Stephen Simon’s Top 10 Movies of 2011

This is a Guest Post written by Stephen Simon and reprinted with permission.

I am proud to be a voting member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that nominates and then votes each year for the Oscars®. However, I do have a conceptual issue with the notion of “Best” film, actor, etc. Art is way too subjective to be making objective distinctions, so I feel much more comfortable using the phrase “favorite film.”

When considering my favorite films for the year, I ask myself: Do I feel better about being human after having seen the movie? This personal qualifier is certainly not a part of the Academy voting rules, but it is an essential one for me.

Here are my 2011 favorites:

The Tree of Life 1.The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s mind-blowingly original The Tree of Lifeis so majestically and subjectively emotional that seeing it feels more like a deeply personal and spiritual experience than the viewing of a film. One gets the sense that each of us in the theater embarks on our own internal journey during the film.The plot of the film? Life, death, spirituality, nature, evolution, God, parenthood, childhood and everything in between. Truly, the film has no historical antecedent in its imagery or storytelling and thus simply defies traditional description.Brad Pitt’s performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button firmly established him as a brilliant actor. Now, in The Tree of Life, Mr. Pitt has elevated his craft to a new league of brilliance as he gives one of the most nuanced, evocative and haunting portrayals of a father in recent memory.Because of its dazzling originality, deep spirituality and sheer artistry, I would not be at all surprised to see The Tree of Life take on Citizen Kane-like status in the decades to come.
The Descendants 2.The Descendants
Writer/director Alexander Payne, who made one of my all-time favorite movies Sideways, hits another character-based home run here with The Descendants. George Clooney (who is absolutely pitch-perfect) plays a man whose wife is in a coma after having been critically injured. Utterly bewildered as he is called upon to care for his two daughters in a way he never imagined, he finds out that his wife had been cheating on him. How he and his daughters deal with those wildly conflicting emotions is the heart and soul of the film.Set in Hawaii, the film is a beautiful and ultimately a triumphant family drama that is filled with love, compassion and hope, illustrating how “life is what happens while we’re making other plans.”
Hugo 3. Hugo
Director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a magnificent and loving tribute to The Old Hollywood and movies themselves. The story of the film surrounds an orphan boy in Paris who searches for a key that will unlock the mystery of a humanoid device that was left behind by his father. As the boy (played wonderfully by young Asa Butterfield) searches for the right parts to bring the device to life, he encounters a bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who at first becomes a nemesis and then transforms into a friend.
The Artist 4. The Artist
The Artist is a brilliant, innovative salute to The Old Hollywood. One of the bravest movies of the year, The Artist dares to be a black-and-white silent film. An actor (played with incredible flair and depth by Jean Dujardin) named George Valentin is a huge silent film star with a glamorous, movie star life when he befriends Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young woman working as an extra on one of his films. He helps launch her career just at the time talking movies are replacing silent films. The Artist is a delightful love story between a man and a woman, between the audience and the magic of movies themselves, and, oh yes, between a man and his dog. Can’t beat that!
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Closeis a heartfelt film about childhood loss, adventure and triumph. The movie focuses on the son of a man (played by Tom Hanks) who is killed in the twin towers on 9/11, a challenging subject matter for filmmakers. The film mostly takes place a year later as the ten-year-old boy searches for a key (literally and figuratively) that connects him to his father.Under the incredibly sensitive and human direction of Stephen Daldry (The Hours and Billy Elliot), child actor Thomas Horn is brilliant, compelling and relatable as we join him on his search for healing and understanding.
We Bought A Zoo 6. We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo is to 2011 what The Blind Side was to 2009: a feel-good-about-being-human film. Writer/director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire and Elizabethtown) makes movies with compassion and empathy for real human beings who take on life challenges that ultimately open their hearts.The always-wonderful Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a widowed father of two young kids who buys a new home that includes a dilapidated animal park. Through the experience of putting the zoo back in working shape (aided by an understated and naturalistic Scarlett Johansson), Benjamin and his children transform their lives. As an audience, we leave uplifted and happy in the knowledge that we humans can be pretty wonderful creatures, too.
Win Win 7. Win Win
Win Win is a moving reminder of the crushing financial stresses and moral dilemmas those pressures present today. Paul Giamatti, one of my favorite actors, stars in the film and brings to it his trademark wit, intelligence and decency. His portrait of a man who compromises his own integrity is so real and compelling that it takes on the aura of a common moral and societal predicament in this age of economic upheaval. How far would we go, how much would we blur or even erase the line between our own integrity and our commitment to support our family? What happens when those lines intersect is the essence of Win Win.
Midnight in Paris 8. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s whimsical Midnight in Paris is an inspiring film about a man who yearns to live a simpler life in a different time and, through time travel, manages to experience just that. Owen Wilson’s character in the film has become so disenchanted with his life that he literally can no longer live in his old persona. What a wonderful message to all of us. Be real. Be ourselves. Trust. Love. Listen to our hearts.
Everything Must Go 9. Everything Must Go
Everything Must Gois a dramatic and deeply moving character study of a man (played by the brilliant Will Ferrell) who has literally thrown his entire life away because of his addiction to alcohol. Will Ferrell infuses his portrayal with a deep sense of humility, humanity and heartbreaking honesty. It is unfortunate that great comic actors are often completely ignored come Oscar time when they venture into drama, even when they give phenomenal performances.Incredibly life-affirming, Everything Must Go is an absorbing film that has much to say about how resilient we can be.
Dolphin Tale 10. Dolphin Tale
Dolphin Taleis an enchanting, inspirational film that is based on the true story of Winter, a dolphin that was washed ashore in Florida after becoming tangled in a fishing cage. Through the loving care of the Florida Marine Aquarium and two young children, Winter (who plays herself) learns to swim without her tail and later receives a prosthetic tail.Beautifully directed by veteran actor Charles Martin Smith, Dolphin Tale is much more than just heart warming and uplifting. Winter’s aquarium has become a haven for children from around the world who also have prosthetic devices. Winter gives us some great lessons here in life and love…


Here’s to a great 2012…both at the movies and in life!
Warm regards,