Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Top Films of 2011

The following movies are what I consider the best released this past year. They are only in alphabetical order.


50/50
If the Academy Awards (Oscars) actually had any credibility today, this film would be filling most of the nomination ballots this year. Thankfully, it has been nominated for two Golden Globes (Best Picture - Comedy or Musical, and Best Actor in Comedy or Musical: Gordon-Levitt). Once again, one of my favorite actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, delivers! Based on the true story of co-star Seth Rogen's friend, writer/executive producer Will Reiser who was diagnosed with cancer in his early 20s, Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, who finds out he has cancer and must come to terms with the life he hasn't really lived yet. The film takes a sensitive topic and uses the right balance of comedy and drama without ever delving into pretentiousness or corniness. The cast all does superbly -- especially Bryce Dallas Howard as Adam's self-serving girlfriend Rachael, Rogen as Adam's best friend Kyle (a role and movie that one must think he tried to deliver with the release of Judd Apatow's Funny People but failed), and Anjelica Huston as Adam's mom, Diane. But the best of them all is Gordon-Levitt. He proves with every performance he takes on that he has something unique to bring to the film. In this, it is his vulnerable moments -- particularly his pre-surgery moment with his mother -- that showcase his amazing range as an actor.


The Adjustment Bureau 

There were many critics who panned this film, but I really enjoyed it. Just as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a love story with a slightly different angle of sci-fi-type themes, The Adjustment Bureau is a sci-fi/suspense love story. It may seem a bit out there or far-fetched, but, trust me, it works! Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have amazing chemistry together; it's easy to root for these two as they take on the agency that's doing everything within their unlimited power to keep them apart. The movie, based on a story by science-fiction master author Philip K. Dick (also responsible for the stories that are the basis for Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Paycheck, Next, and Screamers), does well with its story and pacing. The acting is well done and it definitely has "multiple viewing" potential (especially for fans of Damon and Blunt). The great thing about this film, though, is not just the overall idea of the film, but also the questions that arise from such a film. Would you sacrifice a better life for your love? This film explores that idea with both sides being equally explored. 


Bridesmaids

Before I say what I'm going to about this film, this is going to sound difficult to do but don't go in with high expectations 'cause then you won't think it as funny as it is. OK, here it goes: Bridesmaids is the funniest movie I've seen in 2011!!! This film is just plain hilarious! Don't go thinking this is some female version of The Hangover. It may have The Hangover's raunchy humor but it has a hell of a lot more heart without the simple Dude, Where's My Car?-like plot. Although, appearing from the advertising, this may seem like it's all about the bachelorette party, it's not. The film does not primarily focus on all six girls, but particularly Maya Rudolph (the bride-to-be), Kristen Wiig (the maid of honor), and Rose Byrne (the new, rich best friend). Byrne, who is known mostly for drama (FX's Damages), does wonders in comedy; to catch her prior comedic performance, check out Get Him to the Greek. And Melissa McCarthy shines as Megan, the future sister-in-law, who -- along with Wiig -- owns most of the laughs in the film! Ellie Kemper basically plays her other cute, girl-next-door role Erin (from NBC's The Office) but does well at it. Wendi McLendon-Covey (Comedy Central's Reno 911) also does well as the mom of three boys who needs to run wild. And Jon Hamm (AMC's Mad Men), who proves that drama is not his only talent, is great as the jerky pretty-boy, booty-call buddy, Ted. But the triumvirate of Wiig, Rudolph and Byrne are the best ones here! Their chemistry truly compliments this film. The movie, co-written by Wiig, not only is hugely humorous, but also speaks to the very reality that is how catty and territorial woman can sometimes be with each other (i.e., when Wiig feels her role as best friend is being taken over by Byrne). The great thing about the film, besides the laughs, is the true message that Wiig's Annie has to learn as things in her life fall apart all around her. She has to step up and learn to respect herself, not feel sorry for herself, and at the same time be sensitive to others. This may sound like a bummer or too deep for a comedy, but the film pulls it all off without being pretentious or too deep.

