Paul and I rambled on and on about our favorites of 2011 in our second season finale, but that isn’t gonna stop us from rambling some more. This is the first in a series of top 10s that will be spread out over the next couple weeks; the rest will concern television, albums, and comic books.
But first, a word about lists. Paul has described my obsession with list-making as a “sickness,” and that’s probably close to the truth. However, even one such as I, beholden to rating and ranking everything known to man, know that these kinds of things are imperfect, to put it lightly. For one, no matter how all-inclusive you try to be, there’s always going to be a movie (or show, or comic, etc.) that you somehow missed; for example, as of this writing, neither Paul nor I have seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Shame, or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, just to name a few. And more importantly, lists are always subject to how their makers feel at the moment they’re making them. Each of our top 10s represent the movies we love right now, and with the exception of our #1 choices, their order could be fluid, changing from day to day, mood to mood.
Right now, though? These are the films we adore, and which we feel exemplify 2011.
PAUL: 10. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (dir. Rupert Wyatt)
The summer blockbuster that was better than any of us had any right to expect. Not only a remarkably capable relaunch/reboot of a beloved but dated franchise, but also just a damned good popcorn flick in its own right. Andy Serkis brings heart and humanity (pun intended) to the “inhuman” protagonist. It’s Pinocchio and Moses and Che Guevara.
AJ: 10. GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (dir. Martin Scorsese)
It has been lazy shorthand for decades to refer to George Harrison as the “quiet Beatle,” and though that might have a kernel of truth to it, the man himself was far more complex. Publicly, he was quiet because he desperately hated fame; professionally, he was quiet during the Beatle years because John and Paul vetoed his material, and later, because he was content with tending to his family and to his garden. Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home definitively captured that 60s icon’s brilliance and enigma, and while Living in the Material World doesn’t quite do the same for this 60s icon, it comes close enough. In the first part of this two-part doc, the entire life cycle of The Beatles is rehashed yet again, though considering it’s Scorsese at the helm, it remains of interest. It’s in the second part, however, when things truly come alive. By telling of his unsung career as a film producer, enticing candid stories from a number of those closest to him, and showing private home movies, Scorsese paints a portrait of Harrison as a man perpetually struggling to reconcile his spirituality with his materialism, caught between divinity and mortality.
PAUL: 9. THE TREE OF LIFE (dir. Terrence Malick)
Unconventional, idiosyncratic, poetic, and musical…also oblique, obscure, abstract, and frustrating. I had the very unusual experience of being both moved to tears by the spirituality and stunning, cosmological imagery; and bored to the point of actually drifting off to sleep for a moment or two when the more theological elements began congealing. I both love and hate this film, which more than earns it a place on my Best of 2011 list. Well played, Malick.
AJ: 9. THE SUNSET LIMITED (dir. Tommy Lee Jones)
For most of its 91-minute running time, The Sunset Limited is an engaging two-man show which falls prey to that most common pitfall of play adaptations, staginess. Tommy Lee Jones, in front of as well as behind the camera, and Samuel L. Jackson are both terrific, delivering Cormac McCarthy’s beautiful dialogue with passion and conviction. Yet there’s always the nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you should really be watching this in the front row of a crowded theater instead of on the couch in front of your TV. Still, for its first two-thirds, it’s about as good a stage adaptation as I’ve seen in a long time…and then the last third hit me like a brick. Jones’ suicidal atheist and Jackson’s devout Christian argue back and forth about the existence of God, and toward the end, Jones delivers a monologue of such faith-rattling fury that it reminded me of nothing less than an Ingmar Bergman film. Winter Light, maybe. I’d go so far as to say that the rest of the film would deserve a spot just outside my top 10, but the sublime closing passage vaults it right onto the list.
PAUL: 8. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Another franchise gets a much-needed reboot in the pants. Matthew Vaughn directs a very groovy origin story for Marvel’s Merry Mutants, functionally jettisoning the awfulness of the two prior films while allowing for much (if not all) of the original two films to remain more or less intact. James McAvoy is superb as a younger, cockier Xavier. But it’s Michael Fassbender as the superpowered, Nazi-hunting, pre-Magneto Erik Lensherr who truly shines. I would gleefully submit to an entire series of films about this character.
