The Films of 2011

And finally, the movies. These I took the time to rank from my least to most favorite.

Transformers 3– Fuck Michael Bay. There was at least some competent action this time, with the guys in the squirrel suits and the collapsing building, but the first hour and a half was exactly as stupid and insulting to the audience as the soul sucking marathon of idiocy that was Transformers 2. Although I guess this one was marginally less racist. “Marginally less racist,” by the way, is probably the least enthusiastic praise I can possibly deliver.

Cars 2– Damn this movie for proving Pixar is fallible. I’m pretty sure no one over the age of eleven wanted a sequel to Cars, but people over eleven didn’t make Disney a billion dollars in Cars merchandise, so they went ahead and made a movie starring Mater, who would probably fail to appear on my “Fifty Pixar characters most deserving of their own film” list. This was a boring, mostly unfunny animated film. It lacked any of the magic that we’ve come to associate with Pixar, and frankly wouldn’t measure up to most of what Dreamworks has been producing for the last few years. Even Michael Caine’s voice couldn’t save this one, and I don’t know what’s more damning than that.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides– I love the first three Pirates films. Love them. I was fully expecting to have to defend this from people. But no, it’s a bland, paint by numbers, insipid little swashbuckler that’s entirely devoid of the personality, enthusiasm, and at the very least the undeniable visual flair that made the trilogy special. The entire cast was wasted with the sole exception of Geoffrey Rush, who managed to keep me awake through the midnight showing. And I’ll admit the mermaid scene was pretty cool. Unfortunately, nothing else was remotely memorable.

Sucker Punch– Full disclosure, I watched this on a plane. That is exactly the wrong way to watch Sucker Punch. But I still found very little to enjoy in Zack Snyder’s first original film, which was disheartening considering I’m actually a fan of all his other work. This was very much a case of style over substance, and anyone claiming any positive feminist themes should take a moment to remember that, even at the very last moment, a man had to step in and save the poor scared little girl who apparently didn’t grow at all over the course of the movie. It’s kind of a shame too- this one had potential.

Horrible Bosses– And that’s it for the bad films I’ve seen this year, as I can confidently state Horrible Bosses was more or less okay. This is one of those comedies that doesn’t actually have any jokes, just characters sort of doing and saying things with varying degrees of personality. Unfortunately, of the three leads I’m only a fan of Jason Bateman, so I didn’t think this was anything special. Easily the weakest of the movies where Kevin Spacey turns out to be a villain at the end.

The Adventures of Tintin– Great opening credits and the last few action scenes were pretty captivating, but I thought overall the first of the Tintin films lacked personality. I mean, I can’t be the only one who thinks Tintin is a really boring protagonist, right? He’s going on these adventures because he’s some kind of journalist, but doesn’t really seem to care about the story, and it sure as hell isn’t made clear he’s got something else driving him to do all this crazy stuff. And I can’t stand that. It got better when Haddock showed up, but not enough to make me really like it. A lot of what happens in this film reminded me of Uncharted 3, which is better than this movie, but not quite as good as Last Crusade, which isn’t quite as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is totally a standard I can hold this to because it’s Speilberg, dammit, he’s done this exact thing and done it far better.

Super 8– E.T. meets Cloverfield and that’s exactly the problem. The alien is kind of a menace, so I can’t exactly root for anyone in the film. The military is right because it’s dangerous. The kids are right because it wants to go home. I didn’t really know how I was supposed to want the plot to resolve. The kids, yes, all gave fantastic performances, and the train crash was awesome (if really implausible) but the way the movie evoked Spielberg films of the seventies and eighties without being nearly as good as any of its influences left me cold. And the movie was called Super 8, but the film of the alien really didn’t tie in too much with the film’s plot. I’ll admit that the necklace bit at the end, while really obvious, was still good, but then there were other issues, like the dads never doing anything and the alien itself having a really uninteresting design. The best part, by far, was the movie that played alongside the credits. That had some genuine heart to it.

Kung Fu Panda 2- The action, humor, and character work wasn’t as great as in the first film, but Gary Oldman played an evil peacock, so I’m satisfied.

30 Minutes or Less– A Jesse Eisenberg action comedy from the director of Zombieland that wasn’t quite as good as that movie, but still pretty damn fun. What it lacked in Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and zombies it made up for with Aziz Ansari, Fred Ward, and a time bomb. Also has the least grammatically correct title of any film I saw this year.

