My Top 10 of 2011 & Other Lists

It has been a good year for movies. It started out a little rough, not having a good quality feature until about March but it was quickly able to pick up and once the summer movie season got rolling it didn't seem to stop. Even now, there are films I wanted to see that may very well have a chance of landing on this list. Movies like "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" which has been picked by a few sites as the best picture of the year while only having a current tomatometer score of 49%. Then there are expected front runners at the Oscars like "The Artist" and "Shame" that have not made there way to my neck of the woods yet. In making these kinds of lists though I always hope to include a few that were really some of my favorites rather than just another list of critical darlings which makes me sad that I haven't seen "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", "Take Shelter" or "Higher Ground". Movies that feel like they are right up my alley and have a great chance of being on this list. Still, I can't complain; I have seen a wealth of films this year and have narrowed it down to ten that moved me, made me laugh, wowed me, and most importantly made me remember why I love the movies in the first place. Hope you enjoy, and if you disagree let me know what your favorite films were in the comments section.

10. Rango

"Rango" is an interesting piece of entertainment. There was what I expected going into the film, which was an above average family flick with A-level talent in front of and behind the camera as well as some amazing animation that would translate a story of adventure through the always reliable critters that make the kiddies laugh. And then there is what I felt as I exited the theater. It had very much met every expectation I held for it, if not exceeding most of them. The talent consists of the oddest but biggest movie star in the world Johnny Depp re teaming with "Pirates" director Gore Verbinski. What they have concocted here is more or less an experiment in how far they can take a film that is coated to look like a children's movie and have it contain enough nods to philosophy, religion, government and a few pop culture bits without a mass audience picking up on them while they slyly expand their minds. This is more of a discussion than a feature film, but it does possess an old western storyline and the animation is indeed breathtaking, but it isn't really for the children. No, "Rango" is more than that, it is an inventive and very good film that has no particular audience in mind, but will open up and talk to whoever is willing to listen. Full review here.

9. The Tree of Life

In trying to explain my thoughts on this film it seems best to divide it into two sections. While it is clear that Malick's intention was to give a chill inducing realization to the role our lives play in the bigger universe, the film never came off as disconnected. This is a coherent story, one that will test your patience if you go in unprepared, but if you are familiar with Malick and his style you will enjoy every moment of his biggest statement to date. The film begins with a quote from Job, the one that reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?" this leads to the focus on the Texas family who we get to know intimately as a loving graceful mother in Jessica Chastain and a naturalistic, periodic father played with great anger and resentment by Brad Pitt. He is a righteous man, always giving, searching but never seeming to reach that ideal state of livelihood that he saw himself experiencing as a young man. Like Job, he feels he has lost everything and yearns to avoid such things falling upon his children. These opposing forces that are his parents cause serious conflict within their eldest son. In thanks to Sean Penn we are able to see this son as an older man and how he still wrestles with the influences that were instilled in him as a young boy. We are constantly hearing voice overs, many from the son, Jack, wondering aloud what are no doubt Malick's personal musings. It is a testament to nature vs. nurture and how instead of one winning out over the other that instead we, as mankind, are able to navigate between both of them. Full review here.

8. Martha Marcy May Marlene

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a dark, serious film that truly affected me. It is a silent, slow burn that like a bad car wreck you can't look away from. The story is engaging and mysterious while the characters are full and relatable. We could see ourselves becoming a part of something we fear. We wonder what would we do were we put in Elizabeth Olsen's (in a breakout, star making performance) characters position. Mostly though, we want more from it. Unlike most films today, instead of showering us with over explanation or unnecessary backstory, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" almost feels like it is holding out on us, demanding we pay attention to it. Some people will not like how abrupt the film ends, but in an odd way it fits perfectly with the rest of the film. There is seemingly no beginning, middle or end to the film, instead this is just a piece of someones life, albeit fictional, that happened to be going through a serious trauma in trying to discover who she is and if it is possible for her to begin again. You will wonder if that really is the end of the film, but trust me, it is, and you will then debate it for hours after. Full review here.

