Every year, I do a top-ten list of my favorite movies, and at some point, on a lark, I expanded it to include every movie I’d seen that year. It seemed fun at the time, since it meant I could write reviews of the movies I’d really been appalled by, like Red Riding Hood, or Gnomeo & Juliet, which are the fun ones to do.
A month and a half later, it’s mid-February and I’m on my 11th favorite movie of the year, and just hating myself.
Maybe I should just write a “Ten Worst” list every year. I bet I could knock that out.
So this year, I’m keeping the spirit of the thing alive, but eliminating the busy-work element of it. I’ve assigned every movie I saw a “prize” of some kind – Most Unintentionally Hilarious, Movie Most Unnecessarily Savaged By Its Fans, Best Movie Where One of the Leads Was A Digital Tiger (spoiler alert: it’s Lincoln), etc. – and I’ll write up a brief piece about whatever that was. Some chunks will feel like full reviews, some will be brief paragraphs. I’ll start with the ones that seem the most fun to write about, rather than going in order. And if I haven’t gotten this done by the time the Oscars is broadcast, I’ll post my full film list, in order, on that Sunday (February 24th), and be done with it.
Of course, now it’s time to face the elephant in the room: I never finished my movie reviews from last year. How can you possibly trust me this time if I failed so conspicuously last time?
I’ll have to do them all now. So, here we go, the thirteen (oh, man, I missed by thirteen last year?) best movies I saw in 2011.
13. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 12. The Adventures of Tin-Tin
I checked my computer and discovered that I did manage to write reviews of both these films, just not to post them. My recollection was that I’d written so many reviews at that point that they’d lost any and all creative spark. However, I skimmed them, and they aren’t bad. I’ll post both right before I post this, so just scroll down after you finish this article.
11. X-Men: First Class
I’m a sucker for X-Men movies, and Bryan Singer’s first two movies in this series hit the sweet spot for me. Singer’s a gay Christian, and most of his films have characters who have “outsider status” all but branded on to them. This proved a good match for the X-Men mythos, even if he perhaps landed a touch too on-the-nose at times (the scene where one of the mutant teens is cast out by his family because they thought he “chose” to be a mutant looks a touch hacky in retrospect). But then Brett Ratner came along and ruined everything, the way that he does.
The brand seemed dead, until Matthew Vaughn was brought in to resurrect the franchise. He very ably directs this origin story, which frames the whole X-Men story around the Cuban Missile Crisis, a curious but surprisingly effective strategy. The realism gives a nice bit of grounding to what is unquestionably a silly concept, and as The Dark Knight has taught us, a little realism can sell even the silliest bat-voice.
The real credit goes to casting, though. The top-line cast – James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult – is miles better than you’d expect for a film like this, and the interplay between McAvoy and Fassbender is so strong that it makes me excited that Lawrence became such a huge star that now they have to do a sequel.
10. Midnight In Paris
I have an idea: for fun, let’s do this review without talking about Woody Allen’s films as a whole! Wouldn’t that be exciting? Wouldn’t that be so novel?
I actually don’t even know if such a thing is possible. After all, most reviews are trying to tell you what a movie is like, and what Midnight In Paris is like is other Woody Allen movies. People are neurotic. They talk all the time. They wander city streets, looking for purpose. They find a dream girl, obsess over her, and usually don’t end up with her. The good ones feel crisp and the bad ones feel navel-gazing. You know what you’re getting into here.
Actually, the best part of the movie is watching people frantically Wikipedia-ing the historical characters that pop up in the film and then pretending that they understood all the references as they appeared. I’m not ashamed to admit that I followed all the Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso bits, and adored the Ernest Hemingway portions, but was totally unfamiliar with everything that Alison Pill was doing as Zelda Fitzgerald. I lack Woody Allen’s earnest longing to return to 1920’s Paris, if for no other reason than I’m much less convinced than him that everyone would speak such excellent English.
That said, the film is a gentle, sweet meandering back in time, and paints as lovely a picture of Paris as anyone has attempted. I’m enjoying this long European hiatus Allen’s been taking the past few years, and if we can keep landing films like this or Match Point, I don’t think he ever needs to head back to Manhattan at all.
Linking to Hemingway's monologue instead of the trailer, because the trailer's sort of a snooze.
9. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Even just a year later, this film’s only lasting legacy is that now “ghost protocol” means to walk around with your hood up. But who cares? This is an action film, and a good one. It doesn’t need a legacy.
I don’t know what else you’d want from a film like this, frankly. It succeeds in precisely the manner it tries to: it’s fast, fun, and instantly forgettable. Tom Cruise drives cars off ledges and climbs one of the world’s tallest buildings in the middle of a massive (and incredibly well visualized) sandstorm. Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux, both in slinky dresses, fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat. Simon Pegg says cheeky things. Jeremy Renner grunts and looks mysterious. What more could you people want?
More of this, fortunately. Mission Impossible 5 is scheduled to come out 2015, with Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie at the helm. I’m already looking forward to this.
8. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part II
I said from the moment it premiered that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I is the strongest film of the HP franchise, and a couple years later, I stick by that assessment. Still, Part II is a fitting end to a journey that spanned 11 years, 8 movies, and the entirety of poor Rupert Grint’s awkward adolescence.
The movie opens a touch shakier than expected, as Harry and his friends’ escape from the bowels of a goblin bank never quite gels into the action set piece the creators were hoping for. That’s problematic, since early chunks of the movie descend into the complicated backstory-hunt that dominates the second half of Rowling’s last novel. If it bogged down the novel a hair, the transition to celluloid has not helped it. Here it drags and baffles, and only a real Potterphile is likely to grasp all the pieces as they pass by.
But no matter. In short order, the gang is back inside Hogwarts for the climactic battle scene, and while director David Yates has made some missteps in his tenure in charge of the Potter films, here he makes none. The fighting sizzles, and each character is given due attention as the battle rages. By the time Snape has passed along his memories for our last (and most moving) trip to the past, the film has done precisely what we asked of it: it gave us a fully fitting last goodbye to these characters we’d spent so much time rooting for.
7. The Muppets
Like most people over the age of 7 who attended this movie, I grew up on the Muppet movies as much as someone who lived in a house with no TV possibly could. If my affection was perhaps slighter than that of the film’s obsessive main characters, I was equal in my longing to see the whole gang back together.
While perhaps too much time has passed for someone to be able to truly resurrect the simple joy of the original films, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller give it a game try. They’ve written a movie that is, if possible, ironically unironic. “We’re playing it straight here,” the movie seems to wink at us. “But we don’t have to.” Despite having been the one creating this whole endeavor, Segel’s the one who struggles to play it straight-yet-funny. Fortunately, he’s the only one with any difficulties. Amy Adams, naturally, remains as effortlessly wide-eyed as ever, and Chris Cooper is flawless as the hammy villain. Better still is Jack Black, who for all his trouble finding roles that fit his manic style, is an absolute shot to the arm here.
Ultimately, it’s a fitting and endlessly rewatchable trip back to the world Jim Henson created so long ago – one I would have assumed was unreachable now.
Oh, and I promised Margie after she accompanied me to the film last year that that she’d be a part of this review, and I’m a man of my word. Though I’m honestly appreciative, since it’s tough to find someone to trek to a Muppet movie with who can make it through without a knowing sneer. Innocence is, sadly, dead.
Posting my favorite of the parody trailers, one which will only make sense if you've seen the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer it's aping.
6. Super 8
Kid actors are tough. If you’ve ever watched a film or a TV show with kid actors, you know that we’re forced to hold them to different standards. They can play funny, or upset, or possessed, but we get only broad strokes, no shading. Generally, we can’t ask much more of them than precociousness. Sometimes, that’s enough: “Modern Family” has done a top-notch job of wringing every possible laugh from their younger cast by playing to each kid’s strength. Perhaps it’s the director, or the set, but generally young casts manage to deliver their lines and the general sense of emotion, but nothing else.
That’s not the case here. The kids at the center of J.J. Abrams’ extremely Spielbergian alien movie (Spielberg himself is a producer here, and his stylistic choices are all over the film) are sad and scared and brash and uncertain all at the same time, and the shades they manage to convey – leads Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning in particular – would be remarkable in an actor three times their age.
The movie does their performance justice – it’s both a taut, dark mystery and a moving coming-of-age story, and if the film lets its foot off the gas pedal just a hair at the end, but that’s not nearly enough to justify the way the movie’s disappeared from the public consciousness. More than worth a rental or a download if you’re looking.
Only 5 to go! I'll have the rest up shortly.