I can’t explain why but not ashamed to say that I sometimes verge on feeling misty-eyed when I read some of these AFI tribute citations every year. Of course, one or two leave me feeling cold as ice sometimes too.
BRIDESMAIDS marches down the aisle of American comedy with a vow to make you laugh long and loud. Kristen Wiig’s comic star shines bright as her and Annie Mumolo’s ingenious script upends the wedding dream myth by capturing the horror of being named Maid of Honor. Raunchy and uproarious, the fiercely funny ensemble is guided with a sure hand by director Paul Feig, and Melissa McCarthy’s explosive turn marks her arrival as a true original.
THE DESCENDANTS paints a richly convincing family portrait at once painfully funny and profoundly poignant. Alexander Payne’s strikingly original film balances the intimacy of family tragedy with the expansive politics of dynastic inheritance in the year’s most human comedy. With the weight of paradise on his shoulders, George Clooney delivers an eccentrically elegant turn as the reluctant patriarch who must come to terms with how to let go and when to hold on.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO invites audiences into a cold, forbidding world of family secrets and implores them to help solve the mystery. Director David Fincher brings Stieg Larsson’s novel to dazzling, dark and disturbing life that pulses with cinematic pleasure. From the astounding opening credits until the harrowing journey ends, Fincher leads a stellar cast including Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer and Rooney Mara, who carves the name “Lisbeth Salander” atop the list of 2011’s most transcendent performances.
THE HELP is an intimate epic that measures the cultural divide in the American south at a critical moment in the nation’s march toward racial harmony. Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller soars above and beyond stereotypes to illustrate how tolerance is taught, not inherited. Measured and moving performances by Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain help make THE HELP remind us that movies can be smart, movies can be kind and movies can be important.
HUGO unlocks the hearts of all who love the movies with a key forged by grand illusionist Martin Scorsese. The film beckons audiences into a world of wonder through the eyes of a young hero, a world alive in new ways through Robert Richardson’s resplendent use of 3D. This dazzling adventure is also a meditation on life and loss, deeply rooted in the powerful role movies play in our reality. With a proper tip of the beret to early pioneers Harold Lloyd and George Méliès, we are reminded that each film is a gift, and that when the masters intone, “Come dream with me,” through the magic of the movies, we do.
J. EDGAR illuminates the dark corners of America’s past with an ambition only attainable by an American master like Clint Eastwood. Armed with an impassioned script by Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood presents an intimate portrait of FBI Chief Hoover while moving effortlessly back and forth through time and in and out of shadows. Leonardo DiCaprio gives meaning to a monster in a towering performance that digs beneath Hoover’s G-man public image to the private man who kept a nation’s secrets while zealously guarding his own.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS offers a champagne toast to those who live in the present, but dream of an ideal past. Owen Wilson charms in this enchanting, post-dated postcard from the City of Lights, a stroke-of-midnight fantasy that brings to life Fitzgerald, Picasso, Hemingway and Belle Epoch figures like Degas and Lautrec. Sparkling and literate, this Francophile fantasia reminds us how lucky we are to be living in the Golden Age of Woody Allen.
MONEYBALL scores with a winning combination of sports and smarts. There’s nothing by-the-numbers in this ultimate inside-baseball movie, a story driven home by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s classic underdog script with a fresh, statistical twist. MVP performances by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill and controlled direction by Bennett Miller celebrate the spirit of a maverick manager who believes that how we play the game of our lives is as important as winning.
THE TREE OF LIFE is an awe-inspiring, cinematic miracle. Terrence Malick’s meditation on mortality is testament to the motion picture’s deep roots in poetry — that images and words together can embody life. Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning visuals and compelling performances by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and young Hunter McCracken embrace humanity in this tale of the cosmic and the microscopic. Ultimately, Malick forges a path between nature and grace, and generations will be held spellbound under the watch of his creation.
WAR HORSE advances Steven Spielberg’s gallant charge into the history of American film. A masterpiece from foal to finish, the film is an epic odyssey of friendship against all odds. Marked by a driving intensity in each scene — from the plowing of a field to the battlefields of World War I — this is grand scale filmmaking in the tradition of John Ford and David Lean, but presented with a brave and bold emotion only imaginable from Spielberg and his talented team. WAR HORSE is proof that miracles can happen.
TELEVISION PROGRAMS OF THE YEAR
BOARDWALK EMPIRE struts into its second year with an intoxicating air, adding new layers of complexity to this sumptuous, sprawling saga of Atlantic City during Prohibition. Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter command a talented ensemble that tells a tale of America, this year uncorking the emotional inner life of Steve Buscemi’s “Nucky Thompson” and the world he rules with an iron fist.
BREAKING BAD raises hell with such explosive authority that it defines the Faustian bargain for a new generation. Vince Gilligan’s ingenious fable of violent corruption was marked in 2011 by the unpredictable battle of wills between Bryan Cranston’s monstrous hero and Giancarlo Esposito’s icy kingpin. “I won” are the words that ended the year, and that is true for all who experienced this landmark in the history of American television.
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM continues to transform one man’s neuroses into cultured pearls of comedy with Larry David as the essential grain of sand. Marking its 80th episode in 2011, the show’s genius continues to alchemize improv and insight, this year adding the terms “Palestinian chicken” and “social assassin” to the American lexicon and delivering borscht belt belly laughs to Beverly Hills and beyond.
GAME OF THRONES serves up a filmic feast worthy of seven kings. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s vast epic fantasy smashes through the “small screen” with clashing swords, lusty clinches and kingdoms for the taking. Though magic and mythology swirl and surround, it is the human tale of honor, family and treachery that places this tale of dynastic mayhem in the pantheon.
THE GOOD WIFE is great television. Michelle and Robert King’s deeply compelling drama asks what it is to show a public face, to live private life and to be strong in a world of secrets. Julianna Margulies leads a stellar ensemble in this ever-intelligent story of a woman spurned, whose journey forward enlightens the dark world of politics, the liberties of law and the complexities of what it is to be “good.”
HOMELAND is a taut and timely tale of homeland insecurity. Creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon present a world ten years after 9/11, one where the nation’s war on terror brings a psychological simmer to a rapid boil. Electrifying performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis drive this cat and mouse thriller that is, at its core, an emotional meditation on what it is to feel secure.
JUSTIFIED goes down as smooth as blended whiskey and delivers a spectacular kick. Graham Yost has reinvented the classic American western as a twangy, tangy Kentucky-fried crime drama set in present day. Distilled by the wit and unforced whimsy of Elmore Leonard, the show mines for riches with fully realized characters created by the lethally charming Timothy Olyphant and Margo Martindale, whose monstrous mountain matriarch embodies the show’s folksy menace.
LOUIE looks at laughter with an unblinking eye and finds the year’s most original comedy. Born from the inspired mind of producer-writer-director-editor-stand-up comedian Louis C.K., the show’s brilliant contrast of a man funny and unforced onstage, while a self-deprecating single dad offstage, paints a dynamic new comic character in a rich and rewarding frame.
MODERN FAMILY is a happy marriage of hilarity and humanity. Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd’s giddy group hug continues to break down the idea of an ideal with a battering ram of life-affirming laughter. From the subtlest of wordplay to the broadest of slapstick, the insanely loveable comic ensemble never fails to ignite what’s fresh and funny about kith and kin.
PARKS AND RECREATION has put Pawnee, Indiana on the map of American comedy. Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s merry band of civil servants are led with antic authority by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, whose characters are closing in on cult status among those looking for a laugh. Grown from seeds of optimism, the show blossoms with buffoonery as these loveable bureaucrats try in earnest to make their city – and television – a better place.