31 December 2011

The Best Movies of 2011 (and all of the others too because what the hell)

Another godforsaken year gone and what do we have to show for it?  Nothing except wrinkles, regrets, some magic beans, and lists, lists, lists.  Below is one such list, detailing every film released theatrically in 2011 that I, for whatever drunken reason, deemed worthy of my precious time.  For your benefit I went ahead and ranked them all, from the films I hated with such profound passion that I cursed my very existence, to the ones I will realize I completely overpraised five years from now.  The top ten movies even get their own pithy commentary by yours truly.  They all must feel honored.  Lastly, keep in mind that I'm a stickler for rules, so any film that had a premiere earlier than 2011, even if it didn't make it to Seattle before the calendar year, is ineligible.  Therefore you won't be seeing such indie titles as Beginners and Meek's Cutoff (although to be honest, neither would have made my top ten regardless); or such foreign fare as Poetry and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Without further ado, the cinematic year in review:

22. Cars 2
21. Drive
20. The Artist
19. The Muppets
18. Win Win
17. Source Code
16. Captain America: the First Avenger
15. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
14. Kill All Redneck Pricks: A Documentary about a Band Called Karp
13. Beats, Rhymes and Life: the Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
12. The Adventures of Tintin
11. The Future

10. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Having not seen any of the other entries in the Mission: Impossible series I must declare that my excitement for this fourth installment was riding on just one element: Brad Bird.  Animation genius behind the Iron Giant, the Incredibles, and one of my favorite films of all time, Ratatouille, Bird took on the fourth Mission film to prove that he was capable of handling a live action movie, emphasis on action.  And boy howdy, does it go off like gangbusters.  Bird's background in animation, where one must be a perfectionist with both framing and movement, pays huge dividends as we are thrust headlong into a bonanza of explosions and gunfire.  The two hour film is almost relentless with exhilaration, from the opening prison break to the Kremlin bombing to the hotel heist to the blind car chase to the nuclear launch, it is breathtakingly sure of itself.  Along the way we get just enough moments of goofy hilarity to relieve the tension and then its back out into the fray.  Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Bird, action hero.

9. Winnie the Pooh

Disney's comfortingly low-key return to the Hundred Acre Wood proves once and for all that you don't need pop culture references, celebrity voices, 3-D gimmickry or any other manner of foofarah to make an enjoyable family film.  The beautifully hand-drawn Winnie the Pooh is timeless; full of gentle, charming moments that should delight any filmgoer regardless of age.  It stands up well alongside its thirty-five-year old predecessor, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  Heck, the hallucinatory Backson sequence from this year's film may give the Heffalumps and Woozles a run for their money.  One of the great rewards stemming from Disney's purchase of Pixar Animation Studios came when Pixar head John Lasseter was given free rein of the Disney animation department.  He immediately ousted anyone who couldn't draw from the building and re-opened the hand-drawn division.  They have since released two gorgeous little films (the other being 2009's the Princess and the Frog) both of which are vastly superior to Pixar's 2011 output.  Here's hoping that they are allowed to make many more.

8. Moneyball

Like last year's the Social Network, Moneyball seemed like the least filmmable story on the face of the earth.  How does one translate Michael Lewis's phenomenal book about the rise of statistics-based management on the Oakland A's baseball team into something even remotely cinematic?  Ample credit is due screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (the latter also having penned the Social Network) for zippy dialogue that managed to present the science in an intelligent manner without it ever becoming tedious (unlike this sentence).  In fact, my only real qualms with the film are when it strived to be more conventional, shoehorning in a treacly father-daughter relationship that was utterly superfluous.  Thank Willie Mays (or whomever you pray to) that the film ended up in director Bennett Miller's hands after Steven Soderbergh (and his animated Bill James) left the project.  Miller's tasteful, restrained direction smartly kept the focus on the audacious tenacity of Brad Pitt's Billy Beane, never feeling the urge to resort to flashy spectacle.  

