The best movies of 2011, as chosen by the Sun Arts staff.
1.) Midnight in Paris
In an abysmal summer movie season that gave us yet another Transformers movie, a fourth round of Pirates of the Caribbean and a movie starring Katy Perry as a Smurf, we were able to count on kvetching New York auteur Woody Allen for some old fashioned wholesome entertainment with his best film in years, Midnight in Paris. The premise is simple: An aspiring writer roams the nighttime streets of the title city and encounters classic writers like Hemingway and artists like Dalí as he is magically transported back to the Paris of the 1920s. It’s the classic tale of dreaming big and to escape from the worries of everyday life with a beautiful Paris backdrop. Midnight in Paris just goes to show that after 40 years of film-making, Allen still has it.
2.) Tree of Life
One of the boldest cinematic visions since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life attempts to decode man’s true nature as well as trace back the origins of man. It cannot provide words to describe the ineffable, so instead it basks in stunning cinematography ranging from banal ’50s suburban life to an awesome supernova. There is a narrative beneath the madness, with Brad Pitt as an aggressive, primal spirit of a father and a grown-up Sean Penn reflecting on the struggles of his childhood. Few words are spoken, but the intricacies of love and the utter miracle of existence are cherished through Malick’s powerful imagery. Malick pays homage to the ending of Federico Fellini’s 8 one-half as he reaffirms the importance of family against the infinite emptiness of the cosmos. He has no answer to these struggles, but Malick stretches the limits of film as we know it and asks us to appreciate ourselves and everything we see but never question.
A Nickelodeon animated kids movie as one of the year’s best? I was reluctant to even watch this one (The Last Airbender was the studio’s last, um, “effort”) but Rango is witty, sweet, and, above all, very strange. Pirates director Gore Verbinski, star Johnny Depp and Gladiator scribe John Logan create the best Western in years as their vision comes alive through advanced, highly detailed visual effects. The story itself has been done ad infinitum, with an outsider taking out the feared enemy to a small town by accident and then being labeled a hero. Of course, bigger, meaner bad guys arrive and our chameleon friend must prove himself. The filmmakers harbor a love for cinema history and successfully inject their influences into a film for all ages. A canyon battle parodies the helicopter assault from Apocalypse Now but makes a classic scene zanier, funnier and updated for the 21st century. Pop culture references run the gamut, but ultimately it is a film of heart. The range of voice talent and beautiful animation revive a defunct genre with a sense of humor children will love but only adults will admire.
If you’ve ever watched I Love You, Man, Superbad, or Pineapple Express and thought, “Why isn’t there a movie like this about girls?” get psyched about Bridesmaids. True, it’s about a wedding and the main character ends up with the guy, but Bridesmaids is not a romantic comedy. It’s a bromance, or rather, a ladymance. Bridesmaids isn’t just any ladymance, it’s a ladiemance between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. The two together create some of the funniest, laugh out loud moments in one of the best comedies ever. They are so comfortable with each other that it is entirely believable that they’ve been friends since childhood. It helps that Wiig also wrote the film together with Annie Mumolo, a member of The Groundlings comedy troupe — as was Melissa McCarthy, also in the film. Despite the fact that its running time is over two hours long, viewers of Bridesmaids will leave one wishing there had been more. In addition to being hilarious, Bridesmaids is heartwarming and relatable and should definitely be on your list of movies to see over winter break.
It’s been quite a year for Ryan Gosling, who, while diving into mainstream rubbish like Crazy, Stupid, Love, also manages to take risks and show some acting talent in films like Blue Valentine and most recently, in Drive. In Drive, he plays the sadistic cousin of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” as the unnamed “Driver,” who rides into town with no past and saves the day while asking nothing in return. Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of Drive describes his film as a modern fairy tale, and what better place for it to take place than Los Angeles, where fairy tales are neatly assembled and churned out every week. “Driver” is a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver for hire at night. He seems fairly content, as the title suggests, to just drive. Driver gets sucked deeper into the crime world when he strays out of his hermit lifestyle and tries to help the degenerate husband of his cute neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her cuter son. Things quickly take a turn for the worst as we delve into the violent underbelly of Los Angeles and our hero has to crack a skull or two (literally). Drive is a character study of a modern hero and Gosling, while nearly silent the whole film, does enough with his stares and glares to give us a peek at what drives (sorry) him.
