My favorite films of 2011

The other day, Molly Knight and I were chatting on Twitter when we both realized how much each other loved the films of 2006. That happened to be my first fall working full-time at Variety, and it was a spectacular one for the movies, led by “Little Children,” “United 93″ and “The Last King of Scotland.”

All three of those films would rank ahead of my favorite film of 2011, using the system I designed long ago. It’s a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal.  I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “best” film, but only a “favorite” film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic.  Here’s how I explained the system back then:

Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges? For example, is it offering both a romantic story and social commentary at once? How difficult was the film to make technically? This allows one to distinguish between two equally well-made films when one is Casablanca and the other is Animal House. Ambition isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it allows some extra credit to be given where it is due.

Quality (1-10): This is essentially how most films are graded – simply, how good are they. As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13)
: How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it’s the most important – I’d rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Just to give you a quick idea of how this works, here are the scores of my favorite films of all time.

The Misfits: Ambition 5, Quality 9.5, Resonance 13, Total 27.5
Casablanca: Ambition 6, Quality 10, Resonance 11.5, Total 27.5

Both are great movies in my mind, with Casablanca being objectively better and The Misfits being the most powerful to me emotionally. Now, there probably aren’t 10 people in the world who would consider these films equals, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? This system helps us rank our favorites without trying to say that they’re definitively the best.

And, for comparison, down near the bottom of the scale …

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan: Ambition 1.5, Quality 2, Resonance 2, Total 5.5.

During my single days, I rated nearly 600 films using this system before it fell by the wayside. But I decided to hurriedly resurrect it to knock out the films I saw that were released in 2006. You’ll see that list below.

Two last quick points: I wouldn’t get caught up in single-point distinctions – those don’t amount to a significant difference between films. In fact, each time I look at the list, I feel like tinkering with some of the grades.

The other thing is that in the past, an average film totaled about 16 points, which means that I did pretty well in what I saw this year. I honestly didn’t feel that I saw a truly awful movie from 2006.

Now while I didn’t see a movie in 2011 that I would rank ahead of the best of 2006, I did see plenty of good ones in a year that matched up well with 2010 – along with one truly awful, despicable one. So here, the day before the Oscar nominations are revealed, is my list for the past year …

Film A Q ER Total Comment
1 Beginners 4 9.5 10.5 24 A wonderful grown-up multi-person love-and-loss story, perfect in tone.
2t The Artist 4.5 9 10 23.5 I know some don’t get the fascination with it, but I found it simply winning.
2t Moneyball 4 8.5 11 23.5 Some unnecessary missteps on the baseball side, but a really affecting story of a man at war with himself.
2t 50/50 4 9 10.5 23.5 Sincere and meaningful, with some genuinely brilliant touches
5 Martha Marcy May Marlene 4 9 10 23 They should have gotten her treatment sooner, but otherwise, really strong, intense movie.
6t Hugo 4 9 9 22 An involving, well-executed ride. Got kids interested in origins of film, which was very cool.
6t A Separation 4 9 9 22 “Carnage” for grownups. Serious themes and believable stakes.
8t The Descendants 4 8 9.5 21.5 Too much voiceover and lag early on, but hits home hard in second half.
8t The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 4 9 8.5 21.5 Pretty riveting, and enjoyed Mara and Craig greatly. Didn’t like the Villain Explains It All ending much.
10t Take Shelter 4 8 9 21 A sincere depiction of the confusion that comes with mental illness, with tremendous work by Michael Shannon
10t Win Win 3.5 8.5 9 21 Good entertainment, fun and unique story.
10t Warrior 4 8 9 21 Except for its detour into conventional ESPN sports movie midway, very well-done.
10t The Guard 3.5 8.5 9 21 Sharp and entertaining, a good companion with “In Bruges.”
14t Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 3.5 9 8 20.5 Well-executed (though as challenging as anything to follow) and Oldman is amazing.
14t A Better Life 4 7.5 9 20.5 Earnestness is mostly well-earned. Bechir is great. The gang stuff feels a little staged.
14t The Help 3.5 8 9 20.5 Solid storytelling that mostly feels familiar and not groundbreaking. Liked the performances.
17t A Dolphin’s Tale 4 7 9 20 After a somewhat rough start, I got swept up in the film despite (okay, maybe because of) its earnestness.
17t Midnight in Paris 4 8 8 20 Rachel McAdams’ disaster character harms an otherwise smart ride.
17t Rio 3.5 8.5 8 20 Fun. This and “Gnomeo” are underrated as far as this year’s animated movies.
20t Rango 3.5 8 8 19.5 Cool in its way but the story didn’t completely enthrall me.
20t Tyrannosaur 3 8.5 8 19.5 Searingly intense with great lead performances.
22t Higher Ground 4 7.5 7.5 19 Slow-starting but kicks into something kind of unique.
22t Crazy, Stupid, Love 3 7.5 8.5 19 Fun but not special. Feel-good movie.
22t Gnomeo and Juliet 3 8 8 19 See “Rio.”
22t Jane Eyre 3 8 8 19 Few complaints of this adaptation.
22t The Tree of Life 4 7 8 19 The ambition, care and commitment are evident, but I couldn’t make all the connections the movie wants me to.
22t Young Adult 4 7.5 7.5 19 On the edge of too unsympathetic, but overall it succeeded, and performances were great.
28 Hanna 3 8 7.5 18.5 A good exciting ride. Ronan is awesome. Cate Blachett’s Texas accent, not so much.
29 A Dangerous Method 4 7 7 18 Good elements, but didn’t come together as an impactful movie.
30t Carnage 3 7.5 7 17.5 Only partially successful adaptation of the play, with many of its strengths but more of its artificiality.
30t Shame 3 6.5 8 17.5 Didn’t dislike it, but we end up basically where we began.
32t The Muppets 3 6 8 17 You know, the plot wasn’t much, but I enjoyed it.
32t The Adventures of Tintin 3 7 7 17 A good adventure built around a bland, bland central character.
32t Cedar Rapids 3 7 7 17 Lightly fun, mostly unassuming comedy.
35t Cowboys & Aliens 3 6 7 16 Kind of a mess, but I didn’t mind all that much.
35t Kung Fu Panda 2 3 6 7 16 Movie didn’t hold me.
35t We Need To Talk About Kevin 3 6 7 16 Well-meaning, well-acted, but with serious flaws and lack of insight
35t The Iron Lady 3 7 6 16 More strange than entertaining.
39t J. Edgar 3.5 6 6 15.5 Not bad but not reveletory, kind of dull. Not once did I feel the actors disappeared into their roles.
39t Margaret 3 5.5 7 15.5 Promising start derailed by contrived shrillness. Needed much more nuance.
41t Albert Nobbs 4 5 6 15 Well-intentioned but with inexplicable plot and character choices.
41t Bridesmaids 3 6 6 15 Melissa McCarthy as good as advertised, but otherwise almost as overrated as I thought “The Hangover” was.
41t My Week With Marilyn 3 6 6 15 Other than watching Michelle Williams, who is convincing, not much there. Lead male is two-dimensional.
44 The Ides of March 3 5.5 5 13.5 Boy falls in love with politics and an hour later is jilted. That’s all there is?
45 Cars 2 3 5 5 13 Flat and uninvolving – a big drop from the original.
46 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 3.5 3 3 9.5 As phony and manipulative as anything you’ll ever see, to the point of being offensive. Garbage plotting.
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