Both Wiig and Rudolph have shined in previous roles and proved their acting chops -- Wiig in Whip It and Rudolph in Away We Go. Their friendship in the movie is what overall sells the story. And Wiig's blooming romance with Irish policeman Officer Rhodes (a likeable everyman Chris O'Dowd) does not get in the way of the overall story nor distract from it. If anything, it helps it along and I applaud writers Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who has a cameo as Wiig's neurotic flight co-passenger) for correctly balancing it all without a hitch, and a special shout-out to producer Judd Apatow and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) for having the wisdom to take on the story. This film attempts what I believe writer Nancy Pimental was trying to do when she wrote the 2002 Cameron Diaz stinker, The Sweetest Thing. Pimental was attempting to incorporate the gross-out humor of male comedy films such as American Pie, but also trying to make a touching female-bonding film. In my mind, Pimental, the director (Roger Kumble) and cast all failed. The film came off to me like some pathetic attempt at making women too much like guys. However, Bridesmaids balances the raunchy with the endearing with great success! This film works for both sexes: women will LOVE to view it with girlfriends and men will love it for not having to roll their eyes! That's how downright funny and enjoyable this film is! The only thing I have to warn you about is that you may have to see it a second time just to catch the funny lines you missed from you (and the audience) laughing so loud and hard.


Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms (NBC's The Office) stars as Tim Lippe in this sleeper hit dramedy (drama/comedy) as an idealistic insurance agent who heads to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to represent the company for which he works and win the "Two Diamonds" award. While there, he meets and befriends a prostitute who he doesn't know is a prostitute at first (Alia Shawkat), and fellow agents: the crazy Dean (John C. Reilly), the sexy Joan (Anne Heche, who I never thought of as sexy before), and the affable Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). The film has many twists and turns and proves to be more than a mere screwball comedy. Helms is good at playing the naive straight-man and here he plays that a lot but also comes into some wild situations.


The Company Men 

Critics raved about Wall Street drama Margin Call, but I was more impressed with John Wells' The Company Men. Whereas Margin Call is told from the business owners'/crooks' side of the economic fallout, The Company Men shows what happens on both sides of the coin, especially to the "little guy" -- the guy who was let go because of the mistakes and greed of company bigwigs. Ben Affleck, who has often been a punching bag for critics when he first started acting -- has now really honed his craft, whether it be acting or directing (The Town). In this film, he portrays a mid-sized bigwig who gets fired and has to work -- any way he can -- to keep his life and family together. Of course, along the way, he learns that there's more to life than he thought. However, from that description and the look of the trailer, don't immediately think this is a sappy feel-good film. There's more to it than that as Wells' script (similar to the stuff he wrote for NBC's ER) has good moments and bad moments, making a perfect balanced story.


Cowboys & Aliens
 
The premise of this film is so good that you wonder why any sci-fi screenwriter didn't think of it sooner. Based on the graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, this film, directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), takes a 1950s B-movie idea and -- thanks to a great script (adapted by the writers behind ABC's Lost), great setting/cinematography, and great acting -- turns out one great summer action flick! The trio of Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde each give spot-on performances. Next to Super 8 (which was more story than action) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (which didn't have much story), Cowboys is one of the best action films of the summer with equal parts story and action (not the best action of the year, though; that is later in the list). The ensemble is superb and all make intriguing characters. Underrated actors Adam Beach, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown (whose character gives one of the greatest contemporary explanations of God) shine as I was interested to know their pasts even more. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but, also, in a summer inundated with comic superhero movies, it's refreshing to see a comic adaptation where the hero is anti-hero and doesn't sport tights. The title may sound cheesy but it works (besides, what else could you call this film?). Nevertheless, there were a few parts that didn't work for me; but they were very few and far between. If anything, I just kept thinking while watching this: "I can't wait for the next Bond film (Skyfall)!" Overall, the mix of western and sci-fi works well and I'm glad someone finally put it to film. On an end note, if you are a big fan of mixing westerns with sci-fi, definitely check out Firefly on DVD/Netflix! It might not have aliens, but you'll be happy you checked it out! Shiny!


 Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Looking at the movie trailer for this film, I thought it would be another mindless romantic comedy (rom-com), but nothing could be further from the truth. Steve Carell as married Cal Weaver and Ryan Gosling as ladies man bachelor Jacob Palmer make a great team. One can watch Gosling and tell that if he continues to take the roles he does, he's going to be a great actor with a great career. There are twists and turns in this film that I didn't think were going to happen. And the wonderfully written ups and downs of the story are a credit to writer Dan Fogelman (Cars, Cars 2, Tangled). All of the actors in this film own the screen when they're on it; especially good (besides Carell and Gosling) are Julianne Moore as Cal's mid-life crisis wife and Emma Stone as Gosling's love interest, Hannah. Whether you like romance movies or not, watch this film. You won't be disappointed!


The Descendants

I didn't really expect this to be noticeably good -- even though it was nominated for an Academy Award (Oscar). But, regardless, I gave it a try; and I'm happy I did. The Descendants is one of my absolute favorites of the year! The story is fresh and the acting is superb; Alexander Payne's directing is stellar! It's been a while since I've seen a film that hits all the right marks. Even though there is one small aspect to the film that was predictable, it doesn't subdue the effect of the film's message, nor does it take away from the overall excellence of the film itself. Thank goodness George Clooney chose this film after last year's disastrous The American! And Shailene Woodley (the horrid ABC Family show The Secret Life of the American Teenager) dazzles in her first major movie role; I can't wait to see what she does next ... even though it will probably be some dopey teenage comedy. I especially liked the fact that Clooney portrays a father who was not always emotionally present in his family's life and now he is the one to take care of his two unruly daughters, both of whom he has no idea how to raise (welcome to the club of every father with two daughters). This film takes a desperately tragic situation and injects a small dose of comedy in with a touching story of family bonding to make one of the movies you should definitely see!


 Drive

Ryan Gosling has had a bang-up year! Every major movie role he's taken on this year has received critical acclaim (Crazy, Stupid, Love.; The Ides of March), especially this one. Let me warn any possible viewers that even though this is advertised like an action film, it is not; this is a drama that has moments of action. I said in the film listed above that Ryan Gosling is going to be on great actor status if he keeps up the pace he has. And with 2012's Gangster Squad, it looks like he will. In Drive, Gosling plays the unnamed Driver who is a stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. He is involuntarily involved with a mobster (Albert Brooks) and lives a simple, very quiet life, but things get complicated when Driver meets and falls in love with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan). Through extenuating circumstances, Driver finds himself assisting in a heist to help clear Irene's husband's debt to a gangster, but when things go majorly awry, the story really takes off! The drama is suspenseful (the beginning is one of the coolest I've seen in a long time) and constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn took a really good script from Hossein Amini (based on the novel by James Sallis) and made it great: a film that is not just good, but a philosophical, metaphorical story full of symbolism behind every scene (something Orson Welles loved doing in his films -- i.e., Citizen Kane). All around a wonderful film!


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I don't know why this film has been mostly panned by critics. I think it completely earned its Academy Award nomination! Newcomer Thomas Horn (a youth Jeopardy winner) is amazing, and I have to say that this is one of the very few times where I enjoyed the film better than the novel (by Jonathan Safran Foer). Screenwriter Eric Roth is known as the screenwriter for some very memorable, sentimental fare (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) as well as, in my honest opinion, the best contemporary spy films (Munich, The Good Shepherd), and here he took a oft-times choppy book and masterfully adapted it into a story that is easier to follow and more audience-friendly, but without compromising the overall message and integrity of the story. The film is emotional on all levels and a true hallmark of emotional resonance. It's a story of the beauty that can be found in the unique and how the actions of one can affect a countless number of others we never thought possible. Truly one of the year's best!


