Per usual, my goal as a critic is to find the happy medium between my growing film studies background and simply being able to sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Over the past year, being enrolled in Columbia University’s Film MFA program has undoubtedly affected my reviews, but focusing on a film’s entertainment value is still a top priority with filmmaking quality a close second and that’s as evident as ever in my list of the top ten films of 2011.
Paranormal Activity is officially three for three. Since 2009, the franchise’s latest installment has landed in my top ten of the year. The odds were against Paranormal Activity 3 in just about every way possible. First off, how many solid horror franchises are out there? There’s generally always that point where it becomes more about the shtick and moneymaking than quality. Then there’s the fact that the Paranormal Activity movies rely heavily on the found footage technique. How long could that really last? After Paranormal Activity 2 kicked it up a notch, going from a sole camcorder to an in-house security system, Paranormal Activity 3 managed to downgrade the technology, tracking back from 2006 to 1988, and still maintains an incredible degree of ingenuity. Then there’s the cast. Where does this franchise find these people and why aren’t they in more movies? Year after year, Paranormal Activity boasts some of the most natural performances and this year two of those come from actresses under the age of 11.
Great Quote: “He’s my friend.”
Talk about just getting in under the wire; I only just got aboard the Win Win train courtesy of a last minute awards screener. This is one of those movies that really has it all – heart, humor and an overall great story. Writer-director Thomas McCarthy keeps things rather simple, putting his characters through a great deal of conflict, but letting them drive the story. Similar to The Visitor, the situation in Win Win has big repercussions, but the piece is still incredibly accessible. This also has a great deal to do with the stellar performances, all of which do the film a great service by making the players feel real. Alex Shaffer isn’t being welcomed into Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan’s home with open arms; the Flahertys are as much of a family as your neighbors. Of course Shaffer has the added benefit of being a first time actor – we only know him as the troubled but talented high school wrestler, Kyle – but, after Win Win his status will undoubtedly change and odds are, he’ll have no trouble fully immersing himself in new characters like his top-notch co-stars.
Great Quote: “What’s it like to be as good as you are?”
While this is my eighth favorite movie of 2011, this also might be one of the most overlooked films of the year and I have a feeling it might have a little something to do with the release of The Wrestler in 2008 and The Fighter in 2010. They just stole Warrior’s thunder. All three are particularly well done, but I’d have to put Warrior on top based on sheer entertainment value. I’m no MMA fan, but I can certainly see why people are so into it. The actual fighting in Warrior is some of the most exhilarating action of the year and the beat downs are further fueled by two wildly likable leads who go head-to-head with one another. Both Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are pitch perfect in their roles, but it’s Hardy’s Tommy Conlon that stands out as he’s the one buried under far more conflict, resulting in a character that really has his work cut out for him when it comes to winning a viewer’s heart.
Great Quote: “You owe me 200 bucks.” (And, of course, the fight that precedes it.)
Have I joined team 3D? Absolutely not, but Hugo is officially the first feature film that actually uses the technology to enhance the experience. (Well, Hugo and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but that’s in an entirely different fashion.) But, of course, with or without 3D, Hugo needs a solid story to tell and novelist Brian Selznick and screenwriter John Logan are exceedingly successful both in developing a tale that’s ripe for telling on the big screen and also something that simply honors the industry and will make any movie lover feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It took long enough, but we finally got a feature that packs both mesmerizing visuals and a compelling narrative resulting in something that’s a downright blast to watch and remarkably rousing, too.
Great Quote: “Machines never come with any extra parts, you know? They always come with the exact amount they need, so I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason! And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”
After watching this one time and time again since its release, I’m convinced that anyone who doesn’t have a soft spot for The Help just doesn’t have a heart. This is easily one of the most moving films of the year. It’s Viola Davis all the way if I had my say at the Academy Awards and then either Jessica Chastain or Octavia Spencer in the supporting category, if not Bryce Dallas Howard. On top of being particularly memorable performances, the characters themselves are incredibly well defined. The Help clocks in at a whopping 146 minutes, but writer-director Tate Taylor puts every minute to good use, delivering a stellar amount of character development and scene after scene of hearty laughs, rousing arguments and even good cries. The Help pulls your emotions every which way, but stays grounded via Emma Stone’s Skeeter Phelan as well as the piece’s rock solid tone. The Help exhibits all-around excellent filmmaking and a poignant story to boot.
