Home > Favorite Movies, Lists, Year in Review > 2011 in Review: My 10 Favorite Films, 7 – 4

2011 in Review: My 10 Favorite Films, 7 – 4

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

Now we come to a portion of the list that, by pure coincidence, I am dubbing the nerdiest portion of my list. Three comic book films and a semi-obscure sci-fi film from a director who did an even more obscure sci-fi film with Sam Rockwell a few years ago.

This was the final year in which we got pre-Avengers films for the last two superheroes who would be getting them (with Hawkeye and Black Widow likely to be given their own post-Avengers films after that is an undoubtable success), and it was also the year that superhero films began to experiment with formulas, styles, and audience taste.

The three comic book films here largely exemplify what studios need to strive for in order to keep this genre alive and interesting, while the other film, the more obscure film, is itself a great example of using a familiar genre and its tropes to catapult a film into a touching and yet still intriguing human story.

7.  Thor (May 6)

When The Avengers were slated to get their film debut sometime in the future, I doubt anyone could have thought that this film would be any good, let alone be better than either of the Hulk’s two major film adaptations (though I did still pretty much like 2008’s take). While nobody really balked at the thought of adapting the story of a radioactive scientist who, you know, hulks out when he gets angry into an entertaining film (likely thanks to that character’s familiarity to audiences through various smaller mediums, especially the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno 70s TV series), somehow the story of the tortured dichotomy of Bruce Banner and the Hulk comes off as far more believable and, more importantly, relatable on a metaphorical level than Thor — a being who, depending on what version you go with, is either from a parallel dimension who inspired the Norse god of thunder or, more classically, actually is the god of thunder himself.

With such a grandiose, high-concept character, it was easy to see him as, well, pretty alienating. Oh, and did I mention that he often speaks with a Shakespearean vocabulary, too? While I may consider myself to be fairly open to unusual stories, I didn’t think that such a character would be accepted by modern audiences, let alone justify getting his own film. Heck, I was only barely aware of the character’s history before the film neared completion, largely due to my own lack of interest in the character.

Imagine my surprise when Marvel’s ingenious decision to hire Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Brannagh, a director whose past experiences directing films included exactly zero action films, actually paid off in the end. Turns out that Brannagh’s love of Shakespeare went hand-in-hand with his love for the character, and his sense for comic timing was put to fantastic use in humbling Thor in his exile in our dimension in the middle of a New Mexican desert, with hilarious yet endearing results.

Thor straddles the line between making fun of its ridiculousness and embracing it when necessary. On earth, we have Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgård attempting to make heads or tails of this brash Aryan man who fell from the sky and into their research van. Here is where all the humor takes place, as Thor’s life as heir to the throne of Asgard has spoiled him for life without his powers. He walks into traffic without a care, tosses mugs and asks for another, and charms his way into scientist Jane Foster’s (Portman) heart.

Asgard, meanwhile, is where the drama largely takes place, where Brannagh gets to stretch his gift for handling commanding speeches and big words and make it sound natural. Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston, as Thor’s father Odin and treacherous brother Loki respectively, revel in this opportunity and their talents are put to good use, as with the rest of the supporting cast. And, might I say, Asgard is a wonderfully realized place and should likely be recognized for either special effects or set design come Oscars.

Thor managed to take one of the hardest of the Avengers heroes there was to adapt into film and took an unexpected directing choice and managed to expand Marvel’s new film universe into braver territory and source material. (Magic-user Dr. Strange is rumored to be their next!)

6.  Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22)

Far less ambitious than Thor but with a lot more up against it than the previous film, including a cast that is largely made up of either barely-knowns or barely A-list (B+ list?) stars and, more terrifying, a director, Joe Johnston, who was best known for making mostly clumsy Spielbergian films, including the mundane Jurassic Park III. His last film, an update of The Wolfman, was pretty horrible — though, to be fair, he did have to pick up the parts of what was already turning out to be a disaster in the making. (And, yes, that is my Wolfman review up there. I interned for The Celebrity Cafe over my last semester in college back in 2010.)

Luckily, Captain America seems to be the kind of thing that’s right up his alley. Much like with his previous films October Sky and The Rocketeer, Captain America exudes the nostalgia and underdog narrative that he seems to excel at. Rumors of song and dance numbers be damned, the film was turning out to look like, at the very least, a very nice-looking action film with smart costume and prop designs that felt simultaneously retro and futuristic. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all?

