James’ Top Twenty of Twenty-Eleven

| January 11, 2012

 This has been a fun year of movies for me. My grand total came to 58 this year, which was certainly more than I’ve seen in past years but what made this year particularly special was the variety. Without doing the podcast with my good friends I wouldn’t have been drug to movies like Fright Night or had the chance to see Drive and 50/50 in theaters. This was the year that I got to see Red State when Kevin Smith brought it to town and I got to stand up and ask him a question.

But as you look over this list I hope that it’s clear what things I value most in movies because what they all have in common is strong characters wrapped with important stories.

Twenty

Fast Five

There’s no reason for the fifth Fast and Furious movie to be as good as this. I went into the theater with a tongue in cheek attitude and ended up having a surprising amount of fun. Fast Five brings back characters from previous movies and lays emotional weight on their stories in ways that should be clunky and pointless, especially to the majority of people who haven’t suffered through all the sequels that came before this one. But it is thanks to a descent script that asks move of actors than has been asked of them in years and an injection of The Rock that this movie becomes a tight, thilling heist film that crescendos with a car chase that may final dethrone Bad Boys II in my heart as the winner of “Most Car Chase” car chase in cinema.

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Nineteen

Captain America: The First Avenger

For all the things this movie was asked to do to set up the Avengers movie it is truly a surprise that it turned out watchable, much less exciting, visually impressive, and emotionally charged. Joe Johnson and the screenwriters chose wisely to put the characterization of Steve Rogers at the core of the movie, so that even when the action isn’t the most original, or perfectly paced, we still care about Steve. Without the well-formed heart of Steve Rogers this movie falls apart, and so does The Avengers. This is the secret that Marvel understands and DC doesn’t. (Though not as secret because writers have known this since Gilgamesh)

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Eighteen

X-Men: First Class

It’s amazing how a different time period can freshen up a dead franchise. This is a movie that deserves to be higher on my list. The story of how Eric and Charles become friends and the unbiased way it analyzes the different viewpoints of these two characters makes Magneto feel less like an arbitrary villain and more like a bitter cynic; not evil, just the part of us that we try our hardest not to be.

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Seventeen

Attack The Block

This is what’s beautiful about indie film today. Where the idea of guerrilla film-making once meant that certain sacrifices had to be made, this movie was able to tell an interesting, high-concept story with some of the more exciting and stylish CG in years.

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Sixteen

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

There is no reason why you should not have seen this movie, unless you don’t like gore… or comedy. There have been plenty of spoof movies over the past ten years but where those movies produce schlock, this movie becomes one of the most memorable comedies of the year.

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Fifteen

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

All the facets of this movie should make it a contender for my number one. A complex mystery, a strong woman, David Fincher’s style and direction, and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, but in the end I was left impressed, interested, but untouched. The mystery is undermined by a shortage of suspects—likely as a result of being a compressed version of the novel—and the characters are given too little time to grow for me to fall in love with them or be inspired by their strength. While Lisbeth is still given her subplot with the rapist to help characterize her, the extreme nature of that situation is undone by its brevity, too complex and too loud to flesh out a great character. A good movie in the end, but perhaps the only way that it will stay with me is that it caused me to order the book.

Fourteen

The Muppets

I didn’t always have hope that this movie could deliver but I’m excited to say that it did. As a true fan, Jason Segal was able to isolate the things that made The Muppets so much different from the movies that we get today.

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Thirteen

Fright Night

I tend to hate horror movies. Too often they emphasize content over character and are accompanied by unpolished scripts and dispassionate, unfocused directors. But Fright Night is none of those things. Marti Noxon’s script has the punch and wit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, and coming off of The United States of Tara, Director Craig Cillespie has the vision to create long, intense shots—like the scene with the apple—and he has the guts to let the character moments breath. Where other horror movies may be concerned with what crazy things they can show you, this remake of Fright Night focuses on what crazy things it can make you feel.

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Twelve

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

We don’t get enough romantic comedies like this one.

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Eleven

Young Adult

Jason Reitman is perhaps the most exciting filmmaker in Hollywood for me. Up in the Air remains one of my favorite scripts so I was disappointed when his next film was not one he’d written but Young Adult shows both growth in Diablo Cody as a writer as well as the musings of Jason Reitman and his habits of answer-less questions.

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Ten

The Adventures of Tintin

This movie may not quite have a main character who pops the way that Indiana Jones does but it’s in the same wheelhouse. The adventure is fun and the animation is beautiful. It’s a good time at the movies and after an afternoon watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that’s really all I needed.

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Nine

The Help

It would be easy to buy the wardrobe on the cheap and sling together an easy villain and some cliched scenes about overcoming adversity and tie it all together with a smart-mouthing black woman and call it ‘inspiring when it’s not offensive’, but that’s not The Help. This is a movie that focuses more on the culture of Jackson, Mississippi than it does on the issues of race. A movie like the one I imagined would have no place for Celia Foote or a dynamic understanding of the social webbing that these women are entwined that this movie seeks to expose. Rather than create a straw man out of racism and beat it like a cruel nazi until dull audiences cheer and go home, The Help adds color to what otherwise might be our black-and-white understanding of this issue (Pun intended).