Great Quote: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
I had a love/don’t-really-love relationship with Bridesmaids. (Yes, “hate” was just far too strong a word.) When it first came out, I enjoyed it, but felt the comedy and drama clashed a bit too much. While I still think that that’s the case, there’s no denying that this one’s grown on me big time. You know when something gets funnier the more you watch it? Bridesmaids is the perfect example of that. Even as someone who generally disapproves of poop humor, that bowel debacle at the dress shop is downright hilarious and now that I’ve seen the movie dozens of times over, I laugh so hard I get a stomachache just watching it. But, in all seriousness, this is quite the achievement for Kristen Wiig. Not only did she and co-writer Annie Mumolo put together a hilarious script jam packed with madly memorable characters, but Wiig herself basically carries the movie. Don’t get me wrong; Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper are all standouts, but it’s Wiig’s character and performance that pull the whole piece together.
Great Quote: “You smell like pine needles, and have a face like sunshine!”
Runner-Up: “Why can’t you be happy for me and then go home and talk about me behind my back like a normal person?”
Best score of the year! Okay, that likely won’t happen, but part of the reason James Wan’s latest stuck with me was because of its madly fitting and flat out horrifying musical accompaniment. But, of course, a good score needs a good film to reach its full potential and Wan delivers quite well considering Insidious doesn’t tread into gory territory like his Saw series. In fact, it’s films like Insidious that go to show that you don’t need to rip a victim limb from limb to offer up a good scare; in Insidious’ case, all you really need is a guy hiding on the ceiling with his face painted red. On the acting front, everyone wins big, but two thumbs way up for Rose Byrne and Lin Shaye. After years of not being particularly thrilled with Byrne’s performances, she brings us Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids and Insidious. That’s three characters I’ll never forget. And, speaking of memorable roles, how about Shaye as Elise Rainier? I totally should have rocked a gas mask and gone as her this past Halloween.
Great Quote: “It’s not the house that is haunted. It’s your son.”
With movies like Battle: Los Angeles and The Darkest Hour dropping this year, we should be incredibly thankful Joe Cornish got Attack the Block into the mix. And Attack the Block isn’t just better than Battle: LA and The Darkest Hour; it’s amongst the top tier of alien invasion movies in general. This is certainly one of the most inventive ET attack movies we’ve seen in quite some time, boasting an excellent combination of crude humor, heart and action. Newcomer John Boyega carries the film well through a character that goes through an extensive transformation and takes his exceptionally likable buddies along for the ride. Thanks to the comradery between the boys of Attack the Block, the film doesn’t fall into the trap of losing sight of its characters in exchange for hyping up the aliens. In fact, I’d like to bet you could put Moses, Sam and co. in just about any situation and they’d still look like a blast to hang out with. Then again, who would want to do that when it would mean axing the most visually pleasing aliens seen on screen all year. Another problem that plagues the ET invasion genre is silly looking aliens. However, the Attack the Block design team takes the smart route, giving us something that lacks intricate details and rather is defined by strikingly obvious traits – a furry black body and glowing mouth.
Great Quote: “That’s an alien bruv, believe it.”
I still defend Jennifer’s Body to this day, but I can understand why some avid Juno fans didn’t take to writer Diablo Cody’s follow-up feature. It was almost like Cody saw what people responded to in Juno, namely her snarky writing, and then took it to an extreme. Then again, I contest that that was what was suitable for the subject matter and tone of that film. Well, Jennifer’s Body fan or not, Cody is back and this time I’d like to bet her writing will return to being a wider crowd pleaser. Young Adult mirrors the tamer talk of Juno, but puts a more, well, adult spin on it. Mavis Gary is still very much stuck in high school, but her problems are far more mature and Cody absolutely nails the combination of the two. Young Adult boasts what I consider the most well written scene all year, the moment when Mavis sits down with Collette Wolfe’s character, Sandra Freehauf, for a brief heart-to-heart. Of course this also has a bit to do with the performances and director Jason Reitman couldn’t have had a more successful casting process. Further adding to the film’s uncomfortable hilarity is watching an acclaimed and poised actress like Charlize Theron get out of bed and chug a bottle of Diet Coke first thing in the morning. As good as Theron is, Patton Oswalt nearly steals the spotlight as Matt Freehauf, a former high school nerd and now one of few who’s willing to put up with Mavis’ attitude. Juno and now Young Adult? Why would Reitman and Cody ever bother working with anyone but each other?
