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My Top 20 Films of 2011

Oops.  It’s been over two years since I last posted to this blog and to anyone who might have happened to be reading whatever useless nonsense I was writing up here, I do apologize.  What can I say?  Life happened.  Things came up, got busy, and the things that no one was paying me to do fell by the wayside.  So, I’ve decided to change the layout, change the name (because I really hated the previous one and can at least tolerate this newest one), keep up the old posts, and chug along here posting up whenever I have the time.  Probably not as frequently as I would like but I really hope this won’t end up abandoned once again.  Anyways, what better way to re-introduce myself into the fold than to take part in that great year end critical tradition, the year end ranking of our favorite films of the year.  Now the problem with my list is twofold.

First, it is nowhere near comprehensive as there are many (probably) great films that I either just haven’t gotten around to or just aren’t playing anywhere convenient at the moment.  This isn’t my job so there are several anticipated movies that could possibly shove their way onto this list at some future point so I may amend sometime in the future.  This is why I decided to wait to post this thing until January 1st so as to give myself ample time to catch up on some of my more anticipated movies.  Among those that I feel like I’m missing out on and could easily claw their way in here include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame, War Horse, Rango, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Carnage, Mission Impossible, The Adventures of Tintin, The Artist, A Dangerous Method, Tyrannosaur, Like Crazy, Margaret, Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hanna, Meek’s Cutoff, etc. etc. etc.  Like I said, there are many I have missed out on and these are only the more major ones.

Second, I am crap with ranking movies and my memory is absolutely awful.  If I tried ranking these movies on my own, there would be a wide swath of movies I’m sure I’d forget to put on here.  I am an idiot and I must live with this debilitating character trait.  Thankfully, I have taken to using the website Flickchart.com.  For those unfamiliar, it’s a website that randomly matches two movies against each other and you pick which one you like better.  After a while of ranking movies, a list begins forming of your favorite movies.  After a dull weekend of being hopelessly addicted to the site, a good deal of my moviegoing life seems to have been ranked and catalogued.  Now, after I see a movie and a good amount of time passes for the film to sit in my head, I put it in my Flickchart and I see where it ranks.  I have used this ranking as my baseline and am basically copying it from there and using that for my Top 20.  Anyways, now that’s out of the way, click through for my favorite 20 movies of the past year.

20.  THE MUPPETS – No other movie put as big a smile on my face from beginning to end.

19. MONEYBALL – In the way that Social Network made coding cinematically interesting, Bennet Miller does the same with baseball statistics with winning results.

18. MELANCHOLIA – I’m not a real big fan of Lars von Trier so the fact that this movie cracks my list is a real surprise.  Probably the most beautiful film one can make about the end of the world.

17. THE TREE OF LIFE – I can’t say that I hundred percent “got” Terrence Malick’s visual tone poem of a film but I can say I was absolutely mesmerized and astounded by the craft and care on display.

16. WIN WIN – Tom McCarthy brings vivid life to this small town story of a down on his luck Paul Giamatti’s relationship with a student wrestler.  With great performances and a sweet, sincere story, McCarthy proves to be the great humanist in modern American cinema.

15. LOUIS CK LIVE AT THE BEACON THEATER – I know this is kind of cheating but Louis CK is my favorite comic working today.  His new distribution model is laudatory and, hopefully, the future of cutting out the middle man between entertainers and their audience.

14. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN – Harrowing and upsetting, Lynne Ramsay’s tale of the child from hell builds a sense of dread throughout as we flip back and forth between the past and present.  Tilda Swinton is exceptional as the mother who just knows that something is wrong.  A horror film made for the expecting parent.

13. YOUNG ADULT  — Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody re-team for a much darker film than their previous venture, Juno.  Charlize Theron is amazing as the former prom queen come back to town to steal back her old flame, moving deftly between sad and happily delusional.  Patton Oswalt is shockingly good here as well.  Nostalgia for things long gone recurs constantly throughout this year in film but this one gives the darkest, probably most realistic, version of holding on to things from an idealized past.

