Mike’s Top Ten of 2011

Love me some 2011. I moved to LA midway through this year, so a lot of the movies in the top ten were ones I saw right as I got to LA, which gives them an extra sense of specialness to me.

As a year… I forget how strong it is at the top. It feels like just another year to me when I think about it in the abstract, but here, I could legitimately almost make two separate top ten lists with the movies in the top 20.

This was my first official top ten list created after this site was in existence. So in a way this was the one where my knowing it was gonna go on here affected the decision-making. For better or for worse, I guess. Mostly I’m just happy that a lot of my choices are still ones I would put on the list. But it’s also a strong enough year to where anything that got swapped out is basically a toss-up situation anyway. So it’s hard for me to be disappointed with anything that made it on.

Mike’s Top Ten of 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

The Artist

The Descendants


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2



Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

11-20: Another Earth, The Ides of March, Like Crazy, Margaret, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Shame, Super, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, War Horse

Tier two: 50/50, The Adventures of Tintin, The Big Year, Captain America: The First Avenger, Contagion, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, From Up on Poppy Hill, The Help, Henry’s Crime, Midnight in Paris, The Muppets, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, A Separation, Thor, Warrior, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult

Tier three: A Better Life, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, A Dangerous Method, Drive Angry, Fast Five, Friends with Benefits, The Guard, In Time, J. Edgar, The Lincoln Lawyer, Melancholia, Our Idiot Brother, Red State, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Submarine, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Tyrannosaur, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Win Win

Tier four: Attack the Block, The Beaver, Beginners, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Carnage, The Flowers of War, The Iron Lady, Jane Eyre, Kill the Irishman, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Mechanic, Meek’s Cutoff, My Week with Marilyn, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Rampart, Rango, The Sitter, Source Code, The Three Musketeers, Undefeated

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1. The Artist

There are a number of #1 movies for me throughout the entirety of the lists (and even this decade) where… it was always a given that it was going to be my #1 movie. And I do this knowing that not everyone will agree with that choice or even necessarily like that movie. But it’s just one of those things where the movie is so perfectly up my alley that there was no other choice than I was going to love it. And this is one of those movies.

I had started hearing rumblings about this during the second half of 2011. And I had already seen the OSS films, so I already liked Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin. So the minute I knew it was them involved and knew it was a silent movie… I was in. The movie was almost guaranteed to be #1 for me. It’s just what I go for.

The film is about a silent film actor who is hugely successful but now struggles with the introduction of sound. Meanwhile, an aspiring actress who dreams of breaking into the industry (and serendipitously crosses paths with the star at various points throughout the film) whose star rises while his falls. It’s… stunningly good. Some people will see it as merely a style exercise, which, in a way it is… but it’s also a really affecting film that brilliantly brings back a form of telling stories that hadn’t been used in almost 80 years by that point. I love it so, so much, and it’s pretty much always gonna be either #1 or #2 for me this year.

2. Hugo

“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.”

In 2009, Avatar comes out. And it creates a digitally rendered universe and brings back 3D, which hadn’t really been used outside of some gimmick films in the 50s and 60s. And, almost immediately, Hollywood thinks, “Is this the next big thing that’s gonna get people back into the theaters?” And immediately everything becomes retrofitted for 3D, and the conversions are shitty, the films look too dark, and it exists as nothing more than a way to charge premiums for tickets. A few movies are shot in 3D, but the majority of them are also just for the gimmick, like Resident Evil. 3D was, in Avatar, used to enhance the story and add a level of artistry to the film. And no one had really done that since. The closest we got was this year with Michael Bay using it for Dark of the Moon, which was the best post-Avatar use of 3D, since the film was designed to be that way and it didn’t just utilize it as a gimmick to ‘throw’ things at the audience’s faces. And then Martin Scorsese said, “Hold my beer.”

This film remains the greatest use of 3D in film history. Including Avatar. If they gave him a second Best Director Oscar for this film (and they came close to doing it), it would have been completely deserved. Truly what he accomplishes here is nothing short of breathtaking. I made sure to see this movie as it was intended to be seen, in the 3D, and within a minute of the film starting my mouth was hanging open because it had already surpassed anything I’d seen in the way it was utilized.

The story is unlike anything Scorsese’s ever made. It is a straight up kids movie. But, because it is Marty, there’s more than just that at the end of this rainbow. Which is also why this movie is so brilliant. It’s about an orphaned boy who lives in a Paris train station. After his father died, he was sent to live with his alcoholic uncle, who maintains the clocks in the station. Though after his uncle disappears, he continues maintaining the clocks in secret, hoping no one (especially the mean stationmaster) discovers him. And he does this while trying to fix an automaton that his father and he were trying to rebuild before he died. And he ends up working for the old man who runs the toy store inside the train station (who seems to know more about this automaton than he lets on) and befriending the man’s god-daughter, who joins him on an adventure as the two try to solve this mystery together.

The absolute brilliance of this film is revealed around the midway point when the automaton is finally finished. Because it’s not just about them fixing it. It’s about cinema. The film, in its second half, becomes a beautiful love letter to early silent cinema. To the point of even stopping the movie to give you a history lesson about how amazing some of these films are, and even magically transporting you to the making of some of these films.

I can’t properly express to you just how amazing that all is and just how much that means that the film does that. Because think about it — this is a kid’s movie. Kids are going to watch it. And just the idea that someone at age 7 could see this movie and really enjoy it as a movie, knowing nothing about film or anything like that. Just enjoy this on its own terms. And then after seeing it, have this knowledge of film history whether they realize it or not. That is one of the most invaluable things, and honestly does more to further the cause of film as an art form than almost anything made this entire decade.

I will always love this movie and will always speak of this movie in glowing terms for all of those reasons. And notice — I didn’t once mention anything about the cast or the performances or anything like that. Which is all even further great stuff about this movie. I could go on for an hour about the incredible things this movie does. Just know, that this is, in my mind, one of the single most important films ever made, and is a masterful piece of filmmaking on every level, and every self-respecting film fan owes it to themselves to see this movie.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?”

It seems like 2011 is the year of films that are entirely up my alley. So far, it’s like a bingo card of things that appeal to my sensibilities. This one is a Cold War spy thriller (check) based on a John le Carré novel (check), directed by Tomas Alfredson whose previous film was Let the Right One In (check) and it stars Gary Oldman (check). That, my friends, is a bingo.

It’s one of the George Smiley books by le Carré. He was the featured character in five of le Carré’s books and is a supporting character in four more (including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was made into one of my all time favorite movies in 1965 with Richard Burton).

This film is about a British Intelligence operation that goes very, very wrong and gets its agent (Mark Strong) shot, forcing the head of the division (John Hurt) to retire. Upon retirement, he was of the belief that there was a mole among the most senior officials who was passing off British secrets to the Russians and was the reason for that mission to have gone as badly as it did. He believes the mole is one of four people (Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones). However, he dies shortly after retiring and Oldman, after the resignation, also retires. Though he is eventually called out of his retirement to look into a claim made by a junior agent (Tom Hardy) who says there’s a mole within the organization. So now Oldman has to look into all this with a junior agent (Benedict Cumberbatch) and figure out who the mole is. And It. Is. Great.

This movie is so good. It’s perfect. There’s not a wasted frame in the film. The tone, the pacing, the performances, everything about is is perfect. It earned Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination (rightly so) and he gives what I felt was one of, if not the best performance of this year as Smiley. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. I have no sense of how overlooked or underseen this movie is, but at this point, there’s almost no amount of people that could make me think it’s been overexposed, so please, if you have not seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to do so immediately, because it’s one of the best movies of the year and the decade.

