As an attempt to counterbalance the deluge of negativity found within my 10 worst films of the year list, I felt it necessary to highlight more than 10 of my favorite 2011 films. I don't like being seen as a negative Nancy all the time, so without further ado, here are 15 films I super duper liked without caveat or question so stop calling me negative because I totally loved these movies because they made me happy and not angry okay!
15. Young Adult
Whether or not you like a Diablo Cody-scripted film generally tends to depend on how high your tolerance for her brand of pseudo-clever, portmanteau-heavy dialogue runs. Part of what makes Young Adult such a surprising and great film is that, despite Cody's involvement, you don't have to worry about any such dialogue issues.
In toning down the twee-ness and focusing on her characters, Cody writes her best script in Young Adult, a tale of a small town prom queen all grown up and miserable in her big city life. In a startling act of narcissistic hubris, she decides to return home and woo her former flame away from his wife and child so that they can be happy together, everyone else be damned.
The movie works because it hits nearly all the right character notes without veering too far into Cody's usual land of everyone remembering Thundercats references. It also works because Charlize Theron is icily brilliant as the bitch-in-heels lead. She's a riot to watch as she slices her way through the quaint lives of her former schoolmates, and then takes an incredible, tragic turn in her late-movie scenes with Patton Oswalt, who plays a former class punching bag that she unexpectedly befriends. Their amazing chemistry propels this movie beyond being just another bleak dark comedy. There is a heart underneath it all, though it's certainly a bit black around the edges.
14. I Saw the Devil
Director Ji-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil feels like something of a tribute to another great Korean director's (Park Chan-wook) own trilogy of insane, violent, over-the-top revenge thrillers. Park's work on Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance are among the films that helped put the Korean film scene onto the global stage, and Kim's film is every bit as crazy, grotesque, and mind-boggling as Park's best works.
It doesn't hurt that he has the actor central to Oldboy's success (Choi Min-sik) on board to play one of the most nihilistic and pitiless serial killers ever put to screen. Choi is alternately terrifying and absurd, a bundle of bizarre, uncontrollable urges that often involve torturing and disemboweling young women. However, when he makes the mistake of taking and murdering the young wife of one of Korea's best cops (Lee Byung-hun), suddenly Choi finds himself pursued with a relentlessness that matches, if not surpasses his own.
The way Kim portrays Lee's desire for vengeance is something close to magnificence. The desperation in his eyes belies the cold, calculating way in which he goes about just ruining this horrible killer's life. He's not content to kill him--he wants him to suffer as immeasurably as his wife did. Though the script takes a few bizarre turns, the core story of I Saw the Devil is as chilling as it is enthralling, and easily ranks among the best revenge tales to come out of a country that is apparently remarkably good at churning them out.
13. The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is less a movie than it is a sumptuous experience, a visual splendor to be absorbed as you would being in nature itself. To most film-goers, that probably sounds like the equivalent of seeing some random nature documentary on the big screen, but there is a good bit more to the great whole of The Tree of Life than just pretty cinematography in gorgeous locations. What I think that people get tripped up on is that very little of that greater whole involves plot.
If you were to put a gun to my head, I'm pretty sure I could only sketch out the vaguest idea of what writer/director Terrence Malick was going for in terms of storytelling. I know there is a story of a young boy growing up in suburban Texas in the late '50s/early '60s. I know that there is also a story of that boy having grown up to be Sean Penn, who is a deeply unhappy architect. I know that he thinks longingly about his childhood, his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, both wonderful), and the death of his younger brother some years ago. Also, there is a whole visual retelling of the birth of the universe itself for some reason.
I can't pretend to be smart enough to get inside a head like Terrence Malick's and connect the dots. I'm not even completely sure there are dots to be connected. What I do know is that for as ethereal and distant as this film can be, I rarely found myself able to take my eyes off of it. It's more than just pretty cinematography, but man, is that cinematography ever pretty. Every shot is constructed with such care and attention to detail that you almost want to pause each frame to soak in the peripheral details. It is a gorgeous film that certainly bewilders, but nonetheless captivates.
12. The Muppets
Rorie's description of The Muppets as an "endless, aching grin of a movie" is not inaccurate in the slightest. The Muppets is like distilled joy, filtered through a sieve made of rainbows and togetherness. Star/co-writer Jason Segel's reverence for the Muppets is apparent from the word go, and that deep-seated love for the franchise never, ever lets up.
The plot is, of course, a bit of a trifle, but who cares? The movie is just a big excuse to get the old gang back together, and despite the absence of veteran Muppets puppeteer/voice actor Frank Oz, it's like these guys have hardly lost a step. Some have complained that this Muppets movie leans a little too heavily on less-than-whimsical subject matter (including the odd apparent divorce between Kermit and Miss Piggy), but the ultimate message of The Muppets is one of teamwork, togetherness, and friendship, a message couched in great musical numbers, wonderfully funny comedy, and characters you may have forgotten you loved, but will be instantly in love with again by the time you're done watching. It's just a flat-out delight.
