Happy New Year, my friends! The year 2011 is in the books and while it was an excellent year in many respects (awesome vacations to New Orleans and Florida, lots of bonding time with my two-year-old niece, plus we got a new kitten!), to say that it was an odd year for movies would be an understatement. It was the kind of year in which the cinematic crop looks great on paper, but in practice left much to be desired. We saw a lot of great performances that were wasted in otherwise-mediocre films. We saw a larger-than-usual influx of excellent indie/low-key films, while, for the most part, the big-budget Hollywood spectacles fizzled. 3D technology, for all its faults, seems to be here to stay, especially now that some big-name filmmakers may have actually started to figure out what to do with it. We saw triumphant returns (hail the Muppets!) and death knells (RIP, funny Sandler). Indeed, as a whole, 2011 was one of the least-memorable years in some time. Yet somehow, I still parked my ass in a movie theatre an astonishing 155 times, obliterating the personal record that I set just last year. That, my friends, is a LOT of movies. Maybe TOO many -- there were plenty of titles that I’d forgotten about when looking back over my list. The crème de la crème, however, is a somewhat bizarre, art house-centric mix of bleakness and hope. Let’s take a look, shall we?
10. A SEPARATION -- I had a difficult time deciding what to put in this spot (I’ll discuss the near-misses in a bit), but in the end, for the second straight year, the last film I saw, a few hours before the ball dropped, claimed the spot at the eleventh hour. A seemingly-unremarkable situation involving a failing marriage practically becomes a gripping thriller as events snowball into something completely different. It’s a powerful, impeccably-acted and expertly-crafted Iranian family drama / murder mystery / socio-religious commentary that will keep you on the edge of your seat, teach you a few things AND make your head spin for days afterward. If this isn’t the frontrunner for Best Foreign Film, then I really need to see more foreign films -- actually, I need to do that anyway. (Fun fact: This is the first foreign film to make my Top 10 since PAN’S LABYRINTH claimed the top spot in 2006.)
9. THE ARTIST -- A black-and-white silent film that is, in turn, a loving tribute to the silent era. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, uplifting, superbly acted, beautifully-shot and featuring a wonderful musical score, but it actually inspired me to go on a silent film-watching spree, which was a genre I had never really explored. Oscar nominations haven’t even been announced yet, but I’m surprised that we’re already seeing some backlash against this movie, seemingly from a bunch of jaded Debbie Downers. Listen, I love a good, dark, soul-sucking movie-watching experience as much as the next guy (as you will soon see), but sometimes I just want to be filled with joy and wonder. THE ARTIST fits that bill nicely.
8. THE TRIP -- The funniest movie of the year follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they travel around England, eating food, bickering and trying to outdo each other with their celebrity impressions and other funny accents. But Coogan’s battles with his own ego and burgeoning mid-life crisis, paired with a distinct commentary on the dynamic of male friendships, make it one of the most stealthily poignant films of the year, too. And on top of all that, it’s easily the most quotable. Since I saw the movie in June, I haven’t stopped reciting the bit where they go back and forth spoofing the costume drama inspirational speech: “Gentlemen, to bed! For we leave at 9:30...ish.” Be sure to rent the DVD, which contains nearly 100 minutes of additional/extended footage, which are just as watchable and hilarious as the finished movie.
7. BEGINNERS -- I’m really glad to see this movie getting some props during awards season, because it is so deserving. Ewan McGregor is at his best as Oliver, a lost soul who has never really had a meaningful relationship. But that sad, lonely life is thrown for a loop when he hits it off with a woman named Anna (Melanie Laurent, absolutely luminous). This story is contrasted with Oliver’s memories of his recently-deceased father (Christopher Plummer in an Oscar-worthy performance), who came out of the closet at the age of 75 and rediscovered the will to live. A funny, poignant, multi-generational story of life, love, family and identity that wears its heart on its sleeve and features the kind of whimsy, depth, sincerity and underlying optimism that gets me every time. (Best performance by a Jack Russell Terrier in a movie this year, too -- Arthur rules!)
6. MELANCHOLIA -- Lars von Trier gives us the most bizarre disaster flick ever, also a metaphor for the destructive power of depression. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is not happy... and her troubled mindset is paralleled by the troubling appearance of a rogue planet in Earth’s orbit. While at first the phenomenon is captivating, it slowly becomes clear that the end of the world is at hand. At this point, Justine begins to take control of her sanity while others unravel around her. The film features outstanding performances from an eclectic cast including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård and the great Charlotte Rampling -- but really, it belongs to Dunst, who has risen to new heights with by far the best performance of her career. With its beautiful, dreamlike cinematography and an ending that will knock the wind out of you, this is one of the year’s most vivid and affecting films.
