[The author wishes to re-state that the films mentioned in these “Short Takes” are not necessarily the BEST films of 2011, but they are some of his favorites.]
Just FYI, here are all the films I watched from 2011 that were sequels or prequels/reboots (or part of the MCU):
• Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (meh)
• X-Men: First Class
• Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
• Captain America: The First Avenger
• Rise of the Planet of the Apes
• The Muppets
• Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
A lot of those are good films, but man, if that’s not enough to give someone sequel fatigue, I don’t know what is. So, for this installment of “Short Takes”, I’m going to stick with non-sequels.
(Although I will say that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a little TOO real, given our current state of affairs…if you don’t know what that means, give it a rent or stream it, if possible, it’s one of the better reboots out there.)
1) BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, 3/11/2011 – Yeah, that’s right, I’m listing THIS movie as a favorite. Why? Well, it’s not because it has depth of character or the greatest screenplay in the world. If anything, “B:LA” plays like a videogame more than a movie. When aliens invade our planet, a crack military squad, led by a sergeant with a dark past, must rescue a group of civilians and bring them back to base in one piece. Along the way, they have to figure out how to best strike back at the invaders to ensure a long-term victory. Nothing new plot-wise, right? But “B:LA” brings an authentic energy to its combat sequences that takes them up a level. Plus, the design of the alien spacecraft and weaponry is something I’ve never seen before. My favorite is a hovercraft, for lack of a better word, that has to constantly correct its course using dozens of thrusters that fire intermittently as it “floats” through the air. Rather than going with the standard “they-have-anti-gravity-technology” trope, the alien designs are based, for the most part, on real-world rules of physics. (At least until the finale…SPOILER ALERT.) Think of it as “Independence Day” crossed with “Black Hawk Down.” If you can push past the obligatory middle section where the sergeant motivates his men with an inspirational speech, it’s a great action no-brainer that actually has a little intelligence tucked away behind the gunfire and explosions.
2) THE LINCOLN LAWYER, 3/18/2011 – Perched right on the cusp of the so-called McConaissance, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a nifty legal thriller/mystery headlined by Matthew McConaughey as a slick defense attorney who gets hired by the wealthy family of a young man accused of rape and murder. The catch: this guy might actually be guilty this time. Now, while the ethics of our legal system is not exactly virgin territory, this film expertly weaves a compelling story around tried-and-true stereotypes. It reminded me of the legal thrillers from that bygone decade known as The Eighties, when so many legal thrillers and mysteries were content with just telling a damn good story without getting bogged down in too much subtext, or at least just being straightforward with it. (“Jagged Edge” comes to mind, and “Suspect”.) So while there’s nothing particularly UNIQUE about “The Lincoln Lawyer”, I like it because it’s just a good story told really well.
3) BRIDESMAIDS, 5/13/2011 – The single funniest comedy of 2011…maybe of the decade. Seriously, if you don’t find this movie funny, you may be a literal alien. A Klingon, maybe. Paul Feig directs, Judd Apatow produces, and Kristen Wiig leads one of the best all-female comedy ensembles since “Nine to Five.” She and Maya Rudolph play two best friends, Annie and Lillian, whose friendship is put to the test when Lillian feels threatened by another of Lillian’s friends, Helen (Rose Byrne), who is VERY rich and starts to one-up Annie’s efforts to coordinate Lillian’s activities leading up to Lillian’s wedding. It’s Kristen Wiig’s movie to carry, but the show is well and truly stolen by Melissa McCarthy, whose on-screen antics and ad-libs must be seen and heard to be believed. The scene when the women try on bridesmaids dresses is the kind of thing that comedy historians should put alongside Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory in terms of sheer genius. Am I overselling it? Maybe. Don’t care. This movie is hilarious. Prove me wrong.