7. Rango

Unlike most mainstream films cranked out nowadays, children's films in particular, the delightfully oddball animated feature Rango doesn't feel like a film created by committee.  It has the distinct imprint of a personal, idiosyncratic vision.  Director Gore Verbinski's neo-Western about a sheltered chameleon (voiced winningly by Johnny Depp) who finds himself in a drought-stricken desert town, a place where he can start anew, inhabiting the persona of the hero he longs to be, is full of bizarre interactions with genuinely fresh characters.  The action set pieces are all staged beautifully, which is to be expected by the man that deftly helmed the first three over-the-top, rip-roaring Pirates of the Caribbean films.  The jokes are organic, not shoehorned-in pop culture references.  Sure, the plot and machinations are borrowed from every other Western under the sun, but in this style, with this perspective, it all feels like a loving homage, not a calculated move.  It all just feels right.  In a left field sort of way.

6. Bridesmaids

I am shocked by how much I enjoyed Bridesmaids.  Shocked, I say!  I didn't catch up with the film until about a week ago, having avoided it solely on the absolutely atrocious trailer I was subjected to prior to the film's release.  It looked like the most by-the-book, lowest-common-denominator, gross-out film to come through the pipeline.  Despite proclamations of critics and friends I wholeheartedly trust, I couldn't bring myself to sit through it.  Thankfully with six months' distance, my defenses were weakened enough to open up to this sweet, honest and emotionally mature film, that just so happens to traffic in equal amounts of diarrhea and vomit.  Kudos to Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the film (with Annie Mumolo) and gives a fearless performance as a down-on-her-luck single woman who feels threatened less by her best friend's impending nuptials, than by the model of perfection who tries to usurp their lifelong friendship.  Wiig adeptly carries the emotional weight throughout, even when she's getting herself arrested for drunken shenanigans on a plane or punching a giant cookie.  Plus, as a true sign of the film's greatness there's nary a trace of Wiig's real-life husband, Bill Hader, anywhere!  I hate that guy!

5. Super 8

Critics like to try and tie a cinematic year together under a common theme or idea.  This allows everyone to put a nice ribbon on everything and go to sleep believing that there is a semblance of order to the universe.  Either that or they're just over-analyzing the trivial, as usual.  If I were to be fool enough to play such frivolous games, which I undoubtably am, I would unoriginally argue that 2011 was the Year of Adolescent Protagonists and Movies About Movies.  No film merged the two so completely than J.J. Abrams' Super 8, the most fun summer blockbuster I've seen since well, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek two years ago.  The film tells the endearing story of a group of gawky, geeky kids trying to get their homemade zombie film completed amidst the chaos and destruction brought to their hometown by the escape and subsequent hunt of an alien being.  A blatant but loving homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg, the film tapped into the collective past of a certain group of cinephile so precisely that it felt a bit like a comfort blanket.  But that's okay, I like staying warm, especially if the blanket is made with care.  What lifts Super 8 above the level of mere carbon copy and allows it to stand on its own is the honest portrayal of the lives and friendships of these kids which is due both to Abrams' assured writing and direction, and the uniformly winning performances of the cast.  I would be remiss if I didn't single out Elle Fanning because her portrayal of the new girl in the group is pitch-perfect.  Her transformation into a zombie before the eyes of pining protagonist Joe (played by Joel Courtney) might be my favorite single scene in any film this year.

4. War Horse

From J.J. Abrams aping Spielberg, we turn to Spielberg himself aping the works of John Ford with the majestic War Horse.  Spielberg's been rather quiet for the last several years, having only released the miserable Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the last half decade, a textbook example of phoning it in, but thankfully he returned this year with not one, but two solid features.  While The Adventures of Tintin is an enjoyable--although uneven--genre exercise (infinitely better than Crystal Skull though), one cannot deny the high level of commitment on display in War Horse.  In this story about a boy and his horse, separated through hardship and turmoil, questing to return to one another, Spielberg is firing on all sentimental cylinders.  While not all of it works--the French reverie in the film's middle is a little too precious--one cannot help but be won over by the end of the picture.  The lyrical evocation of early twentieth century rural life is top notch, the scenes of battle are distinctive and harrowing, and the cinematography (by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski) is stunning.  Most every performance is superb, not least of all that of the horse(s) that portray the titular character Joey.  I'm not quite sure how Spielberg was able to wring such emotional nuance out of a horse but I swear I could see fear, love and joy in its eyes.    

3. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's fantastical fable, Midnight in Paris, is a pure charmer from start to finish.  A conflicted American writer vacationing abroad with his fiance and her family, finds himself, at the stroke of midnight, transported back to the 1920s and the great intellectual scene then based in Paris.  Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali all drink and carry on, critiquing one another's work and having the time of their lives until morning comes and the world rights itself.  Admittedly I am a born sucker for the 1920s time period so I was hooked the moment that magical cab appeared and whisked Owen Wilson away.  As always there's a backlash brewing, calling the film flimsy, the supporting characters one-dimensional, and the lessons learned trite.  Yes, yes, and yes, but that doesn't matter at all because that's not what this film is about.  Midnight in Paris is Cinderella, it's Sleeping Beauty, a fairytale, nothing more, nothing less.  Rachel McAdams's shrill harpy of a fiance is nothing but a wicked stepsister deposited in a luxury hotel suite.  We're not supposed to care about her, she's simply a plot point.  And despite the lack of complexity in the realization that the grass will always be greener, I enjoyed the fact that the movie lets you have your cake and eat it too. We are reminded that the 1920s and every other period in the history of the world seems unsatisfactory to those living in it, but they're still great places to visit.  Especially when they're portrayed so beautifully as in Midnight in Paris.

2. Hugo

Is there a more consistently invigorating filmmaker out there than Martin Scorsese?  Most often my initial memory of seeing a new Scorsese picture is the buoyant feeling I have while walking out of the theatre, my mind racing with excitement, close to the speed of Scorsese's trademark verbosity.  The closest auteur I can think of that exudes such a passion for the art form of film is Quentin Tarantino, but even his adoration of cinema must go through the transcendent trajectory of Scorsese.  Scorsese's entire career has been a proselytizing paean to the magical powers of cinema and if--heaven forbid--he were to suddenly cease making films, I can think of no more perfect a send-off than Hugo, his absolutely gorgeous, glorious, magnificent love letter to early cinema.

Based on the acclaimed children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo follows the titular character (played by the wonderful Asa Butterfield) an orphan living in the clockwork of a French train station.  Over the course of the film he tries to rebuild an automaton and discover the historical mystery of George Melies, pioneer of early cinema, now beaten down and working in the train station toy shop.  Ben Kingsley's deft portrayal of Melies carries the picture, as he transforms from a heartbreakingly defeated man to a genius reborn.

There has been a lot of ballyhoo made this year about the Artist, the French-produced silent throwback that has audiences swooning for its magical return to the early days of cinema.  Unfortunately there is nothing beneath the film's black-and-white facade but a barrel of snake oil.  It is all trick, no magic.  There is neither substance nor wit under the film's artificial veneer.  It doesn't even feel like a silent film.  With its infinite charms, Hugo manages to transport us much more successfully to a bygone time and place, evoking such an honest and heartfelt recreation of cinema past, despite its 21st-century technology.  The Artist is littered with allusions to classic films but with no apparent rhyme, reason or skill.  Hugo on the other hand, spends ample time showing the actual recreation of older films, and the enthusiasm and affection for the cinema's forefathers permeates every single frame.  Editor Thelma Schoonmaker's tour-de-force of a silent film homage contained in Hugo has more verve in its half minute of screen time than the entirety of the Artist.  Hugo will be the film we return to decades down the line when the artifice of the Artist has been fully swept into the dustbin of history.

