Martin Scorsese’s Hugo deserves credit for its use of 3D alone. Set in 1930s Paris, the film follows a young orphan, played by Asa Butterfield, whose recently deceased father leaves behind a mystery: an automaton which, when properly operated, may contain some sort of final message which Hugo becomes determined to uncover. He is aided by the precocious young Isabelle, played by the always wonderful Chloe Moretz, whose curiosity propels the two through an adventure she’s always wanted. It’s a beautiful exploration of the early days of silent cinema, and the power of the visual medium to affect its viewers, but it isn’t just looking into the past. What’s brilliant about Hugo is that while exploring the ingenuity of the early directors, Martin Scorsese is also taking us into the future of cinema, through his unique visuals and use of modern 3D technology. While telling this story, Scorsese is filling the role of the early cinema artist, painting a beautiful portrait of a vibrant, colorful, dream-like world for us to become lost in. It’s a bit uneven at times, but overall, Hugo certainly stands out as one of the most noteworthy visual experiences of 2011.
#9: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s newest film is brutal, twisted, and utterly captivating. Set in an isolated, chilly Swedish town, the movie follows a journalist, played by Daniel Craig, who is forced to resign from his newspaper in disgrace. He receives a job offer from a man named Henrick Vanger to come investigate the strange disappearance of a young girl in his family. He’s aided by a piercing-ridden, unhygienic computer hacker named Lisbeth, played brilliantly by Rooney Mara. Her performance stands out as one of the most inspired and fascinating of the year, for which she certainly deserves some recognition at the Oscars. Every second that she is on screen it’s impossible to look away. Though Dragon Tattoo is nearly three hours, almost every scene feels necessary and compelling, and Fincher’s cinematography gives a unique visual spin to even simple sequences of people talking as he also did last year in the brilliant The Social Network. It’s not for the faint of heart, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is still an extremely compelling mystery thriller with truly remarkable performances all around.
#8: Midnight in Paris
The newest film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris follows a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter, played by Owen Wilson. He’s unhappy with his work, and wants nothing more than to finally finish his first novel. He takes a vacation in Paris with his fiancé Inez, played by Rachel McAdams, and her wealthy parents. During the day he seems distracted, and his relationship with his fiancé seems to be faltering a bit, but at night he falls in love with the city, going on midnight strolls and admiring the beauty of the landscape. One night he gets himself lost, and from there the movie turns into something truly magical which I don’t dare spoil, but if you have any interest in classic literature you will adore whereMidnight in Paris takes you. The cinematography is marvelous, capturing the beauty of the city’s architecture, skies and busy streets quite well, and the screenplay is chock-full of that humor unique to Woody Allen. Watching the film feels like taking a two-hour vacation to Paris, and when Gil contemplates moving to the city, you can’t really blame him.
#7: Win Win
To me, humor always tends to be most effective when it’s delivered in a realistic fashion, and Win Win is a great example of that. The film follows Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), a struggling lawyer and part time wrestling coach. Through some questionable business dealings, he lies to a court about taking care of a client who he actually just puts into a nursing home, still collecting the check for being the man’s guardian. This decision comes back to haunt him when the client’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) comes into his life, and happens to be an amazing young wrestler. Win Winreally works because every single character in it feels like a real person. We root for Mike even despite his unethical business actions, because we see him as a realistic, normal person who is just trying to support his family. Amy Ryan puts in a spectacular performance as Mike’s wife Jackie, and their relationship as husband and wife feels real and sincere. Bobby Cannavale is the comedic highlight, playing Mike’s friend and wrestling partner. He’s hilarious and yet always feels like a real person, not just a joke machine. Alex Shaffer plays the young boy, Kyle, who most of the film revolves around. The actor himself was cast due to his real life wrestling skills, never having acted before. Usually this is a recipe for disaster, but Shaffer nails the performance, feeling like a real teenager and never going overboard. It’s funny, heart felt and never becomes too overbearing and sappy, respecting its audience enough to give us characters as morally complex as real people.
