2011, I knew 2010. 2010 was a friend of mine. And, as far as movies are concerned, you, sir, are no, UGH, I can’t even. In my memory, even in the face of the worst Transformers movie yet (think about that phrase), the last year didn’t seem so bad for film. But asked to list which movies stood out, which movies felt like classics or even excited me, I stumble for words, like I’m desperately trying to remember some third-cousin’s name after bumping into them at the mall. It feels like there’s a blind spot, like there have to be more great films I’ve forgotten about – after all, last year’s crop was so robust and unforgettable.
By the time the first draft of my list was completed, I only had to casually cut a few films, instead of the customary agonizing over several. The movies on this list are good (several great). They are movies that made me feel something. I only wish there had been more, and that in some cases, the effect had left me more than simply entertained.
Okay, 2011, maybe I am being too harsh on you. Maybe I share some of the blame. After all, you can’t be responsible for my decision to see Green Lantern in 3D instead of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. You didn’t force me to pay full, non-matinee, price to see Your Highness. And finally, you didn’t send me into a theater showing The Hangover: Part II on my birthday weekend (I wanted to see Kung-Fu Panda 2, but felt that choice would greatly affect my friend’s attendance). 2011, some of this… is on me.
Here are the movies that I really wanted to see this year, but didn’t:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (in 3D), Rango, The Devil’s Double, Submarine, Warrior, Margin Call, The Guard, The Ides of March, Hugo, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Real Steel, Hanna
Casey M.’s Top Ten Films of 2010
10) Super 8
Super 8 exists as singular entry in director J. J. Abrams’ catalog. His work as a producer always came with Shyamalan-esque baggage attached, promises of twists to leave minds both blown and shattered. His only credits as a feature director to this point were attempts at a reviving massive franchises – one successful (the incredibly Star Trek), the other arguably less so (Mission: Impossible 3). Super 8, though, is Abram’s first original film, which, to my shock and delight, delivered an emotional, character-based story balanced with fantastic elements and massive action set-pieces.
The performances Abrams gets from the young actors in this movie props all of it up, selling their excitement at the prospect of whatever madness has come to their small town along with their more complicated feelings about their real-world problems. This melding of emotion, big ideas and an other-worldly presence isn’t exactly anything new (Abrams’ primary influence becomes clear when you see the film’s producers), but it’s wonderfully executed. Even as a fan of Star Trek, I came away from Super 8 hoping Abrams would get Star Trek 2 over with as quickly as possible so he can get to work on something new. Something hopefully as personal and affecting as this.
9) Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Showing footage from Jim Henson’s funeral should count against a film. In most cases, it would be an emotional cheat – what kind of robot-hearted monster wouldn’t at least get choked up? But in the context of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, that heartbreak was earned and re-contextualized, from the world losing its greatest entertainer to the documentary’s subject, Kevin Clash, losing his friend and mentor.
The story of Clash’s rise from cutting up his parents coats to craft puppets as a child to his creation of the one of the most popular Sesame Street characters of all time is full of those moments – Clash mentoring children who love puppets as much as he did, Clash bringing Elmo to meet sick children, and Clash learning how to re-balance his love of entertaining the world’s children with being an available father his his own. It would have been disappointing had there been a good deal of darkness behind all that felt, but Being Elmo depicts Clash as the kind of truly good and caring man you’d expect would be needed to create a Muppet as full of love as Elmo. What I didn’t expect was for that niceness to be a subject worthy of such a fascinating and touching documentary.
8) Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Conan O’Brien seems exhausting to be around. As a huge fan of his work for decades, and an aspiring comedy writer, that’s always been the dream, to be in the room with him. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is full of scenes of O’Brien bouncing around every room he’s in with uncontrollable energy, a mixture of delight and dread spreading on the faces of the rest of them in the room. Some of the older hands at it, his sidekick Andy Richter or his personal assistant, let him keep going.
Can’t Stop picks up almost immediately after O’Brien’s ousting from his own dream, hosting the Tonight Show. While a whole, other, documentary could be made about that series of events, this follows O’Brien during the aftermath, as he stages a live tour during his exile from television. It’s an intimate look at one of the greatest comedic minds of the time, in what appears to be his darkest professional hour, combining creativity and compulsion into something resembling therapy.