5. TAKE SHELTER -- Michael Shannon gives arguably the best overall performance of the year in this startling film that is part psycho-thriller, part metaphor for the mindset of America in this age of economic uncertainty. Shannon plays Curtis, a family man who starts having weird nightmares and ominous hallucinations and can’t quite figure out if he’s having a stress-induced mental breakdown or experiencing legit, prophetic, apocalyptic visions. In the end he decides that the only thing that makes sense is to build a bomb shelter in his yard to save his family from whatever storm may or may not be coming. Masterfully crafted by writer/director Jeff Nichols, the film begins with a nightmare, maintains an ethereal feel as tensions mount and Curtis’ sanity frays, and culminates with another wallop of an ending that will make your head spin.
4. DRIVE -- With its '80s noir vibe, pulsing soundtrack, fantastic cast, slow-burning plot punctuated by moments of incredible violence and intense car chases, this is the flat-out coolest movie of the year. Ryan Gosling, in turn, gives the year's flat-out coolest performance, as he infuses his enigmatic Driver (a movie stuntman who moonlights as a wheelman for armed heists) with a mixture of McQueen, Dean, Eastwood and Brando with electric results. He received Golden Globe nods for his more-accessible roles in THE IDES OF MARCH and CRAZY STUPID LOVE, but this is the one that could define his career. There was a ton of hyperbole swirling around this movie up to and following its release, but it is a rare case where it actually lives up to the hype. An intense cinematic experience from intriguing director Nicolas Winding Refn.
3. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE -- In a year chock full of films that have messed with my mind (two of which we’ve already discussed), here we have the most unsettling of them all. Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, a girl who tries to regain some semblance of a normal life after escaping from a cult where she spent two years being brainwashed by its charming leader. But her psyche has been so deeply damaged that she suffers from paranoid delusions that blur the line between nightmare and reality in her mind. The film exists in a shroud of tension and unfolds like a dream, slowly peeling back layers of Martha’s experiences, culminating in yet another astonishing ending that feels like a kick to the gut. Olsen -- yes, Mary Kate & Ashley’s younger sister -- gives what may be the year’s most nuanced, vulnerable and, frankly, all-around best female performance. An absolutely mesmerizing film (and pretty awesome poster that I kind of want to hang on my wall).
2. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS -- Just when you thought that this top 10 would never recover from the dark turn it took a few spots ago, here comes Woody Allen to lighten the mood. Owen Wilson (perfectly cast in the “Woody Allen” role) plays Gil, a struggling writer who visits Paris with his fiancée and can’t help but get swept up in his preconceived notions about the city’s romance and beauty. One night, while out for a walk, the clock strikes midnight and he finds himself magically transported to the 1920s, hobnobbing in French cafés and parties with such luminaries as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso and experiencing his own creative and emotional rebirth. The motley crew of literary and artistic figures are hilarious and impeccably cast (Adrien Brody as Dali... genius!). It’s a story of pure whimsy and fantasy and I loved every minute of it. And I could also relate to Gil’s mindset: Five years ago, I went to Paris with a girl as part of a whirlwind romance. I, too, got caught up in the city’s splendor and at times felt frustrated when the reality of my situation didn’t quite match up with the fantasy in my head. So, on top of everything else, thank you, Woody, for the catharsis!
1. HUGO -- When I heard that Martin Scorcese was making a 3D kids’ film, I figured it would be interesting, because it’s Scorcese and his films always are. But I had no idea it would be quite THIS good. It is, all at once, an epic fantasy adventure, an intimate ode to family & friendship, a postcard of old Paris, a love letter to cinema, a crash course in the history of motion pictures, a propaganda piece about the importance of film preservation AND a game-changer in the advancement of 3D technology. It works perfectly on every one of those levels and should affect different people in different ways, depending upon which aspects they latch onto. For me, it had several effects. I loved the friendship (budding romance?) between Hugo and Isabelle, which was heartwarming and real. I loved the visuals and the use of 3D -- first time the technology has ever really been NECESSARY to achieve the full intended experience. I loved the history lesson, which particularly appealed to me because I had literally just gotten into watching old silent films on Netflix. So when I saw a clip from Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL during HUGO, I had a nice geek-out moment, as if all my cinematic stars were suddenly aligned. For me, Scorcese’s ode to movies and the people who love them was a definitive case of the elusive “cinematic thunderbolt” -- a rapturous movie-watching experience and unquestionably my #1 movie of 2011.