Limitless– A thoughtful, fairly thrilling, “what if that were me” sort of movie wherein a six year old girl is used to slice a man’s face open. No, it sadly doesn’t maintain that level of insanity.

Hanna– Some people are utterly in love with this movie, and I get why I should be. Young girl trained to be an assassin encounters civilized society for the first time and has to kick some ass? Sign me up! And I certainly like it. But it didn’t grab me, and I found myself getting the most enjoyment out of the girl’s encounters with a quirky vacationing family that, in another cut of the film, were apparently all horribly murdered. So that’s a downer.

Shame– One hundred minutes of staring into a brutally crushing abyss played by Michael Fassbender. And he’s damn good at it. The movie is expertly made as well, and I appreciate that, but holy hell is this film depressing. I usually love the dark, bleak, depths of humanity stuff, but I just couldn’t take this. Great at what it does, but never would I want to see it again, and I can’t actually recommend it to anyone. That said, Carey Mulligan singing New York, New York is breathtaking.

Thor– Marvel Studios took a superhero no one cared about and gave it to Kenneth Branagh, because why not? I’d say it worked, and provided a less awkward stepping stone to The Avengers than the second Iron Man. Chris Hemsworth was suitably godlike, and Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman is the run-of-the-mill love interest for some reason. The film sold me on Asgard, and I’m totally cool with the stuff here coexisting alongside the rest of the Marvel heroes, so it did its job. And the pet store line is genius.

Captain America– Managed to edge out Thor because of its more likable protagonist (I liked Thor, but when you see a great guy get to fulfill his potential, it’s obviously going to be more endearing than an immortal with a bit of an attitude have to learn to be less of a prick), more threatening villain (Hugo Weaving is my everything), and most importantly its musical number (“Who’ll finish what they began? Who’ll kick the krauts to Japan?”). Joss Whedon, it’s up to you now. Make us proud.

Rango– A pretty clever animated treat that happens to be Johnny Depp’s best film since Sweeney Todd. The characters are engaging, the action is exciting, and Bill Nighy plays a rattlesnake. All very good. Most notable for the very unique animation style that renders all the animals more or less exactly as they actually look in real life. It’s weird, but it works.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within– A Brazilian film about the horribly corrupt police force and its relationship with the horribly corrupt political system and how all of that horribly fucks over the already terrible slums. It’s exciting enough and the main character’s transition from awful bastard to awful bastard trying to do the right thing was actually pretty well done, and even uplifting in an “everything’s shitty but there’s still some hope if people do what they know is right” sort of way (aka the viewpoint that makes awareness of what goes on in the world sort of bearable sometimes).

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows– I’d love to be the guy who says these stupid blockbusters bastardize everything great about an iconic character and epitomize what’s wrong with Hollywood, but the truth is I find them too damn fun. Robert Downey Jr. is a great Holmes and he and Jude Law really have chemistry. The first one was good and I found the sequel exactly as enjoyable without being a retread. Jared Harris as Moriarty and Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes were two great casting moves, and the slow motion fight scene things that I didn’t really like in the first came back, but they’re subverted each time, which I really appreciated. Noomi Rapace is wasted and there’s less of a mystery than in the first one, which should be damning for a Sherlock Holmes movie, I know, but neither of these things stopped me from having a really fun time with it.

Drive Angry– I think my friends and I more than speak for ourselves (note my rampant lust for William Fichtner).

Hobo with a Shotgun– Potentially the most ridiculous movie I’ve ever seen, this more than lives up to its title. It is irredeemable, trashy, absurd, beyond juvenile nonsense that goes so far down the grindhouse hole that it comes out the other side and achieves a sort of brilliance. The villains say things like “It’s a beautiful day for a skate rape” and “When life gives you razorblades, make a baseball bat covered in razorblades.” It contains objectively the most despicable thing I’ve seen a character in a movie do. It’s an act of violence so off the wall that it’s played for laughs, but still so terrible that it was uncomfortable, and I was left just staring at the screen, wondering what the hell was going on. The movie ends on perhaps the best pre-mortem one liner of the year. If you enjoy ridiculous things and have no issue with onscreen violence, see this now.

