Meier’s Best Films of 2011 (So Far)

Here it is! Finally!

Just like last time, I’ll start this hullabaloo off with a few bonus lists. Also, I want to clarify that my cut-off point for making this Best list (also just like last time) was the moment the new year began.

Okay, enough chit-chat! Feast your eyes and type your replies… now!

 

20 FILMS OF 2011 I STILL WANT TO SEE:

13 Assassins

Albert Nobbs

The Artist

A Dangerous Method

The Descendants

Drive

The Ides of March

Immortals

Melancholia

Midnight in Paris

Our Idiot Brother

Pariah

A Separation

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Take Shelter

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

War Horse

We Bought a Zoo

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Young Adult

 

DOCUMENTARY RECOMMENDATION:

Bill Cunningham New York

 

5 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2011 I STILL WANT TO SEE:

Forks Over Knives

The Interrupters

Project Nim

Senna

Tabloid

 

THE BEST:

 

10. THE TRIP

starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, and Margo Stilley. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Not rated.

You may recognize Brydon as the unlucky traffic warden from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. You might remember Coogan as the briefly available film-within-a-film director from Tropic Thunder. Or if you’re acceptionally savvy with your attention to movies, you’ll know them both from Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. As the comic duo did in Shandy, Coogan and Brydon once again play imperfect variations of themselves – that latest craze of comedic performance popularized by Stephen Colbert, Andy Kaufman before him, and so on. Coogan is assigned by a magazine to adjudicate the prepared dishes of several spaced out high-class resorts. Brydon fills in for Coogan’s unavailable girlfriend as a compadre for the long drives. This sets up a fun and reverent magnifying glass on their wishy-washy friendship – full of guffaw-worthy moments of Coogan stomaching Brydon’s endless flow of impersonations (of Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Billy Connelly, and others) as well as moments of melancholy while the pair try to comprehend one another’s disposition. Coogan wonders how Brydon can so easily put love and family before his own career and fame while Brydon quietly wishes his friend would end youthful antics like his sleeping around and his narcissism to discover happiness in new corners. The two Brits play off of each other very well, and although Winterbottom revels in his simplistic direction, it’s enough to sell the viewer in wanting to ride along.

 

9. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow. Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Rated PG-13.

Two popular, long-running entertainment franchises finally hooked me this year and gave me the urge to investigate their earlier offerings – both of which finding a spot in this batch of the best. This prequel drastically exceeded many exhausted expectations (primarily spurred from Tim Burton’s 2000 clunker remake of the original) and arrived at the eleventh hour to serve as the summer’s most exciting action film. If you read my Worst list, you may recall my bringing up a trip to the Winchester drive-in with a double feature containing one great film and one stinker; this is the great one. My wife Roo had never been to one before, and this was a great film to introduce her to the too-often forgotten cinematic tradition. Granted, you don’t need to step back too far to pinpoint the movie’s problems like the lack of San Fransisco’s security in preventing such anarchy on the Golden Gate bridge or the dull performance of Slumdog Millionaire beauty Pinto. However, Wyatt’s film flourishes by holding tight to the audience’s rightfully earned sympathy toward the apes – eventually led by the laboratory’s guinea pig of a chimp Caesar (awesomely played in mo-cap by the always observant, always creative Serkis). We follow and relate to Caesar as he grows up, surpasses his guardian (Franco) in intelligence, and overcomes his initial outcast status among his own kind to prove victorious in owning the uprising. The howls and hoots truthfully represent unsettling battle cries, and the climactic action is unapologetically in your face. It’s just my cup of odd.

 

8. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg. Directed by Brad Bird. Rated PG-13.

This is that other franchise. This is also the film that will be the hardest to type about – given that I’m not entirely sure what qualifies as a spoiler. So here we go: a stroll through a minefield… Some things that seem clear:

A: Bird is one of the best directors Hollywood has – whether it be animation (Ratatouille, The Iron Giant) or live action (M:I4 is his first foray). As he also proved with The Incredibles, Bird has a talent for seemingly not letting up on the fast-paced action even when he actually does at certain points. In other words, he’s a master at keeping the audience invested.

B: “Building-climbing gloves” scene. Works. Rules.

C: I’d say Renner as the replacement for the hero of the film saga (if he is in fact that – which seems to be the case in light of the aging Cruise) will indeed keep me coming back for more. He admittedly has a bit more work to do in honing the required skills, but I love the angle of apprehension for the job. It’s honest, and I have faith the two-time Oscar-nominee can convey it.

