The last few weeks of December mean a few very important things. Sure there are some religious holidays and a big celebration where Dick Clark stops hibernating to return to television. Really the end of the month is for everyone with a Word processor to note the accomplishments of the year through every random category. WE ARE NO EXCEPTION! Here are the Top Five Best Mystery Movies of 2011.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
On paper, this is the best movie of the year. The incredible Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) had a powerhouse ensemble to tell John le Carré’s beloved novel, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Tom Hardy (Inception), Toby Jones and John Hurt. One of the reasons why is that it isn’t as strong as it could have been was because Alfredson purposefully makes everything more confusing. In one way it creates a very authentic atmosphere of espionage and mistrust, but on the other hand it’s hard to figure out the intricacies of the story. This is one I can’t to rewatch after reading the book because each member of the cast seems to have an incredible handling of their character it’s a thrill just to see them in action. If only I could figure out what that action was…
4. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Detective Dee has been a popular character to write about in China partly because he is based off an actual person from hundreds of years ago. In this epic movie, Dee isn’t portrayed as the smartest man or even the best fighter. What separates him is the wiliness to stick to the case, no matter the political implications. This case brings Dee out of exile to figure out who and what is causing people to suddenly burst into flame before the Empress’s coronation. This is unlike any mystery film you have ever seen because it incorporates so many fascinating aspects of Chinese culture. The impressive martial arts sequences add a new layer to the rising tension. The only thing that really threw me off was the supernatural elements because it felt like a narrative cheat, but it truly is a key part of their culture.
3. Cold Weather
There have been so many variations on the mystery format. Memento had a noir story told by going backwards through time. The Big Lebowski was a Raymond Chandler novel told by a protagonist who may not be smart enough to figure out what’s going on around him. Cold Weather is a fun twist in that, there may not even be a mystery to solve. Our hero is a sadsack loser without even the drive to go to his co-worker’s DJ event. When a friend goes missing is this his chance to be a detective like his beloved Sherlock Holmes or is she just not answering her phone? Cold Weather’s characters meander through their lives, which could prove exhausting for viewers. Yet if you stick with it, you’ll find a clever little movie with a cool voice.
2. The Lincoln Lawyer
I was all ready to hate this movie. The book is one of my favorites by Michael Connelly and this was starring…Matthew McConaughey. After sitting through too many lame romantic comedies, I was valid in doubting McConaughey’s ability to play Mickey Haller. I’m always first to admit I’m wrong and I was wrong. He did a great job, mostly because the script worked in his favor. Instead of dumbing down the story, it embraced all the complications. Everyone on the cast is excellent including Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, Michael Peña, and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad). With lawyer stories, it’s too easy to be stuck in wondering whether or not the client is innocent. This tight story has more nuances and trappings to make it a very satisfying adaptation.
One of the reasons why mysteries are so attractive is because there is a coolness to them. It can be how tough Sam Spade can be to the accomplishment of achieving justice. There wasn’t a cooler person in 2011 than Ryan Gosling in Drive. He’s a man of few words. By day he’s a mechanic, by night he’s a driver for whoever can pay. Throughout the film, he defends his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and takes on the bad guys. It’ll be one thing for the character to be this cool, but the movie matches it. Even the pop songs—which could be dorky on their own—are cool when matched the style of the film. Every element is working perfectly to create something that is incredibly entertaining while also a smart and sophisticated ride.
I’ve seen a ton of films from this year, but I haven’t had a chance to check out Tryannosaur.
This article was originally published in the December 2011 issue of Pomp & Circumstantial Evidence.