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Monday, January 02, 2012

Top 20 Movies of 2011

This past year, I watched over 45 of 2011's movies, which I think is some sort of a personal record. I guess that's why my list is longer than last year's! There are still a couple of limited release films I've yet to see (The Iron Lady, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Take Shelter and My Week With Marilyn) that could conceivably make their way onto my list, but for now... this is how it looks!

1. Super 8 / Hugo
I can’t separate these two movies--two of the best, most entertaining and emotionally satisfying stories told in the past few years. They have a lot in common, actually. Both feature coming-of-age story elements at their core, even if they’re not necessarily billed as such. Both are tributes to earlier days of cinema (Super 8 to the 80’s Spielberg classics, Hugo to the early 20th Century work of French filmmaker George Melies). Both featured incredible work by teen and child actors, who anchored the films. And both stand as undeniable, heartfelt highlights of their respective directors’ bodies of work. It’s impossible to watch either film without feeling the passion in every frame. These are works of personal, at times autobiographical, love for movies and moviemaking. Both accomplish this with a knowing wink at the past, while still keeping an eye on the future. Super 8, with its infinitely quotable script, instant chemistry between its cast of mostly-unknowns, and explosive genre set pieces, is a movie I’ll be watching over and over again. Hugo, with its gorgeous, dreamlike storybook cinematography and affirmation of the power of human goodness--that we’re all capable of “fixing” each other--is a modern classic.

3. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Pt. II
The end to one of the, if not the, best movie franchises of all time. It’s impossible to separate this film from the seven prior, or from the intense outpouring of worldwide euphoria and, ultimately, bittersweet sadness attached to it. All in all, I’m not sure that this is my favorite Potter film, but that doesn’t really matter. It is without a doubt the most emotional, cathartic entry in the series, trading the light magic of prior films for a dark, operatic tale of sacrifice, enduring friendship, and that ultimate theme: good versus evil. This, plus the greatest ever assembled cast of British character actors.

4. War Horse
A movie about the enduring humanity of those involved with the horrors of war, as evidenced best by a beautiful scene towards the end of the film (without giving anything away, let’s just say it involves barbed wire). Sure, it’s hardly a new theme, but it’s an enduring one. The trick War Horse employs so well is using an animal to give us insight, via vignettes stretching over several years, into the minds and hearts of those on all sides of World War I. Joey the horse is wondrous to behold, but more than anything, he’s a blank slate, allowing the audience to impart their own emotions into the story.

5. X-Men: First Class
Maybe not the best, but definitely the coolest, X-Men movie yet. Setting this in the 60’s, with all its James Bond influences and borderline camp appeal, was a stroke of genius and instantly set this apart from all the other superhero movies clogging the market. A killer cast, a near operatic fall-from-grace storyline and some great action sequences made this a definite summer highlight.

6. We Need To Talk About Kevin
Emotionally devastating, and featuring the female performance of the year in Tilda Swinton, who opens a side to her that I had never seen before. Working off a script that’s largely dialogue sparse, heavy on dramatic symbolism and non-linear storytelling, the movie becomes a fever dream of real-life, domestic horror. The dramatic arc is inevitable from the beginning, but still manages to pack a surprising punch. Not recommended for would-be or soon-to-be parents, though! Or maybe it should be?

7. The Help
In a summer of big action movies and sequel after sequel, we got this exquisite drama. Many have argued that as an adaptation it’s not as strong as it could have been, but I found myself mesmerized the whole way through. Strong acting complimented a story that, while socially important and undeniably moving, managed to be funnier than most comedies as well.

8. Trollhunter
A jolt of crazy Norwegian filmmaking. This packed more creativity into its limited budget than most huge Hollywood tent poles. It’s a simple, yet off-the-wall, story that shifts between talky, near-documentary style background info and deliriously entertaining troll sequences, for lack of a better description. And those troll sequences… well, I won’t spoil anything for you, but they’re something very, very special.

9. Fast Five
Flat out, the best action and stunt sequences of the year. Anyone who's unconvinced that this type of movie making isn't its own art form needs to watch closer. I’ve never been a fan of the Fast & Furious franchise, but this movie won me over and then some. Sure, the dialogue’s a bit hokey and the acting not exactly Oscar worthy, but that’s not the point here. Those stunt sequences, especially the crazy chase that ends the film, are absolutely breathtaking.