#6 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
How often is there a movie franchise where the eighth installment is the best one? That’s certainly the case with the Harry Potter series, which notably improved with every film. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,released to huge fanfare worldwide in July, follows Harry, Ron and Hermione, who must search for the last horcruxes necessary to finally defeating Voldemort once and for all. This final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort has been built up since the first film, released over a decade ago now, and yet even with all that anticipation the finale felt incredibly satisfying. Back in 2010, Warner Brothers made the decision to splitDeathly Hallows into two parts to be released over the course of eight months, a decision which has since become increasingly popular among studios. Many fans sighed and asked why this was really necessary. Wouldn’t it be better to just have one, Lord of the Rings style 3 and ½ hour finale? Well, seeing Deathly Hallows Part 2 made that decision make a lot more sense. Aside from the obvious reason that two separate releases means double the profits for Warner Brothers, Part 1essentially got all the necessary setup out of the way so Part 2 could be non-stop excitement, and the finale we were always hoping for. Part 1 was a slow, character based lead up to Part 2, which contained the most action, adventure and thrills of any Harry Potter film. As far as finales go, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2was one of the better ones I’ve seen on film. By the last scene, I immediately wanted to go back and revisit all the previous films. That’s a sure sign of a great ending.
#5 – Attack the Block
Attack the Block is a low budget, British film which didn’t do very well financially in America, partly due to the very heavy accents and abundance of British slang. It’s a shame, because it really should have been a huge hit. The film follows a street gang in a South London town who, suddenly, have to defend their block against alien invaders. With lots of movies, you’re told again and again how great your protagonist is, who you are meant to admire from the very start. Attack the Block plays with this idea and instead attempts the exact opposite: from the opening scene, in which our main characters mug a young woman, you actively despise them. You hate these punk teenagers and can’t see yourself ever rooting for them. From there, the film tries to get you on their side, which isn’t an easy task. When the city is in trouble, and a vicious species of bloodthirsty aliens is attacking, they’re the guys you turn to for help. By the end, you see another side of them, and you feel very differently towards them as people than at the beginning, yet the film never makes excuses for their actions in the opening scene. You’re never meant to think that the mugging was anything but morally reprehensible, and yet you can’t help but see another side to them by the time the finale comes. The film is less than 90 minutes long, and the pacing is incredibly fast from start to finish. No time is wasted; the aliens invade less than 5 minutes in, and from there it’s non stop action. But what really stands out to me about Attack the Block is the characters, who never feel one-dimensional. Any film that can make me go from despising a group of characters to rooting for them in less than 90 minutes is note worthy in my book.
#4 – 50/50
Right off the bat, 50/50 sounds like a movie that shouldn’t be possible. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a 27-year-old kid with his whole life ahead of him suddenly diagnosed with cancer, leaving him with a 50% chance of death. Oh, and did I mention it’s a comedy? As talented of an actor as Gordon-Levitt is, that doesn’t sound like a premise that could possibly work, and yet it does work so incredibly well. The film follows Adam and how his sudden diagnosis effects his daily life from there on out, in big ways and small, simple ones, like talking to people at a party or trying to go on a date. His best friend Kyle, played by Seth Rogen, attempts to comfort him, assuring him everything will turn out fine. The screenplay was written by Will Reiser and based on his real life experience of being diagnosed with cancer, and Seth Rogen was his real life best friend, playing the same role he does in the movie. Rogen said in an interview that it was clear to them both from the start that what they were going through was a lot different than how it is in movies. Even in the most horrific of situations, we use humor to get ourselves through, and that’s what 50/50 is really about. It’s not a comedy in that it’s making fun of cancer patients or the process of cancer recovery. Everything that goes on in Adam’s life is taken incredibly seriously, and feels very true to life as all the little moments are based on Reiser’s real life experience. The comedy comes naturally, and the dynamic between Adam and Kyle feels incredibly inspired. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fine job as always, and Seth Rogen’s performance may be his best to date. As the film starts to move towards its ending the comedy is dialed down, and everything is taken more and more seriously. A few of the final scenes are heart wrenching, and not something you would expect from a Seth Rogen movie, yet it all works, feeling natural and not in any way manipulative. All in all, 50/50 is a laugh out loud comedy blended with an emotionally authentic drama, and one of the best examples of that combination I’ve ever seen.
