January 1, 2012



It’s actually harder to come up with a manageable list of Honorable Mention movies than a Top 10, because there are so many films that are eminently worth seeking out and seeing, but perhaps a little bit flawed–sometimes too thin, sometimes too audacious for their own good.  It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to add 10 more to the very worthy titles listed (in alphabetical order) below:

50/50:  Writer Will Reiser turned his own serious experience with cancer into a satisfying, perceptive comedy-drama, with earned laughs and a minimum of sentimentality.  Terrific performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen (playing a version of himself–a friend of Reiser’s, he was also one of the film’s producers), Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard, and unmannered, self-effacing direction by Jonathan Levine.

BEGINNERS:  Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical tale of a man (Ewan McGregor) whose elderly dad (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet after decades of marriage and is then stricken with cancer was quirky (the subtitled dog) but also grounded in real emotion, and a seamless exercise in jumping between timeframes and moods.  Plummer deserves all the year-end honors he’s getting, and McGregor and Melanie Laurent, as the new love in his life, were splendid.

BELLFLOWER:  The craziest, most exciting writing/directing debut of the year, Evan Glodell’s fantasia was about pop culture, apocalyptic fantasy, doomed romance and fatal friendships.  It was all too much and too strange and sometimes miraculously brilliant.

CERTIFIED COPY:  A writer (William Shimell) meets a fan (Juliette Binoche), she takes him sightseeing, and as a lark they pretend to be a longtime couple–or was the pretense that they just met?  Abbas Kiarostami’s exploration of shifting identities and realities is utterly different from the neorealist stories of his native Iran that made his reputation, an eloquent and probably unsolvable intellectual game.

CONTAGION:  The good news is that just when Steven Soderbergh seems to near his deadline for early retirement, he adds another project to his list.  Contagion was the scariest movie of 2011, a matter-of-fact, all too believable piece of fiction about a random virus that kills millions of people in mere weeks.  Even an uneven script (the Jude Law and Marion Cotillard episodes didn’t work) and an all-star cast couldn’t minimize the creepiness of the film’s flawless semi-documentary execution.

THE DESCENDANTS:  Not as insightful or accomplished as its fans claim, but still a very good movie.  Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama sacrifices believability for the star power of George Clooney and some easy gags, and it bogs down in a predictable, banal subplot.  The dialogue and performances, though, are mostly quite fine.

THE DOUBLE HOUR:  A couple meet at a speed dating night, and robbery and murder ensue.  But is that really what’s going on?  Giuseppe Capotondi’s romantic thriller was the twistiest, trickiest dazzler of the year, and one that mixed genuine emotion with its structural gamesmanship.  

DRIVE:  Nicolas Winding Refn’s thriller was spectacularly well shot and edited, beautifully performed by a cast that included Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and especially the career-redefining Albert Brooks, and about absolutely nothing but its own devotion to the subgenre of 1970s moody action films.  As pastiches go, though, it was far less vapid than Super 8 or ponderous than War Horse.   

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS (PART 2):  A worthy conclusion to the best franchise of the decade.  Not quite the jewel that chapters 3 and 4 were, but director David Yates, screenwriter Steve Kloves and the gigantic cast do J.K. Rowling’s spectacular finale proud.

HIGHER GROUND:  A genuine rarity:  Vera Farmiga’s directing debut, written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, is a truly serious American movie about religion, its comforts and limitations.  Farmiga’s performance was of course luminous, and she proved herself a strong, intelligent director of other actors (including Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, and her own sister Taissa Farmiga) and exceptionally challenging material.

HUGO: Martin Scorsese isn’t Ernst Lubitsch, and the portions where he tried to achieve that kind of effortless light touch were weak.  But the last section of the film, with its heartfelt salute to Georges Melies, one of the founders of cinema, and Scorsese’s superbly crafted embrace of the latest in 3D technology (much in Melies’s spirit) were exhilarating.

LIKE CRAZY:  Drake Doremus’s highly improvised film owed a huge amount to its stars Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones (and in a smaller role, Jennifer Lawrence), but its beautifully captured tone of fragile and desperate young love was its own.

MARGARET:  Kenneth Lonergan’s cursed, long-delayed, still-not-finished post-9/11 drama doesn’t hang together, and we may never know if it possibly could have (unless Fox Searchlight sets it free for a Criterion homevideo release).  It’s tantalizingly close to brilliance, though, a narrowly-etched epic about teen idealism, selfishness, guilt and narcissism as embodied in Anna Paquin’s remarkable performance, and the deeply troubled adults who surround her.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE:  Elizabeth Olsen gave one of the year’s truly breathtaking performances as a cult escapee, but no one went to see Sean Durkin’s troubling, difficult, constantly-shifting drama.  John Hawkes’ work as the cult’s leader was even more frightening than his Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone

MELANCHOLIA:  The first half of big-mouth Lars Von Trier’s epic was excellent dark comedy about a truly terrible wedding, sparked by a lovely performance by Kirsten Dunst.  The second was a moody end-of-the-world saga that partook a bit too much of European art film cliches.

A SEPARATION:  Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant Iranian drama is the story of a collapsing marriage, class struggle, religion, the impossibility of true justice, and ever-so-subtly, that country’s contemporary politics.  It’s a deeply human story that manages to be incisive, emotionally complicated and a window on a very alien culture all at once.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY:  Fitting John LeCarre’s legendarily complicated story into 2 hours was a Rubik’s cube of a challenge, and Tomas Alfredson’s film, written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughn, pulled it off–the only drawback was that having managed that feat, there was little room for the depth and nuance that made the novel and BBC dramatization into classics.  Gary Oldman, almost but not quite eclipsing the memory of Alec Guinness, headed a great British cast,

THE TREE OF LIFE:  Ah, Terence Malick!  Gorgeous, fabulously realized images of a Texas childhood, brilliantly performed by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken– mixed with incredibly pretentious, flat-footed footage of dinosaurs, the formation of planets, and Sean Penn looking glum.  The year’s most starkly mixed bag.

TYRANNOSAUR:  Nobody’s idea of a fun night out at the movies, but Paddy Considine’s directing debut, a paean to human misery and the search for love, featured towering performances by Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan.

X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS:  Matthew Vaughn’s prequel was itself the class of this year’s superhero movies, a daring mix of CG magic and the Cuban Missile Crisis that was hurt only by Kevin Bacon and January Jones’s lackluster villainy.  The exceptional cast included James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne and Nicholas Hoult.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."