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2011 in Review: The Films I Liked

As I stated many times over in my overviews of films I didn’t see in 2011, I was a pretty poor person this past year, which limited the number of films I could see in theatres. Luckily, I was able to make up for much of these missed showings through rentals.

Of the films I saw in 2011, few of them were truly bad films. A few were disappointing, many were just about as average as I expected, and a few turned out to be surprises. While none of the films on this list were truly awful in my eyes, not all of them were that remarkable either, with few exceptions. Before I tell you which films I considered to be the worst and which were my favorites, I am once again going to lead you through the year in review of the mostly average films that I actually did see throughout and from 2011 by the time I made this list.

Barney’s Version (January 14) – Technically released in 2010, this Canadian film starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, and Dustin Hoffman follows a Barney Panofsky, a television producer known for its cheesy soap opera productions, as he recounts his life, his loves, and his failings was given a limited release in US theatres this past year, so I’m counting it. Based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Mordecai Richler, the film is more than happy to point out just how much of a jerk its protagonist is while endearing you to him. Giamatti, I’ve said before, is a reliable actor, but has also quickly become the go-to guy for independent films, but he’s really good as the melancholy, self-sabotaging schmuck Barney. Rosamund Pike, as the love of his life Miriam, makes it easy to understand why he loves her so much, and the attraction she feels towards him is believable, even when he’s a jerk. Barney’s Version isn’t remarkably brilliant, though it kind of thinks it is, but the story and characters are easy to follow throughout the years they take us through, and it really is a mildly wonderful film.

The Adjustment Bureau (March 4) – Another film I rented, and rightfully so, as the film was riding off the coattails of Inception and tried to make audiences think that it held similarly mind-bending action sequences when, honestly, the film really was something quite different all together. Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story Adjustment Team, this film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as David, a rising politician, Elise, a rising dancer. The two fall in love but are broken apart thanks to the efforts of the titular omnipresent organization, which seeks to ensure that the two stay apart and fulfill their destinies as fated by a plan laid out by their leader, the Chairman. When David becomes aware of their presence, he continues to find ways to outsmart them and be with Elise, and thus begins the battle between this determined man and the fates that stand against him. The story is genuinely intriguing, and stars Damon, Blunt, and John Slattery as the dogmatic agent who will stop at nothing to keep them apart are all appealing in their respective roles, but it never feels as though the film fulfills its own destiny in becoming a much more interesting, energetic, and emotional film. Worth a see, and if you like it, probably worth a buy. For me, it was about 3/4 there and I’m content with it being a rental.

Rango (March 4) – The first full length animated film produced by Industrial Light & Magic, the world renowned special effects company known for their work on Star WarsJurassic Park, and pretty much every other major blockbuster not worked on by their counterparts WETA, Rango, starring the voice of Johnny Depp as a pet chameleon thrown into the wild west world of desert animals, is one bizarre little movie with simultaneously gorgeous and bizarre animation. The style of the film has a wonderfully equal ratio of realism and gritty stylizing that many will find appealing and possibly many others will find unattractive. Me? I found it fascinating. The story? Not nearly as much. The film has a surprisingly nasty sense of humor for a film aimed at an audience that includes kids, and even cracks jokes as, say, one character gets carried off by a hawk to be eaten off screen. The story, where Rango becomes the unwitting sheriff and savior to a town of animals being terrorized by more subterranean outlaw animals. Sounds cute, but it’s not. The plot isn’t much on its own, but the quirky characters, animation, and offbeat sense of humor carry the film and make it one of the more enjoyable family-with-older-kids films of the year.