12. CONTAGION – Stephen Soderbergh takes the Traffic approach to this byzantine thriller with multiple storylines going at once and what’s amazing about the film is how few of those storylines are stinkers.  There are some uneven points in the movie but the performances all around are superb and like We Need To Talk About Kevin above, it stays with you long after the credits.  Just see the next time someone sneezes near you after you see this movie.

11. THE IDES OF MARCH – George Clooney directs this great political morality play where a young campaign advisor loses all his idealism for a candidate that may or may not be worth it at the end.  A stellar cast from top to bottom elevates this film so much more than it could’ve been.  It’s a kind of tired theme of the young idealistic politico losing their positivism and hope but the performances here elevate the material to such a degree, its hard not to be enthralled by the acting one-upmanship on display.

And now for the top ten of the year:

#10

BRIDESMAIDS

Easily, the best comedy of the year.  I know I probably have some other comedies ranked higher up on this list but for sheer laughs and a good time at the theater, this is the one to beat.  Paul Feig, of Freaks and Geeks fame, teams up with Kristen Wiig to make the argument for strong female driven comedies.  After years of sub-par romantic comedies, usually starring Katherine Heigl, with ridiculous characters that only the hackiest of writers could relate to, Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo find real human characters amidst ridiculous comic set pieces.  Where R rated fare like The Hangover Part Two, Horrible Bosses, and The Change-Up failed is where this movie succeeds, telling an actual story with real characters having real arcs and finding the absurd comic situations there.  If you’ve seen Kristen Wiig on SNL, you knew to expect funny, but what I didn’t expect was heart.

#9

SUPER

This is the movie last year’s Kick Ass wishes it was.  James Gunn returns after the underrated Slither came and went and proceeds to blow that picture out of the water.  Subversive and scary in the funniest ways possible, Rainn Wilson takes a dark turn here as a sad sack turned vigilante superhero when his girlfriend leaves him for a charismatic drug dealer, played by a scene stealing Kevin Bacon.  Ellen Page is somehow even more terrific playing against type as the hyperactive, possibly psychopathic sidekick.  Where Kick Ass showed some brutal aspects, in the end it glamorized and fetishized those superhero elements into a candy colored pop film.  With Super, Gunn flips it and goes super dark taking those pop elements to their natural dark and violent end.  Darkly funny and audaciously original despite the well worn concept of the real world superhero (Kick Ass, Defendor), this is easily the best of the superhero bunch this year.

#8

THE DESCENDANTS

Alexander Payne returns with this touching tale of a father dealing with his two young daughters when his wife falls into a coma after a speed boat accident.  After a shaky start where Payne over relies on narration to speed through a lot of back story, the film amicably gets comfortable with itself and falls into a groove that’s as natural as the beatific sceneries of Hawaii.  George Clooney being great is no surprise here but it’s in the two young daughters where the film finds itself, especially with Clooney’s interactions with them.  Shailene Woodley comes out of nowhere to stand toe to toe with Clooney in some powerhouse scenes that are a wonder to behold.  A beautiful film with so many great moments, both funny and sad, Payne fills every ounce of the screen with beautiful human compassion.  Clooney shows up twice on this list but this film is much more hopeful and human.

#7

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

Woody Allen’s charming stroll through Paris is easily his best this century.  Owen Wilson effortlessly delivers the most “Woody Allen” of Woody Allen performances and Corey Stoll’s performance as Ernest Hemingway is a scene stealer.  This may be lighter, fluffier Woody Allen but the film is pure delight from beginning to end.

 

#6

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

I was a little hesitant to rank Rupert Wyatt’s prequel/re-imagining of the Planet of the Apes so high on this list but thinking it over, I think this is the right call.  Everything involving Caesar and his development from simple baby to violent over-thrower of mankind is simply astounding.  From the seamless special effects to Andy Serkis’ absolutely mesmerizing performance as Caesar, the film builds to an amazing crescendo and a thrilling climax.  Unfortunately, everything else about the film, mostly revolving around the paper thin, one note characters played by James Franco and Freida Pinto, almost derail it but the Caesar sections are so strong, they more than make up for those missteps.

