The Top Ten of 2011

"There is an alien in the kitchen making bagels and coffee."

10) Paul

An absolute must-see for any true fan of science fiction, Paul is a deeply detailed comedy that references some of the greatest franchises, ranging from Close Encounters to ET to Aliens. The whole thing was clearly constructed from the ground up by true fans, and I base this assumption on the accurate portrayal of Comic-Con.

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are a comedy duo that evokes memories of Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. I love these two in everything they do, and they continue bringing their A-Game here. Kristen Wiig is also hilarious, as is Seth Rogen voicing the title role. There is no shortage of perfect small roles, including Jane Lynch, Bill Hader, and the main antagonist whose name I will not mention for spoiler purposes. It's sophomoric at times, I confess, but we were all sophomores once.

"This is too much madness to explain in one text!"

9) Attack the Block

Carrying on my adoration for Brits and science fiction, Attack the Block is a little film that barely got any attention in America, but is worth seeking out. Initially, I was turned off by having such an unlikable protagonist, but as the film progressed, he grew on me. Sometimes it's good to have an unsympathetic hero. It makes the action seem more real, and he has a very American History X sort of growth and development.

The aliens were unique in design and presentation. The feral dog-like beasts evoke sensations of cynophobia; playing off perfectly common fears while amplifying them enough for thematic purposes. The young cast play their parts well, or at least their English accents mask their inexperience. The resourcefulness of the characters in terms of defense, weapon selection and battle strategies are all believable and genius; no MacGyver leaps of faith, and I applaud the screenwriter for that. All in all, Attack the Block is a solid alien invasion film, proving there's always some way to take a new angle on an old classic.

"That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me."

8) Midnight in Paris

I never would have guessed Woody Allen had another great one still in him, but here we are. His highest grossing film to date. It's weird seeing Allen's cinematic styles with modern digital productions, and its especially coincidental concerning the film is about temporal displacement, and pining for styles and techniques of the past. Speaking of careers I thought were once over, Owen Wilson really delivers as the wanderlust-stricken Francophile. I've cast him aside ever since he became Marketing McMarketen' in Cars. And in another crazy coincidence, Wilson wasn't actually available to hype up Midnight In Paris because he was too busy doing the press circuit for Cars 2!

I didn't give this movie a fair chance when it came out, and I'm sorry. I just assumed it to be another old person movie. But I saw it, and I'm glad I did. If you're familiar with the Jazz Age, the Lost Generation, and the notable associated figures, you'll enjoy this film. And if you don't, you'll at least appreciate the themes of nostalgia, artistic integrity and fulfillment.

"We've had a doozy of a day."

7) Tucker & Dale Vs Evil

I saw this film at SXSW, and I'm happy it got a proper release... however limited it was. But it's on Netflix Instant Streaming, and in today's distribution market, that means a lot. However, this is one instance when its safer to judge the book by the cover. Do not watch the trailer. In any good black comedy, the appeal is in the ridiculously gory evisceration. And the trailer gives them all away Every. Single. One. There's no point in watching the movie if you see the trailer.

I've previously expressed my adoration for this film, so I won't repeat myself too much. Alan Tudyk is great, Tyler Labine is great, and the film is great. It plays on your expectations, and delivers a fresh alternative to standard slasher fare.

"It's a bad day to be a rhesus monkey."

6) Contagion

I've recently discovered I really enjoy post-apocalypse themes. Children of Men, Wall-E, the Fallout series, Y: the Last Man, zombie flicks, etc. And I think that's what I like most about Contagion. It's the transitory work of fiction that bridges the gap between our world and the post-apocalyptic world. It makes it all seem very real, very exciting, and very scary. Working at the theater, I once had to give refunds to two fourteen year-old girls who just couldn't make it to the end. Paranormal Activity 3, Scream 4, Final Destination 5, teenagers are all trying to sneak in. But they legally buy their way into an original PG-13 film, and they can't stomach it. Anyone paying attention?

Director Steven Soderbergh delivers a great multi-arc story; we see the epidemic from all sorts of different sides. From the government, from the doctors, from the scientists, from the infected, from the immune, and from the opportunists. Jude Law plays this real smarmy villain who uses the epidemic for his own personal gain, playing off the public's distrust for authority and undercutting the efforts from everyone else. The government may be full of tools, but tools can at least get work done. The entire cast is full of great performances, Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Cowboy Curtis. Gwyneth Paltrow is only onscreen for about twenty minutes, but makes the most of all of it. Kate Winslet, I'm convinced was born on a boat halfway between Britain and America. It's the only explanation how anybody could pull off both accents so flawlessly.

"Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it."

5) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

The Harry Potter franchise contains eight films, ranging from fantastic to the lesser side of meh. Individually, the movies aren't particularly noteworthy, but as a franchise, it's one of the greats. It truly is a self-contained universe, masterfully constructed and full of familiarity in its simplest incarnations. Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a fantastic bookend; images like the quidditch field on fire or the bridge being blown up really demonstrate how far the franchise has come, and how high the stakes have been raised.

I'm extremely pleased it went out on such a high note. It feels satisfying, rewarding, and complete. Buuuut, "Complete" is Hollywood's least favorite word. A billion dollar franchise just can't end. We, unfortunately, haven't seen the last of Hogwarts.

"It makes it worse, that no one will just come out and say it. Like, "hey man, you're gonna die.""

4) 50/50

Usually when I use the word "Dramedy," it's for comedies that skimp on the jokes. Prior to this year, the only work I considered to actually blend comedy and drama in equal proportions was the TV show Freaks and Geeks. But now, 50/50 can also stand beside this claim. It knows when to be funny, it knows when to be serious, and it knows when and how to switch between the two. Clearly Seth Rogen is the key.

It's so easy to make a cancer flick. Lifetime makes 30 every year. I know I'm using this assertion a lot this year, but it's so refreshing to see a stagnant story idea taken in a new direction. Cancer can be funny. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is getting so good. He keeps taking all the right roles, and his career's just going to bloom into something amazing. Anna Kendrick, who already made a splash with Up in the Air a few years ago, keeps her momentum rolling. The director is making some... questionable career choices. 50/50 can stand proud being what it is; honest, engaging and entertaining.

"My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians... Come and dream with me."

3) Hugo

When I talked about Shutter Island last year, I mentioned Martin Scorsese has reached a point where he no longer has to impress people or prove himself. He can make whatever film he wants to make. But I never thought he would go so far against type to produce something like Hugo. It's so light and fantastical and epic and stylized. It's so far removed his usual oeuvre. If I didn't know any better, I'd have sworn it was a Spielberg flick. But Scorsese is an artist, perhaps he wanted a challenge; make something he's never made before. When Scorsese tries too hard to make a Scorsese flick, he makes a mud puddle like Gangs of New York. When he makes something he wants to make, he makes a masterpiece.

Going in, I had no idea what the film was about. The trailer was intentionally vague and misleading; I was expecting a steampunk robot adventure. But, spoiler alert, it's actually a fictionalized history of Georges Melies, the film pioneer best known for A Trip to the Moon. The hyper-stylization is intensified by the 3D display, and is one of the few films I truly believe to actually embrace the presentation as opposed to using it as a gimmicky crutch. Maybe if 3D continues on this path it will actually have a chance, and maybe someone will make good and deliver all those holographic projections I was promised back in 1991. It's charming, whimsical, fun, and if you're a film dork like me, it's required viewing.

"Whatever happens tomorrow you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man."

2) Captain America

Ah, superhero films. My opium. Marvel has put its final building block in place for its Avengers spectacle due out next year, and we'll see what comes of that. But for now, let's focus on just The Cap. Captain America is (or was) one of those franchises just under the radar. People knew the name, but didn't know the man or the story. And even if they did, their memories were probably sullied by Marvel's Civil War fiasco. The filmmakers were pretty much tasked with constructing a self-propelled rocket. But they did it. And they did it well. Unfortunately, Marvel is now official out of A-listers, and has taken a second lap on Spider-Man and X-Men. This might be their last hurrah, so let's savor it while it lasts.

Captain America is a great superhero film on all accounts. Chris Evans is great, completely making up for both Fantastic Four debacles. Dominic Cooper is great as Howard Stark, making up for John Slattery's odd Walt Disney impression in Iron Man 2. The set designers succeed in making the world look like a 40's comic book. The costumers make the Captain America costume look plausible and not silly (though I do prefer the penultimate helmet/goggles version as opposed to the final iteration). And whoever was responsible for the musical number deserves a goddamn parade.

"Production Value!"

1) Super 8

Sometimes in the world of deep personal dramas, quirky indie comedies, deep psychological headtrips and grandiose literary adaptations, you just need to see a giant alien and a train blowing up. And while we have no shortage of this shit permeating the mainstream cinema, I love seeing somebody actually do it well. JJ Abrams, amongst his lens flare obsession and Toho doppelgangers, knows how to create a blockbuster. That's why he's almost always on my year-end lists, and why he claims the number one spot.

Child actors seem to have really gotten better in recent years (real child actors, not the test tube babies from Nickelodeon/Disney Channel). Here we got five great ones who play their parts well. Although it's kind of hard to tell at times; they are playing characters alternating between immature assholes and panicky loudmouths. The teaser trailer released before Iron Man 2, was a genius way to pique interest virally, and put the movie on everybody's lips. Spielberg's influence is all over the film, in terms of character design, plotting, storytelling, etc. It just harkens back to the action/adventure pictures of the late 70s and 80s, making it seem like an island in the river of modern cinema. The Case, the short film produced by the characters throughout the film is hilarious and better than Transformers 3 in all regards except sound design.

