AFI Awards Citations: Movies of the Year, 2011

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.

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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.

31 Comments on this Post

  1. Thanks Ryan. I really enjoyed reading those summaries of AFI’s choices. I’m on my way to see “Moneyball” tonight and “The Descendants” tomorrow.

  2. War Horse a “masterpiece from foal to finish”. *Cough*

  3. What a fantastic list from AFI!

  4. Love these! I’ll raise a glass to that Midnight in Paris citation.

  5. Eloquently written, although this is not the Golden Age of Woody Allen by any means.

  6. Wow. These are beautifully written. They really know how to sell their list.

  7. I betting either Tree of Life or The Artist will win.

  8. Carson Dyle

    Key difference between War Horse and the works of John Ford though – in Spielberg’s film, lying will get you nowhere. In Ford’s films, the liars are the victors.

  9. Key difference between War Horse and the works of John Ford though – in Spielberg’s film, lying will get you nowhere. In Ford’s films, the liars are the victors.

    ^
    A+

  10. MIchelle

    @Keifer…Moneyball…really good, The Descendants….the most overrated film of the year at the very least….in my opinion, really bad!

  11. Where’s The Artist? Is it out because tecnically it’s french?

  12. Jerry Grant

    That description of “War Horse” is finally something I can get behind. Bravo AFI!!!

    “Tree of Life” for the win!!!

  13. Dragoneer

    @Bennett: The AFI is an organization for American films. Not sure where/what the cut-off is.

  14. You know what? GAME OF THRONES is the best thing I saw in 2011. Taking all movies and TV into account. Give it the Oscar.

  15. The Artist was ineligible but I’m not sure why. Sometimes Brit films are eligible, sometimes not. And the AFI never seems to explain their criteria.

  16. Solid list….although I would have replaced J Edgar, Bridesmaids, and probably Dragon Tattoo (I thought the Swedish original was much better) with Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Margin Call, and TInker Tailor if the latter was eligible, and Take Shelter if it was not.

  17. Houstonrufus

    If only some of these films were as good as these citations suggest.

  18. @ Michelle, for what its worth, I thought The Descendants was the BEST film of the year. Also props to the AFI writing well about War Horse…(even though I know many here don’t support either Descendants or War Horse with much gusto, I find both to be far better than people give them credit, especially The Descendants)…

  19. Daniel B

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the movie of the year!

  20. Key difference between War Horse and the works of John Ford though – in Spielberg’s film, lying will get you nowhere. In Ford’s films, the liars are the victors.

    Almost everyone that uses the horse but Albert ends up dead, including innocent German brothers and a french girl. In fact, I don’t even know what this phrase even means in regards to War Horse.

  21. Carson Dyle

    Well, instead of a hardline interpretation of “lies” I’ll say a wavering of conviction, or an attempt to escape the truth and/or destiny. Alby and Kebbell are the only resolute characters in the film who don’t waver from doing what they think is right, and it’s the strength of Alby’s conviction that rewards him in the end.

    Mullan can’t cope with his experiences in the Boer War and so he hides himself behind his drink and is regarded as a buffoon for doing so; Hiddleston doubts himself and can only half-heartedly convince himself that the English attack will work; David Kross shirks his duty and drags his brother along with him in fear of what might come; the grandfather attempts to shield his the girl by keeping her ignorant of what is going on around them (and both of them lie to the German soldiers, which is ultimately ineffective) only to have both the horses and then his granddaughter taken away from him (and is only truly content in the end when he accepts the truth that the horse aint his); the German horsemaster lies to himself about being able to save these animals when he really can’t, and so on and so forth. The film punishes characters with who have no conviction and deceive either themselves or others – Alby lies once but then retracts it within the same breath, and is the only character who is truly rewarded in the end due purely to the fact that he doesn’t waver.

    Part of that is the genius of War Horse though, using Ford’s trappings and aesthetic to tell a distinctly harder, anti-Ford story, since Ford would commonly let “the lie” (print the legend) win out, from classics like Liberty Valance to schlock like Mogambo. Spielberg always rewards those who are resolute in discovering the truth, and always punishes those who obfuscate the truth (the mayor in Jaws, Coyote in ET, Peter Pan trying to be a normal man, Von Sydow in Minority Report, DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can, right through to Saccharine in Tintin).

  22. Simon Warrasch

    THE ARTIST WILL WIN THE OSCAR!!!! POINT.

  23. @Simon how come it isn’t doing good at the box office?

  24. Tero Heikkinen

    OCO, you ask this all the time. The Artist is doing VERY WELL at the box office. Not all movies make a billion dollars.

  25. “If only some of these films were as good as these citations suggest.”

    Moneyball is actually much better than its uninspired write-up. A little more enthusiasm, maybe? “controlled” direction is like saying he was able to keep everyone on the road, when actually he got inspired performances and a moving film from a potentially dry subject..

  26. Thank you Carson for that analysis, I got none of that while watching the movie and think it would have helped my enjoyment if I had seen it through this prism. I still think it is a very uneven but obviously watchable movie, too top heavy for the whisp of a fable it is telling. But this morning I find myself revisiting it with your ideas in mind.

    Spoiler alert: On a similar note…anyone?…not to be dense or too literal, what is the implication at the end of The Artist? Is the protagonist making his comeback as just a dancing star but still silent, I kept waiting to hear him speak on camera within the context of the scene being filmed. Still, a rousing finale.

  27. Julian the emperor

    houstonrufus: I second that emotion!

  28. The writer of such AFI summaries deserve an Academy Award, illuminating the noblest, SPIN flax to Oscar gold….a magician creature like Rumpelstiltskin or Harvey Weinstein ilk.

  29. What, no Take Shelter?

  30. Paul Voorhies

    I’m surprised that you’re picking Viola Davis to win. I think that Meryl Streep’s victory is, like the pearls, absolutely non-negotiable. Though I will say that her odds at a Globe or somewhat smaller than Oscar, which IMHO, is a lock. I suppose I could see the FP wanting to award someone who hasn’t won 3,000 times already, but I still don’t think it will happen.

    I’m picking Brad Pitt to beat George Clooney. I thought that The Descendants was one of the most overrated movies of the year, and, well, Pitt is a sexier pick than is Clooney, and you know how that Globes love to reward the “young(er) hot stars.” Therefore, I’ll pick Hugo to upset for Best Comedy. It’s more “GLOBE”y.

    I’ve been picking Octavia Spencer to win Supporting Actress since the week the movie came out, but the critics haven’t seemed to line up behind her, so I’m surprised she is the far away favorite. All of a sudden, everyone is behind her. I hope Octavia beats Jessica Chastain, as she was at least 3 times better than her. Let’s hope the “hot and pretty young thing” rule doesn’t apply here. I don’t think it will, so I’ll stick with OS for the win.

  31. I just saw “Drive”. A brilliant film, and the director deserves an Oscar nomination.

    Violent? Yes (and I really hate violence). Stylistic? Definitely. Suspenseful? Hell, yes. The film is a cluster-fuck cross-breed of “LA Confidential”, “The French Connection” and “Bullit”. And Ryan Gosling is simply awesome. Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman give great supporting performances. Why is Albert Brooks stealing all the reviews? Cranston and Perlman are every inch his equal in their scenes.

    I can’t wait to see “Drive” again. The film is haunting.

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