4. Moneyball

“How can you not get romantic about baseball?”

I was not expecting this one. Leaving aside all of the internal strife that happened with this one (Steven Soderbergh was going to direct and then the studio backed out three days before filming, not liking his approach — which I think he ended up using a bit of in High Flying Bird. Then Bennett Miller got hired and Aaron Sorkin rewrote the script and they shot basically a whole new movie from the one they were originally gonna shoot), I always wondered just how they were going to tell this story. It’s based on a book that’s about numbers. The Moneyball principle is that you can use numbers and data to put together an effective baseball roster by using advanced metrics to see things the human eye can’t see. And the question is, how do you make that visually interesting? And I couldn’t see just how they were gonna do that. Which, coming off a year with The Social Network, you’d think I’d have known better.

The film is focused around Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who are a small market baseball team. They don’t have the budget of their competition, and routinely have to give up or lose their big players when they go to the bigger markets and take the bigger contracts that they can’t offer. Beane is frustrated because of this lack of ability to pay stars to compete with teams like the Yankees. And then he meets Jonah Hill, who has these radical ideas for how to scout players, which impresses Beane, who hires him as his assistant GM. And together, they create a roster of people who most scouts would consider marginal players at best. But because of the numbers, they fit the kind of team that they’re trying to make. And it’s about these people doing something different and flying in the face of what is the most traditional sport we have, the one that is the most averse to change, and in doin so revolutionizing it.

It’s a movie that is so good that even non sports fans will like it. Because it’s not about sports. Sports is a minor part of this movie. A lot of the film is Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill sitting in offices or conference rooms. You barely see any games being played until the climax of the film. It’s an incredible piece of work, wonderfully directed by Bennett Miller (his first film since Capote, by the way). It earned both Pitt and Hill Oscar nominations (Pitt in particular is incredible here, the way he uses silence and stillness to convey everything about the character) and, while Steve Zaillian is also credited on the script… a lot of the scenes in this movie are clearly the work of Aaron Sorkin. And anyone who’s seen his films knows… you can’t go wrong with his writing. He’s just the best. This movie is a perfect entity. The perfect compliment you can pay a movie is by saying that you can watch it any time it comes on, all the way to the end. This is one of those movies.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

“May I kill him?”

David Fincher, man. Here’s a guy who takes a hit Swedish movie, remakes it two years later, and somehow makes his remake better than the original version. That’s insane. Especially because… the original film crossed over. It may not have made a bunch of money here, but a lot of people saw it. And a lot of people thought it was great, which is never a given for foreign films. Only bad things could have happened by making this movie. But nope… just another incredible David Fincher movie.

Rooney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander (and she’s so great she earned an Oscar nomination for the performance) and Daniel Craig co-stars as Mikael Blomkvist. And it’s the first one, so it’s about the two of them searching for a woman who went missing forty years earlier. And there’s such great stuff here. It’s just incredible, from the acting to the directing to the cinematography on down to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s just fantastic.

I guess there’s only one thing left to say about this movie:

6. Drive

“There’s a hundred-thousand streets in this city. You don’t need to know the route. You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you’re on your own.”

I mean, yeah. This movie has almost gotten to the point of self-parody, but it’s still something we all love. The most negative thing I can say about this movie is that all the worst people love it. But aside from that… it is awesome.

Nicolas Winding Refn takes a genre movie and elevates it. It’s still genre, but it just feels unique and fresh. And there’s something lyrical about it even though it could easily have been some throwaway VOD movie by an unknown director.

Ryan Gosling plays a driver who does stunts for the movies by day and is a getaway driver for criminals at night. He lives a solitary life, even though he eventually grows close to his next door neighbor (whose husband is in prison) and her child. Eventually the husband comes out and asks Gosling for help on a job, and the results of that job put Gosling into some hot water with some bad people.

It’s great. The plot doesn’t really matter so much as just watching everything unfold. It’s fantastic. The director and the star felt like they spent a decade trying not to repeat what they did with this movie and all action movies seem to do is to want to recreate what this movie did.

7. The Descendants

“Elizabeth is dying. Wait… fuck you. And she’s dying.”

This might be Alexander Payne’s most affecting film. If you asked for a general consensus of what most people’s favorite movie of his is, I feel like this would probably come out #1 of all of those.

It stars George Clooney as a man whose family has owned a lot of land in Hawaii for generations. And it’s been placed in a trust between all the siblings, which is about to run out. So all the siblings have to figure out what to do with it. Some want to sell the land to a real estate developer for a lot of money, while others are unsure. All while this is going on, Clooney’s wife ends up in a coma after a jet-skiing accident, so now he finds himself unexpectedly in the full care of his two daughters. And that’s the film. That’s really all you need to know if you know nothing about it. (Arguably you didn’t even really need the land bit, but that is kind of the main plot of the story, even though the wife thing is the overriding element.)

Clooney gives an amazing performance here, good enough to have won himself an Oscar (which he was nominated for but did not win). Payne directs the hell out of it as usual and co-wrote a terrific script (for which he won his second Oscar). But the real revelation here is Shailene Woodley. Before this movie, no one knew who she was, and it was her performance here that helped catapult her to the level she’s at now. The minute she shows up on screen she is immediately the jolt of electricity in this movie. She absolutely commands the screen and delivers what I felt was the finest supporting performance of the year.

This movie works on almost every level. There’s a rawness and a realness to it that just works. It’s the kind of movie you can just put on and watch and enjoy even though it’s about some difficult subject matter at times. To the point where it makes you forget that the movie is ultimately about a rich white dude deciding whether or not to build a hotel.

8. Hanna

“I just missed your heart.”

I still don’t understand why this isn’t one of everyone’s favorite films. It’s basically been forgotten (though I hear the series they made based on it is good), and the general indifference toward it always makes me think that maybe it’s not as good as I think. But then I go back and watch it and keep thinking more highly of it.

It’s Joe Wright, coming off The Soloist (which didn’t work) and making an action movie. I imagine part of why people weren’t so high on this is because some people were looking for him to go back and do another Atonement thing. Which he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t want to do and that he wants to try different things. It stars Saoirse Ronan as a girl who was raised in the middle of the woods by her father (Eric Bana). And from a very young age he taught her how to hunt and fend for herself, essentially turning her into one of the world’s most dangerous assassins. However, she’s now reached an age where she’s starting to wonder what life in the world is like and it’s time for her to be sent on the mission she’s been training for all her life. So he sends her back out into the world, whereupon she is immediately pursued by an agent (Cate Blanchett) whose sole goal is to hunt her down and kill her.

It’s great. It’s so great. It’s not just a pure action movie. There’s so much great stuff in here as well. There’s a middle section where Ronan starts to learn how to be a real person, and what it’s like to have a family. That stuff really balances out the action pieces, some of which are also just incredible. There’s a scene with Bana in a train station that’s just terrific.

I can’t say enough positive things about this movie. I think it’s incredible. It’s actually so good it makes me want to check out the series to see if they were able to improve on this film (which has some flaws, but not enough to diminish how incredible it is).

9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

“After all this time?”

The last one. It’s really impressive that they landed it as well as they did. Considering what that first one was and what it all became, and how incredible they casted the series all the way through. They really pulled it all off quite spectacularly.

