Friday, December 16, 2011

Best of 2011: Honorable Mentions

Today I began the painful and arduous process of whittling down my favorite films of the year into a top 10. I'm no where near done yet, but as I started striking titles from the list there were just a few which, while not making the Top 10 cut, I couldn't bear to let go without some sort of asterisk-like mention.

So, here's a few honorable mentions from that year that, while they weren't perfect, were pretty darned good.

Best horror film: Insidious

I haven't audibly screamed in a movie theater since 2002 when the hamburger face in The Ring scared the freaking pants off of me -- and I loved it. Imagine, then, my surprise when Insidious made me not once, not twice, but three times the lady as I squirmed in my seat, jumping at every bump and bounce.

In today's horror market, where ever torture-porn production is trying to upstage and out-gore the next, Insidious is too clever by half, delivering a heavy set of good-natured, well-earned chills and genuine goosebumps. The movie hits a point of diminishing returns toward the end but for two full acts, this trickster will have you completely in its grasp.

Best Superhero movie: X-Men First Class

Yes, I'm biased and yes, First Class would have had a much harder time earning the title if it had premiered in, say, 2012 against the likes of The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel and The Avengers, but still, X-Men was a pretty solid flick. With it's Cold War, James Bond-noir and it's meaty performances (provided by personal favorites James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) First Class gave us 2 solid hours of entertainment and eye candy to spare (the submarine raising scene, the quarter of death, Rose Byrne in her underwear, etc.).

I had my qualms with the ending, but prequel's are tricky and all things considered they stayed (mostly) true to the source material and the previous films. Here's hoping we see 2nd Class soon.

Best original popcorn film with a heart: Super 8

Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. J.J. Abrams is one of the best storytellers in the business (along with his contemporary, Chris Nolan). One day the two got together and made a baby, the charming and delightful aliens-from-space and coming-of-age opus Super 8. Made with mostly unknown actors with a coparatively low budget, Super 8 made a hefty profit while still providing the soul, proving that you can still make quality original entertainment without cheap tricks, lingerie models, or a built-in brand recognition.

Best head trip: The Tree of Life

It's about a family living in 1950s Texas, and it's about the creation of the earth, and there's dinosaurs. If you have trouble understanding how all of that fits together, you're not alone. I've seen the thing and I still don't quite know how, or what, or when, or...what?

Still, much like the only other Terrence Mallick film I've seen (The New World) Tree of Life is two mostly silent hours with almost no dialogue and a confusingly ambiguous plot structure but also a steady string of hauntingly beautiful images. You'll have absolutely no idea what is going on, but you won't be able to take your eyes off of it.

Best movie that tells us something about where we've been: The Help

It was hard to strike this from the Top 10. Really hard. But despite the truly great accomplishment that this film is, it's impact was slightly lessened by the still-burning fire of the book upon which it is based. A great movie based on a great book that everyone has already read doesn't hit you in the face the same way that something like, Schindler's List or Hotel Rwanda does.

Still, if you haven't seen this movie do so at your earliest convenience. We've come a long way since the civil rights era, but it's good to be reminded every once in a while what society is capable of when good people do nothing.

Best comeback: The Muppets

I wanted this to be on the list, badly. I realized though that it was my fanboy brain, and not my critical brain talking. Still, The Muppets is spectacular. If you can remember the old days before cell phones and the internet then this movie will tickle your nostalgia bone in the best possible way. If you can't, then it will do you some good to see how emotionally engaging non-human characters can be without the use of a computer and a green screen.

True to the heart, spirit, and soul of the long-running television show and the former movies (their version of The Christmas Carol is the best ever made), this movie is a case study in how to introduce an old franchise to a new generation. Apparently, the makers of The Smurfs didn't get the memo. Consider this my number 11 of the year.

Best "Best Picture" nominee that didn't make it on my list: The Descendants

Descendants is already raking in the awards nominations and I have no doubt that in addition to multiple acting and directing categories, it will land a spot in the Best Picture Oscar race. In fact, I would not be surprised if it wins the top prize (my vote, for what it's worth, is on The Artist), but for me it wasn't quite there.

I like it a heckuva lot, don't get me wrong. It has the same dark and emotional humor of Alexander Paine's other awards bate film Sideways. It has a breakout performance by ABC Family star Shaylene Woodley (I didn't check the spelling, don't hate). It has a large secondary cast comprised of well written and fully developed character, each of whom get a chance to flex their muscles and do some serious acting (special points to Matthew Lilliard who shows up and steals the scene, welcome back to the show).

Still, as a whole I never quite got the mood of Descendents and the climax in many ways felt like a bit of a cop out. That said, these character are probably the most genuine and human of any I've seen in a long time.