11. Fast Five
If you had told me at the beginning of 2011 that the latest entry in the Fast and the Furious franchise would not only be legitimately good, but be one of my favorite movies this year, I'd have called you a damnedable liar, then socked you right in your stupid lying face. Then, five months later, I'd have had to come to your house and apologize profusely for calling you a liar and breaking your nose, as it turns out you were totally right and I kind of overreacted. So, hey, sorry about that.
Fast Five has absolutely no business being as much fun as it is. This is a series that has alternately traded on its own absurdity, and delved into weird places of annoying self-seriousness at various stages of its existence. Fast Five is the first of them in ages to actually find the correct balance between ludicrous action and whatever it is this series' writers want to pass off as "character development."
Certainly the addition of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a bulldozer of an FBI fugitive hunter is nothing to complain about, but it's really the way that director Justin Lin uses the existing characters that makes Fast Five so great. He pays a bit of tribute to some of the more ridiculous tropes of the series while ratcheting up the core action to such an alarming degree that you can't help but be invigorated by it. That so little of that action is steeped in CG effects makes the scenes all the more effective. No one's going to accuse Fast Five of being a particularly smart film, but as pure, blockbuster entertainment, it was second only to one other particularly excellent blockbuster this year (which I'll get to momentarily).
10. The Guard
If there is an actor better suited to playing a cranky son of a bitch better than Brendan Gleeson working today, please point him out to me. But before you do, I suggest taking in a viewing of The Guard before you start throwing around wild accusations, because odds are once you've seen this movie, any desire you might have to argue about Gleeson's status as the film industry's greatest grump will simply dissipate.
Gleeson is nothing short of incredible in this sadly overlooked Irish comedy. As a cop assigned to the ass-end of Ireland's rural reaches, Gleeson's Sergeant Gerry Boyle is not the sort to make much of a fuss about anything. He hangs around with whores, shows up at the office when he wants to, and doesn't have much problem with taking the drugs he confiscates off accident victims. He's essentially the Irish equivalent of one of the Bad Lieutenant characters, albeit with less of a distinct mean-streak.
While The Guard could have easily morphed into a completely mundane "bad cop saves the day" story as Boyle and an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle, reminding you why you ever liked Don Cheadle in the first place) track down a gang of drug runners planning to boat in some new product, writer/director John Michael McDonagh manages to avoid the annoying cliches of the genre by keeping the story full of weird, unexpected turns, and bizarrely hilarious moments. The peculiar banter among the trio of educated criminals is enough of a quirk by itself, but Gleeson's casually racist and utterly unflappable demeanor is what makes this thing fly. It's impossible to imagine any other actor playing this part.
In Hanna, director Joe Wright has the potential for a film franchise I would legitimately love to see continue. He has a transfixing and talented star in Saoirse Ronan, a stylish and interesting premise that would easily carry itself beyond this first great film, and a character that absolutely begs to be explored far outside of the confines of her origin story.
Yes, it's easy to call Hanna a bit of a pastiche between the slick, brutal espionage action of the Bourne series, and Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, but what's wrong with that? It's a combination that works remarkably well, especially given Wright's sudden love of kinect, action-driven filmmaking. The titular character is such an innocent bad-ass that there are no shortage of places to go with her--though a good several of them are explored in this movie.
Ronan is brilliant as the albino-white girl at the center of a storm brewing between her former CIA agent father (Eric Bana), and his former CIA handler (Cate Blanchett). Both of these actors are excellent, but Ronan owns every second she's on screen. A few hacky moments not withstanding, Hanna keeps you glued to the screen for nearly every second of its run time, while the pulsing beats of The Chemical Brothers anchor the aural assault that travels underneath its gorgeous visuals. Here's hoping for another experience as good as this one somewhere down the road from Wright and Ronan.
Was there a weirder movie ostensibly targeted at families than Rango in 2011? While on the surface Rango appears to be yet another talking animal movie for kids, the actual meat of the film is something altogether more bizarre. Based on a script by John Logan (who also wrote the only other tolerable computer-animated talking animals film in 2011, Puss In Boots) and directed by, of all people, Gore Verbinski, Rango is most noteworthy for its wholehearted willingness to break the cardinal rule of animation: It's willing to be ugly.
The characters contained within this peculiar animated riff on the plot of Chinatown are bizarre, unwieldy, damaged, and at times, downright grotesque. They're not easy-to-sell, cuddly, colorful creatures. They're not the result of endless marketing focus tests to decide what the kids might like. If anything, they're a little scary.