There’s not really much to say about this one. It’s great. We all love it. It’s the finale. It hits all the emotional moments perfectly and it gives us everything we were dreaming of. It’s the culmination of a franchise. A decade in our lives. We grew up with these actors. The beauty of this film is that we’d all read the book four years prior and knew how it was gonna end, yet it felt totally satisfying in every way. It was a fitting way to close it out and say goodbye to this chapter in our lives. And they achieved nothing short of magical with all of these films.

10. The Adjustment Bureau

What a hugely underrated film this is.

Based on a Philip K. Dick short story (as so many good things are), it’s kind of a Twilight Zone episode. But one of the great ones. Matt Damon is a congressman who is on his way to eventually becoming a senator. On the night where he loses election, he meets, by chance, Emily Blunt. The two immediately hit it off but then go their separate ways. Meanwhile, we find out that there is a shadowy group of people operating behind the scenes to make sure things go ‘according to plan.’ Essentially, everyone’s path is pre-written and these people do little things to make sure people get nudged in the right direction. Damon accidentally stumbles upon them one day and is told — you can’t say anything about us or ever see Blunt again. And he, feeling it to be fate that he and Blunt met, decides to go against them to try to see her again. And it’s a wonderful movie.

Still kind of a hidden gem, even though it should be lauded as one of the best films of the decade.

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Another Earth — Another one that was originally in the top ten. I really liked this one a lot when it came out. It’s an independent sci fi movie about the discovery of an exact replica of Earth that appears in the sky. Brit Marling is an aspiring astronomer who is about to go to a prestigious university and all that… but a horrible car accident sends her life into a tailspin. It kills a woman and child and puts a man into a coma. So the film is part sci fi, with this alternate earth that people are slowly learning things about and also this intense human drama about a woman who made a horrible mistake and is now trying to make amends as best she can. It’s tremendous. It’s really tremendous. It ended up getting squeezed out of the top ten because time moved other stuff ahead of it, but it doesn’t diminish how much I love this movie and how fantastic it is.

The Ides of March — George Clooney directed (and co-wrote) this movie, and it’s great. It’s his second best film, after Good Night and Good Luck. It’s an adaptation of a stage play, and he co-stars as a New Jersey governor who seems to be a shoo-in for the nomination at the democratic primary. Ryan Gosling plays a young campaign manager on his team who sees all the dirty behind the scenes stuff that goes into a political campaign (and starts using it to his advantage). It’s great. It’s really great. Gosling is fantastic, as is everyone else in the film — Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright. Just one of the great movies of this year.

Like Crazy — I loved this movie when I first saw it. I admittedly haven’t seen it in a long time, but I still think very, very fondly of it. It broke Felicity Jones and further helped Anton Yelchin ascend in his stardom. Also Jennifer Lawrence is in this briefly, which people forget. It’s a Drake Doremus movie about a British woman and American man who fall in love, but eventually due to a citizenship status situation they’re forced to have a long-distance relationship. Really it’s just a movie about two people in love and a romance. It’s simple, and it’s wonderful. I adore this movie and will always love it.

Margaret — A Kenneth Lonergan movie that didn’t come out for years. He shot this in like, 2008 or something and because of lawsuits and all sorts of other stuff, it wasn’t able to see the light of day until this year, and even then people barely knew it existed. Lonergan had directed You Can Count on Me before this, so I don’t know how much people necessarily knew what they were getting with this. But now, at least I can say — this is the guy who did Manchester by the Sea, and that should get you to want to see this. It’s a movie about the aftermath of a tragic bus accident and how it affects the lives of everyone involved. That’s really all you need to know. It’s an incredible drama about people, much like Manchester by the Sea is. The actual scene of the accident is brutal and heartbreaking. Not on the level that Manchester by the Sea takes you, but enough. And the rest of the film is just the fallout on this on everyone. It’s incredible. It’s so well-acted and directed and it’s one of the best movies of this year, and one of those movies that almost no one knows about because it got unfairly mishandled and barely released. It deserves to be given a shot, because it’s too good to just be left to the afterthoughts of history.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — It’s Mission Impossible. We all know how great this franchise is. This is the one that sort of set the tone for the rest of the franchise as it is now. Sort of like Order of the Phoenix did for Harry Potter. This is the format, and they’re all just gonna be like this going forward. Which is good, because the baseline for this franchise (as with that one) is very high. The plots of these movies… no one remembers. All you remember are the set pieces. And this one has the Burj Khalifa sequence with Cruise hanging off the tallest building in the world. Which is pretty amazing. There’s some other cool stuff too, like the dust storm, and the car park at the end. This franchise is just great. And this one is the one that got it over that plateau where you could expect it to be that good every time.

Shame — Steve McQueen’s second film after Hunger. This one stars Michael Fassbender again as a sex-addicted man living in New York. And that’s the film. It’s about him and his relationship with his sister, played by Carey Mulligan. It’s incredible. It’s so fucking good. This was the first Fassbender performance where people realized, “Oh, we should be nominating this dude for awards, he’s that good.” And Mulligan… my god. She is great here. This whole movie is tremendous. But it’s also Steve McQueen, who has not made a movie less than great thus far.

Super — My personal favorite of these ‘real life versions’ of superhero movies. Kick-Ass is the one most people will prefer, but this is the one for me. James Gunn writes and directs and it stars Rainn Wilson who decides to become a superhero after his wife leaves him for Kevin Bacon (as tends to happen with wives). He’s got no powers whatsoever, and basically just goes around hitting people in the face with wrenches and saying, “Shut up, crime!” But it’s not even necessarily about criminal activity, it’s just stuff that would annoy a regular person, like cutting in line. And then Ellen Page plays a comic book geek who wants in on the action too. And she’s… yeah. And also the violence here… the violence is real. This movie isn’t for everyone, but I love it. It’s so hilarious and fucked up.

Take Shelter — Love this movie. This is the movie that, like Shame for Michael Fassbender, made us all look at Michael Shannon and go, “Holy shit, this guy needs to start getting awards.” It’s a Jeff Nichols film (only his second, but it put him on the map as a filmmaker to look out for. And he’s since rewarded us with Mud and Midnight Special and Loving). Fassbender stars as a regular guy who has visions of the end of the world and becomes convinced (like a modern day Noah) that he has to prepare for this ‘storm’ that’s coming and build a storm shelter for his family. Which, like a Close Encounters type deal, causes strain on his relationship with his family and with his friends, to the point where even he’s starting to question if he’s losing his own sanity. It’s great. It’s so great, and Michael Shannon is incredible here. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough.

The Tree of Life — Terrence Malick’s new masterpiece. This is the best of all his new films, and quite possibly the best film he’s ever made. His career is separated into two distinct eras, so Badlands and Days of Heaven are pretty much cemented at this point. But in the later half… this is the one. It’s a beautiful tone poem that mixes a man’s memories of growing up, and of his father and mother, and also the origins of the universe and of life on Earth. It’s a stunning achievement, beautifully shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, with great performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. It’s Malick at his absolute best and the purest form of a style he’s been trying to achieve for a solid decade. You can’t love film without having seen this one.

