Movie rewind: Cream of the crop of 2011’s movies — Part 1
January 1, 2012
Looking back at the end of the year and thinking about all the good times we had in the cinema evokes different kinds of memories for different people. There's the first half of the year, full of light summer entertainment and the occasional heavy independent film and then the second half, with moviemakers angling for Golden Globes, Oscars and high returns at the box office.
Comparing the two halves of the year is an unenviable task, so the only fair thing to do is count down the best of the year in separate lists. Let's start with the top selections released between January and June.
And, since we're saying farewell to 2011, let's make it a Top 11 list instead of the usual 10.
11. "Hanna" — Teenager Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) has spent her entire life preparing for the moment when she leaves her father (Eric Bana) and his intensive assassin training regimen, fully prepared to complete a mission of utmost importance. All goes according to plan as she's abducted from their remote northern cabin, but the CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) in charge of interrogating Hanna knows fully well what the girl is capable of and what she and her father have planned for her.
Ronan's skinny frame is deceiving as a young woman who could fight off an army single-handedly thanks to genetic modifications and a parent who acts more like a ninja sensei.
Blanchett provides just as much a challenge as the sinful Marissa Wiegler, willing to kill her quarry whatever it takes.
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Conceived as a twisted modern fairy tale, this action movie is chock full of fascinating imagery, including the run-down amusement park where the two girls have their final showdown. Tracking down a government agent isn't nearly as hard once you've already had practice bow-hunting caribou and carrying it around all by yourself.
10. "The Tree of Life" — The oldest son (Hunter McCracken) of a 1950s Texas family feels the twinges of rebellion as he takes his first steps to adulthood, seeing his parents (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) in a new light. Their life experiences are seen amid the development of the universe from its explosive beginnings to the untimely end of Earth.
Taking its title and theme from the philosophical theory that all life that has ever existed or ever will exist is connected in one way or another, this art house film is as confusing as it is devastatingly beautiful.
Writer-director Terrence Malick offers no easy answers in this erratic plotline, letting things jump around from a kid poking around in his neighbor's underwear drawer to a parasaurolophus just trying not to get eaten in prehistoric times.
A magnificent burst of light that pops up against a black screen intermittently acts as the start of new chapters, but you can make up your own rhyme and reason in this difficult but rewarding movie, which would rank higher if not for a pointless afterthought involving Sean Penn as the fully-grown boy in question visiting some kind of dream world.
By then, the weirdness quota is already filled.
9. "Jane Eyre" — After being shunted around from heartless relations to a boarding school, waifish Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) finds employment as a governess for the cryptic aristocrat Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Though she intends to remember her place and keep her distance, she soon grows to love the older man, little suspecting what kind of secrets he is hiding.
Charlotte Brontë's oft-filmed masterpiece is changed around just enough to make it a unique pleasure for discriminating viewers of books turned movies. Wasikowska's delicate appearance adds to the eeriness of her surroundings in Thornfield Hall as Jane's tale turns into more of a ghost story than the usual chronicle of romance between two different social classes.
The feminist emphasis that has been overlooked in previous versions comes through absolutely, while still making Jane and Rochester each fully rounded characters.
8. "Bridesmaids" — Hard-luck Annie (Kristen Wiig) has little to look forward to lately with her career in tatters and her pig of a boyfriend (Jon Hamm) treating her like garbage. Living through someone else's happiness is the best thing she has, so when her best friend (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, Annie dedicates herself to being the best maid of honor ever.
But, with another contender (Rose Byrne) jockeying for the position of top bridesmaid, she'll have to pull out all the stops to make things special even if it kills her, which seems like a greater and greater possibility the closer the wedding date comes.
Producer Judd Apatow proves he has the golden touch with both men and women in this fantastically funny comedy with a sextet of females who never stop being hilarious. Wiig, Rudolph and Byrne are great, as are fellow bridesmaids Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper, but nobody has a better showcase than Melissa McCarthy as bombastic, brazen Megan, sister of the groom and uncomfortable moment-maker extraordinaire.
Whatever you do, don't let these gals eat Brazilian food.
7. "Midnight in Paris" — Screenwriter and hopeful novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is vacationing with his spoiled fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her obnoxious parents (Mimi Kennedy, Kurt Fuller) in France. Fed up with the phoniness of his soon-to-be in-laws, the idealistic writer takes a late night stroll on the streets of Paris and somehow winds up whisked away to the 1920s, meeting all the greats of art, literature and film of the time period.
Literally hobnobbing with members of The Lost Generation like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill) gives a whole new meaning to the idea of getting lost in the past. Wilson's endearing performance is nearly overtaken by a string of witty dialogue and oddly esoteric jokes about the big names of the Roaring '20s.
Woody Allen gives us a delightful fantasy that stands as his best movie since 2005's drama "Match Point" and his best comedy in even longer. Though many purists may long for the days when he kept his films set in New York City, those he's made in Europe are getting better and better.
6. "The Conspirator" — Immediately following the death of President Abraham Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom) at the hands of John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), the murderer's many associates are rounded up for trial, including the mother (Robin Wright) of Booth's friend John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), who assisted in the planning stages of the killing. Defending the woman hated by the country is a young lawyer and Union Army veteran (James McAvoy), who quickly realizes his client has been charged unjustly and is being punished for the actions of others.
The first production by the history-focused American Film Company is a solid look at one of the worst affairs by U.S. law enforcement following a national tragedy.
A powerful cast — including Tom Wilkinson, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, Kevin Kline and Danny Huston — makes the post-Civil War 1860s era a relevant one for a modern society that all too often railroads the accused straight to the gallows.
Robert Redford's steady direction gets as historically accurate as possible with the help of Lincoln historians, but even a few falters in capturing the time period doesn't diminish the worthwhile story.
