Movie Bummys 2012: Best Movies of 2011

[So now that we’re 9 months into the year 2012, now is a good time to look back at the best of 2011.  Why look back at 2011 when there’s only 3 months left in 2012, you ask?  Well, let me tell you, faithful reader (of which I’m positive there is only one- maybe two).  For one, we’re far enough removed from 2011 to get past all the hype over everything that came out last year; we can look back with clear eyes.  Also, we’re coming up on awards season for movies and music, so it’ll be nice to get this out of the way before all that nonsense begins.  And, most importantly, I’m not a paid critic, so there were gobs and gobs of movies and music I hadn’t consumed when Grammy and Oscar time came around at the beginning of 2012- at that point, I didn’t think I could give a qualified answer for what the best movies and music were last year.

But now I’ve listened to the majority of the albums (both big and small) that got notice last year and I’ve seen the majority of the notable movies (both indie and mainstream) from 2011, and I can now (somewhat) conclusively say that I’ve got a good handle on what I consider the best of both music and movies from last year.

The real question is, why am I going to all this trouble?  Any post on this blog I consider practice for when I truly write creatively, such as when I begin to write short stories or a book at some point in the future (a pipe dream, sure, but the blog does get my creative juices flowing, so it may be more realistic than you might think).  And, perhaps more importantly, I love movies and music, so I consider them worth writing about.  I believe one way God wants us to reflect His image in this world is to create, and I believe God uses movies and music to teach us and to stir our spirits and, yes, to entertain us.  Writing helps me process that better.]*

2011 was a down year for music, but a fantastic year for movies.  My suggestion: choose three of these that you haven’t seen and make the conscious choice to find them and watch them.  It’s good for you!  Trust me, I’m a movie fan.

Now, get ready:

Top Movies of 2011

10. Super 8: A mysterious train accident in a small town sets into motion a series of events that changes a group of kids forever.  Director J.J. Abrams captures how it feels to hit adolescence; for these kids, their dreams are still achievable, and they still have an innocence in their awe at what the train brought to their town.  J.J. Abrams is obviously good at big sci-fi (see: Lost, Star Trek), but he makes this one a more human story.  It helps that he has a great cast; the kids are so effective, especially Elle Fanning as a wounded girl who demonstrates strength and maturity beyond her years.

9. Drive: A movie that recalls the ‘80s on its surface in both its style and soundtrack, each of which dominates this movie experience.  But the retro packaging serves to distinguish an already singular character study about a stunt driver (we know him only as Driver) played by Ryan Gosling, in the best of a trio of great 2011 performances (the others are in The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid, Love).  In an effort to protect his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Driver gets mixed up with a gangster (Albert Brooks) and discovers a violence in himself that shocks him.  Director Nicolas Winding Refn jars us with moments of intense anger and violence in a movie that is otherwise largely quiet and hypnotic.

8. Battle Royale: Released here 10 years after its release in Japan, Battle Royale is a surprisingly delightful, more sadistic Hunger Games.  I was initially shocked and appalled at the jarring violence, but I eventually settled into the movie’s stylized gore and enjoyed the story.  At some point, the violence ceased to bother me and I cared rather for the deaths of the characters themselves.  The movie begins with a high school class arriving on an island where they learn they must fight one another to the death.  Apparently the Japanese government is fed up with the immaturity of the country’s youth, so this is their solution to teach the youngsters a lesson.  Suspend your disbelief for a while and you’ll find that the relationships between the characters all ring true, and they make this movie a smart, quietly moving story.  The late director Kinji Fukasaku uses violence to express the adolescent angst so prevalent in modern society.  I’ve been in high school- he gets it right.  We really were this melodramatic- we just didn’t have guns and machetes.

7. Warrior: Sports movies aren’t made very well anymore.  They either come off really cheesy or they just repeat what’s been done before.  Warrior does neither.  Instead of following an underdog on his road to the championship or trailing a has-been in his attempt at a comeback, Warrior gives us two estranged brothers fighting in an MMA tournament only to face each other in the final.  You could see this movie and balk at the convenient plot points that give both brothers dramatic backstories (one is a high school teacher who needs money for his sick daughter and the other is a veteran with a secret) and that bring them to the championship fight at the end, but then you wouldn’t have a heart.  The movie does a good job lending realism to the relationships, and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy give their characters weight, Edgerton with humble persistence and Hardy with furious intensity.  Warrior also has a joyfully cathartic ending- we can’t decide which brother to root for, but what ends up happening is just as it should be.  Best sports movie of the last 5 (10?) years.