7. 50/50

I had much debate about whether to include "Bridesmaids" on this list or not. It was certainly one of the best comedies of the year if not the best, but when I was looking through my reviews of the past year I couldn't help but to immediately feel more of a connection with "50/50". This dramedy of sorts shows a most genuine portrait of what it must feel like to be young and sick and how it affects the people that are a part of your life. From a script penned by Seth Rogen's real-life friend Will Reiser who did in fact go through this experience, we are given a glimpse as to why it is just as important to allow yourself to enjoy life as it is to not take it for granted. Director Jonathan Levine who is mainly known for "The Wackness", his own little bio-pic from 2008, gives the film a perfect tone; shifting from humorous moments to ones laced with deep meaning and sadness that really resonate in our protagonist. This really is a moving film, a wonderfully well-rounded movie that is consistently effective both in its humor and moments of hurt. Full review here.

6. Moneyball

Brad Pitt makes his second appearance on my list with "Moneyball". A movie about strategy, it shines in brief moments of comedy when sharp conversations are exchanged over the phone in the midst of the trading game and shines even brighter when we feel the tension building as the A's close in on the longest winning streak of all time. The supporting cast is stacked with players like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Chris Pratt who makes all kinds of leaps here with limited screen time. This is Pitt's movie though and he owns it, strutting around as the man with everything to prove and even more to lose. His self doubt so big that he can't even watch the games in person. It is this man, and his ideals and dreams that drive this experiment. The desire not only to win, but to change the game completely and the reasons why is summed up perfectly by a late in the film pep talk and job offer from the Red Sox owner. It is not just an inspirational sports film, but a movie that is smart and cheer-inducing. I cheered, but not for reasons I expected to. Full review here.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

From the wonderfully executed Gringotts break-in sequence to that final stand-off between Harry and Voldemort, "The Deathly Hallows Part 2" is everything I hoped it to be and hardly stops to take a breather without ever feeling overloaded. Each large action sequence is filled with more meaning and substance than any cinephile could ask for out of a big budget Hollywood film. This is a more than satisfactory conclusion to a series I have been enthralled with since I was 12 years-old. It is packed to the brim with action, loaded down with emotional punches and we mere muggles should just be happy that such credible and high quality films have been made out of what is one of the best literary works of our generation. I cannot imagine the disappointment I would have felt had these film adaptations been turned into mainstream Hollywood money-grubbers, and can appreciate how lucky we are as an audience to have been given eight films that have truly been cared about enough to justify that source material to the loyal and devoted fans as well as being strong enough to convert others who would never have picked up one of the books. Harry Potter ends just the way it should, with our three heroes still friends and defining the meaning of that friendship in a touching epilogue that tells the audience things will be okay, even if we know we will never catch a glimpse of them on the big screen again. Full review here.

4. Midnight in Paris

I loved this film. After seeing it in the theater I couldn't wait to see it again. Since I purchased it on blu-ray I have wanted to continually watch it over and over. It is a light comical farce from director Woody Allen that is a meditation on our own generation and how we pull from and re-invent through what we have learned from the past. That there is a longing to be part of what created or what defined the genre or the area you aspire to be a part of is understandable, but that there is always room for innovation and expansion is something that can never cease to exist. Director Allen treats this subject carefully, letting us experience the joy Gil (Owen Wilson in his best performance in ages) gets from going out every night and hanging with the masters of his craft. Yet Allen also lets it be known that it can't go on forever and that too much of a good thing will soon lose its spark and thus become the same mundane flow of life you felt trapped in before. It is easy to love "Midnight in Paris" but it is not hard to dislike the conclusion that the promised joy ultimately comes to offer because we don't want to believe that our minds own perception of something might be completely off. Full review here.

