Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Movies of 2011

Yesterday I gave you the bad news: what I think are the worst movies 2011 has to offer. Today, we look at the other side of the coin. Here, in my opinion, are...

The Best Movies of 2011

Many of us are jaded enough to believe there are no heroes in politics, only villains. Never is this more true than in a presidential election year. Jobs are won and lost. Fame and infamy are gained. The direction of the nation is swayed. This is true whether we’re talking about the politicians themselves, the people who run and work for their campaigns or the journalists who cover them. The Ides of March drags us into the muck with fantastic results.

The follow-up maintains the original’s magic and expands enough to still feel fresh. It pulls the trick of making us feel like we know these characters and that their adventure is bigger because they’ve grown – not just because it’s a sequel.

23. Warrior
It’s been called just another Rocky clone. I disagree. There is that element to Warrior, but it’s much more. It’s about the painful relationships the three men share. This comes through even in its most Rocky-esque moments. Though one son assumes the Balboa role, the other is no Apollo Creed. He’s much more reluctant hero than villain. The point is to see how much the thrill of victory can be tainted by the agony of defeat.

22. Win Win
Win Win navigates complex issues without becoming complicated itself. Instead of pouring out every ounce of melodrama it can muster, it does most things in a matter-of-fact manner. Supporting players provide comedy and Mike’s family gives us cuteness while the story holds our interest. The key to it all is something I’ve already said: we feel for Kyle. We really care what happens to the kid.

Another Earth is sci-fi for people who aren’t into sci-fi. The entire film takes place here on this Earth. There are no invading intergalactic armies nor displays of futuristic technology. This is the character study of a troubled person and a darned good one.

20. Rango
Fortunately, weaknesses are few in Rango. It’s a wonderful sendup of westerns without alienating the audience at which its aiming. It moves smoothly from comedy to action and uses striking visuals effectively in both veins.

On display is some seriously clever writing to keep this ruse going as long as it does. It also keeps us laughing in the process. That is, you’ll be laughing if you’re a slasher fan and/or can take a joke about our beloved genre. Oh, it helps to have a twisted sense of humor. I suppose a kid accidentally impaling himself on a spear isn’t funny to everyone. Meh…(shrugs shoulders)…I laughed and did so heartily.

When it’s all said and done, Rise… makes itself into a fun popcorn flick that somehow manages to be a little deeper. The visuals are often remarkable but the story gives us a bit more to hold on to. Normally, a prequel to a forty year old movie is a bad idea. Maybe this “was” a bad idea. However, it’s brilliantly executed. They’ve done the franchise proud.

The Artist is rich in symbolism and technique. These elements give the picture the needed depth to stay with us beyond its runtime. The symbols snowball into a collection of things we miss from the films of yesteryear and of the power movies have over most of us. The technique reinforces the symbols by creating a magic all their own.

For Tribe fans, and those of 90s hip hop, the nostalgia factor is off the charts. For younger viewers it gives insight into a legendary group they may not know much about even though many of the artists they currently listen to know plenty. For non-rap fans, it’s hard to say how much value this holds. Thankfully, Michael Rapaport does a nice job of making this a very human story of strained relationships.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is indeed a spy movie through and through. However, it’s concerned with the drama of real people who are spies, not the stereotypical action heroes we’ve come to believe them all to be. The effort is placed on trying to figure out where the secret rooms are, who’s meeting there and what they’re saying, not in trying to dazzle us with our hero’s death defying feats.

The potential for this story to spring to life right before us, as it too often has, is far scarier than the prospects of some boogeyman in a dingy, tattered get-up disemboweling all of our friends while cracking witty one-liners. The terror comes from the context. That said, it’s not a movie you’d be pressed to watch alone in the dark. The sinking feeling it gives us has nothing to do with what might be lurking about just beyond our field of vision. It comes more from what we can plainly see but may not be willing to believe.

Whether or not it gets all the particulars of the 2002 Major League Baseball season right isn’t important. What is important is that it symbolizes another triumph for the cyber generation. It’s another nail in the coffin of the 20th century.

Through it all, we bond with Matt and his girls. Our hearts tear for their situation and yearn for them to get some sort of peaceful closure. Even more so, we wish them some semblance of normalcy. We know the things they’re dealing with now will recede into the background of their lives, but we hope that the negative impact isn’t too great. We hope they’ll be okay.

Without question, the subject matter is touchy. Racism has not disappeared yet. This is a movie that will inspire strong feelings. As such, it’s a film that deserves to be seen. Even if you don’t like it, it gives us something to discuss and possibly learn from. It is flawed but poignant.

The secret to the frights it gives is we can envision it really happening. At various points in the not-so-distant past many thought the events depicted here were already happening. This is a movie that plays into our collective germophobia, using it to draw us to the edge of our seats.

Essentially, it’s a film about the fate of its target audience. Like so many things, the strategies that will affect the 99% are begrudgingly agreed upon in boardrooms we’re not allowed to enter. This is one we get to peek into.

To put it bluntly, if you’re not already a fan of Almodóvar’s work you may be in for the shock of your life. If you can get past that, you’ll find a terrifically twisted tale that’s uncomfortable in a good way.

It may be one of the more brutally violent films you’ll ever see. Still, despite the seemingly gallons of blood spilled and dozens of blows to various heads with heavy blunt objects (pipe, fire extinguisher, etc), this is no simple gore-fest. It blends the genres of horror, thriller and action to create an unflinching and slyly complex revenge flick.

Truthfully, it takes a while for our two main characters to actually meet one another. Until then, each is embroiled in their own fascinating drama filled with twists and turns. Mikael’s whodunit progresses not unlike many others, but it’s still well done and maintains suspense. Lisbeth’s life saga is brutal, yet compelling. The warning here is that there are some difficult scenes to sit through. After they meet, the twists keep coming and our intrigue is piqued.

Before we get to the end, we have fun watching the chase and trying to figure out what the aliens actually want. Attack the Block is a tightly wound story, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. That said, it’s still a fantastic ride that brings us to the edge of our seats and keeps us there.

Director Takashi Miike is known for going over the top, often at a relentless pace. He usually offers us a string of delightfully disgusting visuals. 13 Assassins does this, but in much different manner than he normally goes about things. The storytelling is wonderfully patient for first two acts then completely goes for broke during a third act solely consisting of an extended battle scene.

Where most movies would build towards a dramatic showdown and/or a daring escape, this movie is only interested in the possibility of the former and totally downplays the latter. In fact, escape is the first thing that happens and it’s never mentioned again. As a result, we get a movie that plays more like a slice-of-life than a dramatization, albeit a very dark slice. Like many such movies, the ending isn’t a climax, but a stopping point. It’s an intensely interesting one that opens up plenty of possibilities forcing us to confront the questions it raises without giving us any of the answers.

2. Drive
For some, the fact that all the action takes place late will be problematic. They’ll be frustrated by all non-verbal communication and general lack of adrenaline during the first part of the movie. The issue will be that these people have likely seen the trailers for Drive and happily hit the play button expecting something more along the lines of a Fast and Furious retread. They will be severely disappointed. The rest of us will be drawn in by the uncommonly quiet half of the film and will delight in the explosion of violence when it comes.

We get to know these people, understand their fears and regrets. It all culminates in an ending that’s not at all what we’re expecting. It’s a bittersweet redemption tale that threatens to stretch our idea of ‘happily ever after’ completely out of shape. Arriving at the conclusion that it really is a happy ending warrants much debate, even within ourselves. That’s the final stroke of genius in a movie filled with them.

Honorable Mention:

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