#3 – Super 8
Recall if you can a time when you were younger, watching Steven Spielberg movies for the first time, and that sense of awe something like Close Encounters orE.T inspired in you. Super 8 is a movie about that feeling. Set in a small Ohio town in 1979, Super 8follows a group of kids running around every afternoon after school, making low budget monster movies. One night, they sneak out to film a pinnacle scene in their film for a local competition when a train is derailed right in front of them. They soon find out the train was carrying some mysterious cargo which has just been set loose on the town, and their Super 8 camera captured it all. Steven Spielberg is my absolute favorite director of all time, and J.J Abrams has yet to disappoint me, so Super 8 was really a movie made for me. The action gave me a feeling of adrenaline reminiscent of Jurassic Park, the “cargo” reminded me of Close Encounters, and the emotional weight and feeling of being a kid again was straight out of E.T. Speaking of which, what’s especially strong about the film is the young actors who play the group of kids. Watching behind the scenes footage, it’s clear that they all had a great dynamic behind the camera, and that’s apparent on screen as well. Their friendship feels natural, like a group of kids sitting around talking, not like a group of inexperienced actors reading memorized lines. To top it all of, Michael Giacchino writes the score which is easily recognizable, and the main theme to the film is among his best work to date. Simply put, Super 8 is an honest tribute to everything great about classic Spielberg films, and a tribute to everything I love about movies.
#2 – Drive
From its opening title sequence written in cursive pink to its smooth, retro soundtrack, Drive feels like a lost film from the 60s which just happened to be released into modern times. The film follows a Hollywood stunt driver, played by Ryan Gosling, who doubles as a getaway driver at night. “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.” Gosling’s character is never named and speaks few lines of dialogue at all throughout the entire film. If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because this idea of the hero with no name was huge in 50s and 60s film. Drive brings this idea into modern times, with cars, guns, mobsters and gangsters. Gosling’s character is the most interesting I’ve seen on screen in 2011. In one moment he’s a quiet, soft-spoken driver. In the next, he’s a ruthless killing machine whose eyes light up with intensity. We get the sense of a detailed back-story that led our Driver to this point, and yet the film never feels the need to illustrate that to us, trusting in its audience’s intelligence to fill in the blanks. The problem with Drive is its promotional commercials, which promised edge of your seat action, fast, high-speed chases, and explosions. If anything, Drive is a send up of those types of movies. The pacing is rather slow and methodical, the violence comes at unexpected moments and is rather infrequent, and there isn’t even that much driving at all. So no, this is not The Fast and the Furious; it’s something far more interesting. Drive is the antithesis of the “fast car driving” genre, giving us one of the coolest, most unique films of 2011.
#1: The Muppets
I’m a sucker for Disney. There’s something about their movies which have such a pure, innocent magic to them that always wins me over. The same can be said of the Muppets, which represents an innocent humor all too rare in television or film these days. It’s baffling why it took this long, but last year, Disney finally decided to revive the Muppets on the big screen after a decade long hiatus. Some were wary, though, thinking that perhaps the Muppets should be left alone after the death of their creator Jim Henson. Another concern was that nearly none of the original Muppet producers and cast would be involved. This was an entirely new film with new writers, producers, and stars. How could these new guys revive such a beloved franchise and make it in any way true to the original? Well, I don’t know how, but they did it. The film follows Walter, a non-Muppet puppet, living with his brother Gary (Jason Segel). He always dreamed of being a part of the Muppets, and with Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) going on a trip to Los Angeles, this may be the perfect time for him to actually see Muppet Studios with his own eyes. When he gets there, though, he’s distraught to find that the studio is in ruins, used for nothing but tours these days. The Muppets haven’t put on a show in a long time, and the gang has all gone their separate ways. When an evil businessman, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the theater and tear it down to drill for oil, Walter decides he must reunite the gang, who have one last chance to save their theater and the Muppets itself. The screenplay is brilliant, being about the fact that the Muppets have been gone for so long, and asking tons of questions about modern entertainment. It’s hilarious, too, with a sense of humor that reminded me of films like Airplane and The Naked Gun: small, stupid little gags which work in such a big way. And like the classic Muppet Show, the film relies heavily on music, with the soundtrack written by Bret Mckenzie. The songs are incredibly joyful and catchy, with its main theme proclaiming, “Life’s a happy song when there’s someone by your side to sing along.” Far from being an uninspired reboot, The Muppets is true to everything Jim Henson’s franchise originally stood for. It’s smart, funny, innocent, hopeful, and at its best brings out the kid in all of us. Jim Henson would be so proud to see what he inspired. The Muppets is one of the best family movies I’ve ever seen, and is easily my favorite film of 2011.