 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Most times remakes are really awful. They are not nearly as good as the original or are mediocre at best. Luckily, this is not the case for the American adaptation of the Swedish novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by late author Stieg Larsson. Originally made into a Swedish movie in 2009, starring Michael Nyqvist as investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist and Noomi Rapace as feminist punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, the film was a big hit with all international audiences. So when it was announced that there would be an American version of the film, most fans were wary. However, when it was announced that David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, Zodiac, The Social Network) would be directing, most fans' fears were put to rest. Then, with the casting of Daniel Craig as Blomqvist and Rooney Mara as Salander, fans and critics alike started salivating out of anticipation. This adaptation follows closer to the novel than the Swedish version and it adds great depth. Add in a score by nine inch nails frontman Trent Reznor, a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" by Karen O, and some great acting and pacing, and you've got a great suspense action film.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2

The filmmakers behind the mega successful Harry Potter film series certainly saved the best for last! Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling made it well-known to the public that as the Harry books went along, they would get darker. I'm happy it did because when the first Potter film was released, I couldn't understand the craze about it or the books; most compared the book series to J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece trilogy Lord of the Rings and George Lucas's masterpiece saga Star Wars. I definitely was perplexed and cynical. After all, how could a few books (at the time) about a boy wizard compare to the profound mythological themes that represent life itself? Unlike most fans, I did not read the books and went into the film with an unbiased mind. When I saw the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I wasn't really impressed. It wasn't until 2004's Prisoner of Azkaban -- when the series began getting darker -- that I started getting into the series. Now, I'm still no major fan, but I thoroughly enjoy Harry Potter and am reading the books. When I heard Deathly Hallows was going to be separated into two parts, I actually liked the idea because I knew the filmmakers were so dedicated to getting in as much as they could of the book and did not want to rush the production. With Deathly Hallows, Part One, I found a slight similarity to Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece Kill Bill. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, there was plenty of action, while in Kill Bill: Volume 2, there was still a little action, but mostly talk, drama and psychological meanings. Well, in Deathly Hallows Part One, the parts were switched so that it was the one that was made up of mostly talk, drama and psychological elements. In this installment, Deathly Hallows goes out with a bang the way Kill Bill Part One did; it's basically non-stop action with the drama as a natural after-effect. Only in Deathly Hallows Part Two, rather than ending with a jaw-dropping question (like Kill Bill Part One), it ends with satisfying closure for pretty much all of the characters and the acting is superb (anyone who wants to know how the other characters' futures end up, you can either read the books or look it up on the internet); I was one of many in the audience who was cheering when seeing what happens to Bellatrix (Helena Bonham-Carter, an actress I don't very much like). Before this one, my favorite of the Harry Potter film series was The Half-Blood Prince. I still have a while before I'll be able to tell what my favorite book is in the series, but I can stand corrected in saying now that I can see the attraction to the Harry Potter series. Its themes do follow those of such aforementioned revered sagas from Tolkien and Lucas. While it is sad to see this series come to a close, I cherish the fact that I still have children to whom I can pass on these books and films.


 The Help

Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, I was not really intrigued by this story. But I had heard great things about it and decided to give it a try. After all, it has Emma Stone in it, so how bad could it be? I was actually touched by the story and performances in this film. The true stars are Viola Davis (Doubt) and Octavia Spencer (Dinner for Schmucks), who play maids Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, respectively. Both drive this film with wonderful performances, bringing their characters to life. The previews make the film look like it revolves mostly around Stone's character Skeeter, but it is both of these maids who truly make the movie. Also noteworthy are Jessica Chastain (The Debt) as outcast socialite Celia Foote, and Bryce Dallas Howard, continuing her 2011 bitchy roles (see 50/50), as antagonist Hilly Holbrook; after seeing her confrontation with ex-maid Jackson, I will never look at pie the same way again. The best thing about this film -- besides the performances -- is the story, which provides a snapshot to a way of life that most of the newer, younger generation do not truly know or acknowledge. Some may argue that this film is a bit misleading of black history, but I think it shows just one instance of that turbulent, trying time for African Americans. And that's its strength. 


Midnight in Paris

Say what you will about Woody Allen, but the man is a master of moviemaking -- particularly dialogue. I haven't really enjoyed the past ten years of his films (save Whatever Works), but this film returns to the Allen films that I love (think Sweet and Lowdown). The idea is genius and the story just pops! I just finished a college course on Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, so this was a sweet bonus to watch. And the actors who portray Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) are excellent! Especially Stoll. I also enjoyed the appearances of other artists and writers (Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Henri de Toulouse-LautrecPaul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas). Allen takes a concept that most fall into -- that of wanting to live in another time (like Owen Wilson's character, I myself have sometime wished I lived in Paris in the 1920s, or in the 1930s) -- and finds his own voice of explaining its fault. For anyone who knows of these artists, writers and musicians, you'll love the small "inside trivia jokes" referenced. A really well-done film that grabs my vote for a top film of 2011. 


