Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cancer, Muppets, and Ghostface, Oh My! The Best Films of 2011

2011 certainly isn’t my favorite year for movies, but I manged to find a handful of really enjoyable films. There were lots of movies I liked but not many movies that I really truly LOVED. But there are definitely some keepers. Without further ado here’s my list of my favorite films of 2011:

1) Bridesmaids

Unjustly referred to as the female “Hangover,” “Bridesmaids” is an altogether different beast. “Bridesmaids” actually has a sweet story of friendship at the center of the raunchiness (and really the Bridal Shop scene is the only real/literal potty humor in the whole thing) – it’s about dealing with those around you moving on with their lives and what it can sometimes do to your psyche. The story of Annie (Kristin Wiig, funny as ever), as she tries to deal with her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolf) engagement and the rivalry that begins between her and Lillian’s new friend Helen (a standout Rose Byrnes), is altogether hilarious and sweet. There are too many standout scenes to mention here, but this is a wonderful and heartfelt comedy with a standout cast, endlessly quotable dialogue (“I cracked a blanket in half”) and one of the most humorous supporting performances of the year by Oscar-nominee and scene stealer Melissa McCarthy. This is a hilarious movie worth watching over and over again. It’s the best of the year.

2) 50/50

Cancer has had an interesting ride at the movies. Sometimes they’re award-winning crowd pleasers like 1983’s “Terms of Endearment” or sometimes they’re raunchy Seth Rogen comedies like this year’s wonderfully funny yet moving “50/50.” Screenwriter Will Reiser tells the semi-autobiographical story of Adam (a sublime Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a 27 year old who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer. His odds are 50/50 according to the Internet and he must begin chemotherapy. The film follows Adam as he learns to deal with his prognosis and how it affects his relationship with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his best friend (Rogen). This is such a wonderful film that deserves to be seen. It tells such a touching story of friendship and while it may make you reach for a Kleenex it refuses to delve into schmaltzy overdramatic territory. A Nicolas Sparks adaptation this is not.

3) Shame

It’s too bad this wonderful (though NC-17 rated) film failed to earn one single Oscar nomination because it’s one of the most well-made films of the year. Director Steve McQueen tells the story of Brandon, a Manhattan single man in his 30s who harbors a dirty secret: he’s a sex addict. Whether you agree that sex addiction is a real psychological disorder is irrelevant – this is a compelling story of a person dealing with something he cannot control. His constant need to feel pleasure is counterbalanced with a desire that usually steers him in the completely wrong direction. He must take time from his workday to “pleasure himself” in the bathroom. He sits alone in his apartment watching porn. He hires prostitutes. Things start going wrong when his rambunctious sister decides to crash at his place for a few days. This is such a lovely story about siblings and their need and dependency on one another. A beautiful film with beautiful performances.

4) Scream 4

If you’re a die hard Scream fan like me, then you either supremely loathed or absolutely loved this fourth entry. The film’s setting returns to the familiar town of Woodsboro with a bunch of new teenagers to slaughter. Dewey, Gale, and Sidney, who are probably some of the greatest characters ever written for a slasher film return to the meta world of the franchise where seven Stab films have been released and a new set of horror movie “rules” have been established. I just simply loved the banter of the new and old characters, who mesh very nicely together. There are some great kills (that bedroom kill is gruesome and reminiscent of Wes Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street) and great laughs, as the humor dial is turned up to 11, perhaps too high for some. A wonderful return to form for Craven and Kevin Williamson, and a real treat for slasher freaks like me. So what if it bombed horribly at the box office, it reinvigorated one of my all-time favorite movie franchises.

5) Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Who knew that the fourth film in the Mission Impossible franchise would be the best? And who even wanted a fourth Mission: Impossible movie?? Animation director Brad Bird breaks out into live action with this terrifically filmed action flick with one jaw-dropping sequence after another – including a scene set on the outside of the tallest building in the world no less. Much of the movie was filmed with IMAX cameras and to see it all up on that huge screen is a wonder to behold. Tom Cruise has never been more likable and he’s surround by such wonderful actors including Paula Patton (from “Precious”), Jeremy Renner (from “The Hurt Locker”), and Simon Pegg (from “Shaun of the Dead”). This is big budget Hollywood Blockbuster filmmaking at its best.

6) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Leave it to David Fincher to have a movie about a woman killing rapist be one of the best of the year. Yeah the subject matter is rather intense, but this is one of the most compelling and flat-out interesting and stylistic films of the year. Fincher, who has made a few departures from his trademark gritty style in the past couple years returns to form telling the story of a journalist (Daniel Craig) who partners up with a goth computer hacker (Oscar nominee Rooney Mara) to help solve a murder mystery. The film has an appropriately cold look and feel, yet the relationship that develops between these characters is so well developed, they practically cause sparks. The film features a brilliant score from the guys who made last year’s brilliant Oscar-winning score for “The Social Network” and it features one of the coolest opening title sequences of all time. A must see.

7) The Muppets

Are you a man or a Muppet? That is the question. Those fun-loving furry friends are back in “The Muppets” a wonderful throwback to the days when puppets ruled the TV set. The lovable characters created by the late, great Jim Henson are back in their first big screen adventure since the 1999’s “Muppets from Space.” This time the Muppets play themselves as they try to reunite to save their beloved Muppet studio from a greedy oil tycoon (played by Chris Cooper of course). Jason Segal, known for his raunchy comedies, co-wrote and stars in this fun adventure with the wonderfully wide-eyed Amy Adams (who was born to star in a Muppet film) are a couple who help the Muppet gang back together. A new Muppet is introduced – Gary, (Segal’s onscreen brother) is a welcome addition to the roster of colorful characters you know and love so well. There are many tremendously fun songs to be had here. Just good plain family fun.

8) Hugo

Leave it to Martin Scorsese to make a big-budget 3D family adventure about film preservation into a brilliant piece of entertaining filmmaking. Hugo, based on the popular young adult novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” tells the story of a young orphan boy (young Elijah Wood look-a-like Asa Butterfield) who lives in a Paris train station where he works on a and fixes clocks. He uncovers a mechanical man invention who may hold a secret message from his dead father and it eventually leads him on a magical journey of discovery. Ben Kingsley gives a great performance as Georges Méliès a founding father of cinema. The craft here is impeccable. The set design and the costumes and the wonderful 3D cinematography from master Robert Richardson is unmatched. It’s truly a fun and enjoyable family friendly adventure.

9) Insidious

“Insidious” is simply one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. I can’t even tell you how creepy this film is until you see it yourself. It dares to go places you haven’t seen before – and I’m not talking about blood and guts – which is ironic seeing as thought the guys who started the “Saw” franchise made this thing. Sort of like a modern day “Poltergeist” the story is about a young couple Rose Bryne and Patrick Wilson – whose son becomes “lost” in another dimension. It seems an evil force has take over him. This “evil force” is one of the more creepy and disturbing horror movie characters I’ve seen in recent memory. The “lipstick face demon” as he’s known in the film’s closing credits is an image you won’t soon forget. He’ll haunt your dreams. This is good old-fashioned suspenseful haunted house fun that’s not to be missed.

10) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This is the movie that surprised everyone. No one epected this big-budget August release to be anything special. Sure it featured cool-looking motion capture effects, but no one was aching for a follow-up to Tim Burton’s miscalculated (but still enjoyable) “Planet of the Apes” remake. Starring James Franco as a brilliant scientist, of course, this “Apes” prequel tells the story of Cesar a generically altered intelligent chimpanzee (played by the mo-cap vet Andy Serkis) who leads a uprising against the human race. This is a surprisingly emotionally nuanced and fun film that takes its time getting to the money shots of apes taking over San Francisco. The effects are spot on and the performances are great and the action is exciting. What more can you ask for in a summer blockbuster?

Honorable Mentions: Young Adult, The Artist, Final Destination 5, Drive, Horrible Bosses, X-Men: First Class, The Help, Moneyball, Captain America: The First Avenger, Contagion

And here's a tribute to the year that was 2011: