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Monday, February 13, 2012

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2011 (40-26)

40. Even the Rain (También la lluvia)***
        While many American releases last year focused on economic and political unrest, this import from Spain took that bottled rage, and spilled it liberally across screen. The movie-within-a-movie stars Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal as a pair of Mexican directors who come to Bolivia to film a biopic about of Christopher Columbus, only to find themselves in the middle of a revolution when the government attempts to privatize the region's water supply. The central juxtaposition, as well as the arrived upon morals, can feel a bit obvious, but the way that director Icíar Bollaín captures the chaos of riotous uproar has a searing heat to it, a powerful vision of uprising. 
39. Thor
        My personal favorite superhero entry of last year, Thor is one massive slab of goofy oddity, and it's all the better for it. When we're introduced, the titular meat-head is riding high as a Norse god in the heavenly realm of Asgard (Not exactly the same as being an orphan, or a high school geek), though his stubbornness eventually leads him into trouble. Banished to Earth, Thor finds himself in a fish-out-of-water story that sees him falling for an improbably beautiful meteorologist (Natalie Portman), and stumbling into a variety of societal faux-pas. The Earth-bound comedy is hit and miss, but the Asgard sections, filled with rainbow bridges, star-filled skies, and un-selfconciously mock-Shakespearian dialogue, are really quite dazzling. No one has ever made a superhero movie this openly wacky, and its a real credit to director Kenneth Branagh that his film knows just when to play it straight, and when to yuk it up. Bonus points for the 3-D, and being so spaaaaaaaaaarkly.
38. The Myth of the American Sleepover***
        A smattering of teens shift restlessly through their suburban town over the coarse of a single night at the start/end of summer. Heard that one before? It's a framework for a coming-of-age movie that has been used countless times, from American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused, all the way down to Spring 2011's throwaway Take Me Home Tonight. First time Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell knows you've seen it and loved it before, and that's why, instead of reinventing the genre, he finds small, subversive ways to put it on its head. Myth unfolds with an easy-going naturalism that none of those other films posses, largely thanks to the casting of unknowns, and the film's relaxed small-town Michigan feel. Mitchell has a great eye for the details of growing up, like the way that social hierarchies are constructed, or the inextricable link between lust, curiosity, and fear. A refreshingly not-over-the-top look at the lives of young people in modern America.
        Does The Ides of March live up to its hype/promise. In a word, no. The film marries a juicy political concept with a cast populated by some of Hollywood's absolute finest (Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, just to name a few), headlined by a white-hot one-two punch of Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, the film written and directed by the latter. It had every ingredient going for it to be an A+, 10/10 style movie, and when it arrived and just wasn't, audiences and critics left it out in the cold. It's their loss. Ides might not be perfect, but it's pretty damn good, detailing the moral trials of Gosling's savvy, idealistic campaign manager as he takes a crash coarse on the sordid side of the presidential race. Part muck-raking, part actor showcase, part loss-of-innocense story, Ides of March keeps you guessing through the very end, and the bookend of the opening and closing images hits like a punch to the gut.
        A mere half-year later, and it already feels like this movie never came out at all. Pooh was, of course, always destined to be a small entry. It opened the same weekend that Harry Potter obliterated every box office record known to man, and (even while taking into account a Pixar-style short that introduces the movie, and the extended closing credits sequence) clocks in at a measly 73 minutes. But what Pooh lacks in consequence, it makes up for in breezy hilarity, and incalculable warmth. There's not much story here, not even enough to merit discussion; We're here for the characters, all making winning returns in a film hewn more closely to the endearingly immature, pompous characterizations featured in A.A. Milne's source books. Plays on words, and musical numbers abound, and even if Winnie the Pooh is undeniably a trifle, its an undeniably delicious one.
35. Limitless***
