I don’t know about you, but my 2011 was a year of very extreme highs and some nightmarishly low lows. Through it all, I had the movies.
Some of you are probably aware of this, but I got my start writing about wine over at GUY.com. That gig turned into an opportunity to review a few movies here and there (with some guidance from the ferociously sexy Mr. David Oliver), which then progressed into me doing prescreenings on a weekly basis. What started as a side gig writing about wine and movies eventually led me to some truly unimaginable experiences in 2011. I can’t begin to tell you how surreal it is to see Another Earth one day and be interviewing its star, Brit Marling, in a hotel lobby the next day. Or sitting down with Joe Cornish at New York Comic Con and asking him how his FX team pulled off the glowing teeth in Attack the Block. By the time Martin Sheen asked me where I went to college, I tried not to pee my pants a little.
For a lot of writers this stuff might seem old hat, but for a kid from Minnesota who pulled a Robocop VHS off a rental shelf at three and has been living in the moving pictures ever since – it’s everything. I’ve been reading CHUD for 10+ years and in that time I’ve found the voices I’ve respected the most are most often the ones I haven’t always agreed with. CHUD’s always been a home to diverse writers that have challenged me as reader – at times causing me to question my tastes and other times reaffirming them. So while you may not always agree with me, hopefully you can still find something useful to (sewer) chew on as you go about your movie-watching existence. There’s only one thing that every CHUD reader, writer or Uncle Mitch-fetishist can and should agree on: We all love film.
But before we embark on a promising 2012 (for movies at least, world’s gonna end), we have some business to attend to. Here’re the best films I saw* in 2011:
Honorable Mention #4. The Ides of March: The fact that very few are talking about this movie right now is a travesty. If Clooney and Co. have any patience they’d wait to unleash this puppy on DVD and Blu-ray until the November elections in 2012. With Ides, Clooney directed a film that indicts complicit parities every bit as much as the politician. A sublime filmic companion with Nichols’ Primary Colors is made all the more unsettling by one of Gosling’s strongest performances to date.
Honorable Mention #3. X-Men – First Class: I can admit when I’m wrong, and X-Men: First Class is a film where I’d like to offer my sincerest apologies. If comic book films are officially their own genre now (they are), then this was the strongest effort of 2011. I almost wish they’d have left the secondary characters behind, because this film belongs to James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. His Magneto deserves his own franchise. An effort I’ve grown to love.
Honorable Mention #2/1. Fast Five / Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: The two strongest pure action films of 2011 deserve to be mentioned together. If there’s an edge, it goes to Ghost Protocol for shooting those gorgeous Dubai sequences in IMAX. But it’s hard to beat a film where The Rock tells you point blank to “Stay the fuck outta my way.” If you have a Blu-ray player you want to show off, these will go down as the best demo reels you can ask for this year.
A mixed-martial-arts fairy tale, Warrior is the great sleeper of 2011. A part of me is glad I didn’t see Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy as I wrote this, because I really wanted Warrior to make this list. The number Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) does on his opponents doesn’t begin to compare to the one he does on himself. Gavin O’Connor’s directorial effort is a superb film that serves as a reminder of just how much family can save. And no, it has absolutely no right being this good. But I’m damn glad it is.
Current Rating: 3.75 out of 5
Contributing Factors: Impactive storytelling coupled with the fact that this is MMA’s first swing at a grand stage and, surprisingly, the filmmakers nailed it.
Performances to Savor: Fans will talk about Hardy, and he’s great. But there’s an entire cast at work effortlessly pulling this off. Edgerton and Nolte are incredible, and Jennifer Morrison is a great anchor. If you want to see the last 35 years of Nolte’s life, he’s wearing it in the final thirty minutes of Warrior. If films were gauged on their final moment’s alone, Warrior would rank much higher.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “I’ll say it now, Warrior has no business being as good as it is.”
A hilarious comedy in a year mostly devoid of funny. Melissa McCarthy’s terrific performance overshadowed an entire cast. But everybody works here to do a terrific job and it amounts to the best comedy of the year. Special consideration goes to dutiful straight-woman and TV-goddess Rose Byrne (Damages) who’ll hopefully receive more love in 2012.
Current Rating: 3.75
Contributing Factors: It’s the best straight comedy of 2011, not to mention one of the best ensembles of the year. Poop jokes, and what not.