6. A Separation: I don’t know how to make an Iranian family drama sound like a movie you should see.  I’ll try though.  A Separation has more meaningful action in it than the new Bourne movie; more frightening events than the Paranormal Activity series; more wit about men and women struggling to relate and communicate than any romantic comedy; and more law and order in it than a cop movie.  Did that work?  Maybe not.  Do you like drama?  A Separation is end-to-end conflict, with real characters striving to do the right thing in an impossible situation.  Do you like great acting?  A Separation is chock full of strong performances, especially the husband and wife (Peyman Moadi and Lelia Hatami), who don’t want to divorce but see no other way out, as well as the devout man (Shahab Hosseini) whose wife is wronged by the aforementioned husband.  Maybe you just enjoy great movies- let me assure you, A Separation is one of the best.

5. The Artist: Yet another movie that I feel it is impossible to convince the average moviegoer to see.  Hear me out- some of the best movies of all time (and not just the best, but some of my favorite, most loved movies) are silent!  There are great silent movies, and you owe it to yourself to try to watch a few before dismissing them just because you don’t think you can sit through one.  I don’t say this out of a misguided desire to be artsy or pretentious.  I genuinely love some silent movies.  I promise you, you will be able to sit through one.  With that being said, The Artist is not merely a great silent movie, but a great movie that happens to be silent.  We meet George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star, who gives Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) her big break in the movies.  But as she grows famous, his star is waning with the advent of talking movies.  The Artist becomes a story of obsession and recession, of love and mercy.  The movie is endlessly creative in how it lets you into Valentin’s psyche.  We follow his rise and fall, and ultimately, The Artist confirms our faith in the movies to bring us great stories in the midst of great art.

4. The Tree of Life: Movies are generally made to entertain us, to move us, or to instruct us.  But there are some movies that don’t aim to function in those ways; they simply ask questions in movie film form, questions that we often fail to put into words.  They may be abstract, obtuse, challenging, but I’ve noticed they tend to provide some of the biggest rewards.  The Tree of Life is such a movie.  Director Terrence Malick takes us from creation to the afterlife (I think?), stopping occasionally to consider the movie’s themes within the microcosm of Midwest family, specifically two parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, with three boys.  The main character, if you can call him that, is one of their boys, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn), who struggles to come to terms with the kind of man his father was and the effect his father had on the thrust of Jack’s life.  In all its settings, The Tree of Life is about- well, I think it’s about mercy.  But it’s a challenging movie, so maybe it’s really about something else.  I’m shocked it was even made- but so grateful.

3. Kinyarwanda: I’ve put some challenging movies on this list, but this is the movie I’m truly afraid no one will see.  A Separation will get an audience; it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, so people will watch it for years to come.  The Tree of Life isn’t for everyone, but people tend to watch Terrence Malick movies regardless.  But no one has heard of Kinyarwanda (it has 231 votes on IMDb), and that’s a shame, because it’s an astounding accomplishment.  The first movie produced by Rwandans, we finally get to see the Rwandan genocide through their eyes.  Kinyarwanda is structured as a series of vignettes, often starring some of the same characters.  We meet a boyfriend and girlfriend, one Tutsi and the other Hutu, the opposing Rwandan “races”; a young boy who naively tries to assist a group of armed thugs; and reformed Hutu exterminators seeking redemption at a rehabilitation camp.  I couldn’t state enough how much of an emotional impact this movie had on me.  Please seek it out and watch it.