 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

I'm not Tom Cruise's biggest fan in real life, but his movies are good. The same can said for me about the Mission: Impossible movie series. The first one absolutely stunk, the second was a step in a better direction but still was lacking in story. It wasn't until J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost, Super 8) took the reins by directing Mission: Impossible III that the series really became exceptional. Even though Abrams did not direct this one, he produced it and made the unconventional -- albeit wise -- choice of hiring director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Iron Giant), making this his first live-action film he's directed. This film is also the first time that the story has centered not just on Cruise's Ethan Hunt character. It also spends equal time on his support team -- an Island-of-Misfit-Toys-type, ragtag group of characters, all of whom have their own issues and faults: Paula Patton's Jane Carter, Jeremy Renner's William Brandt, and Simon Pegg's Benji Dunn. Abrams and Cruise have delivered by far the best action film of the year (not only in action but also story)!


 The Muppets
Say what you will, but this film -- kid movie or no kid movie -- was one of THE BEST of the year! After its small controversy with Fox "News" over calling this film "liberal Hollywood attempting to brainwash our kids against capitalism." Well, I have to say there is a big businessman in the film who is so greedy that he is even willing to shut down a bunch of muppets (puppets). And Fox thinks that's typical of "liberal Hollywood," who have been doing it for years (should we look into the past and count the countless numbers of films with that very plot? Where are all of the news reports on those films?). But where would screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller get such an idea!? Because, Lord knows big business-minded individuals would NEVER do such a thing in reality ... oh, wait! Check out this!. Miss Piggy says it best when she said in an interview: "It's almost as laughable as accusing Fox News as, you know, being news. ... Yeah. Yeah, if they take what I say seriously, they've got a real big problem." Muppets: 1, Fox: 0. Anyways ... this film is MUCH more than that. In fact, I thought more of the touching themes: a man who has to grow up and essentially surrender his childish things -- the harsh reality that there comes a time in life when we have to face the hardship of getting older and becoming an adult; finding that special talent and belief of yourself within yourself; never giving up despite insurmountable odds; never giving up on family; as well as the theme that not everything today has to be edgy and dark to be enjoyable. And in a time when most movies are just mindless, plotless action/rom-com/comedy fare, it's nice to see a story with actual meaning to it. The same heart that made Toy Story 3 so wonderful continues in The Muppets -- plus, the music is catchy and wonderful! This film hits all the right marks for an enjoyable family film. I had a blast watching The Muppets with my kids and would probably watch it again without them!


Skateland

Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez) is a regular teen in 1983 Texas, where he works at a popular albeit struggling roller skate rink, all while pursuing the girl of his dreams (Ashley Greene) and struggling with deciding what to do with his life. Any fan of Outside Providence will thoroughly enjoy this film, with its 1980s soundtrack (think more Adventureland than Pretty in Pink) and good acting -- especially notable is Heath Freeman as the one-time high school star Brent Burkham (think of a character similar to Dazed and Confused's Wooderson). This wasn't that much of a standout film but it did leave an indelible mark in a year full of mindless teenage cinematic fare. In the same vein of Outside Providence and Dazed and Confused, this film fully tackles that scary time in any young person's life: when you realize it's time to grow up and having to painfully let go of the things of your youth, as well as the fear of not knowing what you're going to do or where you're headed.