War Horse — This one just works for me. It’s Spielberg, for starters. And I just love his movies, even though this one might veer a bit too much into the sentimentality that he’s often accused of. It’s World War I, which I love. I love a good World War I movie. And in the trenches? Golden. So there’s that. And then this is a sort of road movie of sorts, as we move from story to story. It’s just full of all these different elements that appeal to me. So I love the film. It’s based on a very popular play (apparently the way they perform the horse on stage is amazing and works kind of like the Muppets, where you immediately forget there’s even a person there operating it) about a boy and his horse. The boy bonds with the horse, which is originally seen as unfit to work in the fields of his family’s farm. But eventually the war breaks out and the horse is sold into the cavalry. So we then follow the horse over the course of the war, as he goes from the cavalry to young German soldiers to a French girl and her grandfather, all the way across Europe. And we also follow the boy, who becomes a soldier himself, who spends the war hoping to one day be reunited with his horse. I know. It sound stupid. But it’s really affecting. I will admit, this crosses the sentimentality scale in such a way that I can’t just say ‘if you aren’t affected by this, you have no soul’. It’s not like that, and I get that it might be too much for some people. But I love it, and I’m not sorry. It’s a great movie.

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Tier two:

  • 50/50
  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • The Big Year
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • Contagion
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • From Up on Poppy Hill
  • The Help
  • Henry’s Crime
  • Midnight in Paris
  • The Muppets
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  • Real Steel
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • A Separation
  • Thor
  • Warrior
  • Winnie the Pooh
  • X-Men: First Class
  • Young Adult

Henry’s Crime is an existential comedy starring Keanu Reeves. Without saying anything else, it is in your best interest to not even read what I’m about to tell you and just go see the movie. It’s a wonderful little hidden gem, and since everyone loves Keanu, it’s worth seeing just for him. But, if you wanna know what it’s about, this might actually further sell you on the notion of watching the film. He plays a guy who (using the ‘stiffness’ of his acting to great advantage) is asked by a friend to drive him and some other guys somewhere. Which ends up being a bank heist. And Reeves, who is unknowingly the getaway driver for this job, ends up being the only one caught. So he gets sent to prison for robbing a bank that he never even intended to rob. And then, when he gets out of prison, he decides that he’s gonna actually rob the bank he was accused of robbing. And that’s all you need to know. The film’s got a lot of little surprises up its sleeve. But it’s wonderful. There’s so much great stuff here that’s better to discover on your own. It’s also got James Caan and Vera Farmiga and is one of the best unknown movies of this entire decade. I love it so much. X-Men: First Class is the reboot of the franchise. Rather than try to pave over everything that had already been done, they decided to do a soft reboot by making the cast the younger versions of the characters, as if to say, “No, no, don’t worry, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen still exist, this is just then before they became those people.” And it worked out, since the cast here is really good and the film was good enough that they were able to bring the two casts together for Days of Future Past. They kind of diluted it with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix and the whole thing fizzled out, but for two films, it was really good. This is X-Men at the start, in the 60s, with James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. It’s fun as shit. They bring in Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and have a lot of cool and fun moments throughout. While I don’t like it as much as I like the original cast, this is a very solid movie that resurrected the franchise from the coma it had been in, and that’s all due to what Matthew Vaughn brought to it. In terms of the X-Men movies that have been made, it’s hard to argue that this is not one of the top three or four of them.

The Big Year is a movie about bird watching. And I don’t know how I came across it, and I don’t know what compelled me to see it, but I will tell you that I absolutely loved it. I had no reason at all to like this. It’s not like there’s a writer or director or cast member that I’m automatically predisposed to liking. And when the movie came out, it got middling reviews and was basically forgotten about almost immediately. This could have been just another throwaway for me like it was for everyone else. But I watched it, and as I watched it I kept going, “I really like this.” It’s about ‘birders’, as they’re called, people who compete in a competition to see the most bird species over the course of a single year. And it’s about three main people competing — Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. And it’s about them entering into this friendly competition with one another while also dealing with the shit that happens in their own everyday lives. I love this movie. I’m not gonna assume that everyone else will, but for some reason this completely appealed to me in every way, and I still think it’s one of the best movies of this year. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth one. Gore Verbinski finished his trilogy, but they couldn’t let all that money sit on the table, so they spun off the franchise to have Depp become its main character. Which led to this and Dead Men Tell No Tales, two pretty lackluster efforts that show a base misunderstanding of what made the franchise work in the first place (but also a desire for money, which they knew they would get by putting Depp’s Sparrow out there for more films). This one is about Sparrow looking for the Fountain of Youth, and it’s fun. It’s got its moments and you can definitely enjoy yourself while watching it. But it doesn’t have the aplomb the previous films have. Gore Verbinski gave the series a real visual flair and a weird grounded feel, even despite the heavy use of CGI. This movie feels like it’s all CGI and just loses sight of the forest for the trees. So, I like it, but I’ll never defend it as a particularly good movie. But admittedly I would rather a movie like this than most other stuff.

Warrior is a wonderful sports movie with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Edgerton plays a teacher who moonlights as an MMA fighter. Hardy plays his estranged older brother. Both are the sons of Nick Nolte, an alcoholic former boxer. And the film is them training to fight in this big tournament. Which of course is going to eventually lead to them fighting one another and bring all their family issues to the forefront. It’s great. It’s a really great movie. It took me a few years to come around on it, but it’s just a tremendous piece of work that I think most people would agree is one of the best movies of this year. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a movie that is based on a bestselling book for one. But it’s a movie that people have been making fun of for years (myself included. I’ve been making ‘Extremely Glenn and Incredibly Close’ jokes for about a decade now), and also one people think of badly because it got nominated for Best Picture when maybe it probably shouldn’t have. But if you leave all that aside, it’s a really affecting little drama. It’s about a kid with Asperger’s whose father (Tom Hanks) died during 9/11. And he’s living in the aftermath of this, with all his grief and not knowing how to process it (as is his mother, played by Sandra Bullock). And the film is about him finding a mysterious key left behind by his father, thinking that it’s part of the adventures his father would create for him, and that perhaps it might unlock the answers to all of this. And, it’s just beautiful. It’s a movie about closure and trying to find answers to the unanswerable. The kid is great here, and Sandra Bullock is also fantastic. She’s not in the movie enough, but when she is, it’s really effective. Also terrific is Max von Sydow as a mysterious mute who rents out a room in the boy’s grandmother’s house, who might be connected to the larger mystery. He was nominated for his performance here, and is absolutely terrific. I really like this movie a lot. I know people will have issues with it (some warranted, some not), and it’s not gonna be for everyone. But I think this is a really engaging, really effective drama that handles grief in a wonderful way.

Captain America: The First Avenger is the first Captain America film and the first Marvel movie to really move into shared universe territory. I guess technically Thor came out first, but Thor takes place on Asgard and isn’t really tying into the Avengers as much as this is. Though admittedly this one takes place during World War II. But the ending firmly establishes it as something building toward something larger. The Captain America films are generally thought of as among the best in all of Marvel. These and the Iron Man movies are the ones that hold up the best among the individual trilogies. This one has always been one of my favorite Marvel films just because I love that it takes place during World War II. I love that it’s a war movie at heart and a superhero movie secondarily. Honestly, I’d even prefer if they took out the stuff about super weapons and all that. I’d take this as just a movie about a guy in World War II. But they also wonderfully establish who Rogers is, which also helps it to work. The Rogers character has been one of the best ever established within this universe, and it’s no surprise that Endgame at its core is really a movie about Stark and Rogers. So for me, this ranks among the best movies ever made by Marvel, alongside the first Iron Man, Endgame, Guardians 1 and Spider-Man 1. I love it. Thor, meanwhile, is the first of his movies. I think they were trying to figure out just how to tell that story and decided it was a story of kings and succession, a la Shakespeare, so they decided to get Kenneth Branagh (Mr. modern Shakespeare) to direct. And it largely works as a movie. The Asgard stuff is fine and then you get Thor on Earth with the fish-out-of-water stuff, and that’s fun. Largely it feels like a small movie though. It has its moments, but largely feels more like an introduction than anything else. It’s about middle-of-the-pack (maybe slightly below middle) for Marvel, and the Thor films, while great for Hemsworth as the lead, have never been particularly great until Ragnarok came around. Though what they established in this film is what helped them get there, so that can’t be discounted. Plus we got Tom Hiddleston as Loki, which is another piece of perfect casting that paid off dividends for them over the next decade.

Winnie the Pooh is a lovely little Disney movie that’s been utterly forgotten. Almost no one knows this one came out. They had the movie in 1974, which is just a compilation of three different shorts. This one is a feature length film with the Winnie the Pooh characters. It’s just over an hour long, like those early Disney films, it’s hand-drawn, and it’s just lovely. This came out after Tangled and Before Wreck-It Ralph and I feel like almost nobody knows that. The plot involves the gang misreading a letter left by Christopher Robin, which says that he’s gone out and will be “back soon,” which they misread as “Backson,” and work themselves up into a frenzy, thinking Christopher Robin has been kidnapped by this mysterious beast that lives in the forest. It’s got all the little visual tricks and treats that are a staple of Winnie the Pooh (like the characters walking along pages of a book and using the letters and things like that), and it’s hard not to like this one. It really is. Granted, this is for the under 7 crowd, but it’s Winnie the Pooh. You kinda have to be dead inside to not be at least a little charmed by it. Contagion is Steven Soderbergh’s virus movie. I remember being thrilled for it at the time because of the cast. This movie has Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, John Hawkes, Bryan Cranston and Elliott Gould in it. That’s a total of 21 Oscar nominations and 4 wins. That’s 24 nominations and 5 wins if we count Soderbergh himself as part of that package. This is also a movie that scared the shit out of everyone because it was a movie about a widespread pandemic told in an absolute realistic way. You look at something like Outbreak and it’s this big epic movie about Ebola and it doesn’t necessarily feel like something that can happen. This movie you watch and you don’t want to leave the house for a week. It’s wonderful, and it’s brutal. That’s the beauty of having so many stars in the movie — you don’t know who’s gonna make it, and people can come in for a few scenes and then die suddenly. It’s a really great piece of work that shows Soderbergh taking a genre that you generally know well and doing his own version of it, which strips away all of the artifice from it and gives you the most realistic version possible. And it’s a great movie.

Real Steel is the movie that I so derisively called the ‘Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots’ movie as it was coming out, since that’s what it looked like. I think most people thought negatively of this one at the time. But then we all saw it and went, “Whoa, this is actually a good movie.” Because it is. It’s based on a Richard Matheson short story that eventually became a Twilight Zone episode, but instead they took the general premise and turned it into Rocky with robots. It’s a future where boxing has been outlawed and humans can no longer fight. So instead they built robots that did the fighting for them. And robot boxing has become the big national sport. Hugh Jackman plays a former boxer and now drunk promoter who fights low level robots at state fairs for just enough money to get him to his next gig. He discovers that he has a son he knew nothing about who comes to live with him after the boy’s mother dies. He wants nothing to do with the kid and basically wants to throw him out on the street, but eventually decides to let the kid stay with him. And the two end up finding this discarded robot in a scrapyard, which might end up being the contender that brings him back into prominence. It’s a really uplifting movie that’s your classic underdog story. I love that Jackman’s character is basically a scumbag for like, 2/3 of the film, and I love that it’s just a sports movie at heart. There’s some great stuff here and it is one of those movies that you don’t realize is as good as it is until you give it a chance. From Up on Poppy Hill is a Studio Ghibli film and, like all their films, is absolutely incredible. It takes place during preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and it’s about some school kids trying to save their clubhouse from being demolished. It’s lovely. But you should have known that from the minute I said the words “Studio Ghibli.” Their movies are all magical. I say this every time, but any Ghibli movie is better than just about 80% of literally anything Disney has ever put out. They’re all worth seeing.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first one in this reboot of the franchise. It’s kind of like the Bourne Identity of this franchise — it’s great, and it helped get the thing going, but then another director took over for the two sequels, which kind of unifies them visually and tonally and leaves this one as a bit of an outlier, even if all the films are part of a whole. This one is groundbreaking because it used motion capture to film the performance of Caesar, the main ape, played brilliantly by Andy Serkis. This one shows the beginnings of what led to the actual ‘planet of the apes’, and it’s about James Franco as a scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s who gives his experimental drug to an ape, which gives it super-intelligence. And, through a series of bad things happening, the ape gives the drug to all the other apes in the facility and starts an army with them. It’s a really terrific film. Watching this ape go from nothing to an actual leader is tremendous. And the ending, where he talks for the first time, is a spectacular piece of filmmaking. This trilogy is really great, and all three films in it are fantastic. I highly recommend all of them. The Help is a very likable ensemble movie based on a best-selling book. It got nominated for a bunch of awards this year and is generally thought of as one of the most liked movies of 2011. It stars Emma Stone as an aspiring author in the deep South who decides to write a book from the perspective of (insert title here), all the African-American maids who raised her and all the other children in her town and know all the town’s dirty little secrets, despite being thought of as second-class citizens. So she interviews all the different maids for the book, which gives you insight into their lives and also stirs up some shit in the town. Viola Davis is tremendous here as the lead, as is Octavia Spencer. Both were nominated for their performances and Spencer won. Jessica Chastain is also fantastic here as a flighty housewife who secretly hires Spencer to do the housework she pretends to do but is incapable of doing. Also good is Bryce Dallas Howard in a pretty thankless villain role that she makes the most of. It is a very likable movie, and the only negative thing I can say about it is that people overrated the shit out of it when it came out. Which is not the movie’s fault in any way.

A Separation is an incredible drama by Asghar Farhadi that is generally considered one of the absolute best movies of this year. He won Best Foreign Language Film for this, was nominated for Best Screenplay, and the film even had a chance at being nominated for Best Picture, it was so well-received. It’s about an Iranian couple who are having marital problems when the wife wants to raise their daughter elsewhere but the husband doesn’t want to leave because he has to care for his ailing father. They separate and the wife files for divorce, and it’s a film about these people and their problems. And it’s wonderful. Farhadi makes amazing film, and this one is spectacular. To not see this is to deprive yourself of one of the best films of this year and of the decade. The Adventures of Tintin is Steven Spielberg directing a Tintin movie. I was somewhat skeptical about this when I heard about it, but that’s because I didn’t grow up with Tintin and didn’t really know anything about it. And also I didn’t know what I’d be getting with a Spielberg-directed animated movie. Turns out, I’d be getting a Spielberg movie. He directs this the same way he’d direct a regular movie, and honestly, one of the sequences near the end of the film — a chase done in a single moving, unbroken shot — is one of the best-staged sequences he’s ever done. It’s a wonderful film. The plot is about a hidden treasure and adventure and all that, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a fun movie that ranks among the best animated films of the decade. Young Adult is Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s second film together after Juno. And it forms a really nice little trilogy, with Tully as the third one. But this one in particular is the one that… I don’t think it fully resonated with people when it came out. It’s a very cynical kind of movie. Charlize Theron plays a writer of YA books who gets divorced and decides to go back to her hometown in order to try to get back with her ex-boyfriend, who is married and just had a baby. But she’s determined. And the movie is about her trying to connive her way into making that happen. Charlize plays a very fucked up character who does not do nice things, and that, I think, turned some people off of this movie. But I really liked it. It’s a movie about growing up (which both Juno and Tully are also about, in different ways), and I think it’s a hugely underrated movie, even though I can see why it might not be for some people.

