by Luke Hickman
As a critic, I'm fully aware of how self-indulgent it is to write a year-end Top 10 list. Just like every other critic out there, I'm doing it anyway.
2011 hasn't been a year filled with tons of huge, groundbreaking films – unlike 2007's releases 'No Country for Old Men,' 'There Will Be Blood,' 'Into the Wild,' 'The Assassination of Jesse James,' 'Gone Baby Gone,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Atonement,' 'Juno' and 'Michael Clayton.' Instead, 2011 has been full of smaller fantastic films, the types of movies that would be considered awards underdogs any other year.
Unlike most Top 10 lists out there, this will not include an "honorable mentions" section at the end that turns my Top 10 list into a Top 22.
However, I am concluding this post with a "dishonorable mentions" segment, a reminder of some of the year's very worst releases.
In no specific order, I present to you my Top 10 Films of 2011.
I've already mentioned my love for 'Source Code' and its brilliant up-and-coming director Duncan Jones here before, but I can't shy away from the fact that it's still one of the most satisfying films of the year. Most mainstream audiences have a hard time digesting solid hardcore science fiction, so Jones took a solid sci-fi story and made it digestible for mainstream audiences – and it really works!
Set in the near future, 'Source Code' follows a military chopper pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) chosen to serve in a top-secret experiment that sends candidates back in time to repeatedly relive the last eight minutes prior to terrorist attacks. Unlike 'Quantum Leap' (which is paid tribute to several times in 'Source Code'), the soldiers cannot change the events, but discover new facts that might help officials stop the terrorists before they can strike again. Smart, playful, fun, intense and unpredictable, 'Source Code' delivers the thrilling goods in an intense sci-fi action flick.
Another film that I've raved about all year, 'Hanna' is an action flick with an indie flare, proving that action movies don't need to revolve around huge special effects and unnecessarily complex plots. Without either of those two things, 'Hanna' is one of the best action flicks in years.
Imagine a 16-year-old girl with Jason Bourne-like reflexes and abilities. That's Hanna (Saoirse Ronan). She and her father (Eric Bana) have been hiding from the CIA for over a decade. Now that Hanna's training is complete, they resurface and involve the agent hunting them down (Cate Blanchett) in a game of cat and mouse that will set everything right.
'Hanna' is one of those super-stylized movies that leaves you giggling with its high level of creativity. It's so cool that you can't help but get into and love every minute of it. No matter how many times I watch this 111-minute flick, it soars right on by.
I promise this will be the last film on this list that I've fawned over throughout the year. I've mentioned it enough, but once again, I can't omit it and still call this my Top 10 list. If I did, I'd have to place an asterisk next to the title that clarifies that 'Super 8' has been removed.
When a group of aspiring filmmaker kids witness the derailment and wreck of a military train carrying a classified secret, they are thrown into an alien/monster plot far more intense than the zombie movie they're making. It's 'Goonies' meets 'E.T.' in one solid film.
J.J. Abrams made us step back in time by paying homage to the classic kid adventure movies of the late '70s and '80s. Being a fan of both Abrams and Spielberg, it's exceptionally fun to get the mystique of Abrams' screenplays with the homage-paying style of Spielberg's filmmaking. 'Super 8' offers a delicious blend of the two in an absolutely fun package. Long live Spielberg and Abrams!
The conclusion of this eight-film series finally hit the big screen and Blu-ray shelves this year and it sure didn't disappoint. Fans of the books and fans of the films seemed equally pleased by the final chapter of the 'Harry Potter' movie franchise.
'Part 1' was the set-up and rising action for 'The Deathly Hallows,' but the pay-off, climax and resolution don't come until 'Part 2.' If watching 'Part 1' is like seeing the build-up for a climax-less movie, then 'Part 2' is like the climax for a film that you didn't just watch. In reality, the two need to be watched together in one four-and-a-half-hour chunk. The one criticism I have for 'The Deathly Hallows' is that it never should have been separated into two films. They should have had the stones to make it one really long movie with an intermission.
Where television and film series usually lose their steam towards the end and tend to disappoint, this wasn't the case with 'Harry Potter.' If you knew the books or not, 'The Deathly Hallows' offers a completely satisfying ending. This well-rounded climax gave us plenty of action, intensity, character and closure.
Aaron Sorkin is on a roll. Last year he made the creation of Facebook exciting with 'The Social Network,' this year he made "America's favorite pastime" interesting in an off-the-field drama about baseball management. He could write a screenplay about algebra and everyone would love it.
'Moneyball' centers on Oakland A's manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). When he realizes that his poor team will never stand a chance against huge money-driven teams (like the Yankees) that can afford to buy the best players in the game, he hires an analyst (Jonah Hill) to apply mathematical values to players' statistics and organize a new team based on those values.
Everyone who follows baseball and knows the outcome of this story will enjoy watching it play out on screen and those (like me) who don't intensely follow sports (especially baseball) will enjoy it nonetheless. The script is smart, never talking over the heads of the non-sports fans, yet never dumbing down the jargon. The characters drive the film, but it's still full of scenes that make you want to stand up and root for your team.
'Moneyball' hits Blu-ray on January 10, 2012.