13 Assassins– A baker’s dozen of samurai go on a suicide mission to take out the most matter-of-factly evil sadist I’ve ever seen on film. Seriously, this guy’s an abomination. The movie has a fairly slow build-up and then about forty-five minutes of nonstop action. It’s awesome. Apparently, there are hints throughout that one of the characters is some kind of mountain demon. I totally didn’t pick up on that.

The Muppets– I didn’t grow up with Jim Henson’s creations as a huge part of my childhood, so I didn’t get the nostalgic surge of glee that some people (guy at my screening who cried at least four times) did, but I still had a lot of fun with Jason Segel’s love letter to these characters. It never quite topped the opening fifteen minutes with the hilariously inexplicable character back stories and opening musical number, but “Man or Muppet” came really close.

J. Edgar– A lot of critics were less than kind to this biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, a sad, despicable little man who wielded far too much power for far too long. I found it skillfully made, very well acted, and impressive in the way I felt I was given a full portrait of a person yet still came out thinking that he was awful while completely understanding him as a human being. Says some very important things about information and the type of people who think they need it while maneuvering its way seamlessly through several decades.

Source Code– The second directorial effort from Duncan Jones, this might not have been quite as good as Moon, but it was still a solid and intelligent bit of sci-fi that managed to realize all the logical fallacies in its premise and then very impressively explain most of them as the story progressed. I like the idea of someone getting the green light on this by pitching the studio “Die Hard in a Groundhog Day.”

Take Shelter– Michael Shannon gives one of the best and most overlooked performances of the year as a man who thinks a storm is coming. A convincing and very unsettling look at mental illness. I didn’t love the last thirty seconds, but it certainly didn’t ruin the film for me.

I Saw the Devil– There is no revenge quite like South Korean revenge. From what I’ve seen it’s an entire genre over there, and the purest distillation of that genre has got to be this tale of a cop tracking down and punishing the notorious serial killer who murdered his wife. His plan for retribution is idiotic, and gives the killer way too much of a chance to wriggle free, but of course the fun of it is seeing him try. It’s a violent, weird, satisfyingly thrilling look at what happens when someone fights monsters that makes up for its lack of originality with a great cast and visuals that sear themselves onto your brain.

Bridesmaids– This is not a comedy for women, it’s a comedy that just so happens to star women. Apparently, that was a pretty revolutionary concept. It’s very funny and the cast is fantastic, particularly, as everyone has pointed out a thousand times already, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. The airplane scene is more or less perfect comedy.

Fright Night– A really fun movie no one saw that’s basically Zombieland but with vampires standing in for the undead. It includes evil Colin Farrell and a slightly more vulgar, shirtless David Tennant than I was used to. That, by the way, was a ringing endorsement.

Young Adult– The conclusion to Jason Reitman’s assholes with interesting jobs trilogy is his most soul-crushing effort yet, with Charlize Theron’s deeply upsetting performance as Mavis Gerry, formerly the most popular girl in high school and currently an alcoholic who channels her glory days into a series of young adult books about bitchy teenagers. She goes home in an obviously doomed attempt to get back together with her happily married ex and along the way encounters the possibly even more depressing Patton Oswalt. A masterclass in self-delusion.

50/50– Despite losing its fantastic original title I’m with Cancer, this is easily the most enjoyable movie about a very young person forced to confront mortality that you could ask for. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen are each at their best, and it’s heartfelt while still being really damn funny the whole way through.

My Week with Marilyn– This film opens with an absolutely terrible bit of narration (“You never forget your first job…”) that made me think I was in for nothing short of agony. Luckily once that’s out of the way, it picks up splendidly to tell the simple but very affecting story of a young, nice enough guy who just so happened to become very close with Marilyn Monroe while she filmed The Prince and the Showgirl. Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are great, and the movie was definitely able to tap into whatever it was Monroe had in order to tell a story about love, fame, and our capacity for making ourselves think something that can’t possibly last will never end.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes– The most surprisingly great blockbuster of the year, the first forty-five minutes or so is nothing special. Once the role of the protagonist shifts from James Franco to Andy Serkis’s Caesar, however, everything starts to click. Here’s a movie that actually makes us root against the humans, because in general we kind of suck. Apes on the other hand have opposable big toes and look awesome in sweaters. No contest. Ranks very highly pretty much entirely because of the scene where Tom Felton proves he’s no Charlton Heston and gets called out for it in the most fantastic way possible. Sequel, please.

