Friday, December 23, 2011

Best of 2011 - best movies.

It's occurred to me that I actually did a ton of movie posts, this year. I wrote up fourteen movies that were released in 2011, and looking at that list, an interesting trend begins to emerge:
Nnerrrrrrd! It also suggests I need to invest more time in straight-up dramas. I'm really interested to see The Iron Lady and that movie where DiCaprio plays the FBI guy, and I wouldn't mind seeing The Descendants - but I always tend to wait for those kind of movies on video.

The eight flicks from previous years I wrote up were a mix of good, great and terribad animations, the (pretty good!) American remake of Let the Right One In, the stellar Super and the exceptional work of Korean director Park Chan-wook.
Given my broad and sweeping insight into the pop culture films of 2011 (Twilight notwithstanding), I reckoned I should do a best movies post. I have, of course, seen more movies than listed above - Arthur Christmas wasn't bad, for example - but given that above is the closest thing I've got to a list, I'm working with that.

The other problem is that, for some of these awards, I want to note movies from previous years that I only discovered in 2011. Given that Thegamesofchance is, more than anything, a chronicling of my personal experience, I'm going to do just that. Still, for Best Animated Movie, Best Live-Action Movie and Best Movie of the Year, I'll stick to releases from 2011.

Let's get to it.

biggest surprise

I was simply shocked by how entirely awful Sucker Punch was, but I'm pleased to admit I was even more shocked by how uniformly excellent Tangled is. Yes, it's from 2010 - fine, I'm a bad blogger - but how long has it been since there was a truly excellent Disney cartoon? When the creative minds who gave us The Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast moved on to form Pixar, Disney's output started sucking out loud.

Even 2009's The Princess and the Frog - an encouraging return to 2-D animation - was a pretty big disappointment, so I wasn't expecting much when Disney joined the ranks of pretty much every major western animation studio and decided to put out a CGI film.

Well, slap my ass and call me Lucy. Tangled is fantastic. It has catchy, cheerful, innocent music, excellent work from the entire cast, a lovely twist on classic villainy and constantly charming humor. I know, you may not believe me - but take a look at Tangled. You will be very pleasantly surprised.

Rango - for being an incredibly intelligent movie you're supposed to take your kids to

honorable mentions
Sucker Punch - for being supernaturally awful,
when it appeared to be just regular-awful.
The Muppets - for being a fantastic Muppet movie

best action

While not quite as uniformly strong as the original - I feel KP2 over-uses the phrase "inner peace" - Kung-Fu Panda 2 retains the series' exceptional framing, use of color and art direction, and most importantly a religion-level reverence of classic martial arts films. The folks who make these movies obviously love kung-fu flicks. They understand that combat itself can be a form of dialogue, and the action sequences are both well-spoken and witty.

Lightning fast and full of personality, regularly spiced with delicious originality, wildly kinetic here and easily elegant there, Kung-Fu Panda 2 has the best action sequences of 2011. I feel I would be remiss in my duties, however, if I didn't also direct your attention towards Hanna, Thirst and Super.

Movies that are designed, from the ground, up, as blockbuster action-adventures - Transformers, Harry Potter, Mission Impossible - are more often than not big, beautiful, bombastic action movies that end up feeling rather rote, despite (or perhaps thanks to) their incredible production values. When This Guy gets punched in the face or That Guy gets shot, it doesn't matter in most action movies. We, the audience, aren't often much involved - which is where Hanna, Thirst and Super succeed.

They are, first and foremost, character-driven movies based (almost) entirely in the real world. Remember The Bourne Identity? Remember how you kept waiting for subsequent Bourne movies to return to the way action felt in Identity?

You need to watch Hanna. It is the spiritual sequel to The Bourne Identity.

Super, on the other hand, is both an exploration and condemnation of our North American desensitization to cinema violence. By grounding itself so firmly in reality, every smack of The Crimson Bolt's wrench of justice elicits tensed muscles and grimaces of empathetic pain.

Thirst is a freakish, emotionally-driven twist on the classic vampire tale - and when people (or vampires) get hurt in Thirst, you feel it down to your bones.

If you want to watch a film where the action actually feels jarring, vital and important, check out Hanna, Thirst and Super.

best story

Archetypes are a rule of thumb, in cinema. In most movies, the general progression of events is eerily similar to others, and the film then separates itself in how it gets from A to B instead of taking us on a ride we've never experienced, for example from F to L. It's important to remember that movies are essentially the novels of our time - and it's all too rare to discover one that's actually novel.

