POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2011:
Hit and Miss
The ten best and five worst summer films of 2011
The summer film season is over, though the temperatures wouldnít remind you. Passing into autumnal Oscar-bait, the receding tide of traditionally sequelized, remade and misguided summer sensationalisms has left a shockingly strong, sometimes, Oscar-worthy list of films in their wake. By this point in 2010, there were barely five movies worth seeing.
Who would have thought an existential art flick by a reclusive, Oklahoma-raised, universally renowned director would get a semi-wide release in June? Or that, in the same month, Woody Allen would unveil his best movie in years? Or even that the best film of the entire summer was in 3-D?
Itís still blowing my mind that many of the movies on this list are, in some way, great.
Honorable Mention ó Hobo with a Shotgun: No, not award worthy in any sense but so gratuitously violent, funny, ridiculous and providential -- in that Rutger Hauer was born to play Hobo as much as Bruce Lee was born to play Kane -- that it cannot go unmentioned.
10 -- Rise of the Planet of the Apes: While having somewhat of a non-ending, Rise exceeded any expectations one might have of its studio, Fox -- which hasn't had a great track record of late -- or its season. Rise is all about character and storytelling, somewhat (and thankfully) at the expense of ADD action. The visual effects alone should already secure an Oscar but it's really the digital performance of Andy Serkis, as Cesar, the progenitor ape, that should get some Best Supporting Actor recognition.
9 -- X-Men: First Class: Shockingly, Fox strikes twice. After the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine the studio bounced back with damn near the best film in the X-Men franchise. Tapping Kick-Ass helmer Matthew Vaughn was a great choice to reinvigorate the series with aggressive vision while the period setting, game script and flat out brilliant casting of Michael Fassbender and James MacAvoy pretty much seal the deal. Kevin Bacon is a blast, hamming it up as an ex-Nazi who wants to stay evil.
8 -- Bridesmaids: This could have gone to 30 Minutes or Less (they are almost equally funny) but Bridesmaids edges out the competition due to its script. Kristen Wiig and long-time collaborator Annie Mumolo craft an often hilarious, sometimes poignant (and sometimes scatological) comedy of bonding and rejection amongst a cadre of women uniting for the wedding of their friend. It reeks of Apatow, but in the hands of its leads, Wiig and Maya Rudolph, and great supporting roles from Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids is a rare summer feat; a funny, female-led comedy that cleaned up at the box office.
7 -- Page One: Inside the New York Times: As a documentary (of which there are three on this list -- and two worst) Page One is probably the year's most important. Journalism's cancer, in the form of infotainment, partisan camps in the increasingly fractured tide pools of new media and the ultimate downfall of investigative journalism, as our nation's only internationally influential daily newspaper struggles to stay alive in the internet age, are all diagnosed by Page One. Prognosis: hopeful epitaph.
6 -- Tabloid: Esteemed documentarian Errol Morris exemplifies how truth is stranger than fiction with the tale of Joyce McKinney, a Miss Wyoming winner who becomes a sensation in the '70s British press after she kidnaps her Mormon boyfriend from the church hierarchy in London and allegedly rapes him in the English countryside for three days. Morris frames the proceedings in amazing interviews with almost every important player, and his distinct visual style. By the time the cloning of McKinney's favorite dog, Booger, enters the picture you'll be nonplussed by how fucking weird this movie is.
5 -- Captain America: The First Avenger: Yes, it's another Marvel movie begetting a franchise that will culminate next year with The Avengers. But Thor didn't make this list for a reason. Captain America bleeds '80s adventure filmmaking aesthetics, with a deeper comic book sensibility that director Joe Johnston (in the best film he has ever made) imbues with a classical Hollywood serial grandeur. Recalling Spielberg in ways Super 8 failed to grasp, Captain America is easily the top Marvel film of this or any other year.
4 -- Beginners: It's hard to love a movie that flirts with mumblecore sensibilities (subtitling a dog's pithy thoughts about relationship malaise sort of inspires my contempt) but director Mike Mills, working from the story of his life, constructs an amazingly enjoyable tale of a romantically bereft graphic artist who reflects on the recent death of his father who, upon his wife's death four years earlier, came out as gay. Great performances from Ewan McGregor, the estimable (and funny) Christopher Plummer and the fetching Mélanie Laurent had me walking on emo-air by the end. The one movie on this list I wanted to watch again immediately.