50/50 is a wonderful movie that’s a real gem from this year that not enough people have seen. I think people know about it, but I don’t think it’s been seen as much as it ought to have. It’s based on a real guy (the writer)’s struggle with cancer in his 20s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays him, and it’s a movie about a guy at 27 who finds out he has cancer and has to put his life on hold to try to stay alive. It’s wonderful. It really is. I love this movie, and I think it’s one of the best and most underrated films of the decade. The Muppets is the revival of the Muppets. All it took was Jason Segal, a huge Muppet fan, to say, “I’ve got an idea,” and it was so goddamn likable that they made it and it worked. Granted, the movie is basically a Jason Segal Muppet movie, and is built entirely around him and his love for them, but it acted as a good springboard to bring these beloved characters back into people’s lives, and we ended up getting another film and a TV series out of this. And anything that brings the Muppets back into our lives can only be a good thing. This film is about him playing a guy obsessed with the Muppets who comes out to LA with his girlfriend hoping to see them. But then he finds out they’ve disbanded and that their theater is about to be sold to a oil tycoon who wants to drill underneath it. So he has to travel across the country with Kermit and get the band back together so they can save their theater. It’s a really fun and likable movie with (as always) loads of celebrity cameos. It’s hard not to like a Muppets movie. Midnight in Paris is the best Woody Allen movie this century. Well, it’s either this or Matchstick Men. Either way, that’s a big deal. Because he’s made about 50 movies in his career and a lot of them aren’t great. Especially ones post-2000. So for this to be one pretty much everyone likes tells you something. It stars Owen Wilson as an American in Paris with his fiancée who stumbles upon a mysterious time portal into the 20s, where he gets to hang out with people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. It’s a magical little film that I cannot recommend highly enough. Even for people who don’t like Allen’s films, this is one everyone agrees on. If you had to pull the five best Woody Allen movies for people to see to get a sense of him, his style, and his best work… this would probably be on that list. (That’s also something I never considered doing, so I don’t even know which five I’d pick, but you have to figure this is on that list. Or maybe it’s not and maybe Purple Rose of Cairo goes on in its stead because it does similar things. Still, whatever that answer is, this movie is great.)

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

  • A Better Life
  • Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
  • A Dangerous Method
  • Drive Angry
  • Fast Five
  • Friends with Benefits
  • The Guard
  • In Time
  • J. Edgar
  • The Lincoln Lawyer
  • Melancholia
  • Our Idiot Brother
  • The Painting
  • Red State
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
  • Submarine
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • Tyrannosaur
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • Win Win

Our Idiot Brother is such a lovely movie. I don’t know how to explain this except that it’s just delightful. Paul Rudd is so great in this movie. He plays a happy-go-lucky kinda guy who, at the beginning of the film, tries to sell weed to a cop. A cop in uniform. At a farmer’s market. So he gets sent to jail, and when he comes out, he goes to live with his sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer). And his demeanor is such that everyone around him is constantly trying to figure out what’s wrong with him, only to slowly realize that it might not be him that there’s something wrong with. It’s a wonderful movie that I love dearly. A Better Life is a wonderful little indie that earned Demian Bichir a Best Actor nomination for his performance. It’s a modern day Bicycle Thieves set in Los Angeles. Bichir plays a Mexican single father who works as a gardener who is usually climbing the palm trees on people’s property to trim them. He realizes he can get more business if he has his own truck, so he saves up all his money to buy one. Only on his first day on the job, an employee he hires steals his truck. So the rest of the film is him going around with his son to try to get the truck back, because without it, he’s fucked. And it’s just a beautiful, brutal film with a great performance from Bichir. It’s also directed by Chris Weitz, who has quite the eclectic directing career (American Pie, Down to Earth, About a Boy, The Golden Compass, Twilight: New Moon, this and the Adolf Eichmann movie Operation Finale). The Guard is a John Michael McDonagh film with Brendan Gleeson as a racist Irish cop. And it’s fucking wonderful. Gleeson gives one of his best performances and it’s just a great little independent movie. It’s not quite the same as his brother Martin McDonagh’s stuff, but it’s really terrific. This is one of the underrated movies of the year and decade. It’s definitely worth seeing.

The Painting is an animated film I discovered purely by chance at the end of the decade when I was compiling my ‘best of the decade’ lists (which can be read here, by the way). I saw a still from it and went —

So I watched it. And I was utterly delighted by it. It’s about the characters that exist within an unfinished painting. And because they’ve been left unfinished, it has led to conflict. The finished characters shun the unfinished ones and partially finished ones and a societal gap has started to widen. So, a set of friends (each belonging to a different class, naturally) set out to find out what happened to the painter and why they’ve been left unfinished, in the hopes of getting him to finally finish them to unite everyone within the painting. It’s a really nice little film, and I love the imagination of it, the way the characters travel from their painting into the worlds of several other paintings within the artist’s workshop, and how ultimately the entire film takes place within the same room. It’s a really nice alternative to the assembly line animated fare that’s usually put out there (even from Disney and Pixar). I’m a big fan of this one. Drive Angry is an absolute insane Nicolas Cage action movie that I cannot recommend highly enough. The opening scene of the movie is him driving a sports car out of the gates of Hell. I’m not making that up. That’s the opening scene. He plays a guy who escapes from Hell after a satanic cult killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter. It’s absolutely batshit. The real highlight of the film (aside from Cage himself, of course) is William Fichtner, playing a demon whose sole goal is to bring Cage back to Hell. So he’s going around just causing complete mayhem, as Cage is constantly staying one step ahead of him. This movie is so goddamn fun in the craziest way. If you love the crazy Nicolas Cage movies, you need to see this one.

In Time is an Andrew Niccol film. And if you’ve seen his stuff (Gattaca, Truman Show), he’s the king of the high concept sci fi world. This one involves a future where people stop aging at 25. However, they are also engineered to die shortly thereafter. Everyone has a countdown clock on their wrists which shows how much time they have left. And the only way to live longer is to be able to afford more time. Which of course the rich can do easily, leaving the poor to just die out. Justin Timberlake stars as a poor guy who gets falsely accused of murder and has to go on the run while also trying to find a way to earn himself enough time to not die soon. It’s a great concept and what I like about it is that it’s not just about people needing to buy longer lives. It’s a movie about class discrepancy and has all sorts of social messages all over it. And while it’s not a perfect movie by any stretch, I love a movie with a lot of great ideas that allows me to think about all the other possibilities inherent in the concept during the less than stellar moments. So I’ve always been a big fan of this movie and almost all of Niccol’s work.  A Dangerous Method is David Cronenberg’s film about the friendship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who here are played by Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. Oh, and you can throw in Keira Knightley, Vincent Cassel and Sarah Gadon to sweeten the pot. Is there anything else I need to tell you in order to sell you on this movie? Friends with Benefits is a fun rom com directed by Will Gluck who made Easy A. It stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis as two people who meet and discover they’re really great together… as friends. But then they decide to sleep together, figuring, “That’ll be okay.” But of course that brings about its own complications, and all that stuff. It’s a very fun, likable rom com. In an era where the genre was basically on life support, this is one of the good ones that kept it alive.