Soul Surfer

Ever since I saw the trailer for this film, I've wanted to see it. It's got great actors in it and I remember when I heard in the news about the true story of Bethany Hamilton being attacked by a tiger shark in 2003 and losing an arm. Some may be put off by the fact that this film does have a strong presence of Christianity in it. And most would be correct to feel that way as films made with Christianity as its base (i.e. Fireproof and Facing the Giants) have been a little too cheesy and/or too preachy. I'm not much of a religious person, but with films like To Save a Life and especially this one being released, the film production is improving. Don't get me wrong, though, just because this film does have Christianity as just one of its facets, it's not what the entire film revolves around. Soul Surfer hits all the right marks in acting (well, except maybe Carrie Underwood; one can tell she's not a professional actress (see trailer below) and it should stay that way; she's pretty awful), direction (by surfer Sean McNamara), story, pacing, setting, and -- most important with a film like this -- surfing. Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid and Kevin Sorbo all give great performances, but the best here -- as it should be -- is AnnaSophia Robb. This film proves that she is star material! The film is inspirational, showcasing the potential of the best in people. It sort of reminds me of that famously great quote from Jor-El to his son Kal-El (Superman) in the original Superman - The Movie: "They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way." Bethany Hamilton wishes to be that "light" to show people she meets "the way." That's definitely not such a bad thing and with this film to help spread her message of a happy, giving, soulful life, that's not so bad either. 


 Super 8

Sometimes, you go to see a film and it doesn't leave much of an impression on you. Sometimes it's quite the opposite and you're left to thinking about the film and the story over and over again. Super 8 -- wunderkind director J.J. Abrams' third feature film (as a director) -- is definitely slotted in the latter category! When I first viewed the movie trailer, I instantly thought of Steven Spielberg (who produced the film) meets Stephen King -- in the vein of Stand by Me (published as The Body in Different Seasons), It, and Hearts In Atlantis (specifically Low Men in Yellow Coats). After seeing the film, my hunch was correct. If you are a fan of Spielberg's early blockbusters like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or King's previously mentioned books, then this is the film to go see!

What amazed me so much about the story were the characters; they are so likeable and relatable that it makes it easy for the viewer to take these people to heart. The kid actors are all effective and talented, however their characters still don't quite reach The Goonies status. Nevertheless, they are realistic and fun - especially the lead, Joe (Joel Courtney), Alice (Elle Fanning), and Charles (Riley Griffiths). Now, let me take a moment here to completely and shamelessly praise actress Elle Fanning. Big sister Dakota Fanning better watch her back because Elle's performance in this is phenomenal! She encapsulates both a boy's first crush as well as that cool, beautiful girl you knew in school, all in one -- the kind of girl who talks and you just fall in love with her. Plus, she brings exceptional emotional depth to her character and the film; just watch the scene between Alice and Joe when they are watching film footage of Joe's dead mother -- a raw, stirring scene. The heartrending bond that she and Joe have in the film helps the story along to prove that this is more than just some monster flick. As I grow older, I find that my most favorite films are the ones that explore the intricacies of peoples' connectivity and relationships to one another. For all of its special effects and monster hijinks (like in Cloverfield, Abrams borrows from Spielberg's Jaws in not showing too much of the monster), Super 8 focuses on relationships; and it is not in some hokey way, but in a way that imbues the film with a kind of magic. It's that same magic that you feel when you're a kid and the simplest things in life are what matter most -- that magic of innocence, growing up, first love, exploring the world, and standing for what you believe in.

Most of Spielberg's movies have "daddy issues" where the father of the main character(s) is either dead or has left, and Abrams slightly shifts this theme with having the daddy made a widow (the always-likeable Kyle Chandler) who is estranged from his son Joe and has issues with the town drunk, also Alice's dad (Ron Eldard). Add in Joe's crush on Alice plus his growing friendship with the other boys (especially his friend, Charles), and there's a well-balanced summer blockbuster. This is not one of those "deep meaning" movies either; people die ... violently, things blow up (a lot). Considering the other summer releases this year, I believe I'm safe in saying that Super 8 is the summer movie of the year! There is something about this film that makes you want it to last a little longer, but it's good it did not because then it would risk being too overdone. It is not the story that you want to last so much as it is a peek into the journey of these characters' lives.

An aspect I really despise as a critic is writing (or telling people) about how good a film is and then those people going in with such high expectations and when I ask them how it was, they say, "It sucked," or, "It was OK, but I didn't see why you thought it was so great." I know what I say is going to set the bar high for most audiences out there, and they might not like it. It doesn't matter. No matter what you say as a critic, you stand by your claim; my claim is that this is one of the best movies of the year. And with Super 8, the proof is in the story, the direction, the acting, and the music (which is probably composer Michael Giacchino's best work since Up). 


