15. MARGIN CALL
The most basic maxim of the stock market is “buy low, sell high.” For his debut, writer-director J.C. Chandor grabs lots of acting talent that hasn’t been very valued since the ‘90s (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore) or that isn’t currently valued enough (Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany) and fashions many of their best performances in a decade. The fact that the movie is itself about the stock market is deliciously appropriate icing on the cake. Margin Call sputtered out at the box office, as did Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Company Men before it, because people today still don’t really want to watch a movie about the very thing that destroyed countless people’s livelihoods. In a few years, though, when audiences are ready to watch a movie about the people responsible for the Great Recession, Margin Call is the likeliest to be recognized as a neglected masterpiece.
14. WAR HORSE
Older Westerns and war movies require modern audiences to turn off their cynicism and sardonicism to appreciate them. They have a susceptibility because of the honesty and openness that the stories were often best told with. War Horse is the same. It feels of a different period, and not just because it takes place before and during WWI; it feels like it was made half a century ago, in the heyday of directors like John Ford and David Lean. Told from the wordless point-of-view of a horse sold into the Army, as the farm boy who raised him concurrently enlists in the military to track him down, War Horse allows Steven Spielberg to use his war-movie skills and his family-drama skills to craft a classic family film that is destined to be appreciated by future audiences better than current ones. I can also say with all honestly than despite the beauty of films like The Tree of Life and Melancholia, no movie I saw in 2011 was more cinematically and visually awe-inspiring than War Horse.
13. THE DESCENDANTS
Since leaving his sarcastic phase in the ‘90s, each Alexander Payne movie has gotten better. About Schmidt was good, but very flawed. Sideways was much better, although not quite superb as many claimed. The Descendants is Payne’s best movie yet. George Clooney gives the most layered performance of his career as a man who finds out his newly comatose wife had been having an affair. Despite the depressing premise, the movie is very light in tone and never misses an opportunity to mine laughs out of extreme situations, especially when it comes to how people “should” act. Filmed on the Hawaiian islands, the culture and temperament is almost a character itself, giving the movie a distinctive flavour. One character, a stoner/surfer caricature who serves no real purpose in the movie, holds The Descendants back from being perfect, but the movie’s strong enough that it doesn’t detract too much. If anything, it just leaves room for Payne’s next movie to be even better yet.
Aaron Sorkin’s delightfully-written sitcom Sports Night was a sports show than had nothing to do with sports. His fantastic The Social Network was a computer-programming movie that had nothing to do with programming. With Moneyball, Sorkin has now written a brilliant baseball movie that has nothing to do with baseball. As much as Facebook was really just a background theme to the personal drama of the main characters in The Social Network, baseball is just used as flavouring to this true story of a down-and-out baseball manager who shakes things up by hiring a stats-obsessed economics graduate with revolutionary ideas of how to run a baseball team. Together, the real guys created a mathematical formula that resulted in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and broke records with a 20-game winning streak. The big game, though, isn’t even really shown in the movie. Pitt’s character doesn’t even watch the game. After all, the movie isn’t really about baseball.
11. SOURCE CODE
If you put 12 Monkeys and Groundhog Day in a blender, you’d get something close to Source Code. A man (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on an inbound Chicago train, eight minutes before the train explodes. After it does, he awakens again on that same train, another eight minutes before it explodes. The man is actually a soldier, being sent back in time (sort of – yet also not really) over and over, into someone else’s body, to try and prevent a terrorist attack. When he fails, he flashes briefly back to “the present,” then is re-inserted into the past – the mumbo-jumbo used to explain the technology used in this process provides the movie’s title – and ordered to try again. By tweaking Gyllenhaal’s actions and reactions each time, each eight-minute sequence plays differently and the movie rarely gets tiring. Director Duncan Jones also gave us 2009’s Moon, a brilliant head-trip that was criminally underseen. On the basis of Moon and now Source Code, Jones has already become the reigning king of confusing sci-fi thrillers.