5. "Beginners" — When his father (Christopher Plummer) passes away after a long bout with cancer, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) suddenly has a lot more free time on his hands. Trying to move on with his life is work in itself, as he can't stop thinking about how his dad's final years affected him, not the least of which was the elderly widower's announcement of his latent homosexuality and exploration of gay culture.
As Oliver searches for some new sense of normalcy, meeting a quirky French actress (Mélanie Laurent) and taking in his pop's Jack Russell terrier may be just the new life he needs.
McGregor is good and Laurent is great, but neither can hold a candle to Plummer as Hal, seen entirely in flashbacks, making up for years of confusion as he celebrates his new lifestyle.
The octogenarian actor keeps getting better with age, as seen in recent projects like "The Last Station," "Up" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." An Academy Award nomination — and possible win — wouldn't be unexpected at this point.
Besides Plummer's command performance, the film gains momentum from its smart aesthetics, pleasingly offbeat music and a canine who has a lot to say even if he can't speak.
Oliver's bizarre samples of graphic art only further add to the predictably unpredictable atmosphere set by director Mike Mills. If you've seen the underappreciated "Thumbsucker," you know to prepare for something off-key.
4. "A Better Life" — Carlos (Demián Bichir), an illegal immigrant from Mexico who has lived under the radar in the U.S. for years, decides to finally take a chance and buy a pickup truck to get his own landscaping business off the ground. Hoping to gain citizenship and make circumstances better for his teenage son (José Julián), who resents their poor living situation, Carlos's dreams are dashed on the rocks when his truck is stolen and there is almost no chance of getting back.
Setting out with the boy to find it means risking running afoul of the law and maybe even deportation.
It's nice to see getting involved with the "Twilight" movies hasn't dulled the artistic senses of director Chris Weitz, who presents us with a story that tugs at your heartstrings without having to try too hard. The best films can send a message without being too blatant about it, as is the case here.
Eric Eason's screenplay shows us how powerless people can be in the face of such a Catch-22 and just how unfair life can be for immigrants who genuinely want to be Americans and get failed by the system anyway.
Additionally, the dual nature of Carlos's son, a naturalized citizen, is examined as one who sees all his father goes through day by day and never appreciates it until the day it looks like they could lose what little they have.
3. "Win Win" — Life has New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) in a headlock. The high school wrestling team he coaches has had an increasingly losing season, and his law practice is in such dire straits that he must take on legal guardianship of a wealthy old man (Burt Young) with dementia to make ends meet.
When the grandson (Alex Shaffer) of his dotty benefactor turns up, Mike reluctantly allows the kid to live with his family temporarily but the situation turns in his favor when the quiet teenager reveals himself to be a wrestling prodigy and a valuable asset to the team. But, the reemergence of the boy's drug addict mother (Melanie Lynskey) threatens to keep Mike's team, as well as his career, stalled.
Giamatti is as good as ever as stressed-out Mike, as is Amy Ryan as his wife, who takes a special interest in his new wrestler. Shaffer is great as the teen in question, Kyle, a self-motivator whose problems with his mom have left him with the inability to care about anything, needing only a tiny push to get back into his routine.
Akin to "The Blind Side," this story of a troubled kid finding himself through sports and inspiring those around him as a result is indeed a real winner. Writer-director Thomas McCarthy's depiction of recession-stricken, middle class folks never has a false moment, staying amusing and meaningful consistently.
2. "Super 8" — A group of small-town Ohio kids making their own monster movie in summer 1979 find things getting dangerously real when they witness a speeding train derail and something huge and alive escapes from one of its cars. With the whole incident captured on the film of their Super 8 camera, they are the only ones who know just what is really going on as the military swarms into their community and people start disappearing.
J.J. Abrams' paean to the joys of running around as a child making up your own little worlds functions as both a salute to innocence and an homage to the days when summer blockbusters were well-thought-out and fresh enough to entertain everybody.
"E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" — the well-established creator of those also served as a producer — come to mind in the way the writer/director fashions this blend of science fiction, horror and at its heart, the story of a boy coping with the loss of his mother.
Newcomers Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths have incomparable debuts as best friends Joe and Charles, the makeup artist and director of the homemade short film at the center of the story. Elle Fanning is charming as the girl for whom they both pine, despite negative feedback from Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler), a deputy who's trying to figure out what kind of fiend is roaming around his town.
Watch it to the very end to get a look at Charles' completed movie, a zombie flick called "The Case" he plans to submit for a young filmmakers contest.
1. "X-Men: First Class" — In 1962, the world knows little of mutants, something that genetics graduate student and all-around genius Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) wishes to change for the better. But, not all people of his kind have such noble intentions.
Hot-tempered mutant and Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) only wishes to use his unique abilities to destroy Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who ruined his life. But, Shaw's got much bigger plans in store for the world, leaving Xavier to recruit young mutants to join together to stop him.
After taking on such lesser-known, multi-paneled parts of the comic book world as "Kick-Ass" and "Stardust," director Matthew Vaughn completely revamps the "X-Men" franchise to create not only the hands-down best superhero film of a year filled with competition but also one of the best of its kind ever, packed with action to spare.
McAvoy and Fassbender play their prequel roles differently than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen while still remaining respectful to the actors who made Professor X and Magneto such unforgettable presences on the silver screen.
Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult shine as shape-shifter Mystique and the multi-dexterous Beast, both of whom get very blue by the end.
Bacon is campy fun as the villain Shaw, aided by January Jones as sexy telepath Emma Frost, who has a hard outer shell to say the least.
These unique folks may or may not have been involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but since Xavier has the power to erase people's memories, who really knows? Let's just assume it happened this way. I know I for one find it a lot cooler this way.
That wraps up the first part of the year. After the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" dies down, be sure to look for my summation of the second half.