The Swell Season

I have to admit that I'm a huge fan of this duo/band so this documentary making the list is a bit biased. BUT ... for any fan of the 2007 hit film Once, this will be essential viewing! The documentary takes place right after the song "Falling Slowly" won the 2007 Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Song and follows Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (their band name is The Swell Season) as they grapple with success and their budding real-life romance. Now, with the play Once about to debut on Broadway (the original cast recording drops in March 13), this film is the perfect accompaniment to the play. 


 Unknown

Unknown is a wonderful suspense/thriller action-er that finds (the always excellent) Liam Neeson's Dr. Martin Harris fighting an identity crisis as another man (Aidan Quinn) has taken his identity after a car accident. There is a twist that I have to admit that I figured out fairly early in the film. However, that doesn't take away from the film. It all plays out very well. The movie is based on the French novel Unknown by Didier van Cauwelaert, and there is no lull in the film. This is probably the best suspense action film I've seen so far this year. Definitely a film that should've had much better reviews, Unknown delivers the action, drama and suspense that you want in a film.  


 Warrior

It seems I always have some kind of sports-related film on these lists (The Wrestler, The Fighter), and this year was no different. Most critics fell in love with Brad Pitt's Moneyball, but it was this mixed martial artist fighter film about family that I thought shined the most this past year. Warrior -- as the previous fighting films mentioned before -- is about more than just fighting; it's about two estranged brothers, both of whom have childhoods that they are simply trying to move on from. Big brother Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) has a wife and two daughters that he is trying his hardest to support on his meager high school physics teacher salary while little brother Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) is a Marine who has come home to his former alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) in hopes to win prize money for the wife and son of a fallen comrade. The two enter the same tournament where they soon will have to face and fight each other. The film is more than a fight movie; this is a film about confronting one's issues and facing unfinished business. Director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle) brings great pacing and story to the film, with an ending that leaves Moneyball in the dust.


The Way
There have been many actors who have gone on to become successful directors; Ben Affleck comes to mind. But, before Affleck, there was Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club, Billy the Kid in Young Guns). First he directed films Men at Work (co-starring brother Charlie Sheen) and The War at Home in the early 1990s, but it was 2006's Bobby when Estevez really hit his stride. His next project, The Way, stars his father -- the wonderful Martin Sheen -- as a father who has to travel overseas to recover the body of his estranged son (Estevez), who died while traveling the "El camino de Santiago," and then decides to finish the walk himself. Along the way, he meets three other travellers (Yorick van Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt), struggling to find meaning to their own way in life. The performances in this film are solid and the story is emotionally satisfying. This film further proves Estevez's talent at filmmaking (Bobby was one of my top films of 2006), and exemplifies that films don't have to be big budget to be great.


 We Bought a Zoo

The sound of the plot sounds like a complete kids movie (and the audience of the showing I attended would prove that claim), but there is more to this film than meets the eye. Director Cameron Crowe (one of my favorites) co-writes a wonderful screenplay full of engaging, fun characters, based on the true life story of Benjamin Mee, a man who decided to purchase a run-down zoo, fix it up, and re-open it. Matt Damon, Colin Ford (who they did a wonderful job as casting as Damon's son as he looks just like a younger version of him), and Elle Fanning are the stars of this film, and while the animals and kids may seem like the focus, it is the relationships and life issues that take center stage. The film has that particular heartwarming magic that is infused in nearly all of Crowe's films, which is so damn appealing to me; it also features one of the best music scores of the year by Jonsi (of Sigur Ros). I don't know if this is exactly for kids 'cause there are lots of grown-up, dramatic moments, but it's a film I'd see over and over.


X-Men: First Class

The latest edition of X-Men films, X-Men: First Class, is inspired by the 2006-2007 comic that showcased the beginnings of its most famous members beginning with Professor X, Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, and Jean Grey. However, in this film, the team roster includes Professor X, Magneto, Beast, Mystique, Banshee, Havok, Darwin, Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, Azazel, Riptide, and Angel (no, not that Angel - Angel Salvadore a.k.a. Tempest in the comics). Do not let the huge cast fool you, though; this film belongs to Charles Xavier/ Professor X (James McAvoy), and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender)! Although not accurate to all of the origins in the comic, First Class still successfully captures what makes the X-Men so great (and this coming from a guy who prefers DC Comics)! It does not take a philosophy major to tell you that the X-Men are an allegory for race relations, and this film - taking place first during the Nazis' cruel rule and genocide over the Jews in 1944, and then during the turbulent times of 1962 when race relations were at their most volatile - perfectly executes this allegory with its James Bond-type style, solid story and near-faultless character development.

