Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Top 20 of 2011 (or the year Pixar didn't make the cut)

            Here it is, my favourite films of 2011. I saw 74 movies from that year, and these are the top 20. Keep in mind that these aren’t necessarily the ‘highest quality’ films of the year, but the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend. There are only a couple movies I have yet to see that ‘might’ have made my list, but I am happy with what I have. Kudos to 3 films that almost made the cut and I still recommend you check out: Midnight in Paris, I Saw the Devil and Crazy, Stupid, Love.

20. Moneyball

  1. A true underdog story that makes you believe in standing up for your ideas.  Brad Pitt in one of his best performances and an outstanding script that makes talking about numbers and business maneuvers into an engaging by-the-numbers drama.

19. Contagion

       One of the many end of the world movies this year, this one takes the non-action perspective. Dealing with the bureaucratic and procedural handlings of an epidemic outbreak, this thriller takes an all star-cast and puts them in realistic, logical circumstances. It delivers the chills through a practical realism which makes it strike close to home.

18. Troll Hunter

        Set in Norway, in documentary mode, we follow some students who are trying to expose a government cover-up of Trolls. Done in found-footage style, the movie plays with the mythology of Trolls which is ever present in Norway’s traditions, and thankfully embraces the comedic notions of this premise as it gets more and more epic near the end.

17. Adjustment Bureau and Source Code

   These sci-fi movies are tied due to having the same qualities and errors. They both have fascinating premises: one involves a mysterious ‘bureau’ of people who control the lives and destinies of everyone in the world, and the other is about an agent who relives the same 8 minutes on a train over and over until he can find the terrorist.  The first takes the romantic adventure route, the other takes the puzzle thriller twisty route.  They are both very entertaining but are ultimately both kind of cheesy.

16. Hugo

          Scorsese’s ‘first family film’, succeeds less as a movie for young ones, and aims more effectively at the older crowd. The story of an orphaned boy who is in search of a mystery his father left behind, is rather dry but it eventually unravels into a poignant and nostalgic look at the wonder and magic of the early days of film. Scorsese simultaneously uses the modern ‘magic’ of 3D to depict the still enchanting effects cinema has to offer.

15. Carnage

      In a short and vicious 1-Act of a film, we become the fly on the wall in an apartment where two contrasting couples decide they can no longer tolerate each other’s values.  They start off being polite to each other, then layer after layer of their facades are peeled off revealing everyone’s true feelings.  It’s nothing new and is simply a play put on screen, but the acting and sharp script make for an intriguing comedy of manners.

14. X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger

           The other tie on my list are these two Comic Book action flicks.  They are both simple, by the numbers origin story films that manage to hit all of the right beats and deliver a good ol’ time at the movies. X-M:FC makes use of two fantastic leads and an interesting plot (for once in the franchise). CA:TFA boasts an outstanding cast top to bottom, from the lovable lead to the colourful minor characters. Or maybe I just like them because they are miles beyond the other recent Superhero movies (Iron Man 2, Green Lantern, Thor).

13. Bridesmaids

           Taking a cue from the ‘R-rated Comedies with Heart’ that preceded it (see The 40-Year Old Virgin), this is the genuine comedy of the year. It's a refreshing change to see an all female cast fleshed out with interesting characters who are still able to act silly. With ample crassness mixed with honest emotions, the ladies of this bridal party will surely have you smiling; as well as hating one of the meanest villains this year. I for one, would like to attend a party where they hand out complimentary Labrador puppies. 

12. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

      After a second viewing, the magic and mystery wear a little thin. Nevertheless, this is an epic film which still manages to wrap up a 10-year, 8-movie, 7 novel long franchise.  A great cast, expensive effects, gorgeous cinematography and mature film-making by comparison to the series’ bumbling beginnings. 

11. Melancholia

         Not the happiest of films, after a gorgeous 8 min. opening on the end of the world set in super slow-mo to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, we rewind to the previous day. Here we meet the depressed melancholiac Kirsten Dunst at her own wedding party, while a planet (named Melancholia) slowly gravitates to Earth where it will inevitably collide (see opening scene). This artistic film doesn’t focus (too much) on the physical destruction of the Earth, but uses the planet as a metaphor of this emotionally crushing depression as it demolishes the characters as well as the viewer.