AJ: 8. TERRI (dir. Azazel Jacobs)
Terri is the fourth feature film by director Azazel Jacobs, but the first one I’d heard of, and probably the first one most people will have heard of. And yet it still doesn’t seem like many people have heard of this one, either. Which is a shame, because even in a year of splendid films about childhood, Terri is one of the most moving. It’s a simple movie, devoid of any unnecessary complication. Terri is a high school outcast, an overweight nerd whose only friends are obnoxious weirdo Chad and damaged pretty girl Heather. Jacob Wysocki is a revelation as Terri, giving the kind of painfully real performance you don’t often see in movies about high schoolers. John C. Reilly is indispensable as the assistant principle who takes Terri under his wing, and Creed Bratton sheds the zany eccentricity of his character from The Office to play Terri’s wonderfully human, Alzheimer’s-addled uncle.
PAUL: 7. CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. (dirs. Glen Ficarra and John Requa)
Who the hell knew that this standard-sounding romcom would turn out to be one of the most charming, heartfelt, surprising films of the year? Steve Carell is suitably funny and broken, underplayed effectively and allowing his co-star Ryan Gosling to figuratively chew every bit of scenery. Seriously, it’s like no one had ever seen this guy before this film. Also, Emma Stone. I rest my case.
AJ: 7. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Tilda Swinton is the best actress in films right now. I’ve admired her supporting turns in films as diverse as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Michael Clayton, though I somehow managed to miss out on her acclaimed starring roles in Julia and I Am Love. Her performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, however, confirms her brilliance. Despite the fact that she plays the mother of a clearly disturbed teenager who went on a killing spree at his school, it is the opposite of a showy performance. From the psychological war she wages with young Kevin to the utter hell of her life after Kevin goes to prison, she conveys everything you need to know as quietly as possible. The entire film has been accused of being too cerebral, and I’ll admit that is in no way for everyone. With little or no warning, director Lynne Ramsay will cut back-and-forth between the present and the past in a way that makes sense emotionally and is intentionally jarring. Considering the supremely disturbing subject matter, the film can be a challenge. But it’s a powerful, frightening film, one that suggests that it’s not just nature or just nurture that turns kids into killers, but a little of both.
PAUL: 6. HANNA (dir. Joe Wright)
It should come as no surprise that I, being an old school Joss Whedon fan, have something of an obsession with powerful, dangerous, “supernatural” adolescent female characters. While the titular young lady of this film, played by the supernaturally talented Saoirse Ronan, is no magic-fueled Slayer or government-engineered psychic assassin, her martial prowess and steely determination certainly put her in such grand company. Also, given the obvious fairy tale motifs of wicked witches and big bad wolves, it’s hardly a stretch to think of Hanna as spiritual cousin to characters like Buffy Summers or River Tam.
AJ: 6. THE DESCENDANTS (dir. Alexander Payne)
It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last film, the wonderful Sideways. At long last, here he is again, to make you laugh, to break your heart, to bring you inside the mind of a wounded man. The wounded man in this Payne feature is Matt King, played by George Clooney in one of his best performances. He has to decide whether or not to sell his family’s beautiful Hawaiian land, and on top of that, his wife is in a coma from a boating accident. Their oldest daughter informs him that her mother was cheating on him before her accident. Surely living in a Hawaiian paradise must take the sting off, right? “Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself,” Matt says. And so Matt has to reconnect with his two daughters, the care of whom he’d mostly delegated to his wife; come to terms with the fact that he and his wife were drifting apart well before her coma; make peace with the fact that she will die; and decided whether or not to confront her lover. So much of this could have been pat and sentimental, but Payne earns every emotion. Clooney is a big reason the movie is as successful as it is, giving a brilliant turn as a man trying to sort through everything and make one tough decision after another. (And if you hadn’t heard elsewhere, Jim Rash, who plays Dean Pelton on Community, co-wrote the screenplay!)
PAUL: 5. ANOTHER EARTH (dir. Mike Cahill)
The science fiction movie that wasn’t. The existential, philosophical think piece about a planet hurtling towards Earth that didn’t devolve into ponderous self-importance. It also didn’t star Kirsten Dunst…to its benefit. Co-writer/star Brit Marling and co-writer/director Mike Cahill craft a thoughtful and moving story about one young woman with a bright future and the tragic mistake that destroys her world, and the world of loving family man William Mapother (still best known as either Ethan from Lost, or Tom Cruise’s cousin). The existence of a duplicate Earth hanging over our head raises questions of how the “other me” is living their life; if they’ve made the same mistakes as we have; if they have anything to teach us; if they represent an opportunity to try again. The final scene of the film, while not the most shocking or original trope in a film like this, offers that most perfect and potent of cinematic cocktails in my opinion: possibility and ambiguity.
