Thursday, January 5, 2012

Our Favorite Movies of 2011, Part One (Erich, Mark & Alex)

As we continue our "Best of 2011" series, today we've got lists from Erich Asperschlager, Mark Ahn and Alex Lawson, who all place Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer surprisingly high. Enjoy!

Erich: I live in a small town. I have a small child. I don’t go to the movies very often. I try to watch as much as I can, but most of what I see is on DVD or Blu-ray months or years after it was released. All to say, I am the worst person to write a Top Ten movie list for this or any year.

So, how about a Top Five list instead?

One more qualification and apology to get out of the way. I haven’t seen all the big movies, or small ones, or even crappy ones. Heck, I haven’t even seen The Smurfs. This list is the best five movies I saw this year. Most are Blu-rays I reviewed for DVD Verdict (plug!). All of them are awesome.

5) Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Based on the trailers, this movie looked terrible. Then it came out, and everyone said it was surprisingly great. Then the people who hadn’t seen it yet went to see it and decided it was okay, but maybe not as good as the first group of people said. Luckily, I was in that first group. I understand why some critics think the human actors lack depth, and even I have trouble buying James Franco as any kind of scientist who doesn’t primarily study the marijuana cultivation. But man, oh man is this one heckuva B-movie, and Andy Serkis’s CGI ape performance is a watershed for special effects on the same level as Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were in 1993. Ape effects aside, the film is beautifully constructed, with room for moments both quiet and loud, and a climactic action sequence that stands with the best Summer blockbusters—plus, you can tell what’s going on. Bonus!

4) Attack the Block
Writer-director Joe Cornish’s alien invasion movie made a big splash at Comic-Con, sending frenzied film geeks to their blogs to gush over its greatness. By the time I got a chance to see it on Blu-ray, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. For the most part, it does. Each successive viewing makes me appreciate what Cornish pulls off. When we meet the film’s London street gang protagonists, they are mugging a woman at knifepoint, but by the end of their long night fending off toothy alien gorilla invaders, we root for them as heroes. This is especially true of the soft-spoken Moses (played by remarkable newcomer John Boyega), who redeems himself not through a change of character, but by living up to his potential as natural-born leader. With its sub-90 minute runtime, and small cast of characters, Attack the Block isn’t a sprawling sci-fi epic, but what it lacks in scope it makes up for in setting, characters, and action. The alien design is especially noteworthy, eschewing pure CGI for practical men-in-suit effects with a layer of digital tuning that transforms the jet-black beasties into otherworldy silhouettes of death.

3) Super 8
One of my most anticipated movies of the Summer became one of my most anticipated movies of the Fall because my local theater decided to forgo showing Super 8 in favor of something dumb. Probably The Smurfs. I finally got to see it on Blu-ray, and loved it. Yes, the effects are inventive, and yes it captures the feeling of Spielberg’s ‘80s output, but what makes this movie special are the relationships. It’s a movie with kids who act like kids. They tease, play, have meaningful conversations, and share real fears. The movie isn’t quite as interesting when it focuses on the alien, but it never fails to entertain. Super 8 is a thrill ride with heart, packed with deft touches that show an affection not only for the time period, but for the filmmaking process.

2) Winnie the Pooh
After a decade of disappointing features, Disney partnered with Pixar, a move that seemed to signal the end of traditional animated movies. How wonderful, then, that this year’s best animated film is a return to the heyday of traditional animation and of the studio who pioneered the format. Winnie the Pooh is the best kind of family movie -- one that doesn’t segregate the jokes by age group, but instead tells a story that works for all ages. It captures the spirit of A.A. Milne’s books, building off the fine work of Disney’s 1977 animated adaptation to bring the Hundred Acre Wood to a new generation of viewers. It isn’t a long movie, but it’s the only release this year I would recommend to anyone with a TV and a pulse.

1) Super
Most superhero movies are on the fence between fantasy and reality. Not James Gunn’s Super. The only fantasy in this movie is in the head of its hero, a regular guy named Frank (played by Rainn Wilson), who snaps after his wife leaves him and becomes a masked vigilante called The Crimson Bolt. As the Bolt, Frank dispenses his own brand of justice, beating criminals senseless with a pipe wrench, with the help of a bloodthirsty young sidekick (played by Ellen Page). Gunn brings comic book action into the real world, balancing extreme violence with dark humor and a visual style that underscores Frank’s fragile psyche. Super isn’t for everyone, but for viewers who share James Gunn’s sensibilities, it’s a funny, moving, and refreshing twist on the increasingly stale comic book genre.

Mark Ahn:
10) Captain America: The First Avenger
Whatever your opinion is about comic book movies, it's hard to fault Marvel Comics for its choices in directors. Joe Johnston's retro look and just-lighthearted-enough touches made this one work when it could just as easily have fallen into cheesy, cliched nonsense. I'm now properly excited about The Avengers later this year.

9) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
The best straight up action movie in a good while, with an abundance of the normal ingredients mixed in with enough new ones (what's up, sandstorm). This movie rewards the veteran action movie watcher because it decides to not explain everything, because you already know what the conventions of action movies are, so they trust you to keep up. Thanks Brad Bird! Keep blowing things up and creating obstacles for your protagonists.

8) The Guard
I never thought I would love Brendan Gleeson this much, but I do, which mostly involves my own desire to become every type of Irish scoundrel. This hilarious little gem is worthy of your love if you like crisply meandering dialogue and happy go lucky cops and robbers.

7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
A fitting end to what will probably end up being the defining epic for a generation of moviegoers. There's a lot to pay off, and the creators do a satisfactory job in fulfilling it, without succumbing to the desire to stuff the last chapter of the Potter series with extra bells and whistles. Also, now I can own an octology not called "Children of the Corn" or "Gamera."

6) Attack the Block
Another hilarious little gem, mashing up horror, sci-fi, and buddy comedy into 88 entertaining minutes. I hope they don't screw it up if/when they remake it.

5) Source Code
Aside from the time travel paradoxes, a thriller that hits enough emotional buttons, and is set in Chicago (personal bonus +5). Why are so many movies on this list by British filmmakers? I'm sorry, America.

4) Midnight in Paris
I don't like Woody Allen. It's not personal; I think I could fairly say that I'm not a particular lover of urban, talky, neurotic films, which is what my brain correlates with "Woody Allen." What makes this film different is the love and joy that exudes from so much it; it loves Paris, it loves art, and it loves the magic of inspiration.

3) 13 Assassins
A tight, pacy (by Japanese standards) samurai drama that gives us a deliciously horrible villain and climaxes in 45 minutes of bloody, sword clanging war.

2) Super 8
It's not a perfect film, but what is perfect are the moments where it reflects the awkwardness and joy of childhood. It's not a child's film, but a film of an adult fondly remembering his youth. JJ Abrams lovingly gives depth of emotion to his young characters, resulting in an homage worthy of the Spielbergian heights for which it aims, aliens or no aliens.

1) Tree of Life
You either love it or hate it. Audiences with a sense of the spiritual will have the most context for the beauty and sadness (or the grace and nature) that Terrence Malick distills into images. It's one man's interpretation for dealing with the universally gigantic conundrums of human existence. Also, dinosaurs and bacteria.

10) The Descendants
I suppose it's a credit to Alexander Payne that his fourth-best of his five career features -- by my count, anyway -- still cracks a year-end list. A movie with boatloads of storytelling problems, it still registers with me due to Payne's adept style and trademark mixture of tones.

9) Into The Abyss
I read a review somewhere that aptly suggested that pretty much any of Werner Herzog's documentaries could be titled "Into The Abyss." While this is just about the saddest thing I've seen in recent memory on a multitude of levels, hell if I wasn't hanging on every word of every interview.

8) Take Shelter
Michael Shannon, welcome to the Alex Lawson Would Watch You In Absolutely Anything, Even If You Were Just Taking A Dump On Screen For Eight Hours Club. Enjoy the complimentary high fives, and there's punch over by John Hawkes and Sam Rockwell.

7) Melancholia
Just when I'd absolutely left Kirsten Dunst's career for dead. I can't believe there's not more (or any) Oscar chatter for her, or for this dynamic and haunting Lars von Trier romp. In a related development, I am THE WORST because I use the phrase "Oscar chatter."

6) The Tree of Life
In a year without a singularly great movie, I have to acknowledge the one that most aspired to be one, even if it yielded uneven results. Also, it's possible that my unborn children might lose a tooth or two before Terrence Malick makes another movie, and I know he's going to be just devastated if he doesn't get a mention on F This Movie!.

5) Source Code
I've seen Source Code four times, more than any movie on the list, and it just keeps being awesome. Haters gonna hate, I guess. Lop off the last five minutes or so and it soars into the top three.

4) Shame
I'm just SO perplexed that Michael Fassbender's dick isn't getting more Oscar chatter for Best Supporting Actor. But seriously, this movie is a fascinating study of addiction and with a few years context and contemplation, it might be great.

(Side Note: I hinted at this earlier, but I think 2011 was really a poopy one for the flickashows. Never have I realized this more than when I just reread "with a few years context and contemplation, it might be great.")

3) Midnight In Paris
Hey, remember me? I'm that smart, funny, well-written and well-acted movie that pretty much everybody loved.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Discussed in the up-fronts a few weeks back, I hope everyone, especially anyone who is an older sibling, gets to watch this at some point. Not a bad performance to be found and at times scarier than most horror movies of the past five years.

1) Super 8
The year's most enjoyable movie became doubly enjoyable when I realized the stoner kid at the camera shop was the same kid from 7th Heaven. Let's go ahead and add him to the aforementioned "I'd Watch You In Anything Including Dump-Taking" Club. Good on ya, 2011. We did it, you guys.