10. Rango

          I’m giving this the ‘Pixar’s Up Award’, for the movie with the most seemingly random elements somehow coming together to form a great cohesive film. This is a beautifully ugly film wherein a thespian chameleon literally crashes into his mid-life-identity crisis, stumbles into a dusty western shanty-ville inhabited by the ugliest creatures, has an identity forced upon him, helps accidentally uncovers the plot from the movie Chinatown, has an existential dream sequence where he meets the real life Clint Eastwood (who is also playing his Man-With-No-Name role), all in an animated film that may or may not be for kids.

9. 50/50

            When a man in his late 20s is diagnosed with a rare cancer that gives him a 50% chance of living, he struggles to deal with this sudden news. Based on a true story, this humble little film finds its feet placed with finesse in both: a true reaction-based drama and an honest comedy.  This is not a sappy Terms of Endearment cancer movie, nor is it an R-rated Knocked Up kind of coming-of-age story. It thankfully leans towards the realistic side by using natural moments of humour to contrast the genuine tear-inducing scenes.

8. Enter the Void

     The movie I can least recommend on this list is so high because, as always, I can allow myself to praise creativity over entertainment. This is an 18-A film that feels very long, and some would call obnoxious. I would only recommend this to extreme movie aficionados. It's simply about an addict caught up in the drug scene in Tokyo, who, near the start of the film, dies. What follows in the next 2 hours, is his journey as a wandering spirit quietly observing the lives of those who were close to him. The key to this film is that it is shot almost entirely in 1st person. While he is alive, you see what he sees, experience what he hallucinates and notice every blink as the camera opens and closes. When he is a spirit, your peripheral vision goes blurry, you move through walls and the rules of physics don't apply to you. This is a slow meandering film that puts you in a trance and you will never forget it.

7. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

       Despite what Tom Cruise does offscreen, I can always be entertained by him in the movies.  Especially when he himself is dangling off of the tallest building in the world.  Instead of using stuntmen or overdone computer effects, Tom and director Brad Bird go for the real thing and construct an amazing set-piece in an outstanding action flick. I won’t say too much about it since I recently wrote about it, but it is a movie for everyone to enjoy because it is what most current action movies lack: fun.

6. The Muppets

     Aside from the puppets themselves, what makes a muppet movie an actual Muppet Movie?  Wit, charm, catchy and sentimental tunes, celebrity cameos, self-awareness and out-of-the-box unconventional logic.  These are the differences between their last abandoned outings (Muppets from Space and other straight to DVD appearances) and this 2011 reboot of the series; with the exception of the cameo part, which was lackluster here.  Nothing gives me greater delight than watching these loveable and colourful friends acting silly and just trying to put on a quality variety show.  Believe me, I’ve been there and it can mean the world to you. It’s great to see the gang back and I had a smile on my face literally the whole time. This is obviously my truly personal pick. The fact that this is in no way a perfect film, and I still love it, shows how much this irreverent nostalgic comedy is heavily aimed at the fans, and fans alone. Works for me!

5. The Artist

     The most charming movie of the year will absolutely delight anyone who can sit through a 'nearly' silent film.  Yes, that's right, The Artist is in black & white with no dialogue or sound effects; only word cards and stylized 1920s music (plus an ingenious use of the Vertigo soundtrack near the end).  You begin by watching part of another silent movie. It then draws back and you are watching an audience watch this movie. Then you realize that they are silent as well, so now you are watching a silent movie with people watching a silent movie and wonder what you just got yourself into for the next hour and a half. But after 5 minutes of the film's charismatic actor and his cute trick dog, you are happily along for the journey. This film is about an actor trying to maintain his integrity as the studios turn their back on him in favour of the new 'talking pictures'; much like how this film itself is defying the current Hollywood system by being silent.  It is a very sweet story about love, jealousy and not losing control of your pride. It uses its gimmick so effectively that this story could not have been told any other way.