3 -- The Tree of Life: The cinematic nature of Terrance Malick's non-narrative rumination on life, death, family, spirituality and the whole of the universe demands that it be seen in a theater, like any other summer spectacle. Unless you have a 40-foot screen in your living room The Tree of Life will never wrap you into its gorgeous, idyllically calculated, dreamlike visuals. And the majesty of a big screen makes The Tree of Life's inherent and sublime pretentions far more forgivable. That might sound like a criticism, but if you miss Stanley Kubrick, this was the most miraculously unlooked for film of any summer.
2 -- Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's ode to his beloved home away from Manhattan works for a lot of reasons: Satisfying performances, particularly from Owen Wilson who makes the best pseudo-Woody in years, gorgeous cinematography and a smart, funny script with enough literary in-jokes to make a class on early 20th century writers pay off. This time-hopping romance has all the whimsy of Allen at his best as he argues the worth of nostalgia while reveling in his own, producing his best work since The Purple Rose of Cairo.
1 -- Cave of Forgotten Dreams: I don't particularly think you need the 3-D element to be awed by this film, but for once it doesn't hurt. Werner Herzog is allowed access to film in a near pristine, Paleolithic cave containing the earliest known paintings yet discovered and what his stereoscope camera documents is nothing less than awe inspiring. Deeply dimensional images get you as close as they can to the experience of walking the narrow metal planks that protect the cave's scintillating crystal floor, capturing the earliest expressions of visual story-telling with an incongruously state of the art story telling medium. It's a humbling, enigmatic experience made possible by a German madman who walks you, like an eccentrically curious grandfather, past the oldest known art in human history.
The Five Worst Films of Summer 2011
5 -- The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Morgan Spurlock's biggest sin, aside from thinking he's a raconteur, is that his self-perpetuating, overly obvious documentaries are straining his ability to come up with a better idea than Supersize Me -- itself a no-brainer. Eating McDonald's three times a day for a month is harmful to your health? Really? Okay, advertising is everywhere, so make a Mobius Strip movie about how a movie about advertising can be completely funded by product placements (advertising) which, again, we see to the point of not even noticing anymore. That'll make for an ironically satirical and interesting documentary that doesn't bore the shit out of the entire audience, right? Yeah.
4 -- I Am: This might seem a little mean spirited. I'm sure a bunch of hippies loved this movie and I'd have liked it too if I thought it added anything to the unanswerably huge questions it asks: What is wrong with the world? (Everything) and how can we improve it and our lives in the process? (Apparently, that involves the emotional state of yogurt, somehow.) Look, I'm not one to blow off science and I love yogurt but if I'd walked out of this movie even one iota more enlightened or educated than if I'd taken a stoned humanities survey course, it would not be on this list. Tom Shadyac is a nice guy but I can stare at my own belly button.
3 -- Conan the Barbarian: This one stings. The original was a favorite and it might be tempting to think that holding the new up to the 1981 classic makes this a spite call. It's not. This flick just sucks. The writers get nothing right. Not the character, not the plotting, not the sense you're watching anything more serious than slightly less cheaply made Hercules episode with more gore and some obligatory boobs. Jason Momoa is unmoored in a role that's bad on the page while shoddy production and a slew of miscast, but clearly entertained, actors brand this a wasted opportunity to make a seriously bad ass Conan flick. Its box office slaughter will keep anyone else from trying for a long time.
2 -- Fright Night: Why bother to remake a film that wasn't really that great to begin with but still fun, into something that is far less than great and no fun at all? As badly as Conan was botched, at least there was the sense that they had their hearts in it (however misguidedly). With Fright Night, an amusingly dorky performance from David Tennant and a decent turn by Colin Farrell, are wasted by rote, barely coherent plotting and characters that go out of their way to be unlikeable assholes. It's almost as if the makers went out of their way to actively avoid anything that made the original even mildly fun and endearing. Good strategy for your "remake".
1 -- Transformers: Dark of the Moon: I would rather have spent 2 and a half hours sanding my entire body with pissed off beehives while running through an electric fence than see this movie. But I did because it was Memorial Day weekend and I had to have a review by Friday. This came out on Wednesday. So I wrote 1500 words on this narcissistic, dumb, boring, expensive, piece of ILM-encrusted shit, which probably still didn't accurately reflect what an awful waste of time, money, cognitive effort and life this movie represented before a single frame was ever even shot. For you.
There's a tip jar on the table, if you're so inclined.
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