Battle: Los Angeles (March 11) – This is one of the most entertaining recruiting advertisements ever produced. This year we got a film called Cowboys & Aliens, and this is almost like its pre-released sequel, featuring Marines in place of the cowboys and a more serious sensibility. The film, starring Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez, and Ne-Yo as Marines called into action when mysterious cybernetic aliens invade our planet, is ultimately just a bunch of action sequences strung together, and, really, you couldn’t have asked for much more than that from this film. Sure, the civilians, including Bridget Moynahan as the suggested love interest and Michael Peña as a father with son in tow, were mostly unnecessary as possible cannon fodder, but this film is largely unfairly maligned for being one of the worst of the year. There’s a surprising poignancy to the story,  with Eckhart’s SSgt. Nantz carrying the weight of having called one of the solder’s brothers into a firefight that got him killed, and all the Marines are pretty much well formed and acted. It’s an average action film that will kill roughly 2 hours of your life with some pretty awesome special effects, and I don’t see why people have called it one of the worst of the year.

Limitless (March 18) – Having déjà vu? If you read my list of films from 2011 that I didn’t see, you probably are. The reason why I include this film in both places is because since I made that list, I have seen this film, and I can honestly say that I regret not seeing  this brisk, stylish action thriller in theatres. Bradley Cooper stars as a writer who comes into possession of a drug that induces a clarity that enables him to not only overcome his writer’s block, but write one hell of a best selling novel, rise up in the world of business, and become one of the quickest rags-to-riches stories the world would come to know. But, of course, there are downsides to the drug, and soon there are people coming after him who desire it for their own needs. Aside from a top notch cast, director Neil Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems do some great stuff with the camera here, where the characters’ clarity is accentuated by a gorgeously saturated color palette, and the opening rush through the streets of NYC is fascinating to look at. Not only that, the story has great pacing and captures the action, intrigue, perils, and paranoia I would suspect one would experience if they were living a life of drug-enhanced success. Limitless may be implausible, but as a character-driven “What if?” story, it’s downright entertaining.

Paul (March 18) – Considering the fact that this film reunites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as two nerdy Englishmen who come to America for Comic Con and to visit all the famous alien-related landmarks our country has to offer and puts them together with the hilarious Kristen Wiig, the director of Superbad and episodes of Arrested Development Greg Mottola, and, to a lesser extent, Seth Rogan as the voice of a crass alien sidekick, this film really should’ve been one of the best comedies of the year. Instead, what we got was a mostly funny film that got a little too unfairly opinionated. It’s not that I’m offended by the jokes about Christianity. I, too, do not understand why members of my faith find the idea of life beyond our planet so counter to their beliefs and I too get frustrated when science is discounted blindly, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that the film got too self-important about its own beliefs and made that almost the point of the film; it was much more like an episode of South Park drawn out to exhaustion when it needed to be more like Futurama. When the film was funny, though, it was very funny, and it often was, with plenty of nerdy references. It’s not as great as Shaun of the Dead, for sure, and falls short of the under appreciated Hot Fuzz, too, but as an unofficial side entry in the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, it works as an extended special feature almost.

Hanna (April 8) – A stylish action thriller blended with coming of age story and featuring a story inspired by fairy tales like Red Riding Hood, Hanna has all the makings of a cult classic. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the teenage girl who has led her life being trained to be an assassin instead of the prom queen by her hermit of a father (Eric Bana), and as the evil CIA agent tracking the young girl and her father, Cate Blanchett is also fantastic, bringing the appropriate amount of wicked witch, big bad wolf, and evil stepmother to the role. The film veers from action sequence to teenage awkwardness as the sheltered Hanna travels across Morocco and the European continent to meet back up with her father, who has been on the run. The film takes a few weird turns with the transitions between more serious scenes and lighter ones being a bit shaky, in my opinion, but after seeing the film, it warmed on me over time and I came to appreciate its eccentricities.

