While we had to endure the painful New Year's Eve (if Hollywood is a holiday party, somebody needs to take the keys from Garry Marshall), the willfully stupid Green Lantern, the inoffensively haphazard The Green Hornet and everything in between, 2011 was a pretty fun year for flicks.
Plenty of movies earned their keep with me while I was sitting in the theater seat without making my Top 10 for one reason or another. Popcorn flicks like X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger and even Fast Five were fun (the first for its continuity-skewering, Silver Age throwback meets Bond vibe; the second for its straightforward storytelling and surprisingly non-ironic lead; the last for its charmingly lunkheaded spectacle) but ultimately forgettable.
Certain art house movies like Beginners and My Week with Marilyn were mostly good but a few marks from great (the first for its over reliance on twee artifice; the second for its dull-as-an-old-pocket-knife costar, Eddie Redmayne). I have nothing bad to say about Attack the Block, 50/50 or The Muppets. That's the problem with capping a list at 10. And in full disclosure, I have yet to see Drive (I know, I know) or The Artist as I'm writing this.
The movies that are in my Top 10 were simply outstanding, bar none. Had they arrived during any given year, they'd all have made some sort of "all time" list, should I ever find the time to curl up on my office couch and bang out some sort of absurd and self-indulgent novel of that nature. (Incidentally, I'd pay at least $100 to hear Ricky Gervais give a scene-by-scene commentary on New Year's Eve. Bring on the Globes!)
Top 10 of 2011
#1 - Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
I'm not into Led Zeppelin. I recognize their importance to the overall culture of hard rock and heavy metal; I know the Robert Page / Robert Plant combo ranks up there with John Lennon / Paul McCartney for some folks; I understand the appeal. It's authentic, it's uncynical, it's made for the right reasons, which is about as close to a set of standards there could ever be to objectively consider any sort of art "good." I don't like Kanye West 's music but I think that guy means it. On the other hand, Fred Durst was clearly a dope, a bully and a fraud. That made him bad.
Woody Allen is sort of my cinematic Led Zeppelin. I know why he's important, I get the adulation, but his work just never clicked with me. It doesn't resonate. And I know many of his fans have felt about his recent movies the way most metal heads feel about post late '80s Metallica (me personally, I'll defend anything but Lulu). When I sat down at the Sony lot to watch Midnight in Paris after signing some document that promised I wouldn't tell anybody anything about it, I had absolutely no idea that I was about to see what would continue to be my favorite movie of the year straight through to December 31. The opening montage love letter made me think I was sitting in my high school French class (in a bad way); it's so damn long. I mean, you're just looking at France and listening to music. Fast forward ten or twenty minutes and I felt like I was at my high school lunch table (in a good way; or as good as that ever was for people like me) with the metal dudes, skaters, theater people and other smart folks who banded together to talk about nerdy stuff like books, comics, music... Art.
Midnight in Paris is fan faction of the highest level. It's about life, love, writing, movies, history, geography, marriage, in-laws... Even if I hadn't signed that stupid piece of paper months ago I still wouldn't (and won't) spoil this film for people. Even now, there's someone reading this who has the opportunity to sit down with Midnight in Paris and be swept away by its many charms with nary a preconceived notion.
#2 - Warrior (Gavin O'Connor)
Why wasn't this movie a hit? I suppose the marketing made it seem like it was designed for a niche within a niche, like it was for folks who thought renting Never Back Down would be a great idea. Mixed martial arts aren't as mainstream as its hardcore fans might think. But here's the thing: Warrior is as much for MMA advocates as Rocky was specifically for minutiae loving boxing fans. Warrior is a great movie with a compelling story, delivered in bits and pieces at a steady pace, about a broken family brought together through shared sacrifice. This thing is downright Biblical in the end, with one character standing in for Jesus Christ by the time everything shakes out. Warrior, like Midnight in Paris, was something of a revelation for me as I sat down to see it with nothing close to elevated expectations. Gavin O'Connor was great to talk with about it; his passion for his film was beyond evident. Tom Hardy, on the other hand, was one of the more difficult interviews I've attempted in a junket setting. Maybe I was talking to "Bane" and didn't know it? Or maybe it was me. I think I wandered in a still half-dazed fanboy having just come from a screening the night before where I shed actual tears. Nick Nolte absolutely, positively, unequivocally should win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Warrior." Of course, he won't. And that sucks.
CLICK HERE to watch my exclusive interview featurette.
#3 - The Trip (Michael Winterbottom)
The Trip effortlessly unravels, examines and amplifies the bonds, potshots, stunted intimacy, petty jealousies and wildly brilliant humor shared by close male friends far beyond the boundaries of the surface level absurdity of something like The Hangover. It's a mostly improvised road trip movie set in the English countryside, sticking the audience right between two stupefying hilarious comedians (Steve Coogan , Rob Brydon ) playing only slightly exaggerated versions of themselves in the throes of midlife crisis as they eat, riff, jab and loquaciously dissect adulthood, fatherhood, relationships, careers and the various moods, tones, inflections and performances of Michael Caine. LOVED. IT.
#4 - Hesher (Spencer Susser)
I believe Hesher is the lone movie in my Top 10 to carry the stain of a "rotten" rating on the Tomatometer. It's an incredibly polarizing movie amongst the small handful of people who saw it. It opened basically nowhere and was seen by virtually nobody (I hosted a pair of Q&As with writer / director Spencer Susser and one of the films stars at two different opening weekend screenings in Los Angeles; one was sold-out, the other barely attended) and like Warrior, most likely suffered from an imaging problem. Is it a comedy? Well, it's pretty funny, but not really. Is it about heavy metal? Well, the title character looks, talks, walks and stares like late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton (down to the Crimson Ghost tattoo) and is obsessed with their first three albums. But no, the movie isn't about heavy metal nor made exclusively for heavy metal fans.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt 's Hesher (just " Hesher ") is a wraith, a spirit, something esoteric and dark; a twisted version of Mary Poppins combined with Brandon Lee as The Crow whose arrival into the home of a recently shattered family changes everything. While it finds its way to something of a sort of sappy ending, it's completely unsentimental as it gets there, willfully avoiding rote clichés in favor of merciless adherence to character development. Joseph Gordon-Levitt disappears into Hesher. He makes him into an actual being. Rainn Wilson, as a disconnected father, is as far from Dwight Shrute as possible. Natalie Portman 's performance is completely without vanity. And newcomer Devin Brochu, who anchors the story, is something of a revelation. Spencer Susser made Metallica a central part of the film's atmosphere despite everyone telling him the band would never agree to let him use their songs and even if they did, it'd be too expensive. He ended up writing them a letter and sending them a copy of the film and getting their blessing. I hope he gets to make more movies.
#5 - The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
I couldn't stop smiling at the acerbic antihero in The Guard. Ever been in one of those situations where you are clearly the smartest person in a room full of people who are all more "powerful" than you, and yet, nobody recognizes your brilliance in the slightest? Brendan Gleeson was born to play this Irish cop who has given up on fighting the power and grown content to kick back and grumble at the stupidity around him -- until fish out of water FBI man Don Cheadle hits his backwater county on the trail of a major case. Humor on par with the best podcasts from Ricky Gervais, a nuanced performance as deceptively simple as the title character, great supporting work from Don Cheadle (did I mention Mark Strong is one of the villains?!) and a bit of convincingly choreographed action made this a film I would happily watch again and again. Even when it's doing it's "one last case" bit, or anything similarly stock, it's just so much damn fun.
#6 - Moneyball (Bennett Miller)
I know next to nothing about sports and I'm pretty bad at math. Moneyball exists entirely in the world of baseball and is filled with equations, statistics and facts about players. I put off seeing it until November. I actually saw it on my birthday, as it happened to be the only well reviewed movie in theaters near me that I hadn't seen. This wasn't Midnight in Paris nor Warrior, where I had no real expectations either way. I expected to be bored. I knew it was probably well made, but there was just no way I'd care about the subject matter. Movies.com's Dave White, on the always reliable and effortlessly engrossing "Linoleum Knife" podcast, insisted that enjoyment of the film required zero interest in math or sports, so I went. Thank God that I did! What a film and what a performance from Brad Pitt, who (along with his buddy George Clooney) delivered a performance this year that was mindful of his age without hitting you over the head with it. While brilliant but 48 eight year old Johnny Depp played a writer at the start of his career (ahem) in the meandering The Rum Diary, fellow pretty-but-credible heavyweights Brad Pitt and George Clooney have stepped gracefully into something of a believable middle(aged) ground with their 2011 choices -- the other of which is about to appear on this list a few notches down. Stay tuned! (I still hate sports).