Other Noteworthy Titles (in no particular order):
The Muppets. Shame. Pariah. Trollhunter. Captain America: First Avenger. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Higher Ground. The Skin I Live In. The Descendants. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Source Code. Moneyball. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. A Dangerous Method. Attack the Block. The Double Hour. The Woman. X-Men: First Class. Rango. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Contagion. The Swell Season. The Adjustment Bureau. Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Sucker Punch. Hanna. Win Win. The Adventures of Tintin. War Horse. The Hangover: Part II. Our Idiot Brother. Paranormal Activity 3. 50/50. Cedar Rapids. Beautiful Boy. Real Steel. We Bought a Zoo. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Help. My Week With Marilyn.
And now... The Ten WORST Films of 2011:
10. MEET MONICA VELOUR -- Kim Cattrall plays an aging, downtrodden ‘80s porn icon who befriends a young fan. My guess is that Cattrall was trying to shed her glamorous SEX AND THE CITY persona, but just ends up embarrassing herself. And us.
9. SEASON OF THE WITCH -- Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as knights of the Crusades who battle a witch that may be the source of the black plague. The movie should have gone crazier to achieve so-bad-it’s-good status; as it stands, it’s just plain bad.
8. THE DILEMMA -- Vince Vaughn thinks that best friend Kevin James’ wife is cheating and lameness ensue. The statute of limitations on Vaughn milking his SWINGERS persona is nearly up. And James is just useless.
7. LARRY CROWNE -- No idea what the hell happened here, but this collaboration of Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts is a gargantuan trainwreck. They tried to make a feel-good story about the current state of society and ended up with arguably the worst film of Hanks’ career.
6. DREAM HOUSE -- You’d think that a haunted house story directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts and Rachel Weisz would be great. And it might have been -- but production problems and studio re-cuts thwarted that plan and left a gigantic turd floating in the cinematic toilet.
5. KILLER ELITE -- It’s been a while since Robert DeNiro was the best part of a movie; unfortunately it’s this awful, convoluted mess of an action film starring Jason Statham and Clive Owen, both of whose shticks are now officially boring.
4. JACK & JILL -- It’s been a while since Al Pacino was the best part of a movie; unfortunately it’s this awful Adam Sandler dreck. Remember when you saw the trailer and thought, “Holy shit, this looks terrible.” Well, it is exactly as terrible as it looked. I’d say this was the final nail in Sandler’s coffin, but God help us, I’m sure Awesom-O will keep churning out ideas (South Park fans know what I'm talkin' about).
3. APOLLO 18 -- A prime example of a cool concept -- the explanation as to why we never sent man back to the Moon after the last official mission in 1972 -- ruined by awful execution. The result is poorly written, not at all scary and quite possibly the worst found-footage flick to date.
2. HALL PASS -- This dismal schlock is so wretchedly bad that it makes me rethink whether or not the Farrelly Brothers have EVER been good. It brings dick and poop jokes to new lows and is an embarrassment to all involved. A shameful waste of some good talent and Nicky Whelan’s boobs.
1. JUST GO WITH IT -- As bad as JACK & JILL was, it wasn’t the worst Adam Sandler movie of the year. This one, starring Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, is even more profoundly unfunny and a sure sign of Sandler’s demise. It is just painful to watch. Not even Brooklyn Decker’s ample, glistening bikini cleavage can save it. When you take into account the shitty attempt at a laid-back, ad-libbed vibe, lack of laughs AND the extent to which it made me (a former Sandler worshipper) die inside, this is an easy choice for the absolute worst movie of 2011.
And now... Some Random Movie Thoughts!
Some Titles That Just Missed the Top 10: I can be very wishy-washy when compiling these lists and I often write several different titles in the #10 slot before changing my mind. THE MUPPETS is possibly the single most enjoyable movie-watching experience of the year, but it’s still not as good as the original Muppet movies, so I didn’t think it would be appropriate. SHAME is a devastating film but it has some climactic flaws (pun intended). I briefly flirted with the idea of including CAPTAIN AMERICA (the best superhero film of the year) or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 4 (the best pure action film), but nah. I also loved TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and THE DESCENDANTS, but I loved other movies more. And a tip of the hat to the Norwegian faux-documentary TROLLHUNTER, which hung around the Top 10 until, like, mid-November before getting bumped. Awesome movie, though!