Korean director Park Chan-Wook takes us from F to L and Q to Y in Thirst and Oldboy. Thirst gets the nod, here, because it is an adaptation of an ancient novel, a genre film and deliciously original. The fact that it's both a genre movie (vampire) and an adaptation (of 1800s french novel Thérèse Raquin) which manages to come across as entirely unique is a major feather in its cap.

Thirst is the story of a priest who's exceedingly moral but finds himself just going through the motions in his day-to-day life, administering last rites to terminal hospital patients. In an attempt to martyr himself and thus give his existence meaning, he volunteers himself to be experimented on at a clinic that is attempting to cure a terrible and violent disease - knowing he has little chance of survival.

As he is about to succumb to the vaccine that was meant to protect him from the disease, but instead infected him, he receives a blood transfusion. Then, he dies on the operating table.

Then, he comes back. All signs of the mortal illness are gone, and he is deified by the people of his home town upon his return. He soon understands what's happened to him, and attempts to go on about his life - serving God and the people of his city - though now, folks come to this miraculous survivor, begging for blessings to save their sick family members.

One such family member is the schoolyard friend of our hero. A buffoon with a beautiful, put-upon young wife who professes to have loved our dear priest since childhood. Being such a moral man, he would normally have little difficulty suppressing his desires - but now, he finds he has... appetites.

The story spirals and spirals and spirals. Some of it is easy to see coming, but Thirst takes so many unexpected routs and surprising detours, with brilliant direction, a wonderfully dark sense of humor, spectacular performances from the two leads and a vicious, primal sexuality that it's one of these films you just can't stop watching.

It is the best vampire movie I've seen since Let The Right One In, and easily the best straight-up story I saw in 2011.


best animated movie

This one's a no-brainer. I'll explain why, in a moment.

Kung-Fu Panda 2
Sword of the Stranger
(yes, I'm cheating, I know)

best live-action movie

This was a very exclusive competition. Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Super 8 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End were all considered, here. Why does The Muppets - a movie that's ostensibly for children, largely starring glorified tube socks - beat out Robert Downey Jr, Raph Fiennes and Johnny Depp?

Because I can't find much of a problem with The Muppets. It is, I'm afraid, closer to perfect than any other live-action movie I've seen in 2011. Potter was a half a movie, Sherlock featured a waste of a character with too much screen time, Super 8 was too transparent and Pirates' direction was just a bit stale.

Those are all things that really pull a movie back from the brink of greatness. The worst thing I can say about The Muppets is that Jason Seigel's not much of a dancer. It's just a wonderful show, informed but not constrained by nostalgia, wide-eyed and endearing, funny and moving. If this movie were made flesh, all you'd want to do is hug it, then hug it, and hug it some more.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

best movie
of 2011

In every single other film I've watched this year - while the whole may be acceptable, or even excellent - there are tarnished facets that detract from the experience. There's always at least one thing wrong with a movie - except this one. This movie is impeccable.

Character design, art direction, writing, performances, story, structure, pacing, theme, cinematography, use of technology - all just shine in Rango. An exploration of identity, and its relationship to our surroundings is at the core of a film we are meant to bring our children to - but as the kids quietly watch and thrill to the comedy and action, we find ourselves moved by a somber discussion of existentialism. It's charming, funny, fun and astoundingly smart.

It's the type of movie that will strum a long, reverberating chord in a child that they will feel, but not understand, until they track down this movie again in fifteen years and discover the layers they were not able to perceive upon their first viewing. It is an instant classic.

Rango is the closest I've seen to a perfect movie in this, or any other year. Easily and unquestionably the best movie of 2011.


honorable mentions
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Part II
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Sword of the Stranger (cheater)
Lady Vengeance (cheater)
Tangled (cheater)
Super (cheater)

* * *

In addition, I'd like to point out that I find it utterly remarkable that most of the best films this year were targeting primarily children. Where films could instead pander to this least-cynical, most-accepting of audiences, we have three exemplary examples of what family-friendly entertainment can be. Kung-Fu Panda 2, The Muppets and most of all Rango are all exceedingly well-constructed movies, from tip to tail. Intelligently written and beautifully-executed.

If anything, it brings into stark focus just how bad films for grown-ups have gotten recently.

1 comment:

  1. When Tangled came out in the cinemas, I didn't really want to see it. It looked so child-like. My friend strongly recommended seeing it, so I eventually did and was extremely surprised at how good it was!