Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Top Ten Films of 2011

My Top Ten Films of 2011

One of the reasons that I haven't been posting as much to this blog is that I have become a fairly regular contributor to Sound On Sight. I guess I could use this blog to announce and link to my articles there, but I just never seem to get around to doing that.

I was asked to contribute to Sound On Sight's best films of the year voting which led to the site's top 30 films of the year. Since the site didn't publicize who voted for what, I thought that I would present my top ten films and justify my votes.

One quick note. I saw about 100 films last year, but many of the films that showed up on the Sound on Sight list I never saw, either because they only played at film festivals that I never attended or I haven't had time to see them yet. (In particular, I very much want to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soon.)


#10 (tie) Rango

The best animated film of the year - about a pet chameleon whose aquarium accidentally falls out of the family car on the highway and through a series of misadventures becomes sheriff for the animal city of Dirt. The action and animation (especially the film's many great chase scenes) is pitched somewhere between Chuck Jones' Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner cartoons and Wild Kingdom.

While I am not sure that Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp's insistence in taping all the dialogue with all actors present was completely necessary, I appreciate the effort.

Two scenes made me fall in love with this film. The first is a sequence where Rango meets an old cowboy named by the film "Spirit of the West" (Timothy Olyphant channeling Clint Eastwood so well I was convinced that it was Eastwood.)

The second great scene is when Rango finds out that Dirt uses water as currency with the town's reserves held in the town bank. This simultaneously links Rango to Chinatown and to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, reminding us that there is a long history of scoundrels posing as honest bankers, both in film and in real life.


#10 (tie) Brawler

Brawler is a ferociously original film built on the bones of very old stories – some of the oldest in literary history. It is a part of a new sub-genre of films including Bellflower and Another Earth that are narratives about the most twisted, fucked-up relationships humanly possible, framed in the context of a genre narrative.

Rest of the review

#9 Contagion

Steven Soderberg's film takes the epidemic genre (Outbreak, The Andromeda Strain) and ups the ante by looking at what would happen in the real world if the killer virus really got loose. The result is a tense thriller that plays in many ways like a tribute to the great disaster films of the 70s. Stars appear, get sick and die in ways both heroic and not.

The entire film seems inspired by Robert Wagner plunging through the glass in The Towering Inferno and falling to his fiery death.


#8 The Adventures of Tintin

The Sound On Sight podcast featuring me discussing The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

Did I just say write that Rango was the best animated film of 2011? I think I meant The Adventures of Tintin.

Spielberg reassures fans of Tintin right off the bat, first with an astonishing animated credit sequence that is filled with Easter Eggs of Tintin’s adventures that reminds fans – and introduces non-fans to – how awesome and influential Tintin is: he was the world’s favourite spy before James Bond; the world’s favourite explorer before Indiana Jones; the world’s favourite comic-book detective before Batman and the world’s favourite red-headed kid reporter before Jimmy Olsen.

Rest of the review


#7 13 Assassins (Director's Cut)

Upping the ante on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Miike gave us a story that instead of focusing on the protection of one village against bandits, featured the destruction of one village in the service of bringing to justice a bandit that preyed on the entire country. In the process,  Miike both captured the zeitgeist of the moment and the frustration of the 99%. He also gave us the longest, bloodiest and most incredible action set-piece of the year - giving the metaphorical 99% revenge against the rapacious 1%.


#6 Midnight in Paris

I am not a big believer in the traditional narratives about Woody Allen. Some of it is wrong in the "you are entitled to your wrong-headed opinion" sense and some of it is just plain wrong, full-stop, like the assertion that Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen's biggest box-office hit ever, passing Hannah and Her Sisters, which is wrong twice, because it completely ignores inflation.

Woody Allen has been putting out great movies year after year for more than 40 years. Sure, some have been better than others, but Midnight in Paris is not an aberration, it is part of a 40 year trend of excellence.

Which is not to say that Midnight in Paris didn't strike a chord. In a year when many films mined nostalgia, some to great effect, Midnight in Paris examined nostalgia to expose its weaknesses.


#5 Bellflower

Bellflower is not the Armageddon we were promised.
We were promised scarred tattooed bad-asses riding apocalypse bikes with biker sluts. We were promised Tina Turner in dominatrix gear. We were promised deserts filled with broken glass and rusted abandoned machinery. Most of all, we were promised Detroit muscle cars belching fire.

Well, one out of four will get you a steady paycheck in major league baseball.

Bellflower does give us the amazing fire-breathing Medusa muscle car, but instead of a physical Armageddon, it offers up an emotional apocalypse.

Rest of the review.


#4 War Horse

The Sound On Sight podcast featuring me discussing The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.

An emotionally wrenching journey through the First World War as seen through the eyes of Joey, a Devon thoroughbred trained as a plough horse, who is sold to a British cavalry officer on the first day of World War One and serves in the war for a variety of owners until the Armistice. Along the way, Spielberg is able to play with his common themes of the collision between the natural world and the mechanical world, as well as the way that the monstrous presence of death is revealed by the movement of inanimate objects. (Particularly effective is Spielberg’s use of a windmill.)

Rest of the review.


#3 Super 8

One of the projects that I never got around to last year was an extended critique and defence of Super 8 and my apparently controversial opinion that it is much more influnced by the films of Joe Dante than the films of Steven Spielberg, especially the neglected Joe Dante classic Matinee.


#2 Rabies

My favourite film from the Fantasia Film Festival this year, which is also my favourite film festival in the world (other than the one that pays my salary.) I also saw Bellflower, 13 Assassins and Brawler at Fantasia. The Innkeepers by Ti West was on this list until very late - only dislodged by Steven Spielberg's two great late films.

My explanation for why I picked Rabies as my favorite film at Fantasia still stands:

This year at Fantasia we heard horror in an entirely new language. As Israel’s horror pioneers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado borrowed from the World of Exploitation Cinema, but struck off in an entirely new direction. Rabies is darkly funny and filled with rage. The very existence of the film has inspired the production of 3 new horror films from Israel and a follow-up from Keshales and Papushado that threatens to do to the kidnap genre what they have already done to the slasher genre.

My full review of Rabies.


#1 Hugo

The Sound on Sight podcast featuring me discussing Hugo (and The Muppets).

Hugo is a love-letter to the history of cinema and particularly the very early work of Georges Méliès... The most eloquent and beautiful tribute to the power and history of film since Cinema Paradiso... Beyond Scorsese’s love of film, this is fantastic family film, part Boy’s Adventure, part Oliver Twist and part Jules Verne.

Fair warning about my full review. As originally written, I pointed out that most reviews of Hugo ended up being huge film nerdgasms, at which point my own review turned into a film nerdgasm. I was trying (clumsily) to point out that Hugo was designed to infect filmgoers with film nerdery. Simon Howell cut that out in favour of when I just came out and said that that was what the film did. It reads better that way, but it does make me look like an incredible film geek.

Two other minor points about Hugo and my review...

One final piece of film evidence that points to Hugo being set in 1931 is René Clair’s 1931 film À Nous la Liberté, which (depending on who you listen to) either predicted or influenced Charlie Chaplin's 1937 film Modern Times.

Finally, right after watching Hugo, I walked into Indigo and bought a very nice hardcover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I didn't start reading it until after I had written and submitted my review. On the very first page of the novel, it tells us that the year is 1931. D'oh! Impressive that my detective work got the year right, but the actual answer was literally sitting at my elbow throughout my search.

Rest of the review.

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