Biggest Guilty Pleasure: As was the case with the first two films, I unabashedly love the glorious spectacle that is TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. I don’t care what anybody says -- Transformers are awesome and these movies are awesome and if they keep making ‘em, I’ll keep seeing ‘em in glorious IMAX. Speaking of which, can you guess which filmmakers’ work I’ve seen in that large-screen format more than any other? Nope, you’re all wrong -- the answer is Zack Snyder! In the past, I've seen 300 and WATCHMEN in their 80’ x 100’ glory, and this year, I saw SUCKER PUNCH, which I quite enjoyed and have re-watched it on Blu-Ray and will probably continue to do so. It has its flaws, but it is a rollicking visual feast and not nearly as awful as most people & critics seem to believe.
Pleasant Surprises: When I first saw the trailer for REAL STEEL, I seriously thought we were getting “Rock’em, Sock’em Robots: The Movie” and the end of the world was nigh. But it turned out to be more of a cross between ROCKY and THE IRON GIANT -- stunningly entertaining and filled with heart. Likewise, WARRIOR rose above its conventional story (and stupid sport) with great performances and intense fight scenes. FAST FIVE revitalized one of the world’s dumbest franchises by merging all its various characters and storylines and transforming it into sort of a poor man’s OCEAN’S 11. I also never expected RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to be as good as it turned out to be, thanks in no small part to motion-capture master Andy Serkis.
Disappointments: After seeing the trailer for LIKE CRAZY, I fully expected it to be this year’s great heartbreaking indie romance, a la ONCE, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and BLUE VALENTINE... but it did not turn out that way. COWBOYS & ALIENS was not a BAD movie, necessarily... just completely unmemorable. After the greatness of IRON MAN, I expected more from Jon Favreau (not to mention a cast including Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford). PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN 4 is not quite the failure it’s been made out to be by some, but it’s certainly a step down from the first three. Hard to believe that CARNAGE, with its dream cast, wasn’t more memorable. But the biggest disappointment of all, in terms of sheer expectation, may be be HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2. I fully expected it to be my #1 movie of the year, and it didn’t even make the Top 10 thanks to some serious flaws that I just couldn’t overlook. Frustrating. But that being said....
Mischief Managed: I mean, it’s not that the eighth and final Potter film is bad by any means. It is epic and action-packed and hugely emotional and ultimately a satisfying conclusion to one of the all-time great cinematic achievements. But... it kills me that they botched the final act so badly. [Beware of spoilers over the next few sentences.] Not just the fact that they dropped the ball by not showing more of the emotionally-charged aspects of the Battle of Hogwarts, but the fact that Voldemort’s on-screen death completely undermines J.K. Rowling’s message that in the end, he was only human. David Yates & Co. showed tremendous skill when it came to thinking outside the box in films 5 thru 7.1 -- but in the end, they should’ve gone by the book. [End spoilers.] For those reasons, I couldn’t in good conscience give HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 a spot in the Top 10 -- but I still love it and the rest of the series very much. Now that it’s over, it officially means that all of my favorite franchises are complete. No more Star Wars... no more Lord of the Rings (The Hobbit doesn’t count)... no more Potter. Sure, I will still get excited about movies in the future, but not with the same fervor that I felt for these series. It’s truly the end of an era. (At least until something really happens with Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER.…)
Most Underrated: I’m going to stick with SUCKER PUNCH here, because I really think that the movie has been unjustly panned and is misunderstood. Only 23% on RottenTomatoes, plus widespread derision in the Twitterverse -- it’s a damn shame. It’s not perfect and has plot holes and whatever. But it also contains an interesting conglomeration of ideas -- admittedly, some better-realized than others -- and on a pure entertainment level, it’s visually spectacular and fun and that’s good enough for me. (Or maybe my crush on Emily Browning is deeper than I even realize). Meanwhile, the lovely Vera Farmiga wrote, directed & starred in a movie called HIGHER GROUND -- a wonderfully-acted and refreshingly non-judgmental take on organized religion (and this is coming from a borderline atheist) that I really would have loved to see get more widespread praise. Haven’t seen nearly enough love for two excellent slices of sci-fi, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU and SOURCE CODE (especially since the latter was directed by one of the genre’s most intriguing minds, Duncan Jones). I thought there was a certain level of absurd genius in having the exact same thing happen to the Wolf Pack in THE HANGOVER PART II. I also enjoyed Joe Wright’s HANNA, a stylized action fairy tale in which Cate Blanchett passes the torch to her young doppelgänger, Saoirse Ronan. Did people like CONTAGION? It sort of came & went, but I liked it. Lastly, WAR HORSE, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and WE BOUGHT A ZOO all tugged on all the right heartstrings -- there’s no shame in admitting that, so no need to bash them!