If you have had or have watched good friends or family members go through cancer, you know that it's no laughing subject matter. Keeping '50/50' from being bogged down by dark and depressing content, writer Will Reiser, in this autobiographical screenplay, wrote comedy into the equation.
Only someone who has gone through this experience can write it in such a way that you connect with and absolutely understand what it's like. Something that we don't often get from this kind of drama is the honest perspective of the people surrounding the ill character. '50/50' also freely offers a look into that deep perspective.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of the best performances of the year as the mid-twenty-something guy who lives life by the book, yet is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer with a 50/50 chance of survival. The actors perfectly supporting him through this difficult role are Seth Rogen (as the best bud), Bryce Dallas Howard (as the girlfriend), Anna Kendrick (as the newbie grief counselor) and Angelica Huston (as the overly nurturing mother).
'50/50' hits Blu-ray on January 24, 2012.
George Clooney commands one of his best roles to date in Alexander Payne's latest dramatic comedy about a guy who has been too wrapped up in work to pay any attention to his wife and daughters. When his wife is thrown into a coma after a boating accident, he's forced to place work on the back burner, step up, and become the father he should have been all along.
Just as he learns that his wife will never recover and that her living will requires them to pull the plug, the older of his two daughters breaks the news that his wife had been cheating on him. Considering these two subjects are equally dark, 'The Descendants' never takes the plunge into dark territory. As odd as it may sound, the way it's handled almost turns it into a feel-good movie. The story is never handled with an ounce of negativity, but always optimism, forgiveness, and redemption. It's quite an emotional journey, one that deserves to be seen.
'The Descendants' is currently playing in theaters and does not yet have a Blu-ray street date.
'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol'
Despite a lackluster second installment, I've been a fan of the 'Mission: Impossible' series all along. With the third film being my favorite of the bunch, knowing that J.J. Abrams was back on-board for 'Ghost Protocol' filled me with plenty of hope and high expectations which, surprisingly, were met and passed.
Of the four 'Mission's to date, 'Ghost Protocol' applies the team aspect from the television series the most. This time, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is accompanied by a techie (Simon Pegg), a revenge-fueled vixen (Paula Patton) and a new well-seasoned baddie (Jeremy Renner). With each member equally as important as the other, the newly established team must go on a rogue mission stop a Russian lunatic from cleansing the earth through nuclear natural selection.
In my humble opinion, IMAX is a stronger medium-enhancer than 3D. Watching a movie in 3D has never made me feel like I was falling out of my seat, yet IMAX has successfully made me feel that sensation several times over the last three years. If more filmmakers were willing and able to shoot in IMAX, I'm sure that we'd experience those sensations a lot more.
Just as Christopher Nolan did with 'The Dark Knight,' Pixar's Brad Bird shot all of the grand-scale key action sequences of 'Ghost Protocol' with IMAX cameras. There are few film sequences that are as exhilarating as watching Tom Cruise hanging on to the side of the tallest building in the world. The placement of the cameras and the IMAX medium hang you out over the ledge of the 131st floor with him. It's both impressive and breathtaking.
'Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol' is still in theaters and doesn't yet have a Blu-ray street date.
Just as 'Hanna' applied indie flare to the trained killer action genre, 'Drive' does it with the noir-ish heist genre. The unconventional blend of styles creates a brilliant and refreshing take on one of the oldest genres.
Ryan Gosling stars as The Driver, a vehicular stuntman by day and getaway driver by night. Keeping his hands clean, he never knows who he's working for, what they are stealing and why. It's when he does a job for personal reasons that he gets into trouble for the first time. Not only is his life placed on the line, but those of his neighbor crush (Carey Mulligan), her child and his boss (Brian Cranston).
Director Nicholas Winding Refn uses subtle cinematic effects to make your jaw drop. No other director has ever made me not notice a room full of topless women because of something else taking place onscreen. In my book, 'Drive' is a masterpiece of refreshingly creative filmmaking.
'Drive' arrives on Blu-ray January 31, 2012.
'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'
Just like '50/50,' 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' takes a subject matter that is typically used as a manipulative tool in filmmaking and makes it honest and genuine, a way to empathize with its lifelike characters.
'Extremely Loud' paints a picture of what it would be like to lose someone close in the historic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It follows a boy who lost his father (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center's collapse. One year after the towers fall, he feels like the memory of his father slipping away. When he finds a clue to a treasure hunt (of sorts) that his father planned for him, he quickly dives into the seemingly impossible endeavor in the hopes that it will help keep the memories alive.
First-time actor Thomas Horn plays the son, but you'd never know this was his first time acting. He's fantastic, as is the supporting cast – Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright and Max von Sydow. Bring a hankie because it's about to get emotional.
'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' is currently only playing on a few select screens across the U.S., but is set to expand nationwide on January 20, 2012.
Dishonorable Mentions: 'Footloose,' 'I Don't Know How She Does It,' 'Red Riding Hood,' 'Three Musketeers,' 'New Year's Eve,' 'Jack and Jill,' 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,' 'Gnomeo & Juliet,' 'Rio,' 'Hop,' 'The Dilemma,' 'Big Momma's: Like Father, Like Son' and 'Country Strong.'