It wasn’t. In fact, it’s now sitting here on this list, a respectable #6 out of ten out of all the films I saw this past year and likely having a place in some hypothetical Top 10 Superhero Films list that I very well might make in the future. Chris Evans, formerly Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four films, was perfectly cast as the eager but weak patriot who wanted nothing more than to fight evil and bring justice to all the bullies of the world. He was the one bright spot (pun) of Fantastic Four and here he gets his due in a role that will easily overshadow his previous superhero role.

The varying ratio of computer effects and body double also manages to sell the illusion that Evans went from sickly scrawny to fit and brawny with the flick of a switch and a few government sanctioned injections, but the story is quick to point out that it isn’t the muscle that gives the character strength. Steve Rogers was a great man before he became a soldier, and that’s what makes him worthy of the power he is given in the Super Soldier project. The scene where he shields his fellow soldiers from what he presumes to be a live grenade alone sells the reason why the man always was a hero, and that was before they had even settled on him as the candidate.

Far from being a heavy character-driven film, however, Captain America also has a plethora of fun action that’s never too violent or scary, so I’m sure younger kids will be able to get a kick out of it without too much traumatization, if you’re worried about it. And those rumored song and dance numbers were actually put to good use, being both amusingly silly and well integrated into the story. The large list of supporting characters, including love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and even Iron Man’s father Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) get their moments to shine. My only complaints are with the fact that Bucky never really got to stick around as much as I had hoped, and that Hugo Weaving’s villainous Red Skull just didn’t have the menacing staying power as, say, Loki did in Thor to provide much of a threat to Captain America, let alone the world.

Still, with all that was against it, Captain America and Joe Johnston, like Steve Rogers, proved that the underdog can go up against the odds and come out in the end heroically.

5.  X-Men: First Class (June 3)

Marvel certainly had a big year. Who would have thought that 2011 would be the year that studios would take some big gambles on some unusual and untested properties and manage to pay off in the end? (Well… except for poor DC and Green Lantern.) After the ridiculous X-Men: The Last Stand and the questionable X-Men Origins: Wolverine (questionable in that it makes me wonder, “Why?” in regard to its existence, at least), the decision to turn back the clock to the 60s and make a period piece X-Men film was bold.

Involving small chunks of what was to be a Magneto-centered film in the same vein as Wolverine and bringing on the first two film’s director, Bryan Singer, as the film’s producer, X-Men: First Class tells the rather intriguing secret history of how Marvel’s main mutants managed to be involved in the Cuban Missile crisis. Setting the film mostly during the 60s was probably a very logical conclusion, being that the series has always focused on themes of prejudice and identity, and yet until 2011, period pieces were largely regulated to historical dramas and thrillers or nostalgic comedies, and rarely, if ever, would you think of a big budget action film of an established franchise as being a “period piece.” But in 2011, we got two in less than as many months from the same comic publisher, no less.

Many fans of the series complained that the first class here doesn’t resemble that of the comic book’s (having already used up these characters in the first three films, which are set chronologically decades later), and then many of those unfamiliar with anything outside the films complained that they weren’t getting most of their favorites back and that they wanted a fourth film, but what I loved most about this film is the new dynamic given to familiar characters by taking us back in time and showing just how these relationships developed. Here’s a prequel that justifies its existence, and largely thanks to the wonderful depiction of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), soon to be known as Professor X and Magneto.

This film and Captain America often switch places in my mind as to which was better. Captain America was certainly more entertaining, but there are times when First Class was more dramatic, and it’s was hard to place either of them on this list as both were excellent. The reason why I ultimately decided to definitively put First Class above Marvel’s other two films, however, was ultimately because of how it not only overcame the new place in history, but how it overcame having a big cast of mostly unknown characters playing hardly the most famous of superheroes (seriously, “Banshee” has a hypersonic scream that can make him fly), and, ultimately, how it managed to bring a series back from the dead and prove that experimental superhero films could keep the genre in the green while not sacrificing the story and heart.

Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake) hasn’t crafted the best superhero film, and, in time, I’m sure Captain America will come out on top in my mind, but, for now, I’m still riding the high of having film’s first superhero team back in top form, and I can’t wait to see the backstory continue to unfold in the sequel.

