I like to think of 2011 as the year of the three-star movie, mainly because the two films made that year that were contending for Best Picture, The Artist and The Descendants, weren’t really that good. I mean honestly, have you watched either of those movies again since you’ve watched them the first time? Probably not. And I can bet that you haven’t watched The Help, The Tree of Life or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo again either.
But there is one movie that stands out six years later as the unquestionable best film of 2011: Midnight in Paris. This is just as charming as stepping into the French capital for the first time, every second filled with light and humor and a wistful disposition that never erodes or evaporates throughout the film. It feels much longer than 90 minutes but not in a bad way: It effectively tells its story and its character arc of Gil in that short time, a simple but meaningful journey that echoes some hard lessons about life and our fractured thinking that the past was better than the now just because it was the past.
A film of this caliber, released during this time period, makes sense coming from director Woody Allen, who was 75 at the time it was released. I’m nowhere near that age, but if I had to guess, one who is near Octogenarian status probably has fonder memories of their twenties, thirties or forties than they do of their fifties, sixties or seventies. It’s only natural, a forgivable human flaw to think that the world was brighter and more beautiful when we were younger. But Allen is smart enough to declare his thesis boldly: the past is no better than the present and the present is not better than the past, it’s what you do with the current moment that matters most.
But unlike many Woody Allen movies, he’s not actually in this one. Instead, the responsibility of the nervous, bashful intellectual character falls on Owen Wilson’s shoulders and he handles it with poise and excellence. This truly is Owen’s shining moment, an actor that we all know and really have nothing bad to say about, but prior to Midnight in Paris, would have difficulty actually picking out what role we best knew him for. Thankfully, Midnight in Paris recognizes that Wilson has something to give to cinema more than just frat boy laughs and Wes Anderson quirkiness, there is a heart and a soul underneath that bushy blonde hair waiting to be released. Midnight in Paris is the film that finally opened up that door for him.
It’s a charming film in every sense of the word. Sometimes it feels like it’s trying too hard to be intellectual, like in the present moments when Wilson is bickering with Michael Sheen about art history. But when it gets to the moments that really matter, Midnight in Paris executes them with flawless efficiency. It is not a French film by any means, but when it comes to movies that serve as an ode to the City of Lights, Midnight in Paris is among those that shines brightest.