Most Overrated: I thought THE TREE OF LIFE was beautiful and well-crafted, as all Terrence Malick films are... but I have to wonder if the only reason it is making so many best-of lists is because people think it makes them sound smarter or something. Likewise, everyone who is touting BRIDESMAIDS as the funniest thing since sliced bread... come on. It is funny, yes, and Kristen Wiig rules and it's great to see these funny ladies get some much-deserved kudos. But realistically speaking, it’s nowhere near the level of THE HANGOVER, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN or other such films... and is certainly not Oscar-worthy, for God’s sake! Meanwhile, Jason Reitman’s last two films (JUNO and UP IN THE AIR) both finished in my Top 5, but I didn’t love YOUNG ADULT, which seems to be a minority position. And it seems like lots of people enjoyed SUPER 8, but all it accomplished was make me want to have an old-school Spielberg marathon as soon as possible.
Animation Stagnation: Not a great year for the medium, exemplified by the fact that we saw Pixar’s first perceived “flop.” I actually kind of liked CARS 2 better than the first one -- but if I were to rank all the Pixar films, they would both sit at the very bottom. PUSS IN BOOTS and KUNG FU PANDA 2 were pretty to look at but ultimately unmemorable. I didn’t even bother with HAPPY FEET 2, which is significant since the first one actually made my Top 10 of 2005. I also skipped THE SMURFS, MARS NEEDS MOMS and ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (though I understand the latter isn’t so bad). But the year wasn’t a total loss: RANGO was a hilarious homage to spaghetti westerns, movie geekdom and Hunter S. Thompson, while THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN was a rollicking motion-capture adventure that allowed Spielberg to tap back into his RAIDERS roots.
Horror Movie Horror Show: We saw a variety of horror offerings this year. You’ve got dumping-ground bullshit like THE RITE, THE ROOMMATE and INSIDIOUS -- all of which sucked. Then you’ve got big franchise sequels like SCREAM 4, FINAL DESTINATION 5 and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 -- all of which were quite entertaining. Then there were a few remakes, like STRAW DOGS, THE THING and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK -- all of which were mixed bags. Then you’ve got genre-bending art house fare, like TAKE SHELTER, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and THE SKIN I LIVE IN -- all of which were amazing. Lucky McKee & Jack Ketchum's THE WOMAN was quite the eye-opener. And last but not least, there was THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FULL SEQUENCE. Ugh. Yet I can’t wait to see what that madman Tom Six has in store for us next.
Foreign Films & Docs: I actually saw a few of these this year! Very slowly but surely, my ass is gaining some culture. I obviously loved A SEPARATION. THE DOUBLE HOUR was a twisty-turny Italian mystery/thriller that will make your head spin (in a good way). I very much enjoyed THE SKIN I LIVE IN, Almodóvar’s answer to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (think about it). And my 100th movie of the year was an intriguing French film starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristen Scott Thomas called LOVE CRIME. As for docs... Morgan Spurlock’s POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD was pretty fun, and THE PEOPLE vs. GEORGE LUCAS drummed up all sorts of anti-Lucas rage that I thought I’d put behind me. THE SWELL SEASON was the sequel to ONCE that we’ve always wanted. And for what feels like the umpteenth year in a row, I honored Earth Day with the latest DisneyNature film, AFRICAN CATS. Rawr.
Superhero Orgy: We saw a glut of these kinds of films as Marvel gears up for THE AVENGERS later in 2012. The best of the bunch was CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER, an awesome movie that made me more excited for the superhero supergroup than any of the other related films since IRON MAN. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS was also exceptional -- probably the best X-Men film so far. On the other side of the coin, there were two epic failures, THOR and GREEN LANTERN, both of which fell victim to their own vast, complicated backstories that make no sense if you aren’t already seasoned in the comics. Outside of the Marvel universe, I mildly enjoyed THE GREEN HORNET and hated PRIEST, if that even counts. Actually, the best superhero film of them all may have been the aforementioned story of a burly Norwegian dude who hunts trolls in the dead of the night -- TROLLHUNTER kicks ass!
