Here we go, a little late, but let’s get on with it.
Here’s my Top Ten. This would probably be more a ten favorite, rather than outright best. I still have lots I’d like to see but for now this will be it.
10. Black Death
A beyond-bleak tale of plague-ravaged England in 1348, this movie left a big impression on me. In a bad move on my part, I watched this right before going to bed one night. I was genuinely spooked and disturbed. It is graphic, muddy, unflinching, and pretty violent. I don’t usually like that combination in movies, but this one worked. I thought it would be a standard sword-and-horses actioner but it’s more a medieval Apocalypse Now with allusions to The Wicker Man (the original, mercifully) with a deeply religious (appropriate for the era) backdrop. The always-cool Sean Bean anchors things in this intense experience. I can’t say it’s a fun romp but it’s rare that a movie works its way under my skin so effectively, so it deserves its place on this list.
9. Young Adult
Don’t let the less-than-impressive trailer put you off, this was a calm, quiet, confident movie from the same writer/director team of Juno. Gone is that movie’s insufferable cool and tweeness; instead it’s a clear-eyed portrait of a woman who is deeply depressed and deluded. But it has its laughs too. Patton Oswalt is excellent in a supporting role, though to be honest, it’s not that big a stretch from his normal on stage persona. And he surely must have loved his job the day he got to shoot his (SPOILERS!) sex scene with Charlize Theron.
8. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick has made some of the best movies ever, period. Simple as that. This is only his fifth film, but he’s an unquestioned master of visuals and a genius with atmosphere. This was probably his most personal (who knows, he maintains a dignified silence when it comes to interviews and promotion) film and it is certainly beautiful and a head trip experience. However it lacked the narrative thread that kept previous films like The New World (2005) and Days of Heaven (1978) at a more accessible level. This one spirals out into the cosmos and back. Challenging and often outright baffling, it was still a cinematic experience unlike any other this year.
7. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
A reboot nobody was asking for after Tim Burton’s disastrous 2001 remake killed the franchise for a decade, this turned out to be a late summer surprise blockbuster. Organically mutating from science thriller to domestic drama to prison escape movie to on-the-rampage action, this was an excellent re-imagining of the still-brilliant concept of apes taking over the world, first dreamed up by French novelist Pierre Boule in the early 60s. There were some clever allusions to the original five films, and definitely leaves you clamoring for the next entry after it ends on something of a cliffhanger. Bring it on.
6. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Another pleasant surprise, this was a lively sequel to the 2009 film that re-imagined The Great Detective as a 19th century James Bond. I liked that film but it had largely slipped from the memory banks until this offered itself up on a Christmas Eve matinee. Going beyond the first film’s London-only environs, it is a charming Victorian romp across a Europe hurtling toward war. Though filled with genuinely excellent action sequences it all ends with a low key chess match, and it works. Any resemblance to the original canon ends with the character names, it’s really the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen should have been.
5. My Week with Marilyn
Quickly forgotten after early Oscar buzz for Michelle Williams seemed to fizzle, it was more of a right time, right place kind of movie for me. I woke up late on a Sunday, in the mood for a movie. This was playing at the theater within walking distance of my apartment, so I decided it fit the bill. It was a pleasant but melancholy story of a quiet young man eager to please, willing to listen, and simply able to be there; traits not many people have. I could definitely identify with the main character’s infatuation with unbridled femininity, when a smile and a coy look reduces your critical thinking skills to mush. Guilty as charged. The impeccable British cast (except Williams of course) nails it as well.
4. Sucker Punch
A movie that you either love or hate. Most people seemed to hate it. My best friend put it at #2 on his WORST of the year list, despite it featuring some of his favorite ingenues scantily clad for most of the running time. But I dug it, I bought into the world it created, and the levels-within-levels storytelling. One thing I greatly appreciated was that this was actually an original creation. Yes it wears its influences on its sleeve, but this was not another adaptation of a graphic novel, TV show, old movie, or anime that was foisted upon a weary public. It also had probably my favorite quote out of any movie this year (SPOILERS)
Here are some more eloquent defenses of the film:
3. Midnight in Paris
A movie about nostalgia, pure and simple. It is very nostalgic itself. It is in love with nostalgia. But it is also weary of nostalgia. It teaches the lesson that every generation has it’s golden era that it fondly looks back on. Owen Wilson’s Woody stand-in looks back to the Lost Generation 1920s. Through whimsy and imagination, he ends up back there, only to discover the Jazz Age inhabitants pining for the belle epoque of the 1890s. And so on, and so on. A simple message, an arguably a trifle of a movie, but it leaves you with a warm, satisfied glow. The cinematic equivalent of a delicious croissant.
2. The Descendants
The always reliable Alexander Payne delivers another sharp, funny, melancholic gem. A master of setting and character, he eases us into a slow-paced but involving story of a family dealing with sudden loss in sunny Hawaii. The beyond-paradise scenery, the slovenly dressing, the languid atmosphere all work to create a wonderful film that carries more emotional heft than expected. I, too, had to deal with a sudden and very painful loss in 2011, and this film really spoke to me on that level, but in an understanding, non-patronizing or schmaltzy way.
In all honesty this was really tied with The Descendants, but ultimately I’ll give the slightest of nods to this film. In the parlance of the title, it was 51/49. At times unbelievable (a therapist would NEVER, EVER date their patient) it was still a touching, straightforward story of an average nice guy handed a huge curveball by life, and how he copes with the complications that ensue. Some couldn’t seem to move past the fact that this was a second Seth Rogen cancer comedy (after 2009’s equally superb and underrated Funny People), but by the end I was a heap of cathartic tears.
Some random categories:
Best Documentary – Senna
Great, but if only I cared about more baseball… – Moneyball
Best Cast – Tailor Tinker Soldier Spy
Most Welcome Return – The Muppets
Best IMAX – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Most Ridiculously Entertaining – Fast Five
Most Overrated – Bridesmaids
Most Pretty but also Most Boring – Hugo
How to make one of the most fascinating events in American history and turn it into a dull, tedious experience – The Conspirator
The Macgruber Award for reviled-now-but-destined-for-cable-greatness – Your Highness
Also Underrated – The Rum Diary
Good, but should’ve been better – War Horse
Best Supporting Actor – Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
Other movies I liked and would give a general thumbs up to – The Artist, Submarine, Brighton Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Attack the Block