The Skin I Live in– And the Splice Award for Most Brilliantly Fucked up Film of the Year goes to…this! Antonio Banderas stars as a mad scientist in Pedro Almodovar’s movie about…well, I kind of don’t want to say. The part where you realize what the hell is going on is too wonderful for me to give away. This film is disturbing, uncomfortably funny, and makes a few points about…let’s say “identity” and leave it at that. See it if you’re open to some weirdness.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy– A ridiculously talented cast all give highly restrained performances in this slow burn of an espionage thriller. And the movie is thrilling, provided you’re willing to meet it halfway. It’s mostly dialogue, and the vast majority of character work is immensely subtle, but there’s plenty to latch onto if you’re willing to get invested. Ironically enough, despite the clear respect for the intelligence of the audience and required engagement to follow along, I guessed the ending fairly early on. Fortunately it didn’t particularly lessen the experience, and the film isn’t so much about the answer to that one question as it is the environment that these men inhabit. With lesser actors this would have been a complete disaster, but the sheer presence of all involved manages to elevate the film to something special.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol– The best film in this series is still the weakest of Brad Bird’s directorial efforts. It’s a testament to the man’s work in animation that Ghost Protocol is the year’s most consistently satisfying action movie, largely because it makes sure the action actually has purpose. The audience is always aware exactly what the stakes and motivations are at any given time. It’s refreshing to the degree that this movie serves as a wake up call to precisely how often we tolerate inexplicable eye candy. At no point does it feel like someone at the studio said “things are slowing down, you need to throw in a chase right here” and for that alone it’s worth buying a ticket. The likable cast works well together and the set pieces are stunning. The scene where Tom Cruise clambers around the outside of the world’s tallest building in Dubai deserves every ounce of the praise it’s received, and necessitates bumping that ticket up to IMAX. There are some blockbusters that speak to something deeper than pure entertainment and become transcendentally great. This is not one of them. But for a damn good time at the movies, look no further.

Carnage– Roman Polanski wonderfully adapts a play about two sets of parents meeting after their sons got in a fight at school. It’s a very real and insanely funny look at four people, all at somewhat varying degrees of awful, gradually dropping the veneer of bullshit that parents tend to adopt when dealing with each other. All four actors are fantastic, but once again Christoph Waltz is the best part of the film he’s in. He could stick with what he does best (playing an eerily likable shark wearing a semi-convincing man-suit) forever, and I’d never get tired of it.

 

Attack the Block– Asshole young gangster kids who live in the shittier parts of London are some people you’d never want to be around under pretty much any circumstances. During an invasion of hostile aliens, however, you could do a lot worse for company. That’s more or less the premise of this gem from first time director Joe Cornish, whose career I’m very excited for. Especially since he wrote it too, and this movie has the best dialogue of the year, although I admit I’m not sure I understood about half of it. Ridiculously fun stuff.

X-Men: First Class– Matthew Vaughn didn’t direct the third X-Men because he didn’t think he’d have enough time. He had less time to make this movie, and it’s somehow fantastic. Maybe the best in the franchise. It’s nowhere near perfect, and in fact a few scenes and indeed entire characters fall flat (January Jones should not be allowed in front of cameras) but what it gets right is so phenomenally good that it excuses everything else: The literal inversion of the bar scene from Inglorious Basterds. The best cameo and utilizing of a PG-13 f-bomb I could have imagined. A great relationship between the protagonists. A final thirty minutes that provided the most thrilling and emotionally impactful action since Matthew Vaughn’s last movie. And standing resplendent above it all, Michael Fassbender exploding onto the A-list with a Magneto that stole every second he was onscreen, and actually seemed like what Ian McKellen’s character might have been like in the prime of his youth. “I’m going to count to three…and then I’m going to move the coin.” Amazing. 2011 belonged to Michael Fassbender. Long may he reign.