Sci-Fi Shenanigans: I’ve already mentioned THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU and SOURCE CODE, both of which were smart and well-crafted and I liked them a lot. ATTACK THE BLOCK was a brilliant film and veritable geek’s paradise about a London street gang that must defend their ‘hood from an alien invasion. IN TIME was flawed but timely with its rich vs. poor morals -- they should have set up an inflatable screen and shown it in Zuccotti Park to fire the Occupiers. LIMITLESS had a cool concept but, ironically, didn’t quite take it far enough. BATTLE: LOS ANGELES tried to be this generation’s INDEPENDENCE DAY, while SUPER 8 tried to capitalize on the past generation’s nostalgia -- both failed. And then there was PAUL, an alien-encounter flick made by sci-fi geeks, for sci-fi geeks, starring Simon Pegg & Nick Frost -- need I say more?
Raunchy Comedies Galore: Holy shit, there were a lot of raunchy comedies this year. Couldn't possibly mention them all here, but briefly: BRIDESMAIDS, while not perfect, did indeed prove that ladies can bring the raunch. CEDAR RAPIDS flew under the radar but was very funny. A GOOD OLD FASHIONED ORGY hit the spot for thirtysomethings caught in the throes of the aging process (like yours truly). 30 MINUTES OR LESS was well-cast and fun in the moment. BAD TEACHER served as a reminder that Cameron Diaz is still sexy. A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS helped put me in the holiday spirit. HORRIBLE BOSSES was not horrible but not particularly good, either. YOUR HIGHNESS was the year’s best filthy, violent, medieval fantasy epic stoner sex comedy. WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER? made me yearn for the day that Anna Farris finally gets to show her stuff in a project worthy of her comedic talents. THE SITTER was an unfortunate swan song for Fat Jonah Hill. FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS had the edge over NO STRINGS ATTACHED in the battle of the “fuck buddy” flicks because JT and Mila are better than Ashton and Natalie -- but both movies sucked. And lastly, I kind of loved OUR IDIOT BROTHER, a funny & heartfelt comedy starring my boy Paul Rudd in one of his most lovable roles ever, which is saying something.
Twee Romances: I like these kinds of movies because I'm an old softie, but this was a bad year for the genre (unless you count MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, but I think Woody Allen transcends such generalizations). The aforementioned LIKE CRAZY could have been great but let me down because I just didn’t believe in the power of its love story. The gimmicky ONE DAY managed to shock me with a plot twist that I totally didn’t see coming. Gus van Sant’s RESTLESS was morbid & sweet but perhaps too quirky for its own good, while THE ART OF GETTING BY had its moments but also rips off everything from Woody Allen to J.D. Salinger to BILLY MADISON. Josh Radnor’s HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE felt like exactly the kind of douchey movie that Ted Mosby would make to impress a girl. And then there’s STUCK BETWEEN STATIONS, which is noteworthy for being the first movie screening I saw with a press pass, handed to me by the director (on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, no less); unfortunately, it turned out to be yet another mediocre BEFORE SUNRISE clone.
We Love the ‘80s: The ‘80s just won’t go away! This year we saw remakes of FOOTLOOSE, FRIGHT NIGHT and ARTHUR -- none of which were necessary but the first two of which ended up being surprisingly effective (the latter, not so much). TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT was not very good but it did mostly succeed in capturing the look and feel of a typical '80s sex/party/coming-of-age comedy. SUPER 8 was J.J. Abrams’ homage to vintage ‘80s Spielberg, which, as I’ve mentioned, just makes you want to watch those movies instead. THE LINCOLN LAWYER and TEXAS KILLING FIELDS both had the feel of ‘80s genre pieces (respectively, the old-fashioned courtroom drama and the gritty Michael Mann mystery). And of course, DRIVE invokes the decade with its COCKTAIL-style title font and retro soundtrack.
Rising Stars – Fassender vs. Chastain: It was a breakout year for both of these great actors. Fassbender kicked ass as young Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, a well-endowed sex addict in SHAME, a smoldering love interest in JANE EYRE and one of the fathers of psychoanalysis in DANGEROUS METHOD. Chastain, meanwhile, was even more ubiquitous, showing up as an outcast socialite in THE HELP, a concerned wife in TAKE SHELTER, a Nazi-hunting Mossad agent in THE DEBT, another concerned wife in THE TREE OF LIFE and a detective in TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (plus she was in movies called WILDE SALOME and CORIOLANUS, which I did not see). Whew! I think the edge goes to Fassbender this year, but I, for one, will be watching both of their careers with great interest.