        2011 was an appallingly bad year for mainstream releases, a grand total of 14 wide releases making my Top 40 list (as compared to 19 last year, including my entire Top 5), almost all of them stuffed into the Summer or Fall. Thank god for Limitless, an absolute blast of escapist entertainment that arrived in the middle of a dreadfully boring March. Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a failed writer who stumbles upon a drug that allows him to access parts of his brain that were previously left untapped. Much of the movie's success comes from just how gleefully it explores the, "What if?," potentials of its trappings, and the way that Director Neil Burger visualizes the whole experience is sleek, involving, and just pretty damn cool. There's also a message about the perils of drug use in the modern world, but its buried pretty deep down in there. If you want to dig for it, Limitless openly invites you to, but if you'd rather just sit back, and let pop excess wash over you, Limitless can do that too.
        What does it say about Roman Polanski that Carnage was delegated to the ranks of, 'minor Polanski,' before it was even released? Sure, the living legend's latest offering is inherently small due to its length (80 minutes) and setting (trapped in a single New York apartment), but its ambitions are mighty, indeed. Following a violent playground dispute between their two sons, the liberal, yuppie Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) invite the business-class Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) over to their home to discuss the altercation. What starts as a tenuous meet-and-greet devolves into utter madness, all four adults falling apart at the seams, as their troubles are all relaid in real time. The screenplay, adapted from Yasmina Reza's stage offering God of Carnage, at first only seems interested in poking fun at tired manners and societal hang-ups, but it evolves into a discussion about the nature of man, and what we all, at our most base, are really motivated by. Pair that sense of off-handed introspection with a four-pack of terrific performances, all delivering laugh-out-loud material, and you have... minor Polanski? Don't let the tag fool you: This one's a winner.
        Part legal drama, part domestic dispute, A Separation lays its scene in the far away land of Iran, but its issues and themes could resonate just about anywhere. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants a divorce, but its more from Iran than from poor Nader (Peyman Maadi), who is determined to stay in the country to aid his Alzheimers-stricken father. Her departure leads to a variety of unpredictable circumstances, all snowballing into something horrible and morally ambiguous. A Separation has one of the best ensembles of 2011, each player, including the child actors involved, delivering flawless performances. The fact that the movie is essentially an endless shouting match prevents me from ranking it as highly as some critics, but they're heated bickering is captivating, turning a single situation over, looking at it from every possible angle, discovering more with each new scene.
        If you thought that horror movies were all about fun, think again! Writer/Director Lynne Ramsay is interested in what gaudy terror looks like at its most literal, employing the trappings of the, "Satan Spawn,"storyline, examining its real-world implications. Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, the mother of the boy who would become a monster, a woman who lives her life like an endless apology, flashing back and looking for where things went so incredibly wrong. I've never seen a movie about motherhood quite like Kevin, one that observes the perils and fears of it in such a bold, unflinching manner. It's brave work from Ramsey, and one of the year's most provocative entries.
        Margin Call comes from a pretty interesting place. It's central conflict involves the economic meltdown of today, but in terms of mood and aesthetics, its an undoubted child of the 70's. That decade's particular brand of chilly political thrillers is masterfully recreated by Writer/Director J.C. Chandor, who unleashes an expansive, impressive cast on a tale of greed, power, and panic. Even if (like me) the number-side of the meltdown makes little sense to you, the vibe of the film is so palpable, its sense of doom so powerfully conveyed, that you'll be with it every step of the way. One might worry about the thing becoming too big for its own good, or just overly preachy, and these concerns are wholly valid in the case of Jeremy Iron's ridiculous scenery-chewing side role. His performance alone knocks this down a few spots for me, but when he's off-screen, what we have here is one of the most stylish, believable, and relevant movies of 2011.
        What do joy and exuberance look like when you place them directly on screen? Here's your answer. 2011's return to our favorite felt friends starred Jason Segel and Amy Adams as a pair of longtime lovers who find themselves rubbing elbows with the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy. The gang has fallen apart, and now Muppet studios faces the threat of being torn down by an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper). To save their old stomping grounds, the team must be hilariously reassembled in order to, you guessed it, put on a show! My reasons for liking The Muppets are immediate ones: It's consistently funny, stuffed with out-of-nowhere cameos, and jam-packed with one winsome song after another. Pound for pound, one of the purest, most uninhibited delights of 2011.
29. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
          It's always heartening when the highest grossing movie of a given year is also one of its very best, a badge of honor that 2011 can wear proudly. The climactic episode of the Harry Potter saga was epic, engrossing, emotional, and, perhaps most improbably of all, managed to live up to over a decade worth of escalating hype. Those who found the languid pace of Part 1 unsavory have their way here: Part 2 is the boy wizard as a theme park ride, full of excellent set pieces, soaring battles, and even a pseudo roller coaster ride. There's not an ounce of fat on the thing; As a matter of fact, if there's one thing that could have made this movie better, it would have been more of it. It's just over two hours of non-stop incident, not a single dull moment among the proceedings, completely unintimidated by the considerable weight of its 7 anticipating entries. One of the biggest cinematic undertakings of all time deserved an exemplary conclusion, and it got one.
28. Drive
        Go ahead, I can take it. Everyone and their pet dog wants to proclaim Drive the best movie of 2011, many looking at its Oscar snubs as another woeful misstep by the Academy, expecting time to honor it as a classic. The love is so strong, in fact, that in ranking it my 28th favorite movie of the year, I fear that I do more to insult than congratulate. Yes, there are aspects of Drive that I can't help but take issue with, but please, please don't confuse that with me saying that it's anything less than an awesome ride. In the same way that Ryan Gosling's unnamed protagonist finds himself plummeting further and further down into a world of thugs and violence, the film itself ratchets up the heat with each passing frame. Director Nicolas Winding Refn is a master stylist; He can make a trip to the grocery store almost feel like a psychedelic experience, and his grip over the mood and pace of the film is white-knuckle firm. It's a sleek, sexy film noir for a new generation, even if that generation is inexplicably stuck in the 80's.
27. Everything Must Go
        Will Ferrell, much like 90's comedy icon Jim Carrey, has a certain brand of humor that almost asks to be twisted into drama. His characters seemingly all have an improper self-image, all gesture and swagger hiding endless stores of insecurity. This might seem like too deep of analysis to level upon entries like Anchorman or Blades of Glory, but those movies provide a clear map of how he arrived at Nick Halsey, a company man who suddenly finds himself without a job, wife, or living space to come home to. Extremely liberally adapted from a Raymond Carver short-story, Everything is a story about the things that we allow to define us, from our possessions, to those who we choose to surround ourselves with. It's got a great supporting cast, featuring the likes of Rebecca Hall, and a wonderfully dead-pan turn by Notorious B.I.G.'s teenage son, Christopher Wallace. But the real show-stopper here is Ferrell, who, for my money, bests his dramatic performance in Stranger Than Fiction by exploring the subtleties and pains that his character is unable to hide, all leading to an earned catharsis.
26. Jane Eyre
        Another year, another stuffy period piece based on a classic piece of English Literature. Wait... not so fast. Sure, Jane Eyre contains some of what you'd expect, but its also decidedly more faithful to the gothic undertones of the romance novels of the day than any of its contemporaries. The hidden, forbidden romance between Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) has the verbal and intellectual flair that you'd hope for, but their courtship takes place in ill-lit corridors, or surrounded by gloomy trees. There's even an occasional jump scare, just thrown in for good measure. It's quite the re-visioning (or return to form, if you will) of this sort of thing, brought home by cinematographer Adriano Goldman's gorgeous lensing, Dario Marianelli's beautiful score, and Michael O'Connor's Oscar nominated costume design.

***Available via Netflix Instant Watch as of the writing of this Article

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2011:

Coming Oscar Week:
The Second Annual Elwyns (If Hype Starts Here was in charge of the Oscars)
Final Oscar Predictions (Coming 2-24-2012)
Oscar Recap (Coming 2-27-2012)

A Few Notes: All highlighted titles contain links to full reviews, or earlier mentions on the site. Also, no Documentaries were considered for this list, as I view them as a completely different art form altogether, and thereby impossible to adequately compare to narrative features.

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