4.  Source Code (April 1)

Here is a list of my top 5 favorite films of 2009, in no particular order: Up, Star Trek, Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and Moon. Notice, I did not say Avatar. I think Avatar is some fine entertainment and definitely a knock out special effects extravaganza, three of those films listed, in my opinion manged to be much better sci-fi entertainment, each for varying reasons and all more justified in getting the flippin’ Best Picture Oscar nod than Avatar. Of those films, three were nominated alongside Avatar (largely thanks to the big Dark Knight snub of the post-2008 ceremony and the Academy’s subsequent decision to expand the category to having 10 nominees): Up, Inglourious Basterds, and, surprisingly enough, the excellent but little seen District 9 (probably due to its apartheid allegory). While Star Trek was not going to be nominated by any means in this category, it did managed to pick up four nominations in some major technical categories, winning in make up, of all things (though the score was brilliant and I cannot express how much I love Giacchino).

The dark horse, then, is Moon. Moon was a wonderful film that, like District 9, had a sci-fi premise that drove a very character-based narrative forward. Directed by Duncan Jones (otherwise known as Zowie Bowie, a.k.a. the son of David, himself a.k.a. Ziggy Stardust, among others), Moon was largely unseen and went unheard. In researching the films I did not see, I learned that  The Iron Lady used a musical piece from Moon in one of its trailers, and I imagine that this is likely to remain the most widely consumed portion of the movie to this day. Of course, I’m probably just spewing hyperbole, but the fact remains that Moon, though wonderful (though my parents didn’t seem to think so), was a quiet film in so many ways.

Jones’ followup, Source Code was less so, though you’d probably still have to remind people that it was that film where Jake Gyllenhaal was on a train and he had to stop a bomb from going off over and over again, and even then, they’re likely to ask, “Did that come out last year?” and “Wasn’t Denzel Washington also in that?”

Source Code isn’t as good as Moon, but it comes very close and utilizes a sci-fi plot to tell a character-driven story in a similar way. Jones has similarly thrown in some speed to the intrigue as Capt. Colter Stevens (Gyllenhaal) attempts to not only solve the mystery behind an unpreventable explosion by jumping into the mind of one of its victims for only the last 8 minutes of his life, but also the reason why he is on this mission and how he got there. As this plot unfurls, he also begins to fall in love with the cute girl who always appears right in front of him with the same dialogue with every jump (Michelle Monaghan). Compared to Moon, Source Code is breakneck in pacing, and yet it has a very classic feel to the story and romance. I kind of got the feeling that, had it been made back in the day, Colter Stevens could have been played by someone like Cary Grant and the film directed by Hitchcock.

Gyllenhaal does a good job of doing the Cary Grant thing, too, being appropriately charming with a strong will and a twinge of paranoia. Monaghan is easy enough to fall in love with, too, and with the repeated 8 minutes of her character’s life that she’s been given, somehow she helps to mold the character’s finer points in her reactions to Colter’s changing approaches to his situation, and though the guy whose body he has jumped into has a history with the girl, it’s almost a Groundhog Day situation where he’s effectively earned the right to be with her by catching up on all of the finer details of her life through the repeated visitations he has.

I’m not too sure about how I feel regarding the confusing and admittedly ridiculous revelation of what the titular “Source Code” actually is discovered to be, but I’ll take it, largely because I loved the movie and accept it for what it is: a sweeping romance thriller in the form of a high concept sci-fi film. You don’t watch this kind of sci-fi for the sci-fi but rather the character development that happens as a result of said settings, and sometimes that requires that you suspend your disbelief a little more. This is a perfectly solid little sci-fi thriller that happens to have a charming romantic story, as well, and it’s notable that my rommate and I were the only non-couple in the theatre when we went to go see this, so, I dunno, you might want to check it out. And if you like it, I also strongly suggest that you go at least rent a copy of Moon!

  1. January 24, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Comic movies really hit a stride this year. As for Source Code, I just feel like they tried to pull one over on me, and I didn’t care the whole time. Which is sad because I loved Moon.

    • CJ Stewart
      January 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      To each his own. I can see where you’re coming from as far as the “tried to pull one over on me” part, since at first I felt as though the ending was just too Hollywood and predictable, but sentimentality won over me in time and I came to respect it for what it was: a hero somehow getting what he earned. Think of how much more cynical it would have been if it had just had him killed off and the guy who created it just got all the fame, you know?

  1. January 3, 2013 at 11:59 pm
  2. February 16, 2013 at 2:31 am

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