1. The Tree of Life

I am so predictable.  While I think it's a stretch to say a work of art changed my life, I can think of no film that has had a more lasting impact on my person than Terrence Malick's fifth feature.  Not just this year, any year.  Having waited impatiently for a long, long time (as the Tree of Life's release date was rescheduled time and again) I feared that the fever pitch of my anticipation would be nothing but detrimental to my viewing experience.  Fortunately there is no artist working today that can so completely bypass our expectations and give us something so grand, majestic and unwieldy, that we could never have hoped to contain it with our puny imaginations, than Malick.  After my first viewing, the Tree of Life clung to me for weeks on end.  I woke up with it for days and it acted as a prism for which to see my actions, life and relationships.  The film hung over most every thought or conversation.  That sounds melodramatic and cheesy, which is probably how the plot of the film sounds to most people, but like the film, I am being unabashedly sincere.

It is this relentless sincerity and purity of vision that really propels Malick's work into the stratosphere.  Really, how could any other film released this year top Tree of Life?  None of the other admittedly fine films on this list had half the ambition and audacity of this epic, that sets its wide eyed gaze on the potentially small story of a mid-century childhood in Texas and somehow manages to consume the creation of the universe in the process.  There were also dinosaurs and they were awesome.

The performances in the film are uniformly fantastic.  Jessica Chastain plays the matriarch less like a mother and more like an angel.  Brad Pitt gives the most mature performance of his career as a fierce, determined, but woefully flawed father trying to navigate an uncertain world and instill ethics and purpose in his children.  Many saw the parents as a simple dichotomy of good and evil, but it is far more nuanced than that.  The kids run to their mother for protection but she is completely ineffectual; while the father is the most complex and fascinating character in the whole movie.  But it is Hunter McCracken's portrayal of the young Jack, our protagonist, that carries the film.  This kid is so natural, so unflinchingly real, that I hope to never see him again in another movie because I don't want to believe he is not Jack all of the time.  He's that good.

The Tree of Life felt so real to me, as if it were my childhood being displayed onscreen, or better yet that of my father, who grew up in the midwest in the same time period.  My thoughts continually returned to my dad throughout the film and then on back to his father and their relationship.  It made me reflect on my mother, this time in a light I was unaccustomed to, or maybe I had just neglected.  It made me think about family and the bonds and connections that are so intwined with our DNA that we cannot even articulate them.  They're just there.

In the final sequence of the film the adult Jack (Sean Penn) envisions a reunion in the afterlife between himself, his long-dead brother, father, and the rest of his family.   They walk along a beach, wordless but completely understood.  An arm on a shoulder is the only reassurance we need.  This emotional reverie allows Jack to finally find a modicum of grace, the longed-for quality his beautiful mother exuded that has heretofore eluded him.  He returns from his metaphorical heaven, literally descending from his austere downtown high rise, and then out the door and back into civilization.

Then a bird flies by and you just weep.


  1. Still working on mine, but i think I found a typo in your list: you have The Muppets and Rango reversed.

  2. This is my list right now, and I'm not happy with it at all.

    1. The Tree of Life
    2. Drive
    3. The Muppets
    4. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown
    5. Midnight in Paris
    6. Hugo
    7. War Horse
    8. The Artist
    9. Moneyball
    10. Super 8
    11. Thor
    12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
    13. Fragments: Surviving Pieces of Lost Films
    14. Attack the Block
    15. Don't Expect Too Much
    16. The Adjustment Bureau
    17. Page One: Inside the New York Times
    18. Rango
    19. Captain America
    20. These Amazing Shadows

  3. I'll skip over the preposterous selection of Drive at number two and focus on this little Muppet controversy.

    While The Muppets indeed had some choice moments - "Man or Muppet" being the pinnacle - they were few and far between. It felt like the film was trading in more on the Muppets legacy than giving us anything new. There was a lot of: "Hey, the Muppets! You guys used to be so cool!" but rarely did the Muppets do anything cool or funny. People complained of Super 8 being nothing but "hipster nostalgia porn" - which is a valid argument that I don't necessarily disagree with despite my enjoyable time with the film - but the Muppets seemed to embody that notion much more egregiously with a lot less to show for it.

  4. It's definitely nostalgia, but I thought it was both cool and funny. There's nothing in Super 8, which was OK but nothing special, that can compare to a Muppet barbershop quartet singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

    Drive I don't think is particularly great, it's just that I haven't seen anything all that good form this year. 2010 was a wildly better year.