2011…we hardly knew ‘ye! Now that a new year is upon us, what better way to reflect on the year that was with a pointless list from some low-level filmmaker on an un-read blog? Honestly, I don’t think the internet would have it any other way.
Below you will find the ten movies I saw this year that I liked best. That’s it…pretty simple criteria. These aren’t the movies I think will win best picture…or the ones I’m “supposed” to like because it will make me seem smart. These are the ones that I think told the best stories at 24 frames per second—the one’s that entertained and moved me most. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy.
10.) Young Adult
Young Adult is a flawed movie—so flawed that I had reservations about putting it on this list (it’s truly sad how much I have fretted and debated this decision). For one, the film’s plot is paper-thin. It also completely lacks a single character that you can actively root for. But, even if it’s too languidly paced or even if Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the sociopathic former prom queen Mavis Gary is just too unlikeable, the film has a certain authenticity that can’t be denied. Director Jason Reitman crafts a world that actually exists, populated by real people. When Mavis visits her old flame for the first time at a tacky local sports bar, it doesn’t feel like Hollywood’s version of a tacky sports bar. That place exists. So, does the local mall where Mavis goes shopping for a new dress. It’s these kind of details that this movie just gets right. It’s the remnants of a hangover followed by a swig of lukewarm diet coke or the constant background noise of reality television. This is the world of Young Adult—grungy, funny, and rough around the edges. While most Hollywood movies are a beautiful woman’s grand entrance to the ball, Young Adult is the morning after as the girl wakes up with matted hair and stale makeup. And, that’s what I love about it.
9.) Midnight in Paris
Confession: I was an English major in college. Embarrassing, I know. But, although my degree is admittedly useless, at least Woody Allen had the foresight to make Midnight in Paris—a film that makes all those lofty and esoteric discussions about Hemmingway and Fitzgerald actually feel somewhat purposeful. This is Allen’s best comedy in years. It’s briskly paced, hilarious, and beautifully shot. The film’s central point—the idea that everyone is nostalgic for a “better” time—is well-tread ground to be sure, but it’s a worthy message that Allen relates without pretension. It also doesn’t hurt that everyone is so brilliantly cast (Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway steals every second he’s on screen). Allen’s fable is a movie that speaks to aspiring artists everywhere, while simultaneously pleasing general audiences. It’s no small feat, especially from a director who so many have written off for being out of touch.
8.) Attack the Block
Considering that every third movie this year somehow involved aliens invading Earth (Battle Los Angles, Paul, Cowboys and Aliens, Transformers 3, Green Lantern, Super 8), it’s sort of funny that the best one happened to be the small-budgeted, thrilling, and compact action-comedy, Attack the Block. I’m not claiming this film is high art—it isn’t. But, it is entertaining, and it looks gorgeous to boot. Joe Cornish writes and directs this story about a bunch of London teenage street-toughs who are forced to do battle with a horde of neon mouthed aliens in an effort to—you guessed it—protect the block that they call home. The movie is a breezy 90 minutes, full of genuine thrills and moments of hilarity, all complemented by its scrappy, “do-it-yourself” filmmaking style (the aliens in the film are built using puppets). Plus, Cornish proves that you can make a youth-led alien invasion movie without completely ripping off Steven Spielberg. Eat it, J.J. Abrams.
7.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
In 2007, with Zodiac, David Fincher crafted a fascinating, engaging crime thriller. The only problem? He couldn’t end it…not really. I guess that’s the issue with basing things on true events—there isn’t always a satisfying conclusion. Well, Fincher remedies that issue here with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s a taunt, expertly crafted thriller that keeps both the tension and overall cinematic mastery of a film like Zodiac or even Se7en. Look, I could laud this film on pretty much everything the look, the editing, the music…blah…blah. Simply, it’s a great thriller bolstered by great performances. Rooney Mara, deservedly, is getting high praise for her performance in the titular role, but Daniel Craig deserves equal acclaim for his turn as investigator/journalist Mikael Blomkvist. All of this is coming from someone who has never read the best-selling novel nor seen the hugely popular Swedish movies, so I can’t make a comparison in that regard. Instead, I can only watch Fincher work. And, sit back and admire.
6.) The Tree of Life
Let me get this out of the way: The Tree of Life is pretentious. It’s about as arty-farty as movies get. I’m talking hands navigating through wisps of grass during sunset pretentious; whispered, enigmatic voiceover with backing choral vocals pretentious. It’s the type of flick from whence film school clichés are born. But, despite that, I am so glad that this movie was made. With all the recent hoopla about 3D and what constitutes the “next generation” of filmmaking, director Terrence Malick has created a film that moves the art form forward in a different way—telling the story of human life (and of all creatures) strictly with visuals. Entire breadths of emotion are related in single shots—human experience (arguably the reason we create art in the first place) is carefully documented in a flurry of images, like the biography of the human race told as a gorgeous flipbook. If an alien were to ever visit Earth, this is the movie I would show him/her/it so it could better understand life on this big blue orb of ours. Granted, I think the movie loses its way in the final act and I think Sean Penn’s appearance in it is utterly useless, but I’m willing to overlook these flaws for the sheer fact that the movie says so much without literally saying much at all. This just may be the best example of film at its purest state ever created: it tells a story with pictures—beautiful, beautiful pictures.