6.) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two
Two words: Snape’s backstory. Rarely in cinematic or literary history has a character been so completely and utterly rehabilitated in so short a scene. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves deserve kudos for bringing Rowling’s magic to life so beautifully on the silver screen. Apart from that moment of emotional brilliance, this denouement to the Harry Potter movie franchise pulls no punches in depicting the spectacular and long-awaited showdown between our hero and Lord Voldemort. It signifies the completion of our epic hero’s journey and is a fitting capstone to our own involvement with the franchise, leaving us with a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia at its end. Part two is a vast improvement over part one in terms of entertainment value and it’s equal in emotional punch punch.
We have seen the end of the world countless times in films, through alien attacks and natural disasters. But for the first time, Lars von Trier has succeeded in making us feel that earth’s destruction might be deserved. Melancholia, the eponymous planet that is hurtling towards Earth, crashes into the planet during the first few minutes of the film. When Justine (Kirsten Dunst) gets married in a lavish and outlandish wedding ceremony, we know that “til’ death” is much sooner than the wedding guests hope and all of the hullabaloo (and perhaps life in general) is meaningless. As we meet the assortment of misanthropic, antagonizing, domineering and altogether useless wedding guests, its hard to feel bad for this planet and its inhabitants. After the wedding, the second half of the film focuses more on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as she struggles to accept her pending death. There are no supermarket riots, newscasters, talking heads on television or presidential meetings that we have come to expect from such films. Instead, the end of the world and our own inevitable mortality is examined through intense close-ups and individual character examinations; and it’s way more harrowing this way.
Captain America is competent, exhilarating popcorn-munching blockbuster entertainment and a fitting segue into the much-anticipated Avengers movie coming out next year. Director Joe Johnston weaves an old-fashioned narrative of good and evil that falls just short of being cliché, and the combination of old-fashioned retro set pieces with anachronisms like the energy weapons of the Nazi antagonists provided a unique and pleasant atmosphere. The movie depicts the Captain America character at his best — at once forward-looking hero all too aware of the way in which his popular image is being manipulated into a symbol for gun-toting American jingoism. All in all, this movie is a worthy contender, alongside X-Men: First Class, for the best comic book blockbuster movie of 2011.
9.) Super 8
Super 8 is the kind of once-in-a-blue-moon film that reminds us why we love going to the movies. Directed by Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams, the sci-fi adventure overflows with action, humor, nostalgia and love. It follows a group of youngsters in the ’70s who set out to make a zombie thriller, but instead come upon something much bigger and scarier that changes their innocent lives and those of everyone else in their tiny Ohio town. The soul of the film is Joe Lamb, whose wide-eyed curiosity and heroic courage is upheld by adorable and talented newcomer Joel Courtney. His performance, as well as those of his preteen costars, is so natural that we almost feel like we’re watching the kids’ hilarious banter as part of a homemade feature from Abrams’ own childhood. The best performance of the bunch, though, is from Elle Fanning, who deserves all the fame and recognition that she will undoubtedly receive in her future. Take note of the scene-within-a-scene she performs early on in the film; her monologue breaks the boys’ hearts, and it will break yours, too.
10.) Our Idiot Brother
In Our Idiot Brother, Paul Rudd plays Ned: the sweet, selfless, albeit a little idiotic brother to Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer (Phoebe from 30 Rock). The story starts when Ned is arrested for selling pot to a uniformed police officer because he wanted to be nice. After he is released from jail early, his girlfriend refuses to take him back. He gets passed around from sibling to sibling and creates havoc as he goes. Ultimately, he ends up bringing the family closer together and makes all of their lives a little brighter. Our Idiot Brother isn’t a profound film — I guarantee that no one will any awards because of it — but it is a solidly good movie. For what it is, a simple comedy about a crazy family, it is excellent. The writing is funny and clever and the actors were perfectly cast. All the elements come together perfectly to create a charming and entertaining movie well worth your time.