Submarine is a wonderful little coming of age movie directed by Richard Ayoade. He’s only directed two films thus far (this and The Double) and both of them are fantastic. This is about a 15 year old dealing with a newfound relationship (and desire to lose his virginity) and also his parents’ crumbling relationship after her ex-boyfriend moves in next door. It’s really terrific. I recommend this one highly. Fast Five is the movie that turned this franchise around. It completely shifted the paradigm of what these movies are about, and is the reason they’re approaching #10 in the franchise. They turned it from ‘Point Break with Cars’ and a movie about illegal street racing into a globe-trotting series of heist movies. And absolutely no one is complaining. This one introduces The Rock, who is now a staple of the franchise (to the point of having his own spinoff). I honestly don’t remember the plot of this movie (nor should anyone, really), but I do remember that it takes place partially in Brazil and features them dragging a giant safe along a highway with cars. And really, that’s all I need. I remember really enjoying the hell out of this movie because it felt like a fresh new direction for the franchise, which they’ve then doubled down on by adding increasingly insane car stunts each time out. But also, the fact that they’re still making these movies is a testament to them and the fact that people still want to see them. J. Edgar is a Clint Eastwood movie about J. Edgar Hoover starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s really solid, though it tends to be negatively remembered for the awful makeup job on Leo in that third act. But take away that, it’s a really solid piece of work. Leo does great work, as does Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s friend (and purported lover). It’s really worth seeing. One of the better Eastwood movies of this later period of his work.

The Lincoln Lawyer is such an awesome movie that’s a nice little forerunner to the McConaissance that no one really remembers. This was the first one. He had the supporting part in Tropic Thunder that everyone loved, but this was the first lead part he had that started trending in that direction. He had this, then Bernie and Killer Joe, and then everything else hit at once. So this is patient zero of the McConnaissance. It’s a movie about a rich lawyer who works from the backseat of his car, and eventually he takes one case, which seems to be related to an old case of his, and sends him into a slippery slope of other things… it’s a crime thriller. That’s all you need to know. A John Grisham-type movie. McConaughey is great in it, and it’s a really fun movie. One of those you assume to just be throwaway that you see and realize, “Oh no, it’s a lot of fun.” Trust me when I say this is worth seeing. Cameraman is a wonderful documentary about Jack Cardiff, one of the greatest cinematographers in cinema history. He shot all the Powell and Pressburger films like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, as well as a bunch of other stuff. It’s just a great movie about a master craftsman talking about his trade. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a Lynne Ramsey movie with Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, and it’s one that most people will recognize from its title and will tell you is a very good movie. It’s a movie about a mother and a son, and her trying to do right by him even though he starts to show severe sociopathic tendencies as he grows up. It’s… an intense movie. The performances in it are spectacular. It’s not an easy watch, and you may not want to see it again after you watch it, but it’s incredibly well-made and impeccably-directed.

Melancholia is Lars Von Trier’s movie about the end of the world. And, if you’ve seen Von Trier’s films, you know that he has a very sunny and optimistic outlook on the world. So you can imagine what a rollicking good time this one is. Kirsten Dunst stars and gives an incredible performance. And the film is just quite good. All the Von Trier movies are really well made and really solid, and it’s hard to figure out which ones to recommend because I find that his work tends to go differently for each person. Some people really love a particular film or two but hate some of the others. Though I suspect that this is one of the ones that most people will like. It feels like it’s one that’s generally loved. I’d say this is probably one of the top three or four Von Trier movies I would tell people to start with if they’re gonna try to start getting into his stuff. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the third one. The second one was a narrative disaster and this one was more a return to form. The story is still kinda nuts but at least they tried to make it more coherent than that last one. And it remained for a while the second best film in the franchise, but that’s largely because 4 and 5 are so insane. This one has the benefit of being filmed in 3D, which was actually quite well-done. I saw this movie about a week after moving to LA, in a Korean movie theater, in English with 3D Korean subtitles. Which was honestly the best way for me to have seen this. The 3D was, at the time, the best use of 3D I had seen (which was admittedly a low bar, but still the first time someone used 3D other than to solely throw stuff at the audience’s faces). That quickly got surpassed by Hugo within six months, but still, this was a really fun entry into the series for them, even if nothing but the first one (and maybe Bumblebee) is particularly going to be remembered fondly. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the sequel. More Guy Ritchie, more Downey, more Law. And they bring in Jared Harris as Moriarty. It’s fun as hell and this is just a fun franchise built on solid action and great chemistry between the leads. What more can you want?

Win Win is a really solid Todd McCarthy movie with Paul Giamatti as a lawyer whose practice is falling apart who also works as a volunteer wrestling coach. He’s trying to become caretaker to one of his elderly clients (which would involve a monthly stipend for care) with no intention of actually caring for him and dumping him in a home. He also has his grandson show up out of nowhere after the boy’s mother ends up in rehab. He finds out the kid is a great wrestler and starts training him to help his school actually become contenders for state championships. And it’s a nice character piece about this guy struggling between doing right and wrong while also trying to take care of his family. It’s wonderful. It really is. If you liked Spotlight and The Station Agent, this one is one you should see. It’s really well-done. Red State is Kevin Smith making a horror movie. This marked a radical turning point in his career. After the failure of Zack and Miri, he went and took a for-hire job, Cop Out, which was, by most accounts, a disaster. And then he sort of went away and came back with this movie, which is kind of three movies in one. The first part is about three high school kids looking to have some fun, so they go hire a local prostitute and figure they’re gonna lose their virginity. Then the second part is about them being kidnapped by a group of fundamentalist Christians who are not nice people. And the third is… well, the third reveals itself in the latter stages of the film. It’s an interesting film. A lot of cool ideas that don’t always pan out, but the movie is only about 90 minutes, so it doesn’t waste too much time with what it wants to do. It’s got a great Michael Parks performance at its center, and my only real gripe about it is that I wish they had stuck with what their original ending was gonna be (which was admittedly really difficult to pull off, but would have been insane). Tyrannosaur is a wonderful little movie directed by Paddy Considine and starring Peter Mullan. Mullan plays a man full of rage. And then he meets Olivia Colman, a nice shopworker, and pretty soon she helps him turn his life around. It’s a great little character study with two amazing central performances. Trust me on this, you want to see this movie.