My first question when asking wondering about this film was, "Is it canon with the first three X-Men films?" The answer is a definite "yes" - especially with two particular surprise cameos in the film. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when the movie started because of the recycling of young Lensherr's first display of his magnetic powers (as seen in Bryan Singer's 2000 film X-Men), but, fortunately, that is just the beginning of his -- and the other mutants' -- journey. I haven't been a big X-Men comic fan so I wasn't disappointed by the discrepancies of character origins. For those of you who are fans of the comic, trust me, the origins are greatly altered. One of the great additions to this film was Kevin Bacon as main villain Sebastian Shaw. Bacon has been in his share of hits as well as stinkers, and in most of those films, he's played a good guy. This time, his role proves two things. First, he can act, which is something most critics could tell you. Second, he should play a bad guy more often! Bacon's Shaw is a true villain whose mutant power makes him seem almost indestructible, and therefore, makes him a truly formidable foe. His inevitable defeat is carefully crafted and I think very well-executed. On the other hand, while January Jones' Emma Frost fits the physical traits of the character, her mercenary-like attitude and complex personality are not displayed so well. Many critics have panned Jones' performance, but I also blame the writers who merely didn't give her many good lines -- or a history, for that matter -- to work with. Still, who knows? Hopefully Frost's history will be explored in the inevitable sequel.

One of the best aspects to this film is the relationship between Lensherr/Magneto and Xavier/Prof. X. One of the most powerful, well-acted scenes in the film is when Xavier is trying to teach Lensherr how to hone his magnetic power. Whereas Lensherr had merely used his anger to unleash his power, Xavier teaches him that finding the balance of anger and serenity can help intensify his power, making it possible to lift heavier objects. When Lensherr's memory is revealed to Xavier and the audience, the bond between McAvoy and Fassbender is both poignant and an inspired piece of acting; it captures the "bromance" relationship between the two in a touching way. And that's what this film is based in: the deep relationships between the characters. Their love, their fear, their anger; all of these emotions are what drive the characters in their actions as well as their relationships (i.e., Magneto and Prof. X; Mystique and Beast; Shaw and Magneto), and the writers (and director Matthew Vaughn) stylishly pulled it off. Bryan Singer tried to achieve this same tone in his 2000 debut of the franchise. However, while the original X-Men was good, it was not as good as this. I think it is because of the focus of characters. In the original, the main focus was on Rogue and Wolverine, and in this, the focus is on Professor X and Magneto. While Rogue and Wolverine have interesting backgrounds -- particularly Wolverine who is practically immortal because of his regenerative healing -- the two characters were not written well. There were so many aspects of their histories that could have been explored but were not (fortunately, Wolverine later got his own origin movie). In First Class, X and Magneto were focused on just right while also introducing the other assorted characters. There's something I love when the audience is given a glimpse into how a once-good person turns evil. These kinds of stories remind the viewer that anyone could go down this route because most people have a past that is not always pretty; and Lensherr's past is particularly horrifying. First Class simply gets it right!

I have heard that this is the beginning of a new film trilogy and I surely hope so because this is by far the best of the franchise to date. I'm going to say that this is the best comic adaptation of the year! It balances the drama, action, humor and romance in all the right ways. Plus, let's face it; the explanation of Xavier's paralysis is so much better in this film than in the comic. This is one of those films that will be a hard act to follow, but it's finally a proper film for a great franchise. Now, if they could only get my two favorites - Daredevil and The Punisher - right! That would be uncanny.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! It's kind of sad that the only 2 on this list that I have even seen yet are Harry Potter and X-Men. I'm going to put some of these on my watch-list!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good list! I won't have mine up for a while cause I have a few more movies left to see before I can justify a list.

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