D: Back to Cruise. Think what you will of his personal life; from what I’ve seen of his work as Ethan Hunt, the guy has earned his spot in the canon of action heroes. I don’t understand why he insists on overshadowing his carefully tinkered talent as a screen actor when he’s capable of such grandiosity.

E: Reliant cast. Pegg, Patton, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Nyqvist, Lea Seydoux, Anil Kapoor, Josh Holloway, etc. All people who are team players.

My one qualm is with the villain Cobalt’s final move, but it wasn’t questionable enough to be a deal-breaker. I choose to accept this latest installment.

 

7. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

starring Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, and Stellan Skarsgaard. Directed by David Fincher. Rated R.

The first feature length adaptation from Sweden (originally part of a television miniseries in its homeland) made this list last year in a better ranking, but both movies are thankfully equal at boasting a commanding presence; I gave both 4 out of 5 stars. What Fincher’s interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s first novel of three focuses on more – instead of the harsh terms of the Swedish government and unpopular politics – is his outlook of the story as the dark hybrid of a spy thriller and an Agatha Christie mystery that it is deep down. While the tale – details and all – was the centerpiece of the foreign film from director Neils Arden Oplev, Fincher finds room to slide in a black mamba-like ferocity – venom and all – at every turn. The opening credits were quickly compared to those of a James Bond movie, but I’ll keep going with this train of thought and highlight how the entirety of the film is a grim, cold cohesion of the common “007” plot structure. How else to explain how when the accused murderer is revealed and shown in action, the antagonist feels as instantly classic and memorable as Auric Goldfinger (maybe the Enya song?)? There are elements of Oplev’s film I definitely prefer more (Sorry, Mara fans – I found Noomi Rapace more fascinating as Lisbeth) and likewise with Fincher’s (oh, that score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – acing it as they did with Fincher’s previous The Social Network). Neither movie is a miss, and that could have more to do with the late author behind it all.

 

6. 50/50

starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Rated R.

I’ll just lay it out there: More people should have seen this movie. Yes, it’s about a young man (Gordon-Levitt) who is blasted with the life-altering news that he has spinal cancer – big downer of a set-up, I know. Hang on. What results from that sorrowful diagnosis forward in Will Reiser’s deeply personal, home-hitting screenplay (that deserves an Oscar nomination) is a tangled, incognito display of the stages of grief through earnestly funny scenarios standing side-by-side with those inescapable moments of honest fear and reliance on loved ones. It’s been reported that Rogen practically played his past self for this film since he also volunteered to be Reiser’s window to sanity during key times of the illness. Rogen’s role is essential; without this tight of a bonding friendship, no movie would or should dare to mesh stoner humor or horny anecdotes with such emotionally draining drama – even if reality is like this and doesn’t let up to those deserving. 50/50 has a winning handful of other essentials as well. Gordon-Levitt provides a spectacular performance as the unlucky, imperfect neat-freak boiling on the inside for several logical reasons: cheating girlfriend (Howard), smothering mother (Anjelica Huston – criminally over-looked here during all this pre-Oscar buzz), father with Alzheimer’s, and now cancer. He plays the role with a prickly intellectual exterior that convinces the viewers – like his loyal peers and family – to refuse to give up on his case… that this isn’t the way this young man is supposed to bow out. But no matter how mellow the medicinal marijuana from his new-found cancer-stricken friends (the excellent supporting actors Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) cause him to be, no matter how endearing his blossoming romance with his rookie psychologist (Kendrick) begins to pan out, the sudden and harsh elephant in the room known as death maintains a very real chance of topping it all. It puts this highly-organized guy’s time on a pedestal, but even though it’s through the toughest way possible, he learns that the way to fully live life and find happiness is to take a chance once in a while…

Wow, that last part came off cliche. Regardless, it’s the only film this year that really did make me laugh and cry. It helped remind me how fortunate we all are to have medical professionals doing everything they can to save the people we cherish.

 

5. THE TREE OF LIFE

starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, and Hunter McCracken. Directed by Terrence Malick. Rated PG-13.

