Five great releases from last year, plus a few runners-up.
Aww yes — list season. The time of year where we all get together and rank everything we just did…just like Jesus intended. And so I will contribute to this ever-growing phenomenon. Without further pontification, here are my top five films of 2011:
5) “Meek’s Cutoff“ | Set on the Oregon Trail, Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western turned very few heads since it debuted on the film festival circuit in early 2011. That’s a shame. Reichardt’s blunt, uncompromising view of a wagon train headed west through increasingly harsh terrain takes a never-before-seen approach. Michelle Williams plays Emily Tetherow who — under the weight of sexual oppression — manages to find strength and humanity in a beautifully understated role. The film is deliberate, and that’s most certainly the point. Reichardt gives very little reason for hope, yet these characters push through, finding solace in the promise of peace in a new world.
4) “Bridesmaids” | No film this year made me laugh harder than “Bridesmaids.” Kristin Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo bring a pitch-perfect sensibility to the characters, never over-playing the slapstick and always hitting the perfect character moments. These women feel real — a testament to director Paul Feig, who lets his actors carry the dialogue rather than exploiting them for cheap laughs. Yes it has problems: it’s too long, falls prey to rom-com sentiment and at times feels contrived, but I didn’t care. These bridesmaids were so well realized that I’m sure the studio is plotting their inevitable — and most likely horrible — sequel.
3) “The Tree of Life” | It’s extremely difficult to explain the entirety of human existence in this paragraph – but dammit, I’ll attempt it. Terrence Malick’s mad creation is an incredible achievement for many reasons, not least that he even attempted to make it in the first place. The “story” centers on a Texas family in 1950s. It’s good that story exists, because Malick frames it with some of recent cinema’s most beautiful, haunting and confusing images of Earth’s creation. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki span most of the globe and the cosmos for this sequence. The result is a cinematic experience so unflinching that at times it can be a slog, but it has a thought-provoking power few films often ever do…and dinosaurs.
2) “Attack The Block” | Joe Cornish’s alien invasion, shoestring budget debut is, for me, 2011’s most kinetic adventure. Cornish infuses the film with a whip-smart script that at times (for us Yanks) can be difficult to understand, but it keeps the pace lively and the laughs coming. The group of mostly first time actors have a surprising amount of screen presence and are the best bunch of stoner-Goonies to hit the big screen since the Warriors. Cornish never lays off the gas and when the aliens arrive, he gives us a heavy dose of good ‘ol fashioned creature violence. For those like me who are tired of the same old tentacle riddled movie alien (see “Super 8,” “Cloverfield”), these big alien-gorilla-wolf-mothaf—as do the trick and then some.
1) “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” | No film this year offered more blockbuster thrills than Rupert Wyatt’s third career feature. Yes, the lead human actors are mostly wooden statues and the villains are Disney-level evil but that doesn’t matter. As soon as the incredible CGI-created Caesar (Andy Serkis) enters the picture, the film never loses momentum. It can’t be understated what an achievement Caesar is. He is so fully realized that his presence, led by Serkis’ motion-capture performance and WETA’s world-class animators, dwarfs any other actors on screen. When Caesar led his ape-army’s swinging, climbing, helicopter-crushing attack on the Golden Gate Bridge, I instantly forgot the entire crop of horrible summer blockbusters that preceded it.