4) SUPER 8, 6/10/2011 – Haters gonna hate. Sure, the finale comes nowhere CLOSE to being as heart-tugging as “E.T.” or even “The Goonies”, but the spirit of those two films is alive and well in J.J. Abrams’ loving tribute to the movies I grew up on. A group of bike-riding middle-school friends in 1980 witness a horrific train crash while making a zero-budget zombie movie using a Super 8 film camera. In the following days, the Army invades their town, all the dogs for miles around disappear, and it becomes apparent that SOMETHING was on that train and is now loose. For an hour and forty minutes, “Super 8” cooks, featuring real suspense and a spectacularly scary creature. And then…I dunno, the finale arrives, and there’s just not much to it. It wants to be mythical and awe-inspiring, but it falls a little flat. Still, though. I love the atmosphere the movie recreates, that time of my life when I and my bike-riding friends DESPERATELY wanted to find adventure in the form of a treasure map, or a lost alien, or blueprints for a spaceship, or whatever. It’s a nostalgia bomb.
5) CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, 6/29/2011 – While “Bridesmaids” is the funniest comedy of the decade, recognition should also go to “Crazy, Stupid, Love” for being one of the funniest AND smartest romantic comedies in many a moon. If it plays a LITTLE like “Love, Actually”, well…I can’t really blame them. If you’re going to model yourself on another movie, shoot for the moon. Four inter-connected stories showcase a separated couple, a high-school babysitter with a crush on a married man, a pre-teen with a crush on the babysitter, and a single woman who meets the impossibly perfect man – played, of course, by a ridiculously chiseled Ryan Gosling. Who else. The laughs in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” are well-earned, mostly because there are great dramatic elements and scenes as well, making the whole movie feel very real, even when revealing its most farcical coincidences. This is a real winner.
6) SAMSARA, 9/16/2011 – What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of this one? Who has? I wouldn’t have heard of it if I had never read a review of it when it was released; when I read that it was from the same filmmakers behind “Baraka” , one of my all-time favorite movies, I tracked it down on home video. You might call “Samsara” a spiritual sequel to “Baraka”. It’s another wordless film featuring another series of jaw-dropping images from around the globe: a vast landscape combining lush jungles with ancient temples, looking like something from the planet Naboo in “The Phantom Menace.” A gangster-looking dude covered bottom to top in tattoos, gently cradling his infant daughter while rubbing noses with her. A massive dance routine staged by inmates at a prison. And, most eye-catching of all, an unsettling piece of performance art that starts with a businessman sitting at a desk and ends with him covered in mud, makeup, and straw. “Samsara” doesn’t quite reach the transcendental heights of “Baraka”, but it’s still a lavish visual feast.
7) HUGO, 11/21/2011 – Following up one genre film (“Shutter Island”) with another, director Martin Scorsese this time makes…a kid’s movie? Talk about working outside your wheelhouse. “Hugo”, like “The Artist” , is in love with the movies – very, very OLD movies, going all the way back to the days of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Méliès…but I’m getting ahead of myself. “Hugo” tells the story of a young orphaned boy named, as you may have guessed, Hugo, who discovers that the scary old man who runs a toy shop is actually the legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès, thought to be long dead. There’s a lot more to the plot, but with this particular film, the main attraction is the look and feel of it. Scorsese went to great pains to make this one of the best-looking films he’s ever made. It’s so visually inventive that it actually feels like an old silent film at times. Or maybe a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; go watch “Amélie” or “The City of Lost Children” and tell me the visual style wasn’t intentionally paying homage to that guy. Basically, “Hugo” is a French kid’s movie with a detour into cinema history. To say that it doesn’t QUITE work story-wise is accurate, I guess, but that’s too dismissive of how wonderful it looks.