Nearly a year ago I read an online article asking its readers which movie generally perceived as a classic would they personally consider to be incredibly overhyped. The most common answer in the comments section appeared to be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The overall gripe mainly cited the long, quiet moments of tension as dull and the bizarre hard-to-explain ending as a cop-out. These uncommitted, easily impatient trolls should not see The Tree of Life. The concept of Malick’s close-knit existensial film is truthfully not as difficult to grasp as its backlash could have you believe. The running theme is the peculiar competition between grace and nature that our protagonist Jack (Penn) has decided accelerates life, and through the assistance of a majority of “organic” visual effects from vanguard Douglas Trumbull (who also worked on 2001), we comprehend how Jack’s theory may have existed since the creation of Earth – always in a love-hate sense. It’s an artful, colossal film with so much to discuss afterward – whether it be questioning why Jack decides his childhood in a ’60s suburban neighborhood is the chief focal point of his epiphany or why his parents (Pitt and Chastain) so often seemed to embody each side of the universal feud. While it seemed impossible to leave Malick’s very well done flick off of my top ten, it has taken some time for me to fully gather my concrete thoughts about it (and I’m not entirely sure I have now). I was entranced at times and was distracted away from entrancement at other times. I’m honestly still trying to decipher my generalized feelings on Tree of Life, but a part of me doesn’t want to for fear it will destroy the parts I loved. This may sound irresponsible for a critic, but I don’t care – it’s damn sure not the first time I’ve let go like this for a motion picture. Sometimes a movie can be as majestic as a dance performance or a mural – it can knock you off your tall soap-box and stun you to the point that you question how quickly you want to return. I won’t paraphrase that old nugget “The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone” because – in its natural presence – it’s for anyone; it just may not hit every individual at the right moment in life.

 

4. MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, and Emma Watson. Directed by Simon Curtis. Rated R.

There are two different ways to watch this comedy/drama/biopic. You could view it through the same eyes its detractors did and later complain that too much of the plot hinges on the must-be-great performance of the iconic screen star Marilyn Monroe (probably true). Or you could watch it for what it truly is: An authentic-feeling telling of the struggles and toxicity behind making the relatively forgotten light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl – as experienced by the young third assistant director Colin Clark (Redmayne). I’m not here to wager how truthful Clark’s seductive story about his supposed fling with the American bombshell (then married to playwright Arthur Miller) is or isn’t; I will say Curtis and his cast are dutifully convincing in conveying the tale. Nearly any actress with a perky smile and an hourglass figure could probably perform a passable Monroe as seen by the adoring public (you know – that whole “Gee, I would’ve never imagined!” risque-flirting-through-innocence act). Williams not only captures this in spades but shines even more as the Monroe very few could see yet would learn of later: the exhausted, pill-reliant, alone, thoroughly-confused-by-sudden-superstardom-beyond-repair girl underneath. As much as I respect Viola Davis (the presumed leader in the expected Best Actress race and unquestionably the strength of this summer’s breakout The Help), Williams is the one who should win the Oscar. Her performance is absolutely uncanny – everything it should be and more. Also splendid is Branagh as one of his longtime heroes Sir Olivier. His agitated asides about his lead actress’ tardiness, line-fumblings, over-thinking of the farce, and insistence to be coddled by her cohorts are wickedly snippy. It’s a story of one lead wanting to prove he could be a movie star while the other wants to prove she could act; their intentions together were simply too much of an undertaking for the material of the screenplay in this instance. A subtle implication repeated in My Week that Olivier (though married to Vivien Leigh) may have had lustful eyes for Monroe mainly goes nowhere, but the story of Clark and Monroe is at least a believable friendship with benefits – particularly due to the overwhelming English atmosphere to the friendless Monroe. Sweet movie.

 

3. HUGO

starring Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Ben Kingsley. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rated PG.