#5

DRIVE

The coolest movie of the year.  I first noticed Nicolas Winding Refn with the overly stylized Bronson, a film that was anchored by an incredibly lived in and audacious performance by Tom Hardy.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of Refn’s films and while his films always have a great distinct style to them, I always felt there was something missing.  With Drive, I think he’s found it.  What that is, I’m not quite sure but through the simple story of a getaway driver and his futile attempts to help those he cares about, Refn spins a wild tale of style, violence, and great pop music.  Ryan Gosling does so much with so little dialogue through steely glares and a contained rage that always just simmers underneath.  No other film this year has put music to such great vivid use.

#4

HUGO

Probably the first film since Avatar that has used 3D in any worthwhile way.  Of course, when the master Martin Scorsese decides to use a film tool, he’s going to put it to its best use.  But with Hugo, he uses the technology of the future as homage to the technology of the past.   To be more specific, the technology that brought us the first special effects extravaganzas in film.  A beautiful homage to the work of early silent filmmaker Georges Lumiere, Scorsese uses the 3D to comment and try to bring out that extraordinary feeling audiences must have gotten when that first train came rushing at the screen in the early 1900s.  Post-converting Lumiere’s own most famous work, A Trip to the Moon, in spellbinding 3D, Scorsese makes the best argument for the technology finding depth and space in the frame where no one else has.  Unfortunately, it will probably be a long while before anyone else even attempts to use it as well.

  

#3

50/50

The term “cancer comedy” does Jonathan Levine’s humorous, passionate look at living with cancer a huge disservice.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is great as a young man faced with a 50-50 chance of death and Will Reiser’s truthful script (based on his own experiences) makes this probably the most relatable film of the year.  Seth Rogen provides the films more comic moments and they never feel forced.  It’s a natural part of the two characters’ friendship and is probably the most honest look at male friendship all year.  The film never surrenders itself to sentimentality and Terms of Endearment levels of tear-jerking but it finds ways to make the audience cry anyways.  A great unforced script and great chemistry between its leads, the film can be hard for those who have or known someone who has dealt with cancer but it is truly worthwhile viewing for anyone who has had to deal with such horrible moments.

#2

A SEPARATION

Asghar Farhadi’s melodramatic tale of a marriage in dissolution contains some of the greatest performances of, not just the year, but of the past decade.   Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami play Nader and Simin, a couple on the verge of divorce in modern day Iran.  They are well educated and middle class but when a devout Muslim woman begins working to take care of Nader’s Alzheimer inflicted father, things take a turn and escalate into a series of dramatic misunderstandings and harsh decisions.  There has been no better constructed script this year, telling a universal story of a family at its breaking point that is relatable no matter the culture.  When characters make bad decisions or things are revealed about them, the film never turns its eye away from them.  Farhadi treats his characters with great generosity even when it might not be the easiest recourse but no one is bad or good in this film.  They are conflicted and hurt and collide with each other to such great force that there is no rooting interest.  It’s a remarkable film that, like the best of them, will stay in your gut long after the final downbeat shot.

#1

ATTACK THE BLOCK

What makes Attack the Block my favorite film of the year?  From first time filmmaker Joe Cornish, this movie is unabashed fun.  While other films this year tried to ape the Spielberg style of adventure films from the 1980s to mixed results, Attack the Block best exemplifies the spirit of those films.  A fun script, excellently paced direction, some of the best creature designs/effects I’ve seen in quite some time, and some standout performances from its young cast, Attack the Block cements itself at the top of my list for how it uses all of those elements to be a fun and exciting film with a lot of heart.  Following a group of young South London thugs as their planet is suddenly invaded by alien monsters; the film takes these unusual protagonists and thrusts them into a whole different genre.  John Boyega, as the leader of this pack of teens, shows real dramatic leading man chops and has already been cast in a Spike Lee project because of this film and for good reason.  Charismatic with a subtle sense of menace about him, he deftly handles all of the elements that Cornish throws at him from the more comedic moments to the sadder, dramatic ones.  The film has a lot to say about class and race, but put all that aside and you still have the most fun movie of the year.

Well, that was my year in movies.  Hopefully, 2012 is even better.  Have a happy new year everyone!

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