Yes, it’s the end of the year, and while I can’t say it was particularly great across the board, there were some films that I truly loved, that will go well beyond 2011 and into the memories of movie fans everywhere. While not a lot of big releases made a huge splash with me, the proliferation of low budget genre fare kept me more than happy this year. Typically, I have a lot of trouble paring it down to less than 25 films, but this year there were honestly only 15-20 I even considered after thinking hard about it. The only films I regretfully had to leave off a top 10 were Norwegian Ninja, Stake Land, and The Ides of March. On the same token, I have yet to see Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Bellflower, Shame, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Young Adult, War Horse, or The Adventures of Tin Tin, but for a few of those, I’m not sure my list would change at all. I also regretfully have not had the opportunity to see The Descendants, which I will hopefully see very soon.
Without further ado, here’s my top 10.
10. The Inbetweeners Movie/30 Minutes or Less
While it may have been a terrible year overall for comedy, these two gems came out of the woodwork to prove that you don’t need a giant cast or a huge budget to put something funny on screen. The British Inbetweeners finished off their 3rd television season last year, and to wrap the series up, they decided to make a film about the guys going to Crete, in Greece. What saves Inbetweeners from being just another American Pie rip-off is the self-depreciating humor, the likability of the characters, and the absolute lack of fear on behalf of the writers, who will go anywhere for a good laugh.
Ruben Fleischer, director of last year’s Zombieland returns for another high concept comedy, with a stellar cast, lots of action, and an original premise for a comedy in 30 Minutes or Less. This shouldn’t be that hard to do, there should be 10-15 comedies like this every year, but with the Apatow gang slowing on their input, it seems the entire comedy landscape has dried up, with the exception of chick flicks. With directors like Fleischer out there though, hopefully we’ll get at least one comedy each year that doesn’t pull any punches.
9. The Woman
Every few years, there comes a director who shakes things up, even when they don’t go out of their way to do so. Lucky McKee has done that with his most recent film, the sequel to Offspring, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum. McKee has teamed with Ketchum, and he wrote this sequel to the first film, and it’s the rare sequel that just absolutely blows the first out of the water. In comparison, Offspring is laughable garbage, while McKee’s The Woman is a daring look into the subconscious psyche of American behavior. You know you’ve done something right when you make a horror film that has citizens calling for your head. Keep going, Lucky.
From the dreams of young boys to the struggles of aging men, Moneyball is probably the most realistic depiction of how professional baseball really works. With a great cast, a crackling script (which is quite different than the book, but no less enjoyable) and smooth direction, this is the baseball film for the new millennium, it doesn’t get lost in sentimental garbage like most baseball films, because it’s not about being sentimental towards a game. Instead, it tells the very human stories of the people who make that game what it is, what they sacrifice for it, and how they are ostracized the entire time. I couldn’t think of a better person to represent that than Billy Beane.
Takeshi Kitano is back in the land of gangsters, and he’s ruling it with an iron fist. Back from a few more personal films he spent the past few years making, he comes at us with a hard boiled tale of Japanese Yakuza back-biting and infighting, and the war that results because of it. Kitano writers, directs, and stars in the film, like Charlie Chaplin with a handgun. As he gets older, I’m curious to see what Kitano continues with, if he goes back toward comedy and drama or if he dives back head first into yakuza films. If this is any indication, his best films are yet to come.
Director Jonathan Levine is a rising star in Hollywood that many might not have heard of. His first film, the incredible slasher All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was a super smash hit on the festival circuit, and horror fans that have been able to track a copy down love it. However, in America, it still remains without an official release, so many haven’t seen it. His next film, the coming-of-age The Wackness was a Sundance hit, and it got many people to take notice of the people involved. Here, directing Will Reiser‘s script about his real life battle with cancer, Levine has finally stepped into the Hollywood limelight. With a great cast, hilarious script, and just the right amount of emotional turmoil, Levine crafts a funny and heartfelt film that you expect to get too sappy, but it never does.
The debut of director Joe Cornish (buddy of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg) is as assured as any film that came out this year. Tightly edited, cleverly written, with a young, jubilant cast, Cornish knocks it out of the park with what is easily the most fun film of the year. Learning from Wright and Pegg while acting in their films, Cornish has taken it to another level. The special f/x are seamless, the dialogue hilarious, and the slick editing snaps it all together perfectly. If you are looking for a good film to relax and enjoy, then Attack the Block is what you are looking for, and don’t worry, you’ll be watching it again and again.