3. The Help

I went into my number three film on this list expecting a quality flick but I didn't expect to see one of the most moving motion pictures I've seen in years. I can only hope that as we've made our way into the crowded fall movie season with all the Oscar hopefuls that everyone hasn't forgotten about what a great movie this is and how much it deserves serious recognition. Not just for the craft with which it was made or the skill with which it is performed but the fact of WHY it was made. To tell this story, to recognize our faults, and to feel truly inspired are traits in a movie we don't see very often and "The Help" has all of them. Much of the complaints around this film have concerned it making light of a very serious subject and to be honest with you,I simply don't see where those who think that are getting it from. Being a darker film doesn't make it more true. "The Help" does indeed evoke a lifestyle many in this country never knew existed and to tell that story from the point of view of those having first hand experience with true hatred allows the film to be, in parts, extremely moving and hard to swallow. It might offer just as many laughs as it does moments of harsh reality and moving sentiments but for me, that showed how well-rounded this film truly is. Full review here.

2. The Descendants

It is tough to describe what it is about a film that just hits you in the gut and seems to encompass everything you think of the world. It seems appropriate to give that type of description to this film where a man, in a critical moment in his life, is faced with decisions that will forever affect how he lives the rest of that life. George Clooney has always had a knack for these roles that seem to define so well what it means to actually live. He is so alert and aware to the raw emotion and truths of life that it is almost irritating how good the guy is. Paired here with director Alexander Payne, these two talented men have created "The Descendants" is a straightforward drama that delivers more laughs and genuine heartache than I have seen in a film all year. With the beautiful state of Hawaii as its backdrop and the sometimes ugly journey of a man searching to find his place in a life he has already created this is a film that actually moves you and relates, on a number of levels. With great performances from both Clooney and Shailene Woodley as his foul mouthed daughter Alexandra, Payne has made a heartfelt character study of a man in an uncommon dilemma. One that when paired with the sights and sounds of somewhere as beautiful as the Aloha state becomes something more than just a movie, but a cathartic experience. Full review here.

1. Drive

What I love most about "Drive" is it proves a film can truly be both greatly artistic and fun at the same time. I can't say that I had a more engaging experience at the theater last year while also admiring the craft on hand. Every element of this film comes together to create a piece of cinema that is in a class all its own. It is a combination of the familiar to make something completely unique. It is a patient movie, it is a rush of adrenaline. And what is most beautiful is that the movie as a whole becomes the idea, an incarnation of our main character. It is cool and collected, stylish to the point of envy and exuding confidence even if everything about it might have been a gamble. The minute it was over I wanted to go right back in and see it again. "Drive" is no doubt an unnerving experience and sadly, one some people will not understand if they go in expecting a full tilt action flick the trailers made it to be. I'm just glad that it wasn't the standard "Fast and Furious" though, I am thankful Gosling was wise enough to choose a director for the material who could really turn this into an experiment that at the end of the day is just as thrilling and ten times more artistic than what this could have easily become. Excuse me now, while I go pick listen to the soundtrack and continue to drive around pretending to be a bad ass. Full review here.





Honorable Mentions:



Marvel Movies

Kicking off the summer movie season with "Thor" and continuing each month with another hit the Marvel studio revving up for this summers "The Avengers" were everything we wanted them to be while the reboot of "X-Men" with First Class was a welcome return for the mutant squad. Each picture garnered respectable and great up and coming talent while thoughtful stories that stretched beyond the simple black and white of good vs. evil. Not only can we enjoy each in a different way, but they also lend themselves as big budget summer films we won't mind seeing sequels to in the future; in fact, we look forward to them.



Warrior

It may not end up being the heavy Oscar contender that "The Fighter" was and it doesn't have Christian Bale in a whirlwind performance, but Nick Nolte comes pretty close and both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton deliver powerful, while polar opposite performances that not only make this a moving sports film, but a family drama that builds to a point where the sport is simply a metaphor for the struggle and pain that has burdened these brothers for years.





Hugo

  It is not often you can make a film or anything for that matter that has a mission of saying how great that art form is, but "Hugo" does it with a beautiful landscape and solid story that serve more than just the purpose of entertaining but also of actually teaching something. I loved the film and though I don't believe the award shows will give it its due, I hope that it will at least garner enough audience response in its theater run so plenty of kids around the world can experience a truly great cinematic experience.