#7 - Carnage (Roman Polanski)
I have never seen the "God of Carnage" play nor the other film version so I had nothing to compare this to when I sat down. When it dawned on me that the four actors in this film (three of whom have Academy Awards, the other a nomination) were never going to leave the apartment where they had begun arguing, I knew that the material would have fallen apart in the hands of actors even slightly less capable than these people or with a director devoid of Roman Polanski's specific talent with the portrayal of isolation and verbal barbarity. Yes, the "Carnage" referred to in this film's title is all of the black humor variety. It's a talky movie for grownups, about grownups, which is kryptonite to most audiences for better or worse but which felt fresh and fulfilling (if a bit like, well, a play) to me when it was over. And I know I'm not the first person to say this, but, man, that Christoph Waltz sure can eat a piece of pastry on a movie screen, can't he?
#8 - Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
When I had the honor, privilege and giddy pleasure to guest co-host the "Linoleum Knife" podcast on the morning of the MTV Movie Awards earlier this year, film critic and one of my favorite people Alonso Duralde and I were sharing our mutual adulation for this film (in fact, we agreed on everything that week, even our "mostly liked it" assessment of X-Men: First Class despite our, once again, mutual Marvel nerd-dom) when I took things up a notch and announced that I found Submarine to be a better film than Rushmore, to which its been compared. Alonso Duralde wasn't wiling to follow me there, but I'm standing by it. There's no Bill Murray, but there's a much more convincing teenager than Max Fischer at the heart of this Welsh story about a preternaturally mature / yet immature kid falling in love while also trying to save his parents' marriage. Hyper stylized in a way that Beginners thinks it was, the only drawback for me was the inclusion of a neighbor / interloper character whose kitschy mullet and wizard van screamed " Napoleon Dynamite 's Uncle" to me. But Submarine conjures mixture of euphoria and paranoia when each and every interaction with someone is filled with intense meaning and value.
#9 - Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Forget the science fiction aspect of this movie -- you know, the whole apocalypse, Another Earth but as an even bigger bummer deal. Forget about how much Lars von Trier hates humanity. This is a movie about depression and Kirsten Dunst, whom I've always liked but until now never loved, transforms into the cinematic embodiment of all that depression entails. I've quite literally never seen anything like it on screen. All of the story, all of the grandeur, all of the beautiful (and man, is this film BEAUTIFUL) imagery in Melancholia plays second fiddle to Kirsten Dunst's performance. Melancholia is about a person whose only moment of peace arrives as everyone else surrenders to fear, hopelessness and despair. I'm awed by the brilliance of this film, but I will admit, I'd be hard pressed to endure a second viewing. I would say that I felt like I had been punched repeatedly after watching this movie, but I have been punched repeatedly in real life, and the emotions I felt while watching Melancholia were something far worse, far more complicated and much harder to fix with a bag of ice.
#10 - The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
I'm happy that 2011 delivered movies that reminded us that Brad Pitt and George Clooney aren't just movie stars, they're actors. Great ones, even. There's a scene where George Clooney is running down a wet street, another where he's running on a beach, and in neither does he look like a guy who was in Ocean's Eleven. He looks like... a real guy, you know... Running. I know this sounds stupid maybe, but seriously, it's good acting. I mean imagine waking up and you're George Clooney and now you've got to try and come across like some regular schlep. Hard work! Part of me wishes that Alexander Payne would make more movies and more often, but then the other part of me wonders if his less than prolific style is what makes everything he puts his name on so damned great. I still remember learning about the "slice of life" concept in the same English class where I was introduced to many of the key players in Midnight in Paris and this movie is exactly that -- it doesn't feel like so much of a "story" as a moment in time with somebody who is absolutely real, somebody you know, somebody who may be you. George Clooney plays a workaholic family man, somebody with so many connections to the community that he's disconnected from himself. The tragedy at the movie's outset doesn't so much move the story forward as it uncovers what's already lurking beneath. Don't get me wrong, The Descendants isn't melancholy. It's a drama, sure, but there's some levity and a nice real-life pace that perhaps is more in tune with its setting than any other recent film to choose to shoot in Hawaii. (The Descendants is as far away from Just Go with It as possible).