Performances to Savor: Let everyone sing Melissa McCarthy’s praises (and she absolutely deserves it). But Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne do delightful work here as well. Wait, Terry Crews was in this too? Oscar, your move.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “Also, there’s pooping in the street.”
This is Steven Soderbergh’s horror film, and it’s fucking terrifying. Tighter than Bambi. This is a film about a lot of things – but to me it’s about the fragility of life. Everything we take for granted can unravel in a few days time, and Contagion shows us just how easy it’d be to slit the throat of the person in the cube across from you if a vaccine was on the line. That might be overselling it. But then again, and most scarily, it might not.
Current Rating: 4.0
Contributing Factors: Making us realize that the end of the world takes work, and just how complacent we may all be when the time comes. Sidenote: Cliff Martinez lends an old-school Goblin vibe to his score that’s the best thing that happened to ears in 2011.
Performances to Savor: Too many to mention, this is an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. I very much enjoyed Kate Winslet’s work as a doctor in the shit, fighting a terrifyingly losing battle.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “Some die, some lose loved ones, others will work tirelessly in search of a cure while the selfishly opportunistic will feed off their work and get rich.”
I revel in the delicious 70s-style cheese of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Granted, James Franco and his human counterparts look lost here. But the fact that that’s not enough to sink it speaks volumes about just how fun a film like this is. A lesser offer if not for the ungodly talents of mo-cap whiz Andy Serkis, Apes’s complete disregard for human wellbeing is practically everything I ask for out of a summer film. More than that, it’s given us the single best line of 2011: “Why cookie Rocket?” Why the fuck not?
Current Rating: 4.25
Contributing Factors: This is the summer 2011 blockbuster no one warned me about. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Star Trek in its ability to tell a modern sci-fi story in a crowd-pleasing fashion. Pop-filmmaking isn’t always a bad thing; so kudos to FOX for winning over my jaded genre heart. I only hope they give director Rupert Wyatt and team free reign to tell Caesar and kin’s continuing story.
Performances to Savor: C’mon, this isn’t the movie it is without Andy Serkis. I’d sit on an Oscar if you promised me Serkis would win it.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “The most pleasant surprise of the summer, these damn dirty apes deserve to put their paws on theatergoers more often.”
Nicolas Winding Refn might only have a few more days of being one of those oft-mentioned under-the-radar directors, because Drive is fast laying waste to that. And it’s a damn shame; because if Drive is the sort of pulse-pounding film he can craft at an indie level well, I wish he’d just keep on making them. Those first five minutes amount to the purest cinematic sequence I’ve seen all year. If you only had Drive for five minutes, that’s all you’d need to decide it’s a classic.
Current Rating: 4.25
Contributing Factors: The sheer brutality in which Gosling’s driver goes about protecting all that he loves. This is a small film with some very big ideas at play. You’re better off going in cold.
Performances to Savor: Gosling is too blank (on purpose) to be anything but an archetype here, an admittedly intriguing one. But Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman as backroom blue collar crime lords give you more than enough to chew on. Also, Christina Hendricks looks great in red.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It’s that 80s-style backdrop of broiling sunlight, fast cars, and nighttime streets crackling with sex and crime that allow a stoic hero that rarely speaks to exude danger from his first frame. (Renn)”
If only this were a Favorite list and not a Best of… I suspect I’d rank 50/50 a bit higher. Calling it the “funniest cancer film ever made,” does 50/50 a disservice. Anyone whose life’s ever been affected by such an awful thing can appreciate how easy it is to mine humor when you’re drenched in tragedy. Laughter becomes a necessity. But director Jonathan Levine’s film goes even deeper still, exploring the mortality and dread that even those of us still in our youth have to reckon with. Life can be beautiful – but it can also be more than unfair at times. 50/50 tells both of those stories.
Current Rating: 4.5
Contributing Factors: The best use of Pearl Jam’s Yellow Ledbetter on film and a great reminder of why smoking some occasional pot is hardly a bad thing. Also, the writing and the acting.
Performances to Savor: Anjelica Huston is still able to command a scene. Bryce Dallas Howard’s unaffectionate shrew of a girlfriend Rachael is the monster most of us hope to never be saddled with but unfortunately have been. Joseph Gordon Levitt holds the whole show together, and Seth Rogen makes a strong argument for why he’s better off being a supporting player and not a star. Seriously, I mean that as a compliment.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “50/50 is that rare gem of a film that we don’t have nearly enough of. It manages that precious balance between humor and tragedy that filmmakers so often attempt but only few can accomplish.”