Bridesmaids/Crazy Stupid Love

Kristin Wiig turns in a star making performance that will make her a box office pull for many years to come, and deservedly so. Wiig is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast as well including a contender for "it" girl of the year Rose Byrne, the always endearing Maya Rudolph, and of course Melissa McCarthy who steals every scene she walks in on. "Crazy, Stupid, Love." is one part comedy, one part drama and it balances those moments of both comical farce and tear-jerker realizations with great care. We never feel forced into a situation as so many romantic comedies seem to do these days and most importantly we fall for these characters. With multiple story lines all involving relationships and feelings at drastically different stages we get a full and satisfying picture of what a crazy and stupid emotion love can truly be. Plus, its cast is amazing as well.
 
Hanna

I have been interested in director Joe Wright's career since 2007's "Atonement" a film that brought a complex novel to the big screen with an almost flawless transition of words to image. With "Hanna" Wright sets a completely different tone for himself as a filmmaker while still retaining the same style that makes his films completely their own. "Hanna" in essence is a simple on the run from the bad guys thriller, but it is intelligent in its design, and slick in its execution. It is a film that proves even though you may have heard a story before, it is the way one expresses it that makes it new and exciting. This is a truly engaging film, a refreshing look at what dramatic action films can be

And now the stinkers...

I don't see a lot of movies I know are going to be bad. Thus the reason films like "Season of the Witch" or "The Roommate" will not be on the list. Instead, the films on here are the ones I held out promise for (one was even on my most anticipated for 2011 list) that instead, just disappointed me...



5. Your Highness

There are only so many ways you can say the F word and there are only so many sexual or bodily function jokes you can tell before they all begin to get old. Too bad Danny McBride and long-time collaborator Ben Best didn't take this opportunity to spoof some of the traditions and staples of the time period they were in, replacing the old English language with the current vernacular of a college sophomore seemed to instead be the funnier route to them. While I will admit there are moments of greatness in the film, I am still reeling from what my expectations were to what the final product delivered.



4. Green Lantern

"Green Lantern" was pure summer sugar, a piece of eye candy that delighted for too brief a moment and left you feeling underwhelmed by the time the credits began to roll. Reynolds tried, give him that, but nothing else came together, if only the Green Lantern might have taken a few cues from his fellow DC hero Batman, this movie could have really been something. Instead, it is a missed opportunity at its finest.



3. Jack & Jill

Sandler no longer seems interested in genuinely making an audience laugh or raging against the movie factory machine, no, instead he has become an integral part of it. It is as if after "Funny People" a film where he had to put in long days, and dig deep into the psyche of his character to get to that place where the thought of death was immanent, he became exhausted by the effort it took to pull off and has since resorted back to his safe zone. A place where he can slum through a role, get all his friends a paying gig, and still make plenty of money. Actually, he makes more money by doing what he is doing, "Little Nicky" is his lowest grossing film and probably considered his most awful critically as well and it still made more than "Punch Drunk Love" and "Reign Over Me" combined. There is no incentive to face what he has become, but this is surely incentive to continue the trend he has now perfected.

2. Something Borrowed

"Something Borrowed" can be summed up by one of it's only clever pieces of dialogue, "The Hampton's are like a zombie movie directed by Ralph Lauren." But instead of "The Hampton's" you can easily insert the title of this film. It is all very clean cut and the characters all dress in clothes that are all very monochromatic and do things like play badminton because they literally have nothing better to do. It is a zombie movie, but without the building excitement or scares just the overall effect of lifeless bodies walking around doing things that don't make a whole lot of sense. John Krasinski is the voice of reason here, and another reason to believe he is better than this, but even with his strong words and observations this film never rose above what he critiques his friends of being.

1. Red Riding Hood

What happened to Catherine Hardwicke? Does the "Twilight" director think she can only make gothic pieces that deal with love triangles and fairy tale creatures now? The idea of re-imagining Little Red Riding Hood as an old gothic tale was no doubt intriguing and could have certainly spawned something better than what was delivered here. Too bad really, because "Red Riding Hood" has the talent, both in front of and behind the camera, it's just none of the people involved seemed to care about the story they were telling or how it came out. They were only going through the motions, trying their best to capture what they think their target audience would most enjoy.