Hummable Scores (or the Lack Thereof): Whereas last year we had tons of amazing scores that I still listen to all the time (especially INCEPTION and TRON: LEGACY), this year was kind of lacking in that department. In fact, if it wasn’t for Alexandre Desplat, it’d be downright dreadful -- he scored SIX films (look ‘em up), including really good stuff for HARRY POTTER 7.2 and EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE. DRIVE had that pulsing, retro soundtrack that I’ve already mentioned. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross once again combined their talents for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and it was cool. I liked the Chemical Brothers’ score that drove the underrated HANNA forward. THE ARTIST had a brilliant score that, of course, is as much a part of the film as the actors themselves. And then there was a double-dose of the man, John Williams: His scores for THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN and WAR HORSE will not rank among his all-time best, but it’s always a pleasure to hear his unmistakable sound.
3-D Overload: Like it or not, it looks like 3D technology is here to stay, though the results are still mixed and it’s important to do your homework to determine when to pay the extra money. Of course, I’ve already discussed Scorcese’s brilliant HUGO. I’d also recommend seeing Spielberg’s TINTIN in 3D -- it’s not a requirement but it looks fantastic. On the other side of the coin, 3D added very little to HARRY POTTER 7.2 -- I saw it both ways and preferred the 2D version. I stuck with 2D for PIRATES 4, THOR, GREEN LANTERN and THE GREEN HORNET and do not regret those decisions. Gimmicky films fared well: The spelunking adventure, SANCTUM, used James Cameron’s AVATAR cameras to make a bad movie look cool. HAROLD & KUMAR made great advances in the area of 3D stoner effects. DRIVE ANGRY brought 3D back to the grindhouse. As usual, 3D worked extremely well for animated films: PUSS IN BOOTS, KUNG FU PANDA 2, CARS 2 and RANGO all featured some nice visuals. And THE LION KING set the stage for what will soon be a huge influx of 3D re-releases of classic films -- yay.
Believe It Or Not, There’s Some Stuff I DIDN’T See: Quite a few titles, actually, some of which may come as a surprise (and others as a relief). One big one was WINNIE THE POOH -- the first major Disney release I didn’t see on the big screen in God knows how long. I resisted my morbid curiosity and avoided NEW YEAR’S EVE. I had hoped to score an advance screening pass for TWILIGHT: BREAKING DAWN -- what can I say, I wanna know what happens -- but I didn’t, and no way was I gonna pay for that crap. I actually skipped FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS in theatres (watched it on Blu-Ray a few days ago). Didn’t bother with THE THREE MUSKETEERS despite the debut of THE PHANTOM MENACE 3D trailer before it (times have changed since 1998). Kind of surprising that I skipped THE RUM DIARY -- perhaps, deep down, I didn’t want to sully my existing memories of Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. Somehow, out of 155 trips to the movies, I failed to see not one but TWO Werner Herzog documentaries, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS and INTO THE ABYSS -- yes, I am ashamed of this. Really sorry I missed CERTIFIED COPY, about which I have heard great things (it is now on Netflix, so I’ll rectify that situation shortly). But my biggest regret was missing WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN during its very brief run at the Angelika in NYC. It will be back in theatres next weekend, but obviously too late to be considered for my Top 10. Would it have made a difference? We'll never know.
Big-Screen Classics: On top everything else, I even managed to see some classic films in the way they were meant to be seen. I caught ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN as a free double-feature at the Tribeca Grand Hotel screening room. I would have liked to see the theatrical release of all three LORD OF THE RINGS Extended Editions, but due to vacations and stuff, I had to settle for THE RETURN OF THE KING and it was four-plus hours of supreme awesomeness. THE LION KING was majestic as ever on the big screen (the 3D was okay); looking forward to more classic Disney re-releases. Lastly, I saw GHOSTBUSTERS at the Sony Wonder Technology Lab screening room -- a pretty cool place --you can find their weekly FREE screening schedule HERE.
Aaaaaaaaaand there you have it. Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Death threats? What are YOUR picks for the best and worst movies of 2011? Let’s discuss!