2011 In Film: How A Year Without A Favorite Was A Favorite Year There's no single awards favorite in 2011 — not even a pair of films duking it out. But part of the reason there's no favorite is that it was, in the end, an interesting and challenging year in movies.
NPR logo 2011 In Film: How A Year Without A Favorite Was A Favorite Year

2011 In Film: How A Year Without A Favorite Was A Favorite Year

So far, awards season has been unsettled — and pleasantly so. The local critics in San Francisco and Toronto made The Tree Of Life their favorite film. The Los Angeles critics picked The Descendants. Critics in New York went with The Artist -- so did critics in Boston and Washington. The National Board of Review picked Hugo.

By contrast, last year, The Social Network was the pick of Boston, Washington, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the National Board of Review. Eventual Oscar winner The King's Speech didn't start picking up steam until a little later in the process, and there were certainly other picks here and there (Austin picked Black Swan, for example) but from the time the race really got underway, it leaned, but didn't careen.

What's more, whatever you thought about The Social Network and (or versus) The King's Speech, neither felt especially new. Both were very well-executed versions of pretty typical Oscar fare: the beautifully dressed period piece about an inspirational and triumphant historical figure and the intense, headline-friendly contemporary biopic full of hot confrontations and cynical speeches about modern life — both with a full complement of familiar and/or heavily hyped faces. Neither was a film that would make you walk out of a theater and say, "Well, that was different."

The failure of a single awards favorite to emerge this year delights me utterly, because what made this year a great pleasure for me at the movies was the sense that not everything worked, but many things were tried that didn't feel like reconstituted soups of Oscar winners past.

And yet, in that experimentation, there was risk. The Artist — largely silent and black-and-white — is pure beauty to some but a gimmick to others, and the story is either lovely and elegant or tremendously lightweight, depending on whom you ask. The way 3D is used in Martin Scorsese's luscious Hugo will motivate some doubters to rethink the depth of their objections to it, but the line between sentiment and sentimentality is a fine one, and the swelling hearts of the final act have provoked a handful of objections, as has the obsession with the magic of film, which may mean more to critics than it does to civilians. The Tree Of Life is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and wildly inventive, but its birth-of-the-cosmos break can try people's patience. The Descendants has a lived-in looseness in places, but what some people find to be an affected indie-ness in others. (And impressively, it's the first time I can remember George Clooney actually looking dumpy at times. Yes, dumpy. Dumpy George Clooney.)

The recent award winners aren't the entire story, either. The first few minutes of Melancholia are stunning to the point where they have more in common with paintings and symphonies than with much of film, even if parts of the story are later less effective than that overture. Martha Marcy May Marlene features perhaps the most talked-about debut of the year from Elizabeth Olsen, and it will creep you right out, but it also pushes the limits of the audience's taste for ambiguity.

The family story Beginners contains some fascinating and stylish use of repetition and rhythm to convey the passing of days, both in life and in memory. The dusty Western Meek's Cutoff marinates in unexpected, unrelenting silence. We Need To Talk About Kevin is the most tonally constant film I can ever remember seeing — it gave me the feeling of staring at a single painting and hearing a single note for two hours and genuinely not being sure what to think.

Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman's Young Adult is another one with a challenging, complicated ending that has sharply divided people I know who normally consider themselves pretty capable of discerning what a director and a writer are saying. The same is true of Like Crazy, a romance with a breathtaking opening sequence about falling in love that remains a stunner whether you stuck with the (again) ambiguous final scenes or not.

That's not to even mention experimentation within well-worn genres: Bridesmaids is easy to think of as a fastball over the middle at this point, but remember: it was far from a foregone conclusion that people would line up to see women in a group-of-buddies comedy that blended girl talk and a spectacularly gross digestion sequence. And even Friends With Benefits — yes, Friends With Benefits — has a more frank and less precious attitude about sex than the great majority of high-profile romantic comedies that presume to be about people who, in fact, are having sex with each other. Blockbusters Captain America and The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes are doing some pretty nifty manipulating of the human body and face.

There are people, too, who showed up and seemed to know how to do something different. What Elle Fanning can do at 13 years old to light a character from the inside (she does it in both Super 8 and We Bought A Zoo) is remarkable, and Viola Davis does the same thing in The Help. (And possibly in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, but if that were true, my telling you so would still be embargoed, so NO COMMENT.)

I think of this year in terms of what surprised me, and performances stand out: Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower, Anne Heche in Cedar Rapids, Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love. Documentaries, too: the high stakes and high emotion of The Interrupters, Buck's affectionate lope, the funny and suspenseful Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles.

I don't know if I saw anything this year that it would shock me to hear that someone didn't like. I don't think I saw anything that I can't imagine feeling annoyed with in one way or another. I saw nothing that made it entirely easy to love and adore it without question.

But I loved the movies this year. I loved weird little indies and slick sex comedies and buddy comedies and movies that made me cry and cry and cry. I loved how much of it was breathing and strange and frustrating, and how I had arguments with really smart people on Twitter who saw things I didn't or thought I was nuts. (And I chose to completely give in to We Bought A Zoo, so those arguments aren't over.)

There's no single favorite because, it seems to me, most of the frontrunners don't make it as easy as The Social Network did. For all its excellent filmmaking, The Social Network — like The King's Speech — kept people pretty comfortable. Discomfort is good; it belongs in art. It belongs in criticism. That I can't think of anything I would logically expect to win over everyone and anyone is a mark of the fact that I felt pushed, and that I expect other people to feel pushed.

And I'm glad.