Everyone has something to say about this film, but seems to be walking on eggshells. They seem to want to praise it, but don't want to discredit themselves by sounding to enthused. Well, nuts to that. I saw, I loved it, and I'm comfortable saying it was my favorite film of 2011.

And now, the Also-Rans:

The Adventures of Tintin - Amazing animation, stunning visuals, great characters but the story left me cold. I'd support this as a franchise.
The Artist - Funny and endearing. A tad derivative of Sunset Blvd and Singin' in the Rain, but I'd be okay with it winning Best Picture.
Bridesmaids - Funny at parts, but kinda bland overall. I wasn't the target audience. Still, I'd rather watch this twenty more times than something like Friends With Benefits.
Cedar Rapids - The trailers lie. This is actually a smart comedy about corporate ethics, and everyone involved was excellent. And it confirms Iowa is secretly awesome.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop - Coney's a showman. He's addicted to performing. Conan's always great, and so's the movie. Buuuuuut, after one watch, the movie's done all it needs to do. No rewatch value.
Cowboys & Aliens - Popcorn fare. Nothing else.
The Descendants - I love Alexander Payne, and I liked this movie, but I don't think it was really saying anything. I left the film wanting something else. Something more. Something.
Drive - 2011's The Dark Knight or Shawshank Redemption or Fight Club. Everyone on the internet loves it and all the wannabe film geniuses are going to bolster it for years and badmouth everyone who views it as anything less than a cinematic gift from God. I thought it was okay. Bring on the firestorm.
Fright Night - Campy horror flicks. Gotta love 'em. What the hell happened to Colin Farrell's American accent? I've heard him do it before, but now he sounds like an amateur.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - The longest, darkest Nancy Drew adaptation ever. And now I will laugh like an imbecile every time I hear Enya's 'Sail Away.'
The Green Hornet - See last post for further details.
Green Lantern - It wasn't as terrible as everyone said, but it was pretty stupid. How did nobody realize the guy who looked like Satan named "Sinestro" would turn out to be evil?
The Guard - Is the protaganist supposed to be a small-town imbecile, an unreceptive bigot, or a bighearted lug with a heart of gold? A failure in character development.
Hanna - I may have been a little hard on this when it came out, but whenever I hear a movie use the words "Genetically Modified," I know the filmmakers are just phoning it in.
Hobo With a Shotgun - A postmodern dip into the world of Grindhouse features. But, unlike Planet Terror/Death Proof/Machete, it was trying way too hard. What was with those two Robocop guys?
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - A tight action flick, and easily the best of the franchise. Exciting and cool.
The Muppets - A fun and happy jaunt, but I'm worried how it will stand the test of time.
My Week With Marilyn - It tries to make Marilyn Monroe seem like a tragic figure by making everyone around her a caricature. Lawrence Olivier is an intolerant, fascist perfectionist, Arthur Miller is a practically autistic self-serving asshat, and Vivien Leigh is Norma Desmond. Marilyn was a drug addict with untreated psychological problems; not a Christ figure.
Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Across the 2nd Dimension - Yes it counts. It has 'Movie' in the title. This got a theatrical release in The Netherlands and Belgium. That makes me laugh for some reason.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - And the fridge is nuked!
Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold - A fun look into the business side of Hollywood, but it seemed insubstantial. Still, I enjoyed it and would love my own Morgan Spurlock Sheetz collector cups.
Red State - Scary as hell. Kevin Smith succeeds at making his own Robert Rodriguez movie.
The Rum Diary - Imagine Withnail & I crossed with All the President's Men. If you enjoyed Hunter Thompson's political ramblings as opposed to the drug fueled mania of Fear and Loathing, you'll be entertained.
Sanctum - Exciting and nerve-titillating, but completely predictable.
Source Code - It would make a better TV show.
Sucker Punch - I liked it. But I liked The Village.
Super - Kick-Ass' long-lost cousin.
Thor - I wanted so badly to like this movie, but everything about it rubbed me the wrong way.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - I had no idea what was going on. After the movie, a man came up to me and asked if I understood it. I had to tell him no. I had to pull the plot synopsis off of Wikipedia, and retroactively fill in the blanks. And I still have no idea what happened.
Tower Heist - Why did I see this? This was crap.
The Tree of Life - Yeah, You're all gonna be in this experimental film, And even though I can't explain it, I already know how great it is.
X-Men: First Class -Even though there were lots of great parts to it, I just never bought into the characters and motivations. It all seemed very synthetic and forced.
Young Adult - This is probably one of those movies that's a lot better on the second viewing. Would make a great double bill with Mean Girls.

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