And that's what makes Rango so damned refreshing. The expectation is that the characters and animation will allow younger kids to accept less-cute character designs, and the result is splendid. Johnny Depp's titular chameleon is one of the more memorable characters of the year, and the cadre of weirdos Logan surrounds him with are just as great. The movie also assiduously avoids pandering to adults by eschewing most pop culture references in favor of tributes to a variety of great films from movie history. It's a smart animated comedy that might not be for super young kids, but most families will love--provided they're willing to get a little weird.
Speaking of family films, is there a more under-acknowledged family movie from 2011 than Winnie the Pooh? Tragically, this latest visit to the Hundred Acre Wood was largely ignored by American audiences and fell painfully short of the numbers posted by far more vapid junk like Hop, Mr. Popper's Penguins, and even Mars Needs Moms.
Maybe it's that kids these days really are turned off by old school, hand-animated works. Maybe it's that the world of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard is just too low-key and easy-going for the more attention-deficit-suffering children of the modern era. Or maybe it's that none of these things are actually true, and parents simply avoided taking their kids to see what was easily the best family film of the year because they believed them to be true.
Whatever the case, anyone who missed Winnie the Pooh missed out on a truly charming and heartwarming little movie. Yes, it's very short (less than 70 minutes) and the whole story is essentially just a goofy little sitcom-esque misunderstanding, but the wonderfully-voiced characters, gorgeous animation, and delightful narration from John Cleese combine into a irresistible confection of unabashed sweetness. If you've got kids, seek it out.
This is one of those movies that sadly slipped under my radar during its brief theatrical run, but I'm glad I got to check it out in time for this list, because it's easily my favorite documentary of the year.
The Bill Cunningham of the title is the New York Times' "On the Street" fashion photographer. He's not a fashion junkie in the way that most style bloggers and fashionistas tend to be. He doesn't photograph a million runway shows and gallery openings. Instead, he spends most of his days on his bike pedaling around New York City looking to capture the looks of the time. He photographs people wearing what they wear in day-to-day life. Sometimes that encompasses the absurd, and sometimes merely the stylish. His only criteria is that he avoids the mundane--unless, of course, mundane has become the newest trend.
What makes Bill Cunningham New York so fun to watch is Cunningham himself. Despite being nearly 80 years old at the outset of the film, his boyish, almost childlike energy is infectious. He is a man who loves what he does so much, to do anything else would tear apart the very fiber of his being. He has avoided relationships, family, or anything else that doesn't involve his life's work, and he seems perfectly at ease with that. He's a guarded individual, one who seems to struggle to keep it together when more personal matters infiltrate his carefully constructed bubble, but at the core of the story is a man whose off-beat persona and unyielding belief in what he does have made him an icon of New York's fashion world.
Leave it to one of the world's best directors of animation to reinvigorate a live action film franchise. In selecting Brad Bird as the man to rejuvenate the Mission: Impossible series following less-than-stellar second and third entries (I'll never understand what people see in the third movie), the producers--which include star Tom Cruise--finally found the man to get this series back to the core of what made the first movie so great in the first place: crazy, over-the-top espionage action.
It's not unfair to accuse Ghost Protocol of just being a lot of very cool action scenes stitched together by a somewhat lackluster series of MacGuffins, but man, how fucking cool are those action scenes? There are a solid three or four blocks of the movie that include multiple moments that are unlike anything else I've seen this year, or even the last several years. As Roger Ebert put it, there is a kind of poetry to the cinematography and pacing of these sequences that transcends the core idea of what an action sequence typically is. It's beautiful, heart-pounding stuff.
Of course the cast is still great, as Cruise always seems at home inhabiting Ethan Hunt, and the return of Simon Pegg is always a welcome thing. Newcomers Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner are just as great, despite not having quite as much to do. I said in my review that I hope Brad Bird stays involved in this franchise--either as a director, or simply a creative overseer--for many movies to come.
Another indie I sadly missed in theaters, but am exceedingly glad I was able to catch via Netflix Instant Watch this month. Weekend is a gay movie. Know this right now, for if you are not the sort who can handle the idea of two men engaging in sexual intercourse or discussing their feelings for one another, you can just stop reading now, because you will not enjoy Weekend.
If you're a bit more open-minded, what you'll find in Weekend is one of the smartest and best-acted stories of burgeoning romance I've seen in ages. The tale is a simple one, involving Tom Cullen and Chris New as two 20-something gay men in Nottingham, England who meet at a club one fateful Friday night. Though their early interactions have all the beats of a forgettable one-night-stand, a subsequent meeting, followed by even more meetings, reveals that there might be more to the pair than just a bit of cheap sex.
