Any honest annual top ten list would have to stipulate that they are the foremost movies the writer was actually able to see. It is improbable, if not impossible, to attend every release in a given year. There are a dozen or so films that I didn’t have the opportunity to assess, either because they came and went too quickly (Meek’s Cutoff) or they arrived too late to contend for this list (The Artist). Still, by my count I managed to see nearly 60 films this year, albeit a few were late-year video releases. 2011 was a year I will remember as when the dramas didn’t deliver and were shockingly outclassed by energetic summer blockbusters, low budget horror films and low-brow comedies. Who woulda thunk it? With that in mind, I present my selections from 2011.
10. Paranormal Activity 3
Part one was nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating, which undercut the too-little and far too sporadic suspense. Part two began a bit more promising before devolving into the same slightly less grating tedium. This latest installment was astonishingly effective, helped in no small part by some genuine and genuinely funny humor. The ingenious use of an oscillating fan as a makeshift panning camera provided some clever frights, and just when you think a major character is going to exhibit the same dubiously annoying behavior as her predecessors, the movie does an about face and falls down a wonderfully chilling rabbit hole.
9. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
Oh, stop groaning. Did you actually see it? Did you see it in 3D? In a year when auteurs like Martin Scorsese couldn’t make the technology relevant, the third edition of this proudly crass and amoral series made watching 3D fun again — not to mention funny. No amount of atmospheric steam can equal the adolescent giddiness of watching marijuana clouds drift off the screen and surround your head. With sweetly irreverent nods to seasonal claymation cartoons and the classic A Christmas Story, as well as the obligatory vulgarity of ‘womanizer’ Neil Patrick Harris, whose recent coming out is dealt with craftily and hilariously, it’s an inane joy to watch… oh, and Santa gets shot in the face.
8. Super 8
Yes, it’s nostalgia bait. But it’s pretty good nostalgia bait. J.J. Abrams takes E.T. and turns him into a raging alien avenger, with a healthy sprinkling of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies, and Cloverfield among others. Abrams takes Steven Spielberg’s feel-good little boy charm, puts it in a blender with terrifying monster movies, and pours out a vision that’s all his own.
7. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Director Brad Bird may have riddled this latest Mission with absurd amounts of convenient gizmos but that didn’t make it any less entertaining. Simon Pegg returns to inject a much-needed dose of humor into the series after its deadly dull predecessor, and the Burj Khalifa IMAX sequence positively crushes 3D in its kitschy, inferior shoes.
6. X-Men: First Class
I was one of the unwashed few who truly enjoyed X-Men: The Last Stand. Flawed as it was from a rushed production, it nonetheless was an energetic movie with an urgency that was lacking from Bryan Singer’s vision. The Matthew Vaughn reboot wasn’t anymore vigorous but it brought back the solid storytelling that was missing from the previous episode. An excellent cast and one of four (four!) breakout performances from Michael Fassbender in a turnaround year that has catapulted him into mainstream stardom.
Yes, it’s about time the spotlight fell on vulgar women comedies, blah-blah-blah. The fact that we can’t shut up about it indicates how dire is the situation for women in Hollywood. Instead of focusing on the fact that it’s all women, we should be celebrating another solid adult comedy with an extremely talented cast. Melissa McCarthy rightly deserves all of her accolades for her fearless performance as she nearly hijacks the entire movie.
4. Fast Five
It’s big. It’s loud. It’s absurd. It’s stupid. Above all, it’s freakin’ awesome! No summer blockbuster was able to match Fast Five‘s excitement, energy and commitment to exploit its genre base. Any movie that has the audacity to try and convince the audience that Vin Diesel could survive — much less win — a fight with The Rock deserves credit for its daring.
Lest you think it was all explosions, mutations, muscles and aliens at the multiplexes this year, one slow-burning drama managed to shine through. It wasn’t perfect but it was a refreshing exhalation of craft and emotion amidst the waning summer hubbub. Ryan Gosling, with a voice that couldn’t intimidate a chihuahua, manages to come across alternately sweet and menacing. Funnyman Albert Brooks, stripped of his west coast Woody Allen persona, could walk away with an Oscar nomination.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
After the less than inspiring part one, director David Yates pulls off a magical feat with a relentlessly spirited crowd-pleaser that truly satisfies. It doesn’t answer every question and pulls a few shortcuts on the way to its conclusion, but considering what Potter author J.K. Rowling gave him and screenwriter Steve Kloves to work from, the results are more spectacular than they have any right to be. A seven-book series a decade in the making had all the odds against it reaching a satisfying climax, but it succeeds where the mystifyingly popular The Return of the King so horribly fails.
1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Talk about defeating the odds. This movie had everything going against it: it was a prequel to a misguided Tim Burton reboot; the classic practical makeup effects were replaced with CGI; and, more importantly, audiences didn’t seem to want it. There was no expectation that it would succeed but succeed it did. It was the ninth highest grossing movie of the year, which may not sound like much but it beat the likes of Marvel front-runners X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, both of which had a head start in the release schedule. It also didn’t hurt that it was one of the top reviewed movies of the year. There’s been months of talk regarding a possible Oscar nomination for Andy Serkis and his brilliant motion-capture performance as the slow-burn simian revolutionary who binds the film together. A patient script and even more patient directing give rise to an amazing underdog prequel that by rights should have never stood a chance.
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