8) THE DESCENDANTS, 12/9/2011 – From the quirky minds behind “Sideways”  comes this somber comedy about a married father, Matt (George Clooney), who lives in Hawaii with his wife and two daughters; the wife is in a coma following a boating accident. One day, early on in the film, one of his daughters drops a bombshell: “Mom was cheating on you.” After that, the movie concerns itself with how Matt deals with this new information; these methods mostly include sinking further into confusion, especially because he has to deal with two teenage daughters by himself. Dark stuff…and yet it’s somehow still a comedy, with genuine, unforced laughs based purely on behavior rather than forced punchlines and situations. With these kinds of movies, I find it difficult to break down precisely WHY they work so well. The aforementioned “Sideways”, or “Little Miss Sunshine”, or “50/50”…they’re comedies about dark chapters in the lives of the characters, and they’re so well-written and skillfully directed that they just work in spite of the heavy stuff. I would have a REALLY tough time writing a full review of “The Descendants.” But it is awesome. [FUN FACT: The script won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; one of the screenwriters was Jim Rash, who is perhaps best known as the costume-crazy dean of Greendale College on the cult TV show “Community.” I know, right?!!?]
9) THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, 12/20/2011 – So…yeah, I’m breaking the rule I laid down at the top of the column, because this is a remake, but I LOVE David Fincher films, and this is no exception, so I had to mention it. This is one of the best murder mysteries since Fincher’s own “Se7en” , and that’s surprising to me because I am not a fan of the source novel. I read it and found it deadly dull, despite the sordid goings on. This movie is exactly the opposite: intense, compelling, striking, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying, even if the ending is just a tad open-ended. (There were supposed to be sequels, but they were scrapped when this performed poorly at the box office, which I CANNOT COMPREHEND.) The plot…well, it’s almost impossible to summarize because it sort of transforms from a simple mystery into a full blown thriller, but even that discounts the side plot involving the goth computer hacker (Lisbeth Salander, played by Rooney Mara) who has to deal with a sleazy social worker who’s sexually harassing her before he releases her funds to her. It’s all pretty complex, but it’s extremely well-written, as scripted by Steven Zaillian. This is a masterpiece of the genre. (The movie includes one of the most horrific scenes of sexual assault that I’ve ever seen on film. However, it is crucial to the story because of how it informs the Salander character in the later stages of the movie, AND because of the way her revenge plays out. Both the assault and her revenge are difficult to watch, but they are both necessary to make the film work. That’s my two cents.)
10) WAR HORSE, 12/25/2011 – I still find it hard to believe this movie was based on a stage play. “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the story of a boy and his horse who get separated when World War I breaks out in Europe. The horse, Joey, gets sent into battle straight away, and thus begins the episodic story of how he miraculously survives one scrape after another in his ultimate struggle to find his way back to the boy who loves him. Sappy, right? Even Frank Capra would have been going, “Ugh, too sweet.” But I would imagine that, for all the horse lovers out there, this movie is like the “Citizen Kane” of horse movies. IMDb informs me that, out of all the incredible horse-based action footage, there are only three shots, lasting a grand total of three seconds, where CGI was used. Everything else was shot with either real horses or intricate animatronics. Watch the movie, and you’ll realize how remarkable that truly is. If I’m being honest, though, I am not a lover of horses. I don’t HATE horses, I am just not a horse enthusiast. So when we’re treated at one point to a scene where Joey looks on helplessly as one of his horse friends is on the verge of death, I wasn’t exactly worked up into a tearful state of mind. It was sad, but I wasn’t verklempt, you know what I mean? I believe your particular level of enthusiasm regarding horses will directly influence how you respond to “War Horse.” I can appreciate its great skill and craftsmanship (several shots appear to be deliberately paying homage to John Ford and “Gone with the Wind”), but when it comes to really jerking those tears, it left my eyes dry.
[Full reviews of 2011’s “Midnight in Paris”, “Moneyball”, and “The Artist”, can be found elsewhere on this website…that’s the only reason they’re not listed above.]
I’m looking forward to watching 2012’s films…some of my ABSOLUTE favorites await, especially “Prometheus”, “The Cabin in the Woods”, and a movie that reaches that mythical level of transcendence I’m always going on about: “Cloud Atlas.”
I’ll be in touch.