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Tier four:

  • Attack the Block
  • The Beaver
  • Beginners
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Carnage
  • The Flowers of War
  • The Iron Lady
  • Jane Eyre
  • Kill the Irishman
  • Martha Marcy May Marlene
  • The Mechanic
  • Margin Call
  • Meek’s Cutoff
  • My Week with Marilyn
  • The Myth of the American Sleepover
  • Rampart
  • Rango
  • The Sitter
  • Source Code
  • Undefeated

Kill the Irishman is a movie that is fun as hell. It’s one of those that no one would remember, and yet, if they came across it on cable, they’d go, “That was good.” It’s about an Irishman who rises to prominence in the 70s as a Robin Hood type figure who openly dares the mafia to try to kill him. And they try. And he keeps surviving all these assassination attempts. It’s a fucking wonderful movie. Ray Stevenson plays the Irishman, and the film’s also got Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Linda Cardellini, Vinny Jones, and like a dozen people you recognize from The Sopranos in it. It’s awesome. It really is. Beginners is a Mike Mills movie based on his relationship with his own father (his followup, 20th Century Women, is based on his relationship with his mother). It’s about a guy (Ewan McGregor) who finds out from his father (Christopher Plummer) that 1) he’s dying, and 2) he’s gay and has taken a lover. Both of these rock his world, and the rest of the film is about him coming to terms with both of these things and trying to learn from his father to live life to the fullest while he can. It’s a solid little movie. Plummer won an Oscar for his performance, and it’s a very sweet little independent film. Rango is an animated film from Gore Verbinski that stars Johnny Depp as a chameleon in the west who becomes sheriff of a town. It’s fun. They shot it with motion capture, so Depp’s movements on barebones sets helped give reference to the animators to create the visuals. It’s a fun movie. It won Best Animated Feature this year and remains this weird little oddity that’s kinda cool because it’s non-Disney and Pixar and is actually good.

The Myth of the American Sleepover is a coming of age teen comedy/drama about a bunch of middle school kids on the last day of summer. But, and here’s the kicker… the guy who directed it is the same guy who went on to make It Follows and Under the Silver Lake. Which is why I wanted to see it in the first place. Because I went, “There’s no way this is just a movie about middle schoolers.” And, yup, it is. And you know what? Perfectly charming and really solid, considering what it is. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a John Madden-directed film about a group of British retirees who get coerced into booking a stay at what they believe is one of the finest hotels in India, only to find that it’s a rundown piece of crap. But they all sort of band together and learn to appreciate it and its staff, and it’s a fun little movie. It’s got a great cast — Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel — and it’s just a likable movie. Undefeated is the Best Documentary winner for this year about an inner city, underfunded high school football team from kids from underprivileged households who try to turn their team around after years and years of losing. And it’s just a great sports movie that happens to be true. If you’re one of those people who watches sports movies or really likes seeing those 30 for 30s or sports pieces about uplifting personal triumphs, watch this movie. It’s incredible. The Sitter is Jonah Hill playing babysitter to unruly kids. It wasn’t well-received and isn’t all that original a film. But I enjoyed it. I didn’t expect it to be as fun as it was. David Gordon Green directs, and I suspect it’s his influence that keeps it as watchable as it is.

Source Code is Duncan Jones’ follow up to Moon. He takes a high concept sci-fi Black List script and adapts it into a pretty fun little movie. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier working on a high tech program in which his consciousness can be uploaded into that of another person. Only, it’s for 8 minutes at a time. So he keeps being uploaded into this one person 8 minutes before a train gets bombed. So he has 8 minutes to figure out who is bombing this train and where the bomb is. And, like Groundhog Day, he keeps doing it over and over and over until he figures it out. It’s fun. It goes places that maybe it doesn’t need to by the end, but for the most part it’s better than your average thriller. Meek’s Cutoff is a western directed by Kelly Reichardt, who usually makes small character pieces with minimal plot and dialogue. And guess what? This is that, only with gorgeous western imagery behind it. It’s about a wagon train full of people heading west. And a lot of the film is just people walking. And yet, it works. Totally works. You need to understand Kelly Reichardt’s style to fully get it, but even if not, it’s just a good looking western, which is what appealed to me in the first place.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is the movie that helped make Elizabeth Olsen a star. She plays a woman who escaped from a cult and is now trying reintegrate back into society and her family. She’s great and the film is really solid. This was one of the indie darlings of this year that’s a really solid piece of work. The Iron Lady is Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. That’s really all you need. She won an Oscar for her performance and the film is pretty solid. The Mechanic is Jason Statham remaking a movie that originally starred Charles Bronson. He’s a methodical hitman and it’s about him training the son of his mentor (who got murdered). Ben Foster plays the guy he’s training, and it’s a way more solid movie than I ever thought I was getting. I still enjoy this movie. Attack the Block is Joe Cornish’s first film that features an alien invasion in South London, and the local street gang that takes it upon themselves to help defend everyone. It’s fun as hell, and helped make a star out of John Boyega. My Week with Marilyn is a movie about Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier. The famous story is that she had gotten super into method acting (apart from having her own issues on the side) and became intolerable to work with for someone like Olivier, who was a classically trained stage actor. That story is fascinating on its own and would make a terrific film, only they decide to tell this one from the perspective of a side character watching the whole thing go down. They use this all the time, and the idea is to make the lead actor be a supporting-lead character so they can steal the movie even if they’re not “technically” the main character. Here, the lead is Eddie Redmayne (and admittedly the script is based on the book written by the guy he’s playing) as a guy who worked for Olivier and saw all this go down. But there’s a romance subplot with him and Emma Watson, and that part’s not all that interesting. What really is the good part of this movie is the stuff with Monroe and Olivier. Michelle Williams plays Monroe (and was nominated for her performance) and Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier (he was also nominated), which… for anyone following Branagh’s career, is one of those things that was almost inevitable. It’s a solid movie. Slightly uneven for me, since I wanted more of the filming stuff and less of the side stuff, but overall it’s a solid piece of work.

Rampart is Oren Moverman’s followup to The Messenger. He brings Woody Harrelson back to play a corrupt, borderline racist cop in the midst of the Rampart scandal in the LAPD in the late 90s. There’s an element of Training Day here, and Harrelson gets to sink his teeth in a good role. That’s the real selling point of this one. Jane Eyre is Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of the novel. His second film. It stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, and it looks good and is just a classy piece of work. The Flowers of War is a Zhang Yimou film starring Christian Bale, which is what was interesting to me about it in the first place. Upon watching it, I found it was very close to being propaganda. But you realize that most of his movies of the past 20 years have been like that, the later ones much more so. But, as far as it being a strictly war film, it’s interesting. Bale plays an American hiding out in a church during the Sino-Japanese War with a group of young schoolgirls and a group of prostitutes. So he sort of has to become ringleader of both groups while also trying to keep everyone alive when the Japanese Army comes and attacks the town. I liked it. I was surprised at how much I liked it. It’s one of those weird little oddities on Bale’s resume (like The Promise), and part of me wonders as if he takes certain jobs just so he can do a deep dive into the time period and learn stuff. Which, honestly, is totally cool with me.

Margin Call is J.C. Chandor’s first movie about a group of bankers slowly realizing what’s about to happen on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. The cast is great — Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons — and the writing is top notch. Chandor got nominated for Best Screenplay for this and helped him get his next couple of films made, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year. This one’s solid for a director who has yet to make a bad movie. Carnage is based on a hit stage play that is a four-hander and an actor’s dream. It’s about two sets of parents sitting down together after their kids have a fight at school, and what begins as a civil discussion slowly descends into insanity. Roman Polanski directs and it stars Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. And that’s all you need to know. It’s a solid film, with good source material, great actors, and a great director. The Beaver is a weird little movie. It had been a Black List script, floating around for a couple years until Jodie Foster came aboard as director and signed on Mel Gibson to star. This was a big deal to me, since I’ve always loved the two of them, and the plot sounded incredibly weird and out there, so it was something I really wanted to see. It’s about a man who is really depressed, to the point of attempting suicide. And he’s in such a bad state that the only way he can cope is by using a beaver puppet he finds as his only means of communication with the outside world. It’s a very tonally tricky movie that doesn’t always work, but it’s interesting, because how many movies do you see about someone using a beaver puppet to talk?

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