4. The Adventures of Tintin

      The Spielberg film of 2011 that I wasn’t expecting to like, wound up proving me wrong (and vice versa with the other). This is true old-fashioned, action-adventure Spielberg directing in top form.  No, it’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it certainly evokes it. Tintin, our plucky detective travels the globe to uncover the ‘Secret of the Unicorn’ with the help of 2 amazing sidekicks who steal the show. Tintin himself was never meant to have much charisma or interest, rather, he is the audience’s (reader’s) surrogate for the adventure. As this is Spielberg’s first directorial effort in animation, he displays how fluent of a camera operator he is in this completely free environment.  Without expensive restraints and the physics of the real world, he is allowed the freedom to move the camera around and through whatever he likes, to create a kinetic propulsion that drives the film.  If Tintin is our surrogate, then the camera is our tour guide pulling us along. The ‘falcon chase’ alone is a tour-de-force which displays the freedom of animation under the direction of a master.

3. Drive

                As I have proposed before, this is the suave, modern re-imagining of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  They of course aren’t the same film, but thematically, they are twins across decades.  Drive is a Neo-Film Noir about a stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for heists.  Note: how I called it a ‘Neo-Film Noir’ and not ‘Action Film’. Despite the title, plot and advertising this is a slowly paced film with only a couple of chases. There are numerous scenes of characters numbly starring or just sitting and taking in their environment. This film is all about atmosphere and style.  It has one of the best soundtracks of the year that evokes a slick 80s pop soundtrack. The whole film is dusted off with cool shades of blue and dark hues to provide a cold feeling.  Then, once in a while these cool, calm and collected moments are suddenly offset with flashes of violence or action (see the elevator scene) that show the driver’s energetic ability to snap his facade and protect the ones he loves.  This film isn’t very deep or has anything important to say, but it is a masterpiece in style and genre mixing.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

        Wow,...Number 2? Okay! I clearly just can’t get enough of this summer action flick. The movie that irritated people before it came out (no one wanted another remake) and looked terrible in the previews surprised everyone.  Yes, it has problems with flat/token human characters, but that is only in service to make you cheer for the apes. Flipping the perspective of the original, Caesar (our protagonist ape), is now the fish out of water instead of a human. Thanks to an oscar worthy performance by Andy Serkis (as well as the animators), you understand every motive and emotion he goes through, without the need for dialogue. I am always a fan of moments in films where the dialogue is eschewed in order to let the music, sound and images tell you a story.  Movies are all about moving images on a screen, and this film just lets the scenes unfold and speak for themselves.  The director handles the story extremely well and allows scene after memorable scene to play out believably in this far-fetched sci-fi premise. Besides, who doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy watching apes on the loose taking over the Golden Gate Bridge? Here’s hoping an epic sequel is in the works.

1. The Tree of Life

                 Movies can be simple blockbusters that are there to entertain, or ambiguous combinations of moving images and ideas. My No. 2 is the former and The Tree of Life is definitely the latter. Like all forms of art, movies can mean many things to many people. In the end, it comes down to taste and personal experience, as to whether you’ll love a free-form movie like this, or hate it (“Why were there dinosaurs?”).  The film is about a quaint 1950s family growing up in America, as seen through the perspective of one of the boys. Yet, this plot synopsis does not do it justice.  This is a film that does not hinder on its story, it abandons conventional structure and presents a unique form of narrative.  The bulk of the film is a series of images and thoughts that are seen and heard in his head as he discovers life.  “Why does dad tell me to take my elbows off the table, when he himself does it?” “Where does life come from?” “Why does that man walk that way?”...and other unanswered thoughts. If anything, the thoughts reflect a discussion between ‘The way of Nature and the way of Grace’ as the opening dialogue suggests. This is a philosophical film, in that you interpret these images and thoughts to your own experiences. You answer your own questions.  I’m not saying I understand everything in this film, nor do I mean to be pretentious, but this movie does offer the chance for you sit back, relax and reflect the images unto yourself.  There are also great conventional movie-isms as well: beautiful computer and practical effects, outstanding naturalistic acting from the children and gorgeous, innocent camera work.

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