The hype surrounding the film itself is true; this is a grandiose blemish in the history of marketing for a movie. Never mind that crappy poster with the computerized illustration of the heart-shaped key floating in the night via pixie dust. Overlook the second-grader-friendly ads that seem to subliminally plug Nickelodeon – complete with a comedian who typically works blue (Cohen) dressed as a train station employee (George Carlin as Mr. Conductor, anyone?)… Actually, forget I even said these ultimately unnecessary public service announcements; Scorsese’s elegant, nearly wordless opener zooming through the Parisian locale’s inner- and outer-walls will have you faintly remembering there were any posters in your cinema’s lobby at all. Just like 1995’s astoundingly produced Best Picture nominee Babe, Hugo is less a film for the offspring and more a film for dreamers of any age. This adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s book of fiction is hardly the first time the crime-drama-afficianado Scorsese has dabbled in foreign territory (The Age of Innocence, for example), but it’s refreshing to see a big-name filmmaker continue to push the boundaries of his creativity while always remembering to flex his own legitimate style. It’s as if he and Brad Bird (see No. 8 on this list) passed each other through a revolving door, firmly holding on to their play-by-play notebooks with post-it bookmarks for the potentially transferrable. The mystery the two kids (Butterfield and Moretz) delight in tackling leads to the inclusion of Georges Melies (Kingsley) – a pioneer in film who very much existed in real life and whose work is highly respected today by cinema buffs. Part of the charm of Hugo (as one would learn in researching Melies after seeing the movie) is its spinning and sewing of a more satisfying finish for an old man who richly deserved one – fantasizing and playing with history in the same fashion Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds did with the fall of the Nazis. The difference is while this fantasy achieves convincingly selling its fiction, it also circles the moral that sources of inspiration do not necessarily come with expiration dates – unafraid of allowing the actual timeless work of Melies to welcomely steal the show. There are some unsurprising pitfalls Scorsese tries to tiptoe past (like failure in giving the female roles stronger reason to the story) and unanswered questions that seem relevant (What exactly made Hugo lose his father?), but these are all afterthought quibbles. Hugo is too much of a fun, eye-candy immersion to recall potentially minute details during the sit-through. Sometimes the mantra “Relax – it’s just a show,” is the key to joy.

 

2. BRIDESMAIDS

starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Paul Feig. Rated R.

When a movie is a well-oiled machine – when the cast, director, production value, screenplay, and everything else seem in a totally correct place throughout the events on screen, chances are the viewing will be a highly rewarding experience. When said movie is a comedy, the spontaneous laughter is a huge part of that reward. When said movie is a gross-out comedy (and never forgets it) and it still causes – through the laughter – nationwide talk of how it is one of the smartest portrayals of today’s adult working women, how could you not know you’re watching something acceptionally special? Such is the case with Bridesmaids, the smash summer comedy disguised with a typical Ferrell-ish romp exterior but really speaks volumes to those willing to get their fingers a little dirty. It was because of this flawless veil that I initially had no interest in seeing the film; I’ve been burned on too many marriage-themed comedies in the past (including Wedding Crashers). How foolish I was to doubt Wiig. In my eyes, Wiig has always had a keen knowledge of comedic acting – from her work on Spike TV’s voyeauristic prank-reality program “The Joe Schmo Show” to her Emmy-nominated work on “Saturday Night Live” – and she’s always game to learn a little more and roll with the punches. With Bridesmaids, Wiig is in the zone as Annie (writing the movie herself as well, teaming with Annie Mumolo) – running through a playground of several chances to show what she does best. A huge part of why she excells is the comfortably constructed supporting cast surrounding her, rounding up the title half of the ceremony with five of the (formerly) most underrated comediennes in show biz who all pleasantly reveal a prestige organic flow as an ensemble. Rudolph as the bride-to-be and Byrne as the competitive, rich, possible-replacement best friend are refreshingly given fully fleshed out characters and solidly make them seem fun to befriend. And of course, there’s former “Gilmore Girls” player McCarthy with her out-of-left-field eccentric tomboy Megan; all McCarthy needed was a shot to wedge her foot in the door and – who knew? – time and freedom for improvizational character-background work. Her efforts were not in vain – she was obviously granted more screen-time for the tour-de-force portrayal (and I imagine Oscar will recognize this and nominate her). Bridesmaids is an eruption of intentionally un-P.C. material from a source that has been gradually building up for a very long time, but above all else, it is genuinely hilarious. Everyone involved – including producer Judd Apatow and director Feig – are responsible for one of the most accomplished comedies I have seen in a while.

 

1. MONEYBALL
starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Chris Pratt. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated PG-13.

