"Meek’s Cutoff" -- The defining reaction to Kelly Reichardt’s meditative Western, shot in good ol’ 4:3 aspect ratio like in the old days (square, not widescreen), might be best articulated in a recent debate by The New York Times magazine vs. The New York Times movie critics. Former Vulture writer Dan Kois took to the NYT mag to write a sort of apology of sorts for finding slow, meditative art films, well, boring; vegetables you should eat, rather than want to eat. The Grey Lady’s estimable critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis then wrote a piece which was titled, “In Defense of Slow & Boring.” Who was right? Well, both of them. Kois is correct in assessing that the slow-moving experience of “Meek’s Cutoff” can be soporific to a certain viewer, but perhaps what he’s missing, which Dargis and Scott so eloquently articulate, is the resonance and value the picture has; a haunting and spellbounding quality that lingers in the mind, far, far long after the picture is gone; a bewitching quality most films don’t possess these days (which makes the "this is dull" assessment a little unimaginative and lazy). So while it’s easy to be short-sighted and write off “Meek’s Cutoff” -- Reichardt’s 4th micro-minimalist excursion, this one about an ill-fated journey through the Oregon Trail in 1845 starring Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, Bruce Greenwood and Paul Dano -- as a lethargic, formalist exercise, this cultural vegetable is not only beautiful and austere, it’s dreamy and oblique like, say, the early films of Alain Resnais. And while that may not be for everyone, we still think you’re definitely missing out.
“Bridesmaids” -- Sold as a raunchy female version of “The Hangover,” the real surprise of “Bridesmaids” was not that it was riotously funny (it was, though it should be noted, it bears no resemblance to that Wolfpack movie) but that the film had the biggest heart and deepest thematic roots of any Judd Apatow produced movie to date. Directed by Paul Feig, the surface of the story centers on the single Annie (Kristen Wiig) tasked with organizing her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. And while plenty of laughs are wrung out of that situation, these aren’t just characters ping-ponging around a sitcom setup. Instead, the film builds real characters with Annie’s desperation at her singlehood, age and economic status played as much for drama as it is for chuckles. Melissa McCarthy handily walks away as the Zach Galifianakis breakout star of the film, with Jon Hamm running in a close second as a sleazebag fuckbuddy and if anything, you will never look at a Jordan almond the same way again.
So, the above were our top choices, and the films we think could still linger in our Top Ten at the end of the year. Below, are the runners up -- by no means bad or unworthy films, these also made going to the movies in the first half of 2011 enjoyable and memorable, and while they may not slot into our final list in December, they stood out from the pack and deserve to be tracked down.
“Hanna” -- We have to admit, we were worried. The early footage didn’t wow us, nor did the trailers, and coming off last year’s attempt at little-girl-kills-adults in the tepid “Kick-Ass” we hoped it wouldn’t be more of the same. But Joe Wright showed everyone how it's done, with his stylish, slick and Chemical Brothers powered “Hanna.” Steely-eyed Saoirse Ronan takes her role as the heartless titular assassin with an unnerving ease, while Eric Bana as the on-the-run father left us wondering why Hollywood isn’t courting the man for smart, adult action movies -- the subway sequence where he squares off against three men in one breathless, fluidly shot ballet of ass-kicking will likely be one of the best set pieces all year. No, it doesn’t all work -- Hanna’s sudden internet/computer hacking abilities in the last third are silly and nonsensical -- but it all comes together in one wiry, wicked package that is wildly entertaining.