**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year*
The semi-autobiographical sophomore feature from writer/director Mike Mills is not only leaps and bounds ahead of his already-fun debut (Thumbsucker), but also stands as the most genuinely emotional film of the year so far. Ewan McGregor stars as Mills-stand-in Oliver, a 39-year-old who is grieving the recent death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), a man who finally came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full and vibrant gay life. Still sifting through the implications of his father's late-life change-up, Oliver meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful free spirit with similar commitment issues who might just be the perfect balm for Oliver's pain. Beginners is stuffed to the brim with little artistic flourishes, and it's a marvel to watch One after another come off perfectly, always personal, never forced or cloying. The performances all around are top notch, bringing you into the lives and plights of each of the Three leads. Beginners is a labor of love if ever there was One, crafted in impeccable and deeply felt form from first frame to last.
Hands down the funniest movie of the year so far, Bridesmaids isn't exactly your standard Romantic Comedy. Kristen Wiig, who also shares writing duties, stars as Annie, a down-on-her-luck type with a lousy, unfeeling bedfellow (John Hamm), a dream job that just went under, and a pair of the strangest roommates ever. Into this storm enters the news that Annie's best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married, starting a war between Annie and Lillian's new buddy, the glamorous and breathy Helen (Rose Byrne), over who ought to plan the events leading up to the big day. Over the last several years, women have been regulated to the back seat in the comedy world, but the success of Bridesmaids will likely wake studio heads up to an important fact: People will open their wallets for female characters who actually sound like women when they speak. And if most of the things they say are completely hilarious and true, all the better.
The Double Hour
Sometimes, you have to dig a little deeper to get at the good stuff. This Italian import is a tough One to find, playing exclusively in art houses and big cities, but for all those with any opportunity, it's just about unmissable. Directed by rookie helmsman Giuseppe Capotondi, The Double Hour is yet another movie that's nearly impossible to summarize, given the fact that it completely reinvents itself about Five times during its tidy hour and a half running time, but I'll at least try to clue you in. Sonia (Ksenia Rappoport) is a maid at a high-end hotel who sulks through her days without a smile. At a speed dating circuit, she meets Guido (Filippo Timi), an alluring and mysterious stranger whose straight talk and suave manner win her over immediately. We watch their courtship for about Twenty Minutes or so, and then the first major twist takes place, changing every aspect of the movie for the first of many times. I know, I know, that's not much story to recommend a movie on, but it's all I feel good about giving. The joy of The Double Hour is in how it is able to blindside its audience time and time again without ever sacrificing a coherent story. Both of the leads shine, the movie is subtly pleasing to the eyes and ears, and when its done, you won't know what hit you.
For pulse-pounding action and eye-popping visuals, Hanna is just about unbeatable. The titular hero (Saoirse Ronan) has never left the snowy woods where she lives and trains with her father (Eric Bana). The day finally comes when she's ready to enter the world and face her nemesis, government goon Marissa (Cate Blanchett), while learning the truth about her mysterious past. Those looking for a complex, meaningful plot and a satisfying conclusion might be left wanting, but if action is your forte, Hanna is the movie for you. Ronan is completely convincing as a deadly machine, and her tour across the world to ensure her freedom is full of subtle allusions to fairy tale rhetoric and jaw-dropping vistas. Throw in a throbbing and dominant score by The Chemical Brothers, and you have the most fun and exhilarating action picture of 2011 thus far.
One of the Five nominees for Best Foreign Language Feature at February's Academy Awards, this Canadian import is not, I repeat, NOT for the faint of heart. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play Scorched, Incendies tells the story of a brother and sister in their mid-Thirties who, upon the passing of their mother, find out through her Will that they have a Father and a Brother that they knew nothing about. Leaving her disbelieving brother behind, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) travels to the Middle East to follow her mother's trail in hopes of finding her lost family, and we view her story interspersed with the horrifying escapades that her mother (Lubna Azabal) faced while dwelling in the region. Director Denis Villeneuve is the real deal: Under his watch, every aspect of the film is fully realized, from Sound Design, to Cinematography, to Performances. More than a story of the hardships of the Middle East, Incendies serves as a vital reminder of how awful the world can get when rage and revenge become one's driving forces, a message made stinging and real by the focus on character development over some sort of big picture, removed perspective. It's got enough jaw-droppingly awful things in it to last you though the Winter, but Incendies is also a complete triumph of craftsmanship and story-telling, one containing a few scenes that will likely stick with me until the day I die. If you don't mind having your day ruined, you ought not miss it.