The Year In Film: 2011’s Best Movie Moments

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Contrary to what some of the more curmudgeonly folks you might be reading have said, 2011 was actually a very good year for film, in which countless filmmakers either ignored the industry’s distrust of originality entirely, or found new and interesting ways to smuggle bits of revelation and surprise even into formulaic franchise pictures. You’ll see a lot of “best of the year” lists floating around that run down many of the same easy picks for the year’s best films, but since each film is an accumulation of small parts — scenes, lines, pauses, etc. — we thought it would be fun to pick out some of the little, specific moments that stayed in our movie-going memories over the course of 2011. Ours are after the jump; we hope to see yours in the comments.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s first date in Crazy, Stupid, Love

Gosling and Stone are two people who we’ll watch doing just about anything, so the idea of the duo being paired for a romantic comedy was utterly irresistible. They’re not really put together until late in the picture; they have a brief (but electrifying) early flirtation that resumes with a second act stretch that is, far and away, the film’s best sustained sequence. Jilted by her mediocre-at-best boyfriend, Stone storms into Gosling’s favorite bar, plants one on him, and informs him that he’s taking her home. That’s a great, sexy moment, but the scene that follows is even better — suddenly stripped of her self-confidence and aware of his vast experience, she paces in his apartment and deconstructs the entire situation, to both his bemusement and alarm. It is, at risk of hyperbole, a perfect scene. Every beat is held exactly as long as it should be, every line is precise and correct, the chemistry is a slam-dunk, and these two actors — these two beautiful, witty, disarmingly natural actors — are utterly incapable of letting a false note seep in. They’re funny together, and charming, but the movie is in trouble after that, because Stone and Gosling have now rewritten the rules; they’re so real in that sequence that the sitcom contrivances and big speeches that follow feel even more patently false. But for that short stretch, Crazy Stupid Love doesn’t take a wrong step.

Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey on the plane in Bridesmaids

We’re big fans of Bridesmaids around here, but if we could lodge one minor complaint, it’s this: as much as we love Kristen Wiig, we wish the film would’ve maintained its ensemble spirit throughout, rather than letting the titular bridal party mostly disappear in the second half, taking a backseat to Wiig’s romantic complications. They’re just too good in the first hour, too funny together, to go to waste as background players — a notion made clear in the film’s notorious dress-shopping scene, but also in the terrific airplane sequence. Everything that the drunken Wiig is doing is great, and Melissa McCarthy is killing it with her attempts to seduce the air marshal, but on second viewing, we couldn’t get enough of Ellie Kemper and Wendi McLendon-Covey’s true confession session that turns into a love-fest (“You are more beautiful then Cinderella! You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine!”) and then, of course, a make-out session. Frankly, the worst thing about Wiig getting them kicked off the plane is that we were really looking forward to seeing what these two got into in Vegas. Spin-off movie, perhaps?

The outtakes scene in The Artist

The fundamental challenge of The Artist, a silent film about the end of the silent film, is the same one faced by the filmmakers it pays such warm homage to — finding ways to tell a story in images rather than words. Nowhere does director Michel Hazanavicius do so more elegantly than when he shows his lead characters, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), falling for each other. Movie star George first meets would-be actress Peppy outside of a premiere, where their meet-cute is captured for the cover of Variety; the next day, wouldn’t ya know it, she turns out to be an extra on the film George is shooting. She is to be a momentary dance partner in a much bigger scene, but he’s so distracted by her charm that he keeps blowing the takes. Hazanavicius just shows the outtakes, one after another, as their affection and distraction grows; the sequence becomes a perfect marriage of the film’s love for its characters and simultaneous love for the cinema.

Climbing the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

I have a dear uncle who has quite a severe case of vertigo. I’ve got a bit of it too — not a big fan of open roofs and that kind of thing — but I’ve always been able to feel a little better about my vertigo compared to my uncle’s, as he’s confessed to me that if he sees a movie where someone might fall from great heights, it knots his stomach all up and he has to look away and he feels that vertigo right there, on his sofa. Ha ha, I thought. How silly. And then I saw the new Mission: Impossible movie, where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scales the outside of the 100-plus story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and there goes my smug condescension; watching this breathless, thrilling sequence is a visceral experience, and this viewer gasped, clinched the arm rests, jumped back, and all but curled up in the fetal position under my seat. (There is also something to be said for ponying up the extra couple of bucks for the “IMAX Experience” of watching the sequence, which makes the viewer an even more active participant.) It’s an amazing sequence, a triumph of stunt work, special effects, and star ballsiness, but my uncle’s gonna wanna take a bathroom break when it comes on.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s desperate phone call in 50/50

Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 was, for our money, one of the year’s most unexpectedly effective films — unexpected because it sounds like such a bad made-for-Lifetime movie (guy in his 20s deals with the shock of cancer). But director Levine, writer Will Reiser (who based the script on his own battle with the disease), and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen somehow pull off a massive plate-spinning act, deftly interweaving big laughs and genuine pathos. The film’s best moment comes late in the story, when a miserable Adam (Gordon-Levitt) picks up the phone at a particularly low moment and calls the Katie, the psychologist who’s been assigned to him for the duration of his treatment. Trouble is, Adam’s also got a bit of a thing for Katie — and since she’s played by the adorable Anna Kendrick, it’s not like you can blame him. Both of these fine young actors are at their best in the scene; Gordon-Levitt handles the bristling, raw emotions with uncomfortable honesty, and the delicate way Kendrick handles her half of the equation is masterful.

Matt Damon meets Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau

We’ll be talking next week about the year’s underrated films and performances, so you’ll be hearing more about The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s terrific Philip K. Dick adaptation that didn’t make nearly enough noise when it was released last spring. It’s a surprising, smart, snazzy, and challenging picture, and holy cow are Matt Damon and Emily Blunt great together in it. They meet on the night of Damon’s political defeat; his congressman David Norris is preparing his concession speech when he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a beautiful dancer, and the spark is immediate. The pair of likable actors couldn’t be better; their chemistry is wickedly good, as it must be for the story to work, and when he says “holy shit” at the end of their first scene, you can’t imagine a more appropriate response. Blunt is a perpetually undervalued actress, but she puts across exactly the right combination of romantic longing and bad-girl recklessness; you don’t question for a moment that he would spend three years hoping to find her again.

Fleeing the scene of the crime in Drive

Despite what you might have heard from certain insane lawsuits, Drive contains a couple of genuinely thrilling action sequences. One comes early, when we’re just putting together exactly what it is our hero (Ryan Gosling) does (driving for hire, turns out, with little concern if it’s for criminals or film studios). That nighttime chase is a slick and exciting sequence in the Michael Mann vein, but the big action beat that comes around the halfway point is even more of a nail-biter. It follows a robbery gone awry, which Gosling’s driver has taken on to help the husband of the neighbor girl he loves get out of debt; director Nicolas Winding Refn ratchets up the tension by staying in the car with Gosling during the robbery rather than going inside (shades of the great low-budget noir picture Gun Crazy), then assembles a tense and terrifying daytime chase through the California hills, made exponentially more harrowing by the lack of musical accompaniment. We’re listening to the sounds of cars, grinding gears and revving engines and squealing tires, and by staging the scene in the sunshine and without a pounding score to insist that it’s all so exciting, Refn ends up with a car chase that recalls the finest one ever put on film: Bullitt.

Coffee with Paul Rudd and Adam Scott in Our Idiot Brother

Our Idiot Brother was a bit of a late-summer disappointment — not a bad movie, not really, just kind of forgettable, which was certainly not what we expected from a movie that assembled the likes of Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, and Emily Mortimer. Yet there was one truly great scene in it, and it wasn’t one of the big comic set pieces. It was a quiet, conversational dialogue scene between Rudd and Scott (the eminently likable co-star of Parks & Recreation), chit-chat over a coffee — nothing earth-shattering, but the duo are so good together that the encounter plays like a demo reel for a Scott/Rudd buddy comedy. They get a terrific rhythm going, and we wouldn’t have minded seeing a little bit more of their stellar byplay.

“The Rainbow Connection” in The Muppets

I’d like to write about the magical, goosebump-inducing moment late in James Bobin’s heartwarming Muppets reboot when Kermit and Miss Piggy sing the franchise’s most indelible song, “The Rainbow Connection,” but y’know what? If I do that, I’m gonna tear up again, and start getting all wistful about what the Muppets are and what they mean to us, and then I’ll have to start calling some friends, and it’s going to become a big annoyance for everyone. So let’s not do that. But if you’ve seen the movie (and I hope you have), you know what I’m talking about here.

The motorcycle chase in The Adventures of Tintin

Apologies to the person who said this first on Twitter, but The Adventures of Tintin feels more like an Indiana Jones movie than the last Indiana Jones movie did. It’s a looser, funkier movie, and you can feel director Steven Spielberg having fun in a way that he hasn’t seemed to for some time — particularly in the opportunities that animation provides him to carry off the impossible. In scene after scene, we see him having a ball creating the kind of oddball compositions, endless tracking shots, and mind-bending transitions that he simply can’t do when working in live action. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s climactic chase scene, a breathless, unbroken ride-along on a motorcycle pursuit that spills off of the land and onto the sea. It’s pure excitement, a jolt of good, old-fashioned Saturday matinee enjoyment.

Those are some of our favorite movie-going moments; what were yours?