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2011 in Review: My 10 Favorite Films, 10 – 8

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite film of all time, but with a year like 2011, it wasn’t that hard to narrow down my choices for favorite films over the past year.

After making my selections and arranging them, I’ve realized a lot of my choices for 2011 involved some combination of whimsy, science fiction, or fantasy elements. While I love a good realistic film — and indeed, had this blog existed at the beginning of 2011, I would have likely been talking about how much I loved True Grit and The King’s Speech — I always seem to go back to the more whimsical ones the most, and 2011, for all its faults, was full of some wonderful films of this ilk.

I swear, I’ll never write off another Western again, I promise!

I had originally intended to place all ten of my favorite films here in this one article, but around the time I had completed the tenth place film and began writing the entry for the ninth (the rankings of which continued to evolve themselves, so that was its own dilemma for me as I love them all, some more equally than others), I began to realize just how much I had to say about the films I loved this past year. If you read my past articles on the films I didn’t see in 2011, the ones I liked, and the ones I hated, you can see that there wasn’t a huge number of films that I especially wanted to see that was new, so perhaps that is why I ended up feeling so compelled to write so much about these films.

Ultimately, I am my own editor, and I know I can be quite wordy, but it is my hope that, in writing these analyses on my favorite films of 2011, I can impress upon you what it is about these films that I love so much and maybe compel you to love them similarly and, if not, defend your position, retort with your own, and perhaps feel compelled to introduce others, including me, to something they had never considered seeing before. That being said, this is a perfect jumping off point for the first entry on my list, so here they are, Entries 10 – 8 of My 10 Favorite Films of 2011:

10.  Midnight in Paris (June 10)

Woody Allen. The man has not enchanted me as he has with other film buffs and critics. I didn’t ever really see any of his films while growing up, unless you would like to count the movie Antz, and, really, why would you? The thing about his films is that he always throws himself into the movie, whether or not he’s written a role for himself or has even created an analogue to be himself within. And, honestly, the guy grates on my nerves. He’s always struck me as kind of a self-important, self-aware, and yet unrepentant asshole.

What’s funny about Midnight in Paris, however, is that it’s no different in this respect compared to Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters, which, I admit, are only two of the now five films of his that I have seen… and that’s if you count Antz. Here, the Owen Wilson character, Gil — who himself is a screenwriter like Allen — is unquestionably Woody Allen’s way of musing to himself out loud about his own love affair with his influences. What’s so characteristically different about Gil compared to Allen’s playing himself in those older films is that Gil seems to reflect a humbleness that has perhaps come over Allen as the years have gone by. Probably because he made Antz, I dunno.

Unlike with those characters, I liked this character. Not that a film has to endear me to its main character, but the character’s self-pity is really rather understandable, as he has entered a city he loves (Paris) with a woman he supposedly loves (played by Rachel McAdams) and spends the entire film repeatedly trying to get her to feel the same sort of passions he is feeling. This isn’t a man trying to impose his passions as much as he is trying to impress them upon her, which suggests, at least to me, that Allen has similarly been feeling this way as he grows older and audiences’ tastes continue to shift away from his.

The fantasy trappings of the story, where Gil takes several unexpected trips to the roaring 1920s and meets several of his artistic influences, including F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and a beautiful woman who embodies all of his 1920s passions (Marion Cotillard, quickly becoming the female Jeremy Renner in that she’s in pretty much everything) only serves to remind Gil that, while all the things that influenced him for the better are good and should be preserved, the works of the greats he looks up to were similarly influenced by greats he himself is unable to obtain a passion for.

Perhaps Allen is starting to feel like both a Gil, a Fitzgerald, and a Paul Gaugin. He must revere the past for what it was, what it aspired to be, and for how it has influenced his own present, for better or for worse. Midnight in Paris is not only a very pretty, entertaining fantasy film, but also a very personal one that enabled me to finally connect with one of cinema’s more screwed up but nonetheless most influential filmmakers of all time.

9.  Winnie the Pooh (July 15)

Speaking of nostalgia, when I was a little boy, Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was always one of my favorite films. That little anthology of animated short stories was one of the simplest, purest films the studio has even to this day put out. When I had heard that their 2011 animated feature would be a revival of Pooh in that classic style, I was thrilled.