AJ: 5. SUPER 8 (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Executive producer and subject of loving homage Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying that he considers Super 8 to be J.J. Abrams’ “first real film,” and I’m inclined to agree. Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek were both clearly franchise films, and mediocre ones, at that. Super 8, on the other hand, does not even feel like it was made by the same man. Every shot feels carefully chosen and imbued with feeling, absorbing the action instead of letting it bounce off. Though Abrams is clearly indebted to Spielberg, I feel like he’s not so much mimicking the charm and wonder of Spielberg classics such as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but internalizing everything great about those movies and making them his own. There’s a sense of mystery, of the young band of filmmakers at the story’s core struggling to discover their place in the grand scheme of things, which feels very much like Abrams’ Lost. Joel Courtney is one of the finds of the year as 12-year-old zombie makeup expert Joe Lamb, and Elle Fanning is superb as his slightly older crush; the other four kids are just as natural and unstudied, a miracle in and of itself. A hugely entertaining science fiction film that reminds one of what summer movies are capable of.
PAUL: 4. THE MUPPETS (dir. James Bobin)
It’s ironic that the House of the Mouse (who currently owns the property) was so concerned about writer Nicholas Stoller and co-writer/star Jason Segel’s take on the newest Muppets feature film, the first in twelve years. While Disney was focused on keeping the story kid-friendly (and penis-free), they seemed to have forgotten that the Muppets, as envisioned by legendary creator Jim Henson, were never actually meant to be strictly child’s play. The Muppets were subversive. Fortunately, Stoller and Segel, as well as director James Bobin, stuck to their communist, anti-capitalist agenda (you’re retarded, FOX News) and brought Kermit and the gang back from their twelve-year exile in grand, fun and felty revolutionary style. It’s unapologetically soaked in nostalgia, and I loved every second of it. And music supervisor Bret “Flight of the Conchords” McKenzie gives us at least two songs destined to become enduring Muppet classics. Plus: Chris Cooper raps!
AJ: 4. HUGO (dir. Martin Scorsese)
The second Scorsese film on my list is also the first in his career which could be deemed a family film. One usually expects to walk away from a Scorsese feature shuddering at the obsessive nature of humanity. While Hugo‘s titular hero does have an obsession, it is a much more innocent one than we’re accustomed to: orphaned in 1931 Paris following the death of his father, Hugo lives in the walls of a train station and steals parts from a bitter old toymaker to try to repair the automaton his father left behind. The identity of the toymaker, miraculously portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the best performance of the year, will be a treat for any lover of cinema, and the film itself unexpectedly becomes a triumphant ode to the power of movies. Hugo is also Scorsese’s first film shot in 3D, and the first film I would fully recommend seeing in that format. It’s fitting that in a movie devoted to the innovative magic of film, Scorsese pushes a relatively new technique to an entirely new level. After the first few minutes, you won’t even notice you’re wearing those clunky glasses.
PAUL: 3. WE BOUGHT A ZOO (dir. Cameron Crowe)
Since initially creating this list, I’ve seen Cameron Crowe’s newest film three times, and it easily could be pushed up to the top spot for me. However, I recognize that my deep and abiding love for We Bought a Zoo comes from someplace deep and intensely personal, and I expect very few people to react to it as powerfully as I continue to. It’s predictable and emotionally “manipulative” in the way that professional film critics love to complain about. But I don’t care. This is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers writing a love letter directly to me, and no amount of logical cynicism will take that away from me. If you need something more tangible to cling to in order to take this recommendation, see it for a) fantastic Jonsí musical score, as well as the usual Crowe stable of licensed songs by artists like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Wilco; b) the most adorable addition to this years impressive stable of child stars, Maggie Elizabeth Jones; and c) one of the most accurate representations of the kind of people that choose to work in the world of small zoos. Also: angry, scruffy, kilted zookeeper! See? Made expressly for me.