10. Midnight In Paris
Both a love letter to and dissection of nostalgia, this little movie managed to be funny, smart and romantic at the same time. This wasn’t the type of manufactured romance we see normally in most rom coms. Instead, it was a love for setting--namely, the Paris most of us romanticize (which doesn‘t necessarily match up with reality!). More importantly, the film made an astute, and very true, observation about how we long for an imagined past in order to cope with the present.

11. Real Steel
Sometimes you want formula. There’s nothing in this movie that isn’t predictable to anyone familiar with underdog movies, but when the story is carried through with such panache and crowd-pleasing fervor, it’s really difficult to resist. I’ll admit, I got choked up at the end and I didn’t feel the slightest bit ashamed of myself. It’s a mainstream family friendly film, yes, but one with a lot of heart.

12. Win Win
One of the more naturalistic movies in my year-end line-up. This is, in a large part, due to the fantastic performances all around. It’s not an overwhelmingly complicated story… more a slice of life. If you’re not a sports fan, don’t let the fact that it centers on a wrestler and wrestling coach turn you away. It’s about wrestling as much as last year’s “The Fighter” was about boxing. It’s only a means to tell the story.

13. Attack The Block
A gritty, oftentimes hilarious UK sci-fi action comedy. It has all the youthful, punky energy of its main characters--a misfit band of wannabe gangsters who take it upon themselves to stop an alien invasion. Wonderful in its inventiveness and narrowed scope, it’s the kind of cinematic jolt that you don’t often see in the action genre.

14. The Artist
An admirable, impossible-not-to-love trifle. And “trifle” is exactly why I couldn’t justify bumping this into my top ten. As much as I admire the craft that went into this modern-day silent film, and as impossibly magnetic as I found actress Berenice Bejo, the story felt too slight and overdrawn (yes, at the same time) to compete with the very best films of the year. Still, a wildly entertaining romp and proof that good storytelling is good storytelling, sound or no sound.

15. Submarine
Little can top the first twenty minutes or so. Disarmingly clever, joltingly quick and riotously funny, the movie struggles (understandably) to keep this momentum up. The story’s standard coming-of-age fair, though the setting (Wales) is new and the direction often inspired. It’s affected, but in the best way, with a 15-year-old narrator that does dry and deadpan better than anyone else this year.

16. Hanna
Saoirse Ronan kicks ass. Simple as that. The crazy thing is, I went into this movie expecting something different than I got. Sure, the action sequences were expertly choreographed and the story moved along at a perfect pace, but I didn’t realize there would be such a strong theme of friendship. That may sound kind of cheesy, but I assure you, the way that Ronan plays it, it’s anything but. The awesome score by the Chemical Brothers also helped.

17. Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel had a very good year. While X-Men was definitely the coolest of their films in 2011, Captain America had the most heart. I wasn’t sure how they were going to craft a film around this character. As a longtime comic book fan, he’s never really been one of my favorites. Like Superman, he’s often depicted with an air of “boy scout goodness.” This movie changed that. Sure, he’s still good, but he’s also layered and interesting. I credit that to the excellent cast, more than anything.

18. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Another action movie. 2011 has been very good in those regards. Tom Cruise makes a blistering comeback with some incredible stunts and a story that’s not too complicated and never slows down for a minute. The direction, by Pixar legend Brad Bird, deserves incredibly kudos.

19. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Dark and graphic in both plot and character, this Hollywood remake of the Swedish whodunit surprised me with just how straightforward it was. I’ve not read the books, and I think I was expecting something more unique in terms of storytelling. Instead, this was all about the characters--namely, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth. She is the reason why this is in my top twenty.

20. Drive
I have my fair share of issues with this movie, but there's a lot that's undeniable as well. For me personally, it felt like an exercise of style over substance. Luckily, that style is executed so well that it makes up for the movie's shortcomings. The soundtrack, cinematography and jacket (yes, I want the Driver's jacket) are the definition of 80's revival cool.

Other Movies I Liked: Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, Limitless, Kaboom, Arthur Christmas, Red State
Movie I'm Struggling To Like As Much As I Think I Should: Tree Of Life

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