The first trailer for this film, wonderfully matched with Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” playing over, gave me the chills. This truly was looking to be that promised return to form that I had hope for, but it also appeared to be a film that would help return hand-drawn animation back to theatrical screens complete with a worthwhile presentation, as well — something that Disney’s previously attempted with the small portions of animation in the enjoyable but mostly live action film Enchanted and the gorgeous-looking but underwhelming and hollow Princess and the Frog.

The anthology style employed in the 1977 film is largely back for this 2011 sequel, here focusing on some familiar elements of the Pooh franchise that should help to introduce newer audiences and entertain those more familiar: Eeyore losing his tail, Pooh searching for honey, and the friends’ poor reading and writing skills leading to some humorous misunderstandings about Christopher Robin’s whereabouts. Unlike the 1977 film, these plots are somewhat interwoven into each other, providing some semblance of narrative structure and lending this otherwise very short film (63 minutes!) a more cinematic and cohesive feel.

The animation is wonderful and also brings back the storybook visual presentation. With that, the characters’ interaction with the book’s printed narrative is imaginatively employed in full force. Rabbit and Owl, the only “realistic” animals of the crew, are a bit more manic than I remember (Rabbit even gets a scene subtly referencing Apocalypse Now), but they’re not too distracting and even lend the film a bit more energy, which is not unwelcome.

Coincidentally, they are voiced by the only two of the most recognizable celebrity voices among the characters, too — Craig Ferguson plays Owl and SpongeBob himself, Tom Kenny, voices Rabbit. Monty Python alum John Cleese rounds out the cast as the narrator, and Zooey Deschanel provides the film with the familiar Pooh theme song and a few new ones that are sure to entertain small children and still not torture the ears of their elders.

And perhaps that is what is so fantastic about this film. When I had finally convinced myself that it wasn’t creepy for me to go see it by myself as a then-24-year-old man, I found myself enjoying it about as much as the small kids in the audience, though likely on a different level. I smiled at all the cute quirks and their adorably naive sensibilities (Piglet’s solution to getting his friends out of a pit is absolutely hysterical). But I also smiled as the little kids elsewhere bounced along with Tigger and attempted to sing along with the songs they were only hearing for the first time. I normally hate when people talk during a movie, but, for me, child interaction with a movie of this sort is almost a part of the enjoyment.

This is a very fun, wonderful film, and I only wish that the Blu-Ray would go on sale already so that I can afford to buy it!

8.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5)

Back in the day, I saw the Tim Burton Remake of Planet of the Apes. I remember liking it at the time, though I’ve maybe seen it once since then. That second viewing revealed more of the film’s flaws to me, and while I had no special affection for the original, something about the remake was bothersome — very likely, it was the camp value that Burton infused the film with that managed to make it seem as though he held it in contempt. It’s a story that needs a delicate hand to appeal to more jaded audience members, and it was almost as if Tim Burton just said “To hell with it,” and set out to make the weirdest remake you’ve ever seen. The disturbing ape mating rituals of this forsaken future that supposedly lay ahead for us? Remember that? A screaming chimp in lingerie… just… ew…

When it was announced, then, that they would be rebooting the franchise, as with all other reboots, I was prepared for a similar experience. Not only did I not look forward to this film, I questioned whether audiences today would accept this as a serious narrative. Surely, I assumed, the studios would agree with me, and so I braced myself for what was so assuredly sure to be a complete disaster.

But, of course, this film wouldn’t be on this list if it had been. The filmmakers somehow pulled off the impossible and not only made a big budget film with impressive special effects, they managed to tell a dramatic and compelling story about the origins of the ape uprising and, even more impossibly, they also managed to turn out a film that compelled audiences and critics alike to flock to it with high praise and lots of money! Of coures, I, too, was more than happy to have my preconceived notions about what turned out to be a rather amazing film be upended.

The technology they used to capture Andy Serkis’ emotional, amazing portrayal of Caesar, the first ape to reject his human oppressors and rise up in his kind against them, is proof enough that there is a valid use for the motion capture process that has so unfairly been relegated to mostly crummy animated films and brief special effects shots. No doubt Rise will be nominated for a special effects Oscar this year, but there’s so much of Serkis’ own emotive, expressive acting in the “effect” that it really all amounts to mere digital make up and is sure to be just the first of hopefully many challenges to the status quo of what is considered to be an Oscar-worthy performance, as well.

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