I’m still amazed that I could like a film formed around professional baseball as much as I do with Moneyball; unless I’m at a live game, watching baseball usually bores me more than watching golf. However the more I consider it, the more it makes sense; I’m hard-pressed to remember any bad-to-awful baseball flicks when my mind immediately jumps to good-to-great films like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Major League, and others (Even some I haven’t seen yet like The Natural and The Pride of the Yankees are preceded by their excellent reputations). Maybe baseball’s luck as a long-running movie theme has something to do with its potential for various easy-to-understand action shots and its unmistakable lingo (which is expertly used in Moneyball‘s screenplay by a tag-team effort from Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian – adapted from Michael Lewis’ book). These movies often come packed with a cliched whistful energy to help suggest to the viewer that dreams come true with a little determination. Moneyball tactfully alludes leaning on this crutch by sticking to the real-life epiphanies and critical thinking that led to the prominant progress of the Oakland A’s for one memorable season. One day A’s general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) – a former player himself with an upsetting past – gets restless with the unfair deals, trading and politics between owners that has caused America’s Pastime to become predetermined and – let’s face it – wasteful of teams (Beane himself has just lost the white-hot-at-the-time Johnny Damon to the Boston Red Sox). Pitt is marvelous at physically expressing Beane’s aggravated mindset steadily seeping out before he discovers Peter Brand (a still-tubby Hill – taking his fictional role and running with it for his first Oscar-worthy performance). Brand is a young analytical expert Beane confronts in Cleveland with an eye for scouting overlooked players and – just as important – the same passion for the sport as Beane. Despite the inevitable naysayers scruffy to change – particularly the team manager (Hoffman – once again working with the director who helped him net his Oscar for Capote) – Beane and his rookie partner stick to their nothing-to-lose plan to prove there is method to the madness. It’s already apparent by the Oscar buzz (and, pending your stock in my opinion, what I’ve just written) that the acting and writing of Moneyball are solid, but I strongly feel the clever Miller’s direction is unjustifiably getting brushed aside. Like Martin Scorsese, Brad Bird, Steven Spielberg, and several other directors this year, Miller has made a film that feels quite different and against grain from his typical offerings, and among the bunch, Miller brought the most dignity and class to the act. I saw Moneyball with friends who do like MLB, knew the story fairly well, and had anticipated this film for a whole year. I went in holding strong to my great expectations for a film, definitely the one of us who would be quick to jump all over anything feeling out of place. All three of us left devoutly respectful of the representation. I don’t own any baseball-centric movies in my DVD collection. Moneyball may be the first and only.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Adjustment Bureau
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The Help
The Muppets
Rubber

 

Please feel free to leave a comment. Don’t forget to look for my official predictions of the Academy Award nominations – coming later this week.

7 Responses to “Meier’s Best Films of 2011 (So Far)”

  1. Josh Glasgow says:

    Glad to see a shout-out to “Rubber” there at the end man. I still think it’s the best of the year, but I haven’t seen many of the titles you’ve got here: “Moneyball”, “50/50”, “My Week with Marilyn”, “Hugo”. I hope I get to them soon.

    • Chris Meier says:

      True story: I kept ‘Rubber’ on my best ten list as long as I could. It’s either 11 or 12 on my list for sure – very enjoyable flick.

      I still haven’t seen many titles on your list either. I’m pretty much rocking back and forth to see ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Melancholia’.

  2. Nathan says:

    50/50 was fantastic. I forgot about that film because it came and went – relatively unnoticed – but delivered powerfully in a very real way.

    One of the top films of the year for sure.

    • Chris Meier says:

      Thanks, Nathan – glad you agree. I blame that ridiculous and dull poster for sealing the deal of preventing butts in the seats. Real shame… I hope many discover it next week.

  3. Fuck SOPA says:

    Only two of your top ten films saw fewer than 630 movie screens. And there’s only two foreign-language films in this entire article, each being one of the most talked about films of the year. You should try harder to be better.

    • Chris Meier says:

      Think what you will, Nick – honest responses are encouraged. Just know I make no apologies about this list. When I watch a movie, I try my hardest to judge and fairly assess everything in and about it – including origin and popularity. Still, no reason not to try harder; I promise I will.

      Perhaps if 2011 were a year of more charismatic variety and – frankly – stronger films (I gave no perfect 5-of-5-star reviews), maybe you would have read a list more suited to your standards. But even if the year had presented me with more than enough masterpieces, there’s no way I would show a film so much pity for getting screwed by mainstream cinemas that this fact alone would propel it to my ten best. If it seems like one of the best films of the year then it has a good chance of making the cut; that’s as much of a promise I can make for it. That’s how it’s always been.

  4. Chris Meier says:

    Just saw ‘Midnight in Paris’. I’d probably slide it into the seventh spot.

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