Rio (April 15) – Aside from inspiring an Angry Birds sequel, this cute animated film’s biggest claim to fame was being the first film of the year to surpass $400 million at the box office in 2011. Cute, sweet, and beautifully animated, Rio isn’t the best animated film of the year, but it is fun and colorful and, as opposed to Rango, very suitable for younger audiences craving a decent film. Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Blu, a rare blue macaw who is taken to Rio de Janeiro to be mated to another (Anne Hathaway), is surprisingly fitting to the funny neurotic bird movements the animators carefully applied to the character, and he even makes his voice a bit nasally to fit it, as well. Hathaway is less involved in her character, but a few other supporting characters make up for it. The film gets carried away in its fun-loving, and the songs are harmless fun, though the evil cockatoo played by Jermaine Clement gets the short end of that stick with a song about how fine he is with being insane and evil. Average but colorful and fun entertainment.

Scream 4 (April 15) – A lot of critics disliked this fourth entry in the meta-slasher film series, but I pretty much had a blast with the film for what it was: a sly commentary on the state of horror films and reflection on just how good the old days were. I’m not generally a horror fan, but the Scream films have largely been an exception, with this film making up for the rather lame third entry. From the opening fakeouts to the film’s poking fun at remakes, reboots, torture porn, and the rise of social media since the last film was released in 2000, I found myself wholly enjoying my solo viewing at 10:10AM on a Saturday, laughing out loud and munching on popcorn before I even had any breakfast as I sat in the theatre alone. It sounds nerdy, but what can I say? I make no apologies.

Bridesmaids (May 13) – As I said with Paul, Kristen Wiig has largely been an entertaining actress, a frequent highlight of Saturday Night Live, even when the show has seen better days. With Bridesmaids, she has set herself up to go on as one of the funniest mainstream comediennes in history and even evokes the sort of slapstick humor that Lucille Ball was famous for back in the day — just check out the scene where she gets so drunk on a flight to Las Vegas to see what I mean. I’ve already reviewed this film if you want to check out my full opinion of the film (the link was right there at the beginning of the entry, go on), but I don’t mind reiterating just what a surprise this film was after all the talk about it being the female version of The Hangover. Being the X version of Y is never a good sign, but the film actually lives up and, some would say, surpasses this description.

Everything Must Go (May 13) – I am a gigantic fan of the film Stranger Than Fiction, so I was more than happy to see Will Ferrell stretch out into yet another semi-serious comedy film with Everything Must Go. Sad to say, however, that while it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t that good, either. This is almost like a poor man’s version of Barney’s Version, with the film being more than happy to point out how despicable its main character has been thanks to his alcoholism and asking the audience to have a little sympathy for him despite it. Instead of following the character throughout the years, it follows him as he lives a few days on the lawn of his home after his wife has left him for good and tossed all his belongings out of the house, all the while connecting with neighbors, wooing a few new women, and befriending a local kid with low self esteem. The performances here are just fine, but the presentation is cold and a little uninviting and the story a bit too contrived to be that earnest.

Horrible Bosses (July 8) – In times of financial hardship, it’s understandable that many people feel enslaved to their jobs and, possibly, to their bosses. Along comes Horrible Bosses to cash in on tragedy and become one of the highest grossing dark comedies in quite some time. Featuring three best friends (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis) who each have, yes, varyingly horrible bosses (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell), the film follows the three men as they conspire to rid themselves of their oppressors for good. The film is able to make homicidal conspiracies humorous thanks to its relentlessness and a game cast of likable actors doing horrible things on both sides of the conflict, including Jennifer Aniston, the sole female in the cast, who proves that her skill with comedy hasn’t waned despite some rather bad decisions to join lesser films in the past. It does take a weird turn into the unrealistic, which dulls the edge quite a bit, but for a greater part of the film, I was laughing much harder than I ever expected to when I rented it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (July 15) – Until 2011, I had only seen the first three films and have read none of the books. While I had no interest in catching up on the already completed books, I was more than happy to do my first ever Netflix rental marathon and threw each of the films, movies four through seven, into my queue just so I could go see Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in theatres. And I enjoyed all of them, to varying degrees, so I was pretty pumped to see this final film and my first in theatres. It would happen that this would ultimately be one of the worst theatre experiences I’ve ever had, with flickering, dull image quality that only became worse once Harry went into that really white train dock scene with you-know-who, but at least the film was a gripping, action-packed, satisfactory conclusion to the film series that I had gone from not caring one bit about to becoming a momentary Potter nut within a year. Mrs. Weasley’s callback to Ellen Ripley was pretty awesome, too.