In an odd way, The Descendants and Warrior are cinematic brethren in 2011. Both films deal with the healing power of family and the scars left behind when we give those we love free reign to do their worst. A destructive, affecting, and beautiful adaptation of a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, it’s the kind of film that makes you look inward. For anyone who depends on family in the rough patches, the simplicity of the final two minutes says more collectively than the entirety of the running time before it. Director Alexander Payne’s been away for far too long.
Current Rating: 4.5
Contributing Factors: The gorgeous landscape of Hawaii is a character in and of itself. The scenes with Clooney’s comatose wife serve as a depressing, but necessary, counterpoint.
Performances to Savor: Any film daring enough to cast Matthew Lillard in 2011 deserves love. But this also happens to be my favorite Clooney performance of all time. The powerful Shailene Woodley, as Clooney’s daughter, is one of the finer revelations of the year.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It all amounts to a subtle film that leaves a very unsubtle impact: no one action, good or bad, can ever define a person’s legacy.”
Attack the Block is what it needed to be and more. This is everything that modern genre filmmaking should be: influenced by what came before to present an effort that is wholly unique. This film wears Spielberg and Dante as much as they wore their influences in early efforts. What rookie director Joe Cornish accomplishes with his setting and characters is beyond refreshing in this, the era of rebooting reboots.
Current Rating: 4.75
Contributing Factors: Howabout the simplest and most effective creature designs since District 9? Also pay close attention to how Cornish shoots the titular Block itself. The fact that you’re never once lost hints at a storyteller that knows how to shoot a picture.
Performances to Savor: Cornish was wise to cast honest-to-god kids in his picture. But this film still belongs to John Boyega as Moses. Dude can pretend to play other dudes really well; ie, I think he’s a good actor.
GUY.com Pull Quote: “Attack this block. Attack the fuck out of it.”
This is a film I have no trouble putting alongside Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Crimes and Misdemeanors: my favorite Woody Allen works. This is an effort that invigorates the viewer every bit as much as I believe it reinvigorated Woody Allen as a filmmaker. An infectious and playful film, I loved every second of it.
Current Rating: 5.0
Contributing Factors: The opportunity to see a master gleefully playing with his favorite subject matter. This is more than a love letter to jazz, literature or art. It’s a love letter to everything Allen loves.
Performances to Savor: Owen Wilson makes a surprisingly effective Allen surrogate, the best there’s been to date. If you’ve had trouble buying into Allen’s bohemian caricatures of recent vintage, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This is a return to form in every sense. Also, Marion Cotillard is every woman I’ve ever wanted to get with. Do with that knowledge what you will.
Amazing what can be accomplished by a film with nothing to say. The Artist is a reaffirmation that the term silent film is a misnomer. There’s simply no such thing, and there never has been. I love that director Michel Hazanavicius uses his film to play with the tropes of a bygone era to create something akin to cinematic dream state. The threat talkies posed to silent film stars like The Artist’s George Valentin is reminiscent in part of modern day advancements like 3D. Film is always moving forward and because of that talent can too often be cast aside in pursuit of the next big thing.
With not a cynical frame in its 100 minute running time, The Artist in all its 4:3 splendor is a film for lovers of film. Find it before it becomes fodder for awards season and its messages get muddled in tired campaign conjecture. It’s better than that.
Current Rating: 5.0
Contributing Factors: Its beautiful use of light and shadow. Hazanavicius could have very easily used his tools to make a gimmick film. The fact that there’s nothing gimmicky about The Artist is reason enough to appreciate the film on its own merits. Aside from that, am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that Penelope Ann Miller appears in a film where there’s a character named Peppy Miller? I am? Nevermind then.
Performances to Savor: Try not to fall in love with Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller. Also, John Goodman’s in full Matinee mode here – never a bad thing.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “With The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius demonstrates that he’s not just intimately familiar with every instrument in the toolbox of the silent filmmaker, but that he’s actually capable of picking them up and putting hammer to nail to build one as they did. (Renn)”
*Some films I regrettably missed: Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, Tree of Life, Young Adult, New Year’s Eve