12. Hanna

This gripping and provocative thriller, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), brought sci-fi to a whole new creepy level. Wright likes to simultaneously agitate and entertain his audience and with Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and the scene-stealing Jessica Barden, he had the tools with which to do both in the most captivating way.

11. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

A highly underrated, masterful piece of filmmaking, Rise rose above expectations. As one of the biggest fans of the original series (yes, even Beneath!) I was appalled by the Tim Burton debacle, yet here novice director Rupert Wyatt reinvigorates the franchise with a fun yet socially relevant adventure featuring a towering performance-capture turn by Andy Serkis.

10. Take Shelter

Is he a lunatic or a prophet? Or both? Michael Shannon is astonishing in one of the most unnerving films of 2011. And the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain achieves her personal best here. Writer/director Jeff Nichols, in his sophomore effort, effortlessly uses the medium to tell a visually compelling, psychologically complex tale examining anxiety, loyalty and the apocalypse.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher is one of our best contemporary directors. Here, he takes a popular Swedish novel, already made into a celebrated film, and not only makes the work much more invigorating than its source material but grittily probes the darker, nastier aspects of the tale in a surprisingly poignant and insightful manner. Rooney Mara commands our attention from her very first scene. It’s a truly amazing performance, not just because she transforms herself but because she makes us believe in the very unlikely bond between her very damaged Lisabeth and Daniel Craig’s lost journalist. Both actors are wonderful. Mara deserves an Oscar nomination.

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin

Another fearless performance by Tilda Swinton make this chilling indie something to behold. Swinton’s bold portrayal of a mother at odds with a son who ends up committing a terrible act at his school is at the core of Lynne Ramsay’s non-linear, edgy exploration of nature vs. nurture. And the performances of all three Kevins, especially Ezra Miller, are genuinely unsettling and truly bizarre.

7. The Descendants

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Alexander Payne weaves a rich and rewarding narrative filled with great charm, wit and bite and boasting a fab ensemble of actors beginning with George Clooney—who keeps surprising us with range beyond expectation. Payne weaves a cinematic poem filled with joy and despair—sometimes simultaneously.

6. Drive

Reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a stylized, exquisitely violent mood/character study/genre film—although it manages to subvert genre as well. Ryan Gosling is intensely calm and manages to fascinate and frustrate—it’s his best performance so far. And Albert Brooks’ sharp, mean yet hilarious crime boss is pitch-perfect satire.

5. A Separation

Who’d have thought an Iranian film about marital strife could be so riveting and revealing? From the intense opening scene (which reminded me of the beginning of The Social Network), through its continuously intriguing and deliberately ambiguous narrative, the film keeps the viewer on his/her toes--constantly shifting loyalties-- never certain who is in the right. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi takes a troubled domestic situation, adds just the right amount of social, cultural and religious layers and creates a truly universal, truly great film.

4. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s back and better than ever delivering a gorgeous gem that is intelligent, perceptive and a total delight. The master delves into many of the issues that have plagued him throughout the years including some keen ideas about illusion vs. reality as well as art vs. commerce. And he’s assembled an extraordinary ensemble led by Owen Wilson, the divine Marion Cotillard and a damn spot-on Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway—as we would like to believe Hemingway was. Despite his age, Woody shows he is still one of the most creative, perspicacious filmmakers on the planet.

3. Hugo

Another legend produces another classic, in 3-D no less! Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is an inspirational celebration of cinema, He takes his protagonist and his audience on a magical journey of survival and discovery, and in the end, teaches everyone just a little bit more about that transcendent medium called film.

2. Melancholia

Self-proclaimed provocateur, Lars von Trier got in big trouble at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival by opening up his big mouth and being quoted out of context on a global level. He also made one of his most personal works--about the end of the world, and so much more. In Melancholia, von Trier challenges his own beliefs, prejudices, idiosyncrasies and in doing so he forces us to visit disturbing and depraved areas of our own hearts and minds. The man may annoy but the artist is changing the landscape of cinema.

1. Shame

No film in 2011 dared to go as deep and haunt as much as Steve McQueen’s Shame. Anchored by a groundbreaking performance by the brilliant Michael Fassbender, Shame burrows under your skin and make you feel utterly uncomfortable. It’s a bold, ballsy work that has divided audiences and critics. For some, the idea of a searingly honest portrayal of sexual addiction is too much to handle. For others, it’s a tonic to all the bullshit usually produced about sex—especially in Hollywood.

On the elevator ride down, after my second viewing, a foreign gentleman turned to me and with great zeal exclaimed: “Now, that was a real movie.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

My Favorite Directorial Achievements:

1. Steve McQueen for Shame

2. Martin Scorsese for Hugo

3. Lars von Trier for Melancholia

4. Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris

5. David Fincher for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Asghar Farhadi for A Separation

Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive

My Favorite Lead Actors:

1. Michael Fassbender in Shame & A Dangerous Method

2. Brad Pitt in Moneyball & Tree of Life

3. Ryan Gosling in Drive & The Ides of March

4. George Clooney in The Descendants & The Ides of March

5. Michael Shannon in Take Shelter


Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tom Hardy in Warrior

My Favorite Lead Actresses:

1. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

2. Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

3. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

4. Charlize Theron in Young Adult

5. Anna Paquin in Margaret


Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur

Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower

My Favorite Supporting Actors

1. Christopher Plummer in Beginners & The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

2. Albert Brooks in Drive

3. Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

4. Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin & Another Happy Day

5. Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris


Nick Nolte in Warrior

Shahab Hosseini for A Separation

My Favorite Supporting Actresses

1. Carey Mulligan in Shame & Drive

2. Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter, Tree of Life, The Help & The Debt

3. Octavia Spencer in The Help

4. Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris & Contagion

5. Jeannie Berlin in Margaret


Berenice Bejo in The Artist

Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs

Favorite Original Screenplay

1. Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris

2. Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan for Shame

3. Lars von Trier for Melancholia

4. Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist

5. J.C. Chandor for Margin Call


Diablo Cody for Young Adult

Asghar Farhadi for A Separation

Favorite Adapted Screenplay

1. John Logan for Hugo

2. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for The Descendants

3. Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin for Moneyball

4. Hossein Amini for Drive

5. Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear for We Need to Talk About Kevin


Christopher Hampton for A Dangerous Method

Denis Villeneuve for Incendies


The Best of TV:

Special Mention to:

The Big C

Cinema Verite’

Curb Your Enthusiasm



The Graham Norton Show

The Hour

The Killing

New Girl

Real Time with Bill Maher



The Vampire Diaries

The Top 13

13. Suits

12. Mildred Pierce

11. Dexter

10. Game of Thrones

9. Nurse Jackie

8. True Blood

7. An American Horror Story

6. Torchwood: Miracle Day

5. Breaking Bad

4. Homeland

3. Boardwalk Empire

2. Shameless

1. Downton Abbey







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