Part of the problem with the LGBT film genre is that the films often only float one of two ways: either they're so steeped in issues that they often tend to come off more as preachy mouthpieces for the filmmakers than a legitimate story, or they're essentially softcore porn. Weekend is neither of these things. It intelligently addresses the disconnect between gay men's tendency toward meaningless sex, and the inherent human desire to fall in love, not to mention all the complications such a desire comes attached with. The two central performers are charming, likable, and very good together. You want their romance to flourish, even as it more and more roadblocks become apparent. If two men having a few minor softcore romps is too much for you to handle, then sadly, you'll be missing one of the best romantic films of the year.
Hugo is not doing very well at the box office, and unfortunately, it's not too difficult to understand why. Martin Scorsese's first attempt at the family film genre is not a movie that is easily accessible to children. Despite being a tale of a young boy who discovers new friends and family while hiding out inside an incredibly rendered pre-World War II French train station, so much of Hugo is less about the boy's journey than it is the classic silent filmmaker Georges Melies.
Melies is not a subject that most outside of film history classes probably have much affection for, but Scorsese does his damnedest to spin Brian Selznick's alternate-history tale of a young boy who restores Melies' faith in both the movies and humanity into something palatable to the general public. In my mind, he has succeeded brilliantly.
Though I imagine some kids will find Hugo tough to swallow, so much of Scorsese's visual direction of Hugo seems very specifically catered to them. He uses 3D better than anyone since James Cameron's Avatar, specifically to enhance the majesty of 1930s Paris. His hero, played by Asa Butterfield, is one of those orphan characters that actually manages to tug at the heartstrings, and his interplay with the great young actress Chloe Moretz is actually pretty magical.
While there are barriers to entry with Hugo, the whole of the film is something so lovely and exciting that it's nothing short of painful to think that people are just dismissing it out of hand. Go see it while it's still in 3D-capable theaters. You won't be disappointed.
In a year that saw no less than five different (and mostly mediocre) alien invasion films unleashed to theaters, it is with no small amount of absolution that I declare Attack the Block the very best among them. It's not even close, really.
Directed by Joe Cornish, Attack the Block's unlikely heroes tale of a crew of tower block miscreants in London fighting off neon-tinted alien beasts with only the help of their last mugging victim and a pair of pot-dealing losers is nothing short of hilarious from start to finish. Cornish turns the genre on its head in multiple ways, first by making his characters into less-than-admirable punks and then slowly, but surely turning them back toward the audience's favor as the invasion becomes more heated. It's especially great as the characters themselves enter the fracas with a kind of thuggish hubris, only to realize exactly how far in over their heads they really are.
Part of the problem with most alien invasion movies is that the aliens aren't particularly scary or interesting to look at. Attack the Block's are certainly beastly creatures, but they don't look like anything else I've seen in a movie. Their jet-black fur and glowing teeth are frightening enough, as is the efficiency with which they kill. Attack the Block is surely a violent film, but it's violent in a way that isn't too different from something like Shaun of the Dead. The deaths are more disarming than they are disturbing, and in-between, there are no shortage of laughs to be had.
This is a genre that was in dire straits for quite some time (and perhaps isn't quite out of the woods yet), but if nothing else, Attack the Block managed to put it back on life support.
Was there ever a doubt? I've been singing the praises of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film since I was first legally allowed to, and don't plan to stop any time soon. Drive is, without question, the single most enthralling, exciting, and exquisite piece of filmmaking I've seen in a good long while. To say I merely liked this movie would be akin to describing the whole of the Sistine Chapel as "pretty neat."
Refn's earlier works (which include Bronson and Valhalla Rising) have been criticized for being exercises in style, and that same criticism has followed Drive since it began touring the awards circuit. It also couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, Drive is an exceedingly stylish film, filled with amazing visuals, a soundtrack that has to be considered the most memorable one of the year, and action scenes aestheticised into singular works of art.
But it's also a compelling crime tale, featuring characters that are both engaging and frightening, both identifiably human and something close to otherworldly. Refn set out to turn his titular Driver (Ryan Gosling in his best performance this year) into something of a superhero in his own mind. His life as a workaday mechanic starts to bleed into his nights as a getaway driver for various thieving criminals. His involvement with mobsters played by Albert Brooks (who deserves an Oscar nomination) and Ron Perlman is both tragic and seemingly unavoidable. His infatuation with his next door neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son is equally so.
There is both style and substance to Drive. Though it has enough of the former to burn, it has more than enough of the latter to counterbalance all those amazing aesthetics. Drive is one of the best pure crime films I've ever seen, and it's a testament to how great such a seemingly average tale can be when put in the hands of the right director and star. It's brilliant filmmaking and absolutely my favorite film of the year.
Notable films the world at large seemed to enjoy that I (regrettably) missed out on:
- Take Shelter
- The Artist
- The Interrupters
- 13 Assassins
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- A Separation
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Like my picks? Hate them? Comment away!