2. Take Shelter: One of the scariest movies of last year, or any year.  We all struggle with worry about impending crisis.  Sometimes it seems as if the stuff going on in the world is fixing to come to a head.  Take Shelter captures that feeling and magnifies it times ten in a story of a good man who loves his wife and daughter very much, but is plagued by visions of the world ending.  The sequences in the movie depicting his dreams are truly frightening.  This man, Curtis,  played with modulated intensity by Michael Shannon, does all he can to prepare for the disaster he sees coming to the chagrin of his loyal wife, played with bewildered love by Jessica Chastain.  The movie is masterful in how, while we’re never sure if the visions are really prophetic, we understand and support everything Curtis does, as crazy as it may seem to others.  Director Jeff Nichols does a great job of making us aware of Curtis’s deep love for his family, which drives his every decision.

1. Rango: The most creative and entertaining movie of the year.  There is no movie like this one, no, not one; that’s impressive, because it’s obvious director Gore Verbinski (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) drew from so many classics for inspiration.  But I challenge you to find another film (especially an animated film) as relentlessly weird as this one that still manages not to veer out of the mainstream.  I have a fondness for movies that buck the mainstream from the inside (like (500) Days of Summer or Inception), and Rango is the perfect example of this.  Rango (Johnny Depp) is a gecko who has only known his spare terrarium, but when his cage is thrown out of the back of a truck in the middle of the desert, he embarks on an epic Western journey, involving a town called Dirt, a female lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), an old tortoise (Ned Beatty) with both the local power and the wheelchair of Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, a colorfully drab cast of characters, and the Spirit of the West.  You’ve got to see this movie to understand what I mean when I say it has a distinct sense of humor that never lets up, an artistic bent that sometimes ventures into the surreal, and visuals that are unique in the beauty they find in ugliness.  It also has heart- real heart, not the manufactured one you find in most animated films these days.  Rango is one of a kind.

Another Ten (in alphabetic order)
50/50
The Descendants
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2
Hugo
The Ides of March
The Interrupters
Into the Abyss
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball

Top Movies of 2012 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

The Avengers: It was the best movie of the year until July 20th, but it remains one of the biggest and most satisfying accomplishments of any year.  Joss Whedon smash!

Chronicle: This one has gotten lost among the bigger comic book releases, but mark my words, come the end of the year, I’ll make sure you remember this outstanding, affecting superhero (of sorts) drama from suddenly hot-commodity director Josh Trank.

The Dark Knight Rises: A massive movie that hits all its targets with a battering ram- and I mean that as the compliment of compliments.  The scary thing is Christopher Nolan’s movies have steadily increased in quality.  Can it get any better than this?  Here’s to hoping the trend continues, though anyone else would be satisfied to have Rises as the peak of their career.

The Hunger Games: Adaptations from books to movies get a bad rap.  But I was more than pleased with this one when I saw it opening weekend, and upon seeing it recently, I’m still convinced director Gary Ross made this story his own and gave Panem a realism I could hardly have hoped for.

Prometheus: I understand people’s qualms with movies that don’t provide answers, but I don’t share them.  Prometheus asks big questions and presents a scenario that is endlessly fascinating.  It ruined my nerves in the process, which was exactly what I wanted.

Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Argo: I was excited about this movie before it even got any buzz, based solely on Ben Affleck directing.  Affleck was responsible for two of my favorite crime movies of the last decade, Gone Baby Gone and The Town.  I can’t wait to see what he’s done since.

Django Unchained: Prometheus was my most anticipated movie of 2012 until I saw the trailer for this one.  Watch it in the above link, and I’m willing to bet you’ll feel the same way.  If not, check out this photo, and I have no doubt you will.

The Hobbit: Does my excitement need an explanation?  Okay: Best trilogy of all time.  Peter Jackson and Ian McKellan are back, among others.  The source material is flawless, because it’s written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  The trailer is beautiful.  And sold!  To the amateur critic with the poorly named blog.

Les Misérables: This is my favorite musical ever.  I starred in a junior production in high school as Javert, Russell Crowe’s character.  The trailer features some perfect images of a perfect cast with Anne Hathaway’s perfect voice and they got the guy who directed the near-perfect The King’s Speech.  I am going to cry at this movie.

Skyfall: Sure, it’s a James Bond movie, and that’s exciting all on its own.  But did you see that trailer?  How are you not freaking out right now?  It felt like the best (read: only) acid trip I’ve ever been on.  Please, please, please let this movie be as good as I think it will be.

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