AJ: 3. MONEYBALL (dir. Bennett Miller)
I don’t like sports in general, and I don’t have any strong feelings about baseball in particular. The only time I’ve ever really enjoyed a baseball movie before was A League of Their Own, which is more of a sentimental favorite than anything. Yet here’s Moneyball, a film so moving it brought tears to my eyes. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised: Bennett Miller brought us the great Capote six years ago, and the screenplay is credited to both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, two of the guys you want to be writing your screenplay. It’s a witty, captivating look at how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (a rugged Brad Pitt) threw caution to the wind and crafted a team based on statistics instead of marquee power, and of how that approach failed miserably, then began to succeed. Zaillian and Sorkin wrote different drafts of the script, so we can’t know for sure who wrote what, but finding the humanity and profundity in backstage number-crunching seems like a play taken directly from the Sorkin playbook. Special credit to Jonah Hill, who shows us an entirely different side of himself as player analyst Peter Brand.
PAUL: 2. RANGO (dir. Gore Verbinski)
Director Gore Verbinski and gonzo actor/apparition Johnny Depp team up again, this time leaving the briny sea of Pirates behind in favor of the gritty, parched desert of the CG southwest in this animated orgy of the good, bad, and really, really weird. Rango manages to riff on, borrow from, and pay homage to a half-dozen or so Hollywood classics such as Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and the Man With No Name trilogy, without descending into the pointless, lifeless morass that the Shrek franchise quickly devolved into. Features perhaps the best childlike, innocent protagonist performance by Depp since Edward Scissorhands, as well as an inspired cameo (of sorts) that nearly brought me out of my seat to cheer; and some of the greatest, most stunning visual work of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ career. And yes, I know…it’s a cartoon. I stand by that.
AJ: 2. DRIVE (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
This year, Ryan Gosling delivered three remarkable performances, each as distinct as the last. In Crazy, Stupid, Love., the usually intense actor got to show off his funny, romantic side, and oh, funny and romantic he was. Though I wasn’t wild about George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March, Gosling ably portrayed a young idealist coming to grips with the harsh reality of his chosen field. And in Drive, the crowning achievement of a stellar year, Gosling was calm but tightly-wound, cold yet passionate, weirdly aloof but achingly human. As the song on the soundtrack says, he is striving to be “a real human being, and a real hero.” Gosling plays a Hollywood stuntman by day, getaway driver by night who begins to feel a real connection to his neighbor, the beautiful Carey Mulligan. We learn very little about the driver–indeed, we never learn his name and he listed in the credits only as “Driver”–but Gosling fills in all the blanks with his subtle, assured performance. We don’t know what happened to leave him so distant, but Gosling makes takes us every step of the way through the journey to rediscover his soul. Breathtaking, mesmerizing, and seductive.
PAUL: 1. SUPER 8 (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Another science fiction movie that really isn’t. Oh, there’s sci-fi here, to be sure: aliens, weird science, secret military projects, conspiracies. But none of that is what the film is about. This is a film about kids making a film, made by two of the biggest “kids” in the film industry, writer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg. It’s a love letter to anyone that ever dreamt of making their own monster movies, or trashed their mom’s kitchen or their dad’s garage creating fake blood, gore, and slime. It’s also one of the most affecting love stories of the year, despite the fact that the romantic couple are both 14 years old. The entire cast of young actors in this film are great, but in particular Elle Fanning continues to shine like the star she will no doubt become, and newcomer Joel Courtney is truly spectacular as the deceptively cherubic lead.
AJ: 1. THE TREE OF LIFE (dir. Terrence Malick)
If it wouldn’t look super weird and pretentious, I kind of wish there could be like half-a-page of empty space between this and the rest of my choices just to display how much better The Tree of Life is than the other movies on my list. The previous nine films I’ve talked about were all fantastic, but The Tree of Life is a rare life-affirming experience. Terrence Malick’s films have always been oblique and painterly, and his Badlands is another of my favorites, but with The Tree of Life, he has accomplished something altogether different. The only movie that I can immediately compare it to is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though both are very different, especially because 2001 diminishes humanity and Tree of Life emphasizes it, both seek to explain the meaning of the universe in the large, cosmic terms the subject demands. The film is ostensibly about the O’Brien clan in 1950s Texas, and while Malick explores some autobiographical themes (his stern father, the death of his brother at a young age) through them, he uses them as a springboard to explore various facets of human existence and emotion. There’s a rapturous sequence when the film breaks from any kind of narrative whatsoever to show the creation of the universe, including a brief interlude with dinosaurs. Movies like this don’t come along often, and when they do, they are to be cherished. If you have any interest in film as art, I implore you to seek this film out. I hope it moves you as much as it did me.