4. 13 Assassins
It used to be that we had to wait anywhere from 6 months to 5 years to get new Takashi Miike films imported to the US in a proper release. Now, with the magic of VOD and the fearless Magnet Releasing, we can get Miike’s films not very long after their Japanese release. Which is a blessing, as Miike is making his very best films right now. The funny, bloody, daring, and gut wrenching 13 Assassins is proof of that. A modern day retelling of The Seven Samurai, it fits perfectly into cinema history right alongside Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece as the bloody revolution in filmmaking that has been morphing in the 54 years since Kurosawa’s film. After this film, you will never think about honor, or suicide, the same way again.
3. The Lincoln Lawyer
Anyone that knows me knows that Michael Connelly is my favorite author. His latest book, The Drop proves he is still at the top of his game, and he just bought his biggest character, Harry Bosch, 5 more years of existence. In the meantime, he started a new series with Mickey Haller, defense attorney, and a character that would later cross with Bosch in a couple of team ups. Connelly fans have long been of the mind that most, if not all, of his books would make great movies. After years of failed attempts, the first of Connelly’s novels to make it to the screen was The Lincoln Lawyer, and screenwriter John Romano knocked the adaptation out of the park. Leaving out enough to keep the movie crisply moving, but including the detail that makes Connelly a joy to experience, Brad Furman proves he is a director to watch as he directs with stylish camera movement, a detailed eye that makes the editing work, and a soundtrack you immediately want to own. Typically, after watching a movie of a book you love, you can immediately spot all the flaws and often they’re glaring. But with The Lincoln Lawyer, everything is a home run. The casting is dead on all around, the locations are given the love Connelly describes them with. Connelly and Romano have signed on to do another together, and Matthew McConaughey loves the character, and really, it’s the film that reminded everyone he’s not just funny and good looking with his shirt off in goofy comedies geared at older audiences. The first in what will hopefully be a strong franchise.
2. Hobo with a Shotgun
In any other year Jason Eisner’s feature debut would be my #1. This year, however, it’s different. He was outdone by a seasoned pro, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Eisner directed the winning trailer for Grindhouse‘s trailer contest in 2007, and the trailer was shown in front of the film in theaters in Canada. Eisner then made the successful short Treevenge which garnered him a lot more internet notoriety than even winning the Grindhouse contest. But when he teamed with some producers for the feature version of Hobo With a Shotgun he managed to make pure grindhouse gold with very little money, and he did with a style and panache that is new and fresh in the way that John Woo and Quentin Tarantino were new and fresh in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Eisner gets a casting dream with Rutger Hauer, star of quite a few low budget 80’s action films after appearing as the villain in Bladerunner. Everything is perfect. The insane camera moves, the constant violence, the music, the dialogue, the ridiculous locations and over-the-top acting. It’s exactly what it should be, and it’s one of the most fun movies to watch, ever. Hobo With a Shotgun is the film you’ll want to show to everyone you know, just because most people have never seen anything as quick or crazy. A classic that will be remembered by the people it was intended for, and found by even more it wasn’t intended for.
What more is there to be said about this film? Nicolas Windig Refn is finally a major force to be reckoned with after a decade and a half of making smart, edgy art-house thrillers, he has finally found international acclaim in the US. He is on the path to direct Ryan Golsing in a few more films, all eagerly anticipated by fans and critics alike. And it’s not hard to see why. Drive is the 80’s flash art-house crime film that is very 2011 in its ability to become a tidy sum of genre parts. The music, the cinematography, the use of Los Angeles as one of the major characters in the film. It’s all done with a flair for high art, but it’s still a down and dirty crime film, while also being a meditative love story about complicated relationships. The stellar cast has multiple standouts, from Albert Brooks’ mob boss, to Ron Perlman as his psychotic brother and business partner, to Carey Mulligan as a damaged young woman just looking for happiness, to Bryan Cranston’s tragic degenerate gambler Shannon, everyone is on the level with Gosling as far as acting chops goes, but this still cements him as THE next big leading man. It’s funny that his other big film this year, The Ides of March is with the man he will eventually replace, George Clooney. Drive is a ballsy film that works on every level, and I believe it was the only perfect film released this year.