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Eight

Red State

Kevin Smith has meant something special to me over the past six years and I can’t explain to you exactly why but to see him take such a drastic change at this point in his career was to finally turn to all those people who unfairly judge him and show that he has the talent to do something that would have been hard for even the most respected writers. This movie breaks so many of the basic rules of story-telling that the narrative should fall on its face but somehow it holds together. It functions both as a fun thriller and as a magnifying glass on one of the most despicable and shaming groups over people in our country. I feel like stealing some of Smith’s own words from the introduction he wrote to the second trade of Garth Ennis’ Preacher:

“And if this book offends the delicate sensibilities of some people due to their religious convictions—well, that saddens me. Because, as a man who has an unflappable, fervent, and devout faith in God, let me assure those who find this book spiritually questionable that I know—in my heart and soul—the Lord to be mighty, just, loving, and righteous…

…and a huge and of” Red State.

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Seven

Rango

I dunno… see this movie.

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Six

Thor

When I heard they were going to make a Thor movie and that it would be one of the stepping stones on the way to The Avengers I worried that this would be the movie that let this whole Marvel plan fall apart. But the choice to put Kenneth Branagh in charge of the movie was a stroke of genius. Branagh’s instincts turned what could have been a silly cosmic story that audiences couldn’t connect with—like The Green Lantern—into perhaps the most dramatic super-hero film we’ve had yet. No matter how inhuman our heroes and their foes may be in this movie we see our humanity in their desires and their failures.

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Five

50/50

This movie proves that being funny doesn’t mean that you can’t deal with serious issues or walk through very dramatic territory. In the land of Hangovers and Bridesmaids this movie aims for lasting greatness because it has something to say beyond it’s excuse for comedic situations. You can see writer Will Reiser working through his actual emotions about his experience with cancer on the page as he refuses to give even himself any easy outs. These are real people living through real life situations and in the end sometimes life is funny too.

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Four

Drive

Everything about this movie is quietly cool. That’s all I have.

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Three

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

The only way I can explain how this movie could ever be as fresh and exciting as it turned out is that because Brad Bird came from animation no one ever told him about any of the limitations in place in live-action film-making, and so for him they didn’t exist. This movie is a true spectacle on the scale of a Jim Cameron film but without any of the hangups that come from being artificially inflated. Anyone who isn’t already a super-spy in a fantastical world of stolen nuclear missiles and moving invisible walls needs to see this movie.

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Two

Moneyball

As the one person on the podcast who didn’t see The Artist, I can call Moneyball a masterful use of silence. Perhaps greater even in theory because that silence is in such contrast to the rest of the movie that when all the sound drops out your heart drops with it. This isn’t as simple as a sports movie, or a movie about overcoming adversity or a lack of faith, this is really a piece about a man’s search to explain why his life hasn’t gone the way it should have. All his work goes into proving that the system he disappointed was broken to begin with. The movie is fascinating, doubly so to someone like me to doesn’t follow baseball. These are people playing an unfair game, and we love them for it.

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One

Super 8

When I think of Jaws I think of Quint’s speech about the Indianapolis. Given another few seconds to think and I remember the dinner table seen when chief Brody tells his son to give him a kiss. I don’t think about the shark because I don’t love the shark. Likewise, when I think about Super 8 I forget, at first, about the alien because that is a maguffin, it’s an excuse for me to explore the lives of these children and their friendships. I envy these kids for the lives they live and the adventure they get sucked into.

That’s not to discount just how wonderful the alien storyline in this movie is, because that part is good too. The suspense at Kelvin’s gas station is among Abram’s best work. The train wreck is a magnificent. The movie recreates the tone and atmosphere of the eighties with the same sepia-toned realism as American Graffiti. And Giacchino’s score might be his best yet.

But as good as all that is, when hero someone talk about this movie, or when I hear the theme used in trailers over the next twenty years, my first thought will be to Joe and Alice sitting on the carpet with the projector shining in our eyes as they finally let go the weight that children like them should never be asked to carry. I love this movie.

About the Author:

James grew up in a house where Friday night was Movie night, which meant that he’d watched more movies than anybody else his age before he was even old enough to watch the rated R ones. He’ll watch just about anything, though he tends to avoid the horror movies without a sense of humor. Among his favorite movies are: Alien, Fargo, True Romance, Ed Wood, and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He’s a die-hard LOST fan and a Brown Coat. As a writer, story usually comes first for James. Memorable characters and sharp dialogue are the things that separate the classics from the chaff. That said, he does his best to keep having fun at the movies. He’s seen plenty of critics who would once have accepted summer blockbusters as entertainment become jaded and nit-picky. Sure James loves the art of film and storytelling, but fun comes first, the fun that he had watching Raiders when he was little. Also, E.T. scares the pants off him.
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