5.) Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Emma Stone is cute as a button. Scratch that—she’s friggin’ adorable. So, is Ryan Gosling for that matter (I mean…uh…grrr…football!). Put those two in a movie together, throw in the always charming Steve Carell and everyone’s favorite Oscar winning ginger, Julianne Moore, and I’m sold. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a great romantic comedy. Period. Yes, I know that when standing beneath the Tree of Life’s shadow, Crazy, Stupid, Love seems slight in comparison, but it’s the kind of movie that just hits all my buttons: well-paced, clever, funny, and full of compassionate moments. It reminds me of the great farcical comedies from old Hollywood—like something Billy Wilder would have directed. That is, if Jack Lemmon had six-pack abs.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of an Aaron Sorkin geek. I’m also a regular geek who likes baseball. So, a movie that happens to be about math statistics and how it changed America’s pastime co-written by Aaron Sorkin caters to me perfectly. Brad Pitt plays a fictionalized representation of real-life Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, who revolutionized how major league baseball recruits and values its players. On one level, it’s an entertaining movie about an underdog team that defied expectations (you know, that old Hollywood cliché). But, really it’s more that—it’s about finding value in something that was previously thought to be worthless. That’s a compelling theme to me, even when not related to sports. The script is clever and wry, full of all the one-up-man-ship and fast paced dialogue that you’d expect from a screenplay with Sorkin’s name attached. Pitt and co-star Jonah Hill turn in compelling performances as well. I guess, though, above all the most impressive thing is that a movie about baseball stats is actually entertaining. An underdog story indeed.
3.) X-Men: First Class
This wasn’t just the best superhero movie of the year; it’s the best X-Men film ever made (yes, it’s better than Bryan Singer’s two films). Director Matthew Vaughan just gets it right…from the tone to the pacing to the way the mutant super-heroes use their powers in creative and collaborative ways. X-Men: First Class is the rare kind of prequel that actually tells a good story without wasting an unnecessary amount of time and energy winking to the camera with references about other films in the series. There—I said it—story: that’s why X-Men: First Class ultimately succeeds. For a movie that probably had the least impressive special effects of any blockbuster this year, First Class is far more entertaining because the story is compelling and the character motivations are engaging. Plus, we get to see Michael Fassbender kill Nazis. Now, that’s something I could watch all day.
2.) Win Win
As someone who loves plot so much, movies like Win Win come out and surprise the hell out of me mainly because it’s not about plot at all. This is a film about characters–characters that feel like real people; they do things that real people do, act like real people act. Because of this, you root for them, even as they make flawed decisions and mistakes. Writer/Director, Thomas McCarthy, is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. His stories are simple—the opposite of high concept Hollywood. In Win Win, a struggling lawyer and high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) takes in the teenage grandson of one of his clients, who just happens to be a star wrestler. Everything about this movie is thrilling in a muted way, each plot beat effective without being cliché. It helps that the lead kid actor—an unknown by the name of Alex Shaffer—acts like a real kid. He’s not wise beyond his years nor does he spout edgy catchphrases. Frankly, he’s the realest teenager I’ve ever seen in a movie. As always Paul Giamatti is fantastic and so are the supporting turns from Amy Ryan and Bobby Cannavale. Win Win is the kind of movie that has characters that you just enjoy spending time with.
Of all the movies on this list, 50/50 is the sort that I one day aspire to make: funny and full of heart. For that reason alone it’s the best movie of 2011. Criminally under-seen, 50/50, is about a young-man dealing with the ramifications of being diagnosed with Cancer. That’s really it—no crazy plot twists or explosions or aliens. Yet, from that simplicity springs so much: themes about friendship and fear, family and hope. It made me laugh louder and cry harder than any other film I saw in a theater this year. You can put that quote on the back of DVD box. I’m willing to accept royalties via PayPal.
Normally, I try to single out the “worst movie” of the year, but lately I’ve been doing my best to avoid the stuff I know I’m going to hate. I mean, why should I intentionally try to see Transformers 3? That’s why I’ve entitled this film: Biggest Disappointment. Here’s the deal: director J.J. Abrams really wanted to make an old 80’s Amblin Spielberg movie, but didn’t really have a story. The result? A movie that looks really good, feels really good, but has absolutely no original ideas whatsoever. It’s the cinematic equivalent of cutting and pasting your term paper together from Wikipedia articles. It’s lazy, disrespectful to audiences, and more disturbing to me than a million movies involving Adam Sandler dressed up as his twin sister. Yup…Super 8 just really gets under my craw. Is it the worst movie of the year? No. Just the one filled with the most lens flares and soul-crushing disappointment. Tragically, Mr. Abrams also managed to bring good ole’ Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) down into the mire with him. For this, J.J., you will pay.