Up next: Top 10 lists from Erika and Mike, plus our "Best of the Year" podcast! You're welcome.


  1. Man, everybody in this site is in love with "Super 8." I haven't seen it (heck, haven't even seen the new "Star Trek" or "Mission: Impossible" III yet) and I'm not a fan of J.J. Abrams' work. Guess I'm going to have to cave in one of these days and see what all the excitement is all about.

    Erich, I loved "Super" (top 15 for me) but I suspect as the current crop of Q4 releases filters through home video the movie will drop. It's good (the final scene made be cry like a little girl) but not #1 of the year good (IMO).

    Mark (and yes, I bought "Charade" on BD but haven't watched it yet), glad you got out of "Tree of Life" what me, Patrick, JB and many other people can't get: the satisfaction of seeing Malick's pet project entertaining us (in his own peculiar way) like his previous films did. "13 Assassins" kicked ass, and I'm curious what Miike will do as a follow-up now that he's matured into a less show-off auteur.

    Alex: "Melancholia" is probably the victim of (a) Von Trier's stupid self-destructive tirade at Cannes, (b) the movie's woeful theatrical distribution (VOD has saved it somewhat but it's still under most people's radar) and (c) a similar-themed indie from Fox (Mike Cahill's "Another Earth") was released a few months ahead stealing its premise-driven spotlight. If there is any justice in this world at the very least Kirsten Dunst will score a Best Actress Oscar nomination for career-best work (and this coming from someone that hasn't really liked her work outside of "Spider-Man 2"), and we know about justice at the Oscars.

    And "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is every bit as good as advertised (just shy of my Top 10 list) but it's not for everybody. At the NYC theater I saw the movie at the crowd (not me) literally turned against it after the ending (even booing it), which is a shame because until just two or three scenes prior we were all 'awwww'ing and gasping as one at what we were watching. Sarah Paulson makes a great absent-minded big sister and John Hawkes is about the scariest guy I saw in movies this past year. And who knew there was an Olsen sibling to which all the acting talent in the family pool was syphoned to? I haven't stopped thinking/imagining what that final shot in "Martha..." means (there's endless possibilies, including even a happy one if you care to reach) which is always a sign of a good story being told well.

    Great lists guys, keep 'em coming!

  2. Fair criticism, J.M., although my list wasn't meant to be the final word on the year in movies. It's just the final word in MY year in movies. SUPER isn't for everyone, but I loved it. It works as a comedy, as a splatter film, and as a commentary on the popularity of comic book movies. I dig stories about redemption, and I appreciate that Gunn is willing to let Frank go to some dark places on the way to a place of peace. It's not an epic, but it deserves to be recognized as a great film of 2011.

  3. JM - Glad you bought Charade; you won't be disappointed. I understand why people feel like they can't access Tree of Life; I sort of wish that it didn't suffer from the baggage of being the "cool critic's" movie of this year (there are a few more of those too). I'm not familiar with Miike's other films (Ishi the Killer is in my queue) but I'm curious to see his follow-up, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.

  4. ICHI THE KILLER is NOTHING like 13 ASSASSINS. Prepare yourself accordingly, Mark.

  5. Ross - We do all love movies (so, in theory, we should all be falling over ourselves to praise THE ARTIST and HUGO, because they are "LOVE LETTERS TO CINEMA" in the words of EVERY OTHER PERSON). And, yes, maybe it's because so many of us on the site are children of the '80s, when Amblin reigned supreme. But I still think my love of SUPER 8 has to do with the movie on its own merits and less to do with its influences. Obviously, it has a lot in common with other movies I hold dear, but I'm just over the fact that it can't be mentioned by a critic without somehow referencing the fact that it pays tribute to old Spielberg movies (this is almost always mentioned as a detriment). I'm not at all accusing you of doing this, by the way, because your point is well taken. This just seemed like a good opportunity for me to articulate something that's bothering me about the reaction to that movie. Yay SUPER 8!

  6. Can we enlist J.M. as some sort of Oscar scuttlebutt expert? I didn't even consider the fact that Von Trier (a certifiable lunatic by all accounts) probably actively campaigns AGAINST getting Academy recognition.

    Also, the ending of MMMM is really something. J.M. summed it up superbly. It's sort of difficult to pull off an "ambiguous" ending these days without it seeming trite or worse, lazy. But as the last shot of the movie lingered on the screen, a handful of possible meanings flash across my mind and before I knew it, the screen was black. Very effective. Y'all need to SEE. THAT. SHEEIITTT.

  7. "Melancholia" was just named Best Picture (and Kirsten Dunst got a Best Actress nod) by the National Society of Film Critics:

    Check out the other winners, it's a pretty good 'spread the wealth around' list, IMHO.