Well, today is the first day of summer, more or less the midpoint of the year, and looking back over the the first six months of 2011, it’s definitely been a bit more of a scattershot movie year compared to the arthouse heavy start of 2010. We'll be honest, compiling this list wasn't exactly easy, the year has been uneven so far, but that said, it's certainly not without highlights: Terrence Malick finally delivered his long awaited film, Woody Allen flexed some of the old magic we love him for, and Michael Winterbottom found life and heart from a familiar comic pairing, while Joe Wright moved completely in a new, exciting direction. Over at the multiplex, big summer entertainment has already made that overpriced, greasy bag of popcorn worth the price with J.J. Abrams proving that genre thrills don't have to be empty, while one of the year’s best efforts unfolded beautifully on the small screen.
So with the year more or less halfway done, here’s the best of what we’ve seen so far. And please note: we're being pedantic about it, films that have only played festivals thus far have been left of the list. Again, we stress the emphasis on the best films of the year so far. We'd love to see 2011 by years end get substantially better. That said, here's where we stand:
“The Tree of Life” -- You already knew that this would be on here, so let’s get it out the way first. Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film has become one of the major talking points of the movie year so far. “The Tree of Life” came out of Cannes smelling like a rose with a Palme d’Or under its arm. But recently, there has been a minor, but vocal backlash of sorts with a handful of folks dismissing the film outright. But to label "The Tree of Life" simply as “good” or “bad” is engaging with Terrence Malick’s effort on the most superficial of levels. Brilliant, confounding, moving, overreaching, lyrical and heavy-handed, “The Tree of Life” may not be an unparalleled masterpiece but is anything but forgettable. Tracking the personal heartache that tortures the soul and seeing how that ripples out to the universe at large over time, from before we were born to long after we’ll pass, “The Tree of Life” is ambitious far beyond anything else likely to hit screens this year or next. With a scope and aesthetic uniquely his own, Malick’s film sticks with you days and even weeks after you’ve seen it-- demanding another viewing to unlock and uncover the layers and mysteries within “The Tree of Life.”
“Jane Eyre” -- When it was announced that “Sin Nombre” director Cary Fukunaga was going to be adapting a dusty Charlotte Bronte novel that was already been made for both the big and small screen multiple times we were both excited and nervous. Would it be another fussy period movie or would Fukunaga make good on the promise of his feature film debut? Well, with Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska leading the way, Fukunaga’s film is deliriously sensual, with an electric current running through the unlikely tale of romance unlike any of its previous incarnations. Fassbender and Wasikowska make it look too easy, and let’s hope the spring release date doesn’t mean it's forgotten when the end of the year rolls round.
"Beginners" -- We’ve been waiting and waiting for years for another great Ewan McGregor performance, but after being burned time after time with disappointments, we had pretty much given up. So while we were looking the other way, McGregor perhaps found a soul mate (or at least we hope so) in director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) who helped guide the actor to his best performance in over a decade. A bittersweet look at life, love and loss, Mills’ thoughtful dramedy charts McGregor reeling from the death of his dad (Christopher Plummer), who only recently came out of the closet, strengthening their relationship with a new-found openness and communication and grappling with his fears about a blossoming relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent). Sensitively attuned to the aching heartbeat of human condition, “Beginners” makes one swoon, cry, laugh and grieve in equal measure. This year’s “The Kids Are All Right” of the awards season circuit? We hope so.