Cowboys & Aliens (July 29) – A recent rental, much like Battle: Los Angeles, I don’t get what was so awful about this film. It wasn’t nearly as fun as expected, and Olivia Wilde’s character is basically nothing but a pretty plot device, but, overall, it is a mildly fun film with a concept that was, though preposterous, nonetheless meant for a better film. People hated it for its blend of Western and sci-fi, but I say those people were probably never really that imaginative as kids. I’m a sucker for crossovers, whether they be franchises or genres, but I know when concepts work and when they don’t, and the concept behind Cowboys & Aliens is gold. Perhaps its biggest fault, for me, was that it needed to be a bit more whimsical. More like Indiana Jones except, ironically, not like the one with aliens.

The Help (August 10) – Often criticized as nothing more than a compensation for white guilt, The Help was one of those key films this past year that had fans saying “Oscar!” and others saying “People’s Choice Award.” Emma Stone stars as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a burgeoning journalist who decides to document the lives of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi after her personal caretaker when she was growing up is fired suddenly by her mother. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer also star as the two maids who help Skeeter with her project, and Bryce Dallas Howard takes on the unenviable role of the white Southern bitch who hates them. I’m not going to criticize the film for its account of African-American life in southern America, as I just don’t know, having not been there nor been black before, but I can criticize the film for its glossy treatment of the issue, its caricatured characters, and ironically black and white view of good and evil, with very little effort put into understanding the villains beyond their blind hatred. Viola Davis features disproportionately little in the film, which is to its detriment, as hers is the best, most touching performance the film captures, and this really should have been more her story. It’s not all bad, of course, and the film is competent in being fluffy entertainment, but it tries to tackle something bigger than it can handle, and it doesn’t seem to know it.

Contagion (September 9) – Steven Soderbergh’s gripping, serious disaster film with an indie film spirit is pretty fantastic for what it is and juggles a huge cast of interesting characters with admirable skill and grace. Unlike most disaster films, Contagion takes everything very seriously and the script is loaded with plausible scientific data. This is hard sci-fi with emotional depth, and could very nearly made it into my upcoming 10 favorites of 2011 list. I’ve already reviewed this film, so go ahead and check it out for further analysis, but if you like serious sci-fi, you’ll do well to at least rent the recent home release!

Paranormal Activity 3 (October 21) – The third film in what has become an annual, popular film series, like Scream 4 before it, this horror film manages to best its predecessor and succeed as its own entry. Going back to the year 1988, eighteen years before the events of the first two films, we learn the origins of how sisters Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) came to be haunted by the evil force that plagued them in the first two films. While the first film made good on the found-footage style, the second film felt a little less authentic thanks to its security camera gimmick and repetitive static shocks that made some scenes feel like a Where’s Waldo? book to find the titular paranormal activity. The third entry borrows some of this static camera style, but the home movie feel comes back thanks to the VHS-quality footage that puts us into the retro era of the film’s setting. The scares work, and the performances are authentic, with the little girls in particular putting on a good show. The filmmakers were smart to give us a heretofore never before seen protagonist in Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who is dating the girls’ mother (Lauren Bittner) and is so inconsequential to the previous two films’ stories that the fact that this is a prequel doesn’t get in the way of what may or may not happen to the guy. It’s not a brilliant film by any means, but as an intriguing look at how mainstream media depicts the existence of evil forces and as a generally scary film in its own right, Paranormal Activity 3 is a more than justifiable third entry in this profitable series.

2011 in Review

Notable Films I Managed to Avoid, For Better or For Worse

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