Red State– Tarantino by way of Kevin Smith. And for me at least, it completely worked. The basic conceit of this film is fantastic: A horror movie where the killers are basically the Westboro Baptist Church. There’s a lot of potential there, and I was surprised to see the movie actually fulfill all of it while going even further by setting them against a SWAT team that was given orders that they really didn’t want to follow. Themes were being explored! Violently! In a Kevin Smith film! After the screening Smith talked about how he wanted to make a movie where no one could predict what would happen next, and he did a damn fine job of it. The ending is especially great, made all the better after discovering the way it was originally meant to conclude. The clear highlight of the film is Michael Parks, who gives a performance as church leader Abin Cooper that would be getting a lot more awards buzz if this movie didn’t have such an unconventional release format and a director so far from the mainstream making a movie completely unlike anything he’s done before. Yet it’s still got some really juvenile humor, so that’s nice too.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2– Ten years, eight films, and billions of dollars later, and they didn’t fuck up the finale. But that’s selling short what was really a brilliantly done and fittingly emotional close to a franchise that’s meant so much to so many. It might not have delivered on everything the fantastic last few trailers promised, but I was more than satisfied by the sense of commitment and devotion from most of the spectacular cast and a few really important moments- the payoff to Snape’s arc and King’s Cross Station- more or less delivering everything we wanted them to. And I can’t talk about this movie without mentioning that Voldemort’s ridiculous gloating and subsequent impossibly awkward hug were incredible.

Drive– On paper this movie has a plot so simple it’s practically boring. Yet Nicolas Winding Refn proves it has nothing to do with what the story is and everything to do with how you tell it. Drive radiates style from the opening sort-of chase to its ambiguous conclusion and I was in its grip for every second. This movie is something truly different from practically everything else out there and I absolutely loved it for that. The entire cast feels completely organic, and while Ryan Gosling by no means emotes, it doesn’t mean he’s phoning anything in. Everyone else was great to watch (although I don’t get the disproportionate acclaim for Albert Brooks; I thought Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston were just as good) and the soundtrack was perhaps the best all year. The quick reference to the story of the scorpion and the frog was a nice reminder that they were actually thinking about what the movie meant, and it’s very easy to watch this with the perspective that the Driver is a total sociopath. Beautifully shot and directed, this was one of the most unique, memorable, and flat out cool films of the year.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo– I’m not a huge fan of the book, but I realized immediately that there was a ton of potential for David Fincher to turn this story into something special, and because he’s David Fincher of course he did. I was immediately hooked by the skull-exposingly phenomenal opening credits and wasn’t bored for a second of the nearly three hour runtime that followed. Rooney Mara fully realized Lisbeth Salander into a vulnerable yet terrifying force of righteous, alienated fury that was nothing less than captivating. She owns this movie. But let it not be said that Daniel Craig didn’t do a great job as Blomkvist, providing a necessary anchor to the surrounding instability. David Fincher streamlined this story into its best possible incarnation. It was nice to actually care about the mystery, fear and loath the eventually-exposed killer, view Salander as victim and avenger, and see a major change to the resolution that I thought was a huge improvement upon the source material. Here’s hoping they go ahead with the rest of the trilogy.

Midnight in Paris– Going into it, I had no idea what this movie was about. The moment of realization as Owen Wilson was talking to the couple was fantastic, and from the subsequent introduction of a certain pinnacle of masculinity to the credits I rarely stopped smiling. It’s in some ways a slight, very fun little passion project that lets Woody Allen geek out a bit, but at the same time it speaks to some very universal truths about how no one is ever really aware that they’re worthy of those that they idolize, and nothing’s more common than a sense of temporal displacement. It’s a beautiful, enchanting film that remained one of my favorites ever since I saw it at the beginning of the year.

Hugo– For something like the first half of the movie it’s not really clear where Hugo is going, and the place it ends up is very unexpected. There’s a fantastical, surreal element to a lot of what’s going on, but it turns out nothing magical is happening beyond that of film and creation. Naturally, this makes it the most magical film of 2011. There’s personality, whimsy, tragedy, and joy to everything that happens, not to mention just about the most effective use of 3D ever. Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz are wonderful, as is Ben Kingsley as a character who isn’t being fictionalized nearly as much as you might think. The adventure that the characters embark on isn’t one of peril or even much excitement, but there’s more than a little discovery, as the audience gets a history lesson of how story, innovation, and yes, magic, was brought to the cinema. The message of the film is that through realizing our passions we can find a place in the world, and there’s nothing more meaningful or inspiring than that.

And with that over and done with, here’s to the stories of 2012, and all they have to teach us.

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