Great Quote: “You just gonna stand there like a big old lump? I love your sweater!”
My favorite movie of all time is Jurassic Park. No, War Horse doesn’t have dinosaurs in it, but that still should give you a sense of why I fell head over heels for Steven Spielberg’s latest. There’s a reason Spielberg is one of the most well known filmmakers out there; he makes movies for everyone. Yes, I know the story here is rather idealistic, but what’s wrong with that when it makes a movie so overwhelmingly stirring? I’m particularly picky when it comes to films that involve animals and ones that have a running time over two hours. As for the animals, I find that they’re generally used as cheap shots, a quick punch to the gut when the filmmaker decides it’s time for you to cry. Sure, War Horse will make you teary eyed, but it earns every drop and that stems directly from the piece’s rather lengthy runtime. Spielberg uses each of those 146 minutes to not only build his characters, but to create a notably extensive look at World War I and the effects it has on the entire ensemble cast as well as the effect that the horse, Joey, has on each and every one of them and the result is profound.
Great Quote: “Here you are, flying over so much pain and terror, and you know you can never look down. You have to look forward, or you’ll never get home. I ask you, what could be braver than that?”
5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
There should be a warning before this movie shows – take two Advil before viewing. I’ve never left a movie with such a terrible headache in my life. Not only is the action in the third installment of the Transformers franchise absolutely manic, but it’s also shoved in your face courtesy of the 3D. Perhaps the experience wouldn’t have been as painful if there were a somewhat sensible story to back it all up, but no. Similar to Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon is merely an absurd adventure that’s mind numbing in the worst way possible.
The worst part is that I was quite excited for this one. After Kick-Ass, I was all for the whole average guy trying to be a superhero shtick, but James Gunn completely ruined the fun delivering a painfully mean-spirited spin on the sub-genre. Not only is there nothing likable about Rainn Wilson’s Frank to begin with, but then he suits up as The Crimson Bolt and becomes even more detestable, whacking innocent people with his wrench with abandon. It’s particularly tough to watch, as is Ellen Page as his sidekick Boltie. The only good she does for this movie is soften Wilson’s character the slightest bit because while he’s off his mind, she’s certifiably insane.
3. Dream House
What a waste. Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts and two fairly talented child actresses and you waste them all on this? One of the worst parts is that Dream House was clearly a lost cause right from the start. Rather than build hype via trailers teasing the film as a haunted house-type piece, the marketing team blatantly revealed that the filmmakers had completely thrown in the towel, delivering a promo that basically summed up the entire film in two minutes and 30 seconds. Thanks for sparing us the full 92 minutes, but why release it at all then?
2. The Abduction of Zack Butterfield
Sure, I know it doesn’t do anyone any good going after such a limited release, but The Abduction of Zack Butterfield is an insult to the industry. The concept isn’t half bad – a boy getting abducted and striking up a relationship with his captor – but the final product comes across as though the folks behind this one merely ran with their first draft and never gave a single thought to the quality of their script or how they’d actually shoot it.
1. The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
Hands down the most miserable movie going experience of my year – and that’s coming from someone who moderately enjoyed the first film. (Then again, it’s tough to say I “enjoyed” that type of piece.) The Human Centipede 2 is literally Tom Six reveling in his glory. Sure, the guy should enjoy his achievement; he did create a film that was fairly well done and resulted in a monumental amount of hype, but he doesn’t just take it too far with his second go-around, he takes it to an upsettingly disturbing level. For the sake of moviegoers everywhere, this man should never be allowed to put the concept “ass to mouth” to use again, let alone touch a camera.