Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Top 35 Films of 2011: #20-#11


20. Rango 

Rango is not a children’s movie. It’s not even really an adults movie. It is, first and foremost, a movie lover’s movie–a big, messy scattershot of ideas and influences, ranging from Sergio Leone all the way up to Hunter S. Thompson. The animation is beautiful; Johnny Depp is delightfully quirky, even in CGI form; the story is both witty and pleasantly standard. Yet Gore Verbinski makes no qualms about who he is catering to with Rango; it’s a film that is for film fanatics, made by film fanatics.

19. Shame 

Michael Fassbender, as I mentioned in my previous article, is the breakout star of 2011. And Shame, his Oscar-bait, might just be the year’s most uniquely moving character portrait. Detailing the exploits of a New York thirty-something who just happens to be a sex addict, Shame is director Steve McQueen’s followup to 2008’s equally graphic Hunger, both in its nudity and in its raw emotion. It’s a cold movie, neither completely distancing nor particularly inviting. Yet thanks mostly to the anchor that is Fassbender’s performance–as well as a nice turn by Carey Mulligan as his sister–it’s a film that also proves to be genuinely poignant.

18. Rise of the Planet of the Apes 

I already wrote about Rise of the Planet of the Apes quite a bit in my Most Pleasant Surprises of 2011 article, but I’ll repeat my main point: Apes had every reason to turn out terrible, and yet, somehow ended up being terrific. Director Rupert Wyatt’s prequel is a bit of an opus, both emotionally rewarding and stylistically inventive. It’s blockbuster filmmaking of the rarest kind–that which is simultaneously soulful and thrilling.

17. The Adventures of Tintin 

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my initial, hastily knee-jerk dismissal of Tintin as being nothing more than a controller-less videogame; I’m just glad that I took the time to see the film again, so as to recognize its offbeat qualities. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the beloved Herge comic strip is old fashioned in all the right ways, bringing to mind both the 1930‘s style serial-antics of Indiana Jones and the jaw-dropping scale of Jurassic Park. Its motion-capture technique may prove disconcerting to some; it did for me initially. But should one be able to get past that, they’ll find an adventure that’s immediately consuming. With Peter Jackson currently set to helm the sequel (and even further down the line, Spielberg set to return for entry #3), I think we can safely say that we’ll be seeing quite a bit of Tintin the next few years...darn it if we’re not all the better for it.

16. Footloose 

Hold your tomatoes, please. Like many of you, I was more than skeptical about the necessity of a remake of 1984's Footloose–after all, what more material was there that could possibly be mined by simply updating the very same story? The answer: not much. But midway into Craig Brewer’s hipper, leaner version, it quickly becomes obvious: Footloose isn’t about substance. It never has been. It’s about the music, about the dancing, about the fun. And no matter what time or decade it happens to be portrayed in, it’s that carefree escapist-aspect that makes the story resonate with so many people. The crux of Footloose might be pure bubblegum...but that doesn’t stop it from being deliciously entertaining. 

15. X-Men: First Class 

In 2011, Michael Fassbender successfully swept both the art house scene in Shame and A Dangerous Method and the mainstream blockbuster crowd with his portrayal of Erik Lensherr, aka Magneto, in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. Yet as good as Fassbender is in the new entry, he is by no means the film’s sole factor for recommendation. Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman manage to construct a dizzily entertaining machine of a film, drawing on both X-Men mythos and 1960’s James Bond-style campiness as its fuels. The results are often messy–as has been well reported, Vaughn literally only had a year to write, shoot and edit the entire film–but the finished product is more than satisfying. Here’s hoping we get more of this brand of X-Men, and less of...well, this

14. Kung-Fu Panda 2 

Who says animated films have to be strictly kid-centric? Between Rango and this film, a serious argument can and has been made that animation is no longer merely for the kiddies. Just like Rango, what’s key to Kung Fu Panda 2’s success is the way that it conveys itself: it takes its own story and characters seriously. Less goofy and more serious in tone than its 2008 predecessor, this is a sequel that equals it in quality, pushing the story forward while also introducing new plot strands and filmmaking techniques. It all adds up to a kick-butt conclusion that’s nothing short of electrifying. Don’t let the film’s colorful box art or PG rating dissuade you–Kung Fu Panda 2 is every bit the action blockbuster that Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class are.

13. Rampart 

Oren Moverman seems to slowly be becoming Hollywood’s great Runner Up–a talented director that puts out consistently excellent work, yet is always overshadowed by showier year-end titles. His first film, 2009’s The Messenger, was a quietly moving portrait of post war patriotism that got overlooked by the cinematic monster that was Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. And now, this year, his thriller Rampart–which details the exploits of the corruptest of corrupt L.A. cops–was shoved aside by the similarly self-destruction-themed Shame. That’s unfortunate, since both Rampart and The Messenger are, to my mind, each subtly better than their given counterparts, both in their craft and their emotional and psychological depth. Whereas The Messenger was a fairly downbeat venture, Rampart is nothing less than volcanic: a thriller that is as ravenous as it is unrelenting. Moverman ditches the mellow cinematography and careful directorial style of his previous film and replaces it with a fiery color palate and an ever-diving camera. The result is something akin to cinematic crack: addictive and devastating.

12. If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front 

For my money, the year’s best documentary. What makes Marshall Curry’s film stand out from its documentary brethern is its basic construction: unlike most documentaries, Curry isn’t content to merely trot out his stats and figures on ecoterrorism. Instead, he goes the extra mile and compiles them into a thriller-narrative, one that’s not afraid to press up against one’s predisposed beliefs. Centering on the ongoing legalities of a specific individual, If A Tree Falls is as much of a character study as it is a peek behind the curtain. Like any great thriller, we care for the characters involved...and we also root for the villain’s downfall. Curry doesn’t offer up much in the way of easy answers or pat resolutions, and that’s to his credit–the film is all the more memorable for it.

11. Paranormal Activity 3 

Who would have thought that a tiny little horror movie, made for a measly $15,000, would have ever paved the way for what is now one of the most profitable horror franchises of all time? And even more impressive: who would have thought that each film in the franchise would get progressively better than the last? The original Paranormal Activity was refreshingly old school in its brand of horror. Paranormal Activity 2 was inventive in its plot machinations. And now, this year’s Paranormal Activity 3 is a combination of both those things and more. Everything you could want out of a sequel, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman deliver: distinctive and unique filmmaking. Higher stakes. Plot progression. Deeper characters and themes. These aren’t films that needed to be good to make money; yet the fact that they are just makes them all the more admirable. With Joost and Schulman set to direct entry #4 this year, October is officially once again the month of top-quality horror.

What do you think of these choices? Fan of any of these movies? Not a fan? Feel free to comment below.

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