7) Crazy Stupid Love
If all romantic comedies were as sharply written, acted, and plotted as Crazy Stupid Love, we would see an end to the lazy film critic’s crutch of claiming they’ve been dragged to the latest one by their girlfriend. They’d go willingly, and would occasionally be the ones doing the dragging. Crazy Stupid Love, like Super 8, doesn’t necessarily do anything new with the Rom-Com genre – there are mix-ups, unfortunate truths coming out at exactly the wrong time, will-they-won’t-they’s, all the standards – but the delivery of these devices carries a staggering amount of intelligence and respect for the audience.
The brunt of that burden is carried by the cast. The leads, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Emma Stone and Julianne Moore, are all doing twice as much as usual – both Gosling and Moore handle comedy as deftly as drama, Carrell and Stone vice versa. Even the smaller roles are filled with high-caliber actors in Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon. Also, who knew that Josh Groban was hilarious? (Let’s try and get him in front of more cameras, and fewer pianos.) The writing stumbles a bit when writing Carrell and Moore’s 15-year old son as wise-beyond his years (why aren’t 15-year olds in movies idiots? I was an idiot), but in the ensemble is so strong that Crazy Stupid Love should be legally required viewing the next time someone in Hollywood wants to churn out another awful Love Actually clone.
6) Drive Angry 3D
You knew this was coming. You knew it! Look at the header image again. Drive Angry 3D was one of the best times I had at the theater this year, and my main weapon in the defense of 3D movies. This kind of unpredictable, ridiculous schlock is exactly what we need 3D movies for. Nicolas Cage, freshly escaped from hell, stoically rolling around a motel room floor, shooting up cult members while having sex with a stripper, while remaining fully clothed. I don’t want Titanic in 3D. This. This is what I want in 3D.
I would be remiss talking about Drive Angry 3D without praising William Fichtner’s performance. He has more fun in his role as a bureaucrat from Hell (literally) than any other actor this year, in any other role. And I am counting Emma Stone, who got to touch Ryan Gosling’s abs in my #7 pick. His scenery chewing filled this movie with comedic delight and was a big component of changing any ironic enjoyment in this movie to sincere, unapologetic glee.
I know it can get annoying when people insist that you have to see a movie a certain way, like in 3D, or in IMAX, and discount your viewing experience. But I’m fairly certain that I saw Fast Five the only way it was intended – on my birthday, drunk off bottles of Bud Light Lime my girlfriend and I sneaked into a near-empty theater.
There’s no real reason for Fast Five to be. The Fast & The Furious, as a series, never really had cause to continue after the first one. But at this point, it appears every other movie in the series is going to be a new standard in ridiculous car action. Fast Five can’t completely ditch some of the duller baggage the series brings with it – I’m talking about you, Paul Walker – but also uses – I can’t believe I’m typing this – the series canon to its advantage by cherry picking the best characters from all the previous films. In fact, the movie goes to such lengths to get the toys it wants to play with that they even use a character who was killed during an earlier entry in the franchise, necessitating that the phrase “Fast & The Furious Timeline” be birthed into existence.
The biggest and best thing this entry does, though, is add Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to the cast. I don’t say his full name like that because I think you don’t know who he is, or out of respect for his skills as an actor, but because I can’t get enough of his fantastic, over-the-top performances, and I find it fun to say. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. This is the kind of insanity his charismatic, muscled sweatiness was meant for, not children’s movies. Like The A-Team last year, Fast Five puts fun, charismatic action over logic to win the dubious honor of being the only movie on this list that I’ve purchased on Blu-Ray (so far).
Nothing movie related this year irritated me more than the constant comparisons of Bridesmaids to the movies in The Hangover series. Granted, this was fueled at least a little by the film’s marketing – it’s hard to blame producers for wanting a piece of that $277 million domestic – but it quickly became a frequent and lazy analog for critics and moviegoers. The Hangover is an pretty funny movie with a compelling mystery hook, but little in the way of clever wit, careful thought, or emotional substance – all of which are found in Bridesmaids.
It’s astounding how much I loved this movie, given it features so prominently two of my least favorite SNL cast members in recent years, Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph. Free of the grotesque caricatures they’re normally saddled with, they project very heartfelt, warm characters. These are women who are actually funny, instead of being given a bunch of motormouthed Gibberish to clue to the audience that they’re supposed to be funny (cough*Juno*cough). Also, bless this movie for breaking Mellissa McCarthy free of the standard rom-com sister-in-law roles it looked like she was going to be stuck with post Gilmore Girls. And for introducing the charming Chris O’Dowd to Americans like me who weren’t familiar with The IT Crowd. Bridesmaids is the funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time, and deserves a little extra credit – since like that old saying about Ginger Rodgers, it has to do everything other comedies do, but in heels.
