At the heart of Hell and Back Again is 26-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris (left). The documentary film — which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival — shows a wounded Harris' struggles with combat stress and addictive opiates after his return to the U.S.
Fresh Air's film critic David Edelstein says 2011 was the kind of year without a list-topping film.
"There's no best film this year," says Edelstein. "This is in alphabetical order because I liked all these movies, I loved some of them, but I just couldn't pick a best. It wasn't that kind of year."
Instead, Edelstein rounds up some of his favorite films and performances of 2011: his picks for what's worth seeing, and which actors and actresses may win big come awards season.
The Year's 10 Best Films (In Alphabetical Order)
The Adventures of Tintin The 3-D animation unleashes the Rube Goldberg slapstick poet in Steven Spielberg, who takes the Indiana Jones template to dazzlingly kinetic new heights. My face literally hurt from the inability to stop grinning at the end of those two hours.
In Beginners — based on director Mike Mills' life — Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds out that his father is gay, and that he has denied himself throughout his married life. After coming out, Oliver's dad becomes physically and spiritually transformed.
In Beginners — based on director Mike Mills' life — Oliver (Ewan McGregor) finds out that his father is gay, and that he has denied himself throughout his married life. After coming out, Oliver's dad becomes physically and spiritually transformed. Focus Features
Beginners Melancholy and madcap, Mike Mills' inventive weave of past and present ushers you into the mind of its hero (a superb Ewan McGregor) as he agonizes over his emotional inheritance. As the dad who comes out of the closet at 75, Christopher Plummer is light and lithe, buoyed by his new life among the boys.
Coriolanus Ralph Fiennes stars and directs from John Logan's canny script. Not definitive, but taut, brutal and unsettling — Shakespeare's surly warrior by way of The Hurt Locker.
The Descendants Alexander Payne is either American cinema's nastiest humanist or its most empathetic jerk. Whichever, his brusque, sometimes ungainly film zigzags movingly between comedy and pathos, pettiness and anguish.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life Joann Sfar's inventive Serge Gainsbourg biopic uses fancy temporal leaps and the surreal presence of a hook-nosed, bat-eared doppelganger to create a portrait of the artist as a brilliant, riven horndog — and a genius.
Hell and Back Again Danfung Dennis' documentary is a grueling portrait of a soldier leading his men through war in Afghanistan — and at home, after a bullet tears through his leg and hip. Dennis jumps back and forth between this supremely potent fighter in the middle of a war he doesn't understand, and the agonized and impotent man at home with a new and tragic perspective.
Into the Abyss Werner Herzog's second documentary of the year earns its comparisons to In Cold Blood, depicting a sick, tragic ecosystem of senseless crime and uncomprehending capital punishment.
Margin Call The view from among the 1 percent — a lacerating business melodrama in which the bad guys win. With Kevin Spacey's best performance in years, plus stellar work by Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci and even Demi Moore.
Andrew Cooper/DreamWorks Pictures
Director Steven Spielberg delivers War Horse, an unforgettable odyssey for Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey.
Director Steven Spielberg delivers War Horse, an unforgettable odyssey for Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey. Andrew Cooper/DreamWorks Pictures
Mysteries of Lisbon Raoul Ruiz's final film (he died a week after its U.S. release) is a Dickensian epic with a dash of magic realism. You study it like a series of paintings — then realize, with a gasp, that it has hold of you like a fever dream.
War Horse Steven Spielberg's World War I epic, opening Christmas Day around the country, follows a horse from rural England to the bloody battlefields of Europe; it's sometimes cornball and too self-consciously mythic, but the director's complex humanism — his view of men at their worst and best — shines through. It's grim, yet thrilling.
The Year's Best Performances
Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady The actress stars as Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd's biopic about the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. "I was not going to fall for another of her burbling, fancy accent, amazing transformation performances," says Edelstein. "It took about five minutes, and then I was on my knees. ... Once she gets the music of a character, then she gets how the mind works. And once she gets how the mind works, she gets how the body works. And then she puts it all together."
Christopher Plummer in Beginners The veteran actor has often played villains over the course of his lengthy career, but in Mike Mills' film, he plays a man who comes out of the closet at age 75. "It's the lightest performance, the least mysterious, the happiest," says Edelstein. "He seems to get younger on screen in front of your eyes. ... And it's a lovely movie, too."
Other strong performances: Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti in Win-Win, Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, Brad Pitt in Moneyball and Tree of Life
In Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst's lavish wedding takes place as a rogue planet — also called Melancholia — hurtles directly toward Earth.
In Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst's lavish wedding takes place as a rogue planet — also called Melancholia — hurtles directly toward Earth. Magnolia Pictures
Melancholia surprisingly doesn't appear on Edelstein's best-of list, though he deemed it a masterpiece. "I just couldn't do it," he says. "It is such a hateful film. It is the work of a nihilistic annihilist. For Lars von Trier, the world, when it ends, is, well, lost. ... When one chooses the things that one loves and one wants to recommend, it's a very difficult question: Can you love a film — can you recommend a film that highly — that peddles a worldview that you find utterly hateful, even poisonous? I don't know the answer to that. That's why it's my little asterisk."
The cultural zeitgeist, reflected: There's a vibe in the culture that our way of life is ending, says Edelstein. He points to films like Take Shelter, Margin Call and Contagion, which tackle global warming, financial ruin and spreading plagues, respectively. "For whatever reason, it's like, 'Pick your reason why the world is going to end,' " he says. "I think one reason Occupy Wall Street seems so unexpected is because the culture has been telling us in all sorts of ways in the last several years ... that collective action is hopeless. I can't wait to see the mindset of Occupy Wall Street percolate down into movies."
Pauline Kael was a film critic for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, as well as the author of several books, including I Lost It at the Movies and For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies.
Pauline Kael was a film critic for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, as well as the author of several books, including I Lost It at the Movies and For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. AP
On Pauline Kael: The late New Yorker film critic was the subject of both a biography by Brian Kellow and a memoir by James Wolcott about living in New York City during the 1970s. A collection of her reviews and essays, edited by Sanford Schwartz, was also released. Edelstein reflects on the film critic, who "changed his life."
"I miss her every day," he says. "She introduced herself to me in a movie theater and said she liked my work, and what do you say? And then I met her for coffee in her New Yorker office a few weeks later, and the first thing she said to me was, 'Do you love it? Do you love the writing?' And I said, 'Oh my god, no; it's hard, it's grueling.'
"And she gave me the saddest look I think I've ever seen in my life, because for her, there was something so thrilling about the way she could get just jazzy. ... One of the reasons people hated her so much was that they could love a movie and she could hate it, but she could do so much better a job of evoking it, of what it was trying to do and how it made you feel."