3) Attack The Block
Ho, man. This movie. After culling movies in my top 10, I went to work listing off the films I hadn’t seen in 2011 for the section at the top of this post. As I started writing, one item on the list burned in my mind, it seemed wrong that I hadn’t seen it – every reliable source I have in the world for movies told me it was amazing, and yet I somehow had better things to do whenever I had the chance to watch. So, I dropped everything, rented it digitally and watched Attack The Block last night. I could not be more glad that I did.
Attack The Block takes all the sentimentality and wholesomeness of Super 8 and strips it away, showing what those kids would be like if they had to deal with the hardships of growing up in inner city London instead of idyllic small-town America. Smartly, though, that sentimentality creeps back into Attack The Block as the intensity of the kids situation increases – director Joe Cornish dips the film’s toes into the character’s moralities and racial issues, but wisely pulls them back out in favor of more adventure. It’s not surprise to see Edgar Wright’s name attached as producer, as Attack The Block‘s gentle twist on a genre is exactly the trick he’s known for from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
The alien designs are fascinating, the freshest take on this kind of movie monster in recent memory, all blackness and neon fangs. They look beautiful in their negative space, their movements graceful and menacing, all to achieve an effect that’s familiar yet otherworldly. The soundtrack, sound design, and sound editing are brilliant. Everything in the movie sounds musical, from the kids’ slang mixed on top of dubstep and techno beats to the buzz/humming of the alien’s presence. Like Super 8, Attack the Block makes its influences clear, but where Abrams brought a splash of Speilberg, Cornish clearly harbors a love of early 80’s Carpenter. The whole thing is terrifically clever, scary, and unique – a final adjective that few movies this year deserved as much as Attack The Block.
2) The Adventures of Tintin
I was all bluster and false confidence in the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin. “How could I not love it?!” I would exclaim to friends and family asking if I was excited for this movie. This was a product of The Casey Malone Dream Team, featuring every filmmaker who I’ve loved in the past decade, or longer: Directed by Steven Spielberg, director of my two favorite films of all time. Produced by Peter Jackson, whose films I’ve spent more time with in the last decade than any other filmmaker (though perhaps he leads this category unfairly, since each of his movies are four hours long). Screenplay by Steven Moffat, behind three of my favorite television shows, and Edgar Wright, whose fantastic credits can be read in my write up of Attack The Block above. Speaking of which, if I’d seen Attack The Block before Tintin, Joe Cornish’s writing credit also could have bumped my expectations even higher. But my bravado was all a front. I was intensely nervous.
All my attempts to read Herge’s comics about the titular detective ended in distraction. Even more worrisome was the presence of all this motion-captured CGI, which never had an effect beyond creeping me right out. So, with trepidation, I sat down and watched Steven Spielberg’s most entertaining and inspired film since Jurassic Park.
Beautifully animated and wryly written, The Adventures of Tintin is a showcase for everything Spielberg can do unfettered by the realities of film-making (and, some might say, by George Lucas). The constant set-pieces, each set in massive exotic environments flowed eloquently in continuous shots zooming from Tintin to Snowy to whatever they were chasing/was chasing them with dizzying grace. It’s not a perfect movie – the film over-uses shots of reflections, and no women characters exist among the film’s extensive cast – but my immediate reaction upon seeing it was a desire to see it again – a desire amplified while writing this entry.
Often I have the hardest time writing about movies I really love. How can I describe in words the moody tension and neon beauty of Drive as well as Nicholas Winding Refn did melding sound and images? How could I convince you of the mystery, romanticism, and threat of Ryan Gosling’s Driver that he couldn’t do more thoroughly by glancing up from his toothpick? Drive is as close to a perfect film I saw this year, a staggering Neo-Noir masterpiece full of characters whose exaggerations are classically cinematic. No one is as strong and silent as the Driver, no one as pragmatically sinister as Albert Brooks’ Bernie Rose. These archetypes stretch back decades in film, and the intense, subtle performances both men bring to the parts ground them and remind us why these kinds of characters are so enduring.
The direction and soundtrack are equally bombastic, a blaring synth-pop audio canvas on top of reflected neon Los Angeles. All this beauty is matched by the graphic, unflinching violence that fills the second half of the movie. I struggle to find more words to describe Drive beyond perfect, but everything feels cliche – sparse, rivetting, etc – when I could offer to you that you should see Drive. As my favorite movie of 2011, I have been counting the days until the Blu-Ray release, when I plan to see it again. And likely again. And again after that.