2011 illustrated the triumph of the superhero period piece, the unique capabilities of motion capture technology and that the great Steven Spielberg is still able to capture our hearts the way he used to. My picks for the best films in 2011 do not come lightly. Fast Five and Real Steel for example, though not making it on this list, still managed to enthral mass audiences and catch me completely off guard. My list is comprised of the films that I saw as going out of their way to create original visuals, beautiful action set pieces, and compelling drama. I hope this flourish of brilliant cinema will lead to an even better collection of films in 2012.
No. 11 The Adjustment Bureau
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind meets Dark City in this film as we see the many enrapturing ways in which fate brings people together. Matt Damon plays a senator running for congress, while Emily Blunt plays a ballet dancer. They cutely meet in an awkward situation and from then on he cant stop thinking about her. The subtly handled religious themes of the film kick in at this point as Damon’s character is torn away form her by something he was never meant to know existed. The concepts brought to the attention in this film are smartly handled by the direction. George Nolfi (Screenwriter of Ocean’s 12) chooses to focus most of his attention on the romantic sparks flying between Damon and Blunt, with small messages of fate and connection becoming apparent throughout. Clever and witty scenes, such as John Slattery (Mad Men) stopping them from reaching romantic peaks, constantly keep the film moving in a light hearted fashion.
No. 10 Contagion
Steven Soderberg (Ocean’s trilogy, Erin Brokovich) is notoriously known for being able to control a large, big name cast. This trend continues with Contagion, the best viral thriller since I am Legend. His cast is used to communicate different threads of a much larger story. The main point of the film is an important message about how we would handle an issue affecting the entire world. Matt Damon plays suburban man whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) suddenly dies from the mystery virus, Jude Law plays a blogger obsessed with finding an easy cure, while Lawrence Fishburne and Marion Cotillard play scientists desperately seeking answers. The film is a tense and uncomfortable journey of a search for hope. The slow, building soundtrack complete with brisk editing, detailing the vicious spread of the virus across the globe, build up to the desire to see these characters find a breakthrough. As usual for a Soderbergh film, the performances are top notch. Notable mentions include Jude Law playing it nastier and slimier than he did in Road To Perdition and Kate Winslet as an American doctor investigating the disease’s origin.
No. 9 Limitless
Another pleasant surprise of the year was the Neil Burger(The Illusionist)-directed film Limitless. With a simple premise, the film uses many visual techniques to create a work of art. It follows Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer. After losing his girlfriend, he comes across the solution to his failures in the form of a brand new drug designed to access every part of the human brain. His character achieves everything he has ever set out to do, but not without attracting attention from some powerful and potentially dangerous people. The film uses many elements of European art house cinema to create a original look to a contemporary Hollywood film. These include distinctly bright colours used to illustrate the drug’s powerful affect. Shots of a rollercoaster-esque point of view detail the effects of someone speeding through life without looking back. Bradley Cooper, having already proved himself in ensemble casts with both the Hangover films and the A-Team, is a charismatic leading man. Scenes between him and Robert De Niro are directed with intensity and confirm Cooper’s status as the actor to watch in these types of roles.
No. 8 Super 8
Super 8 is a perfect call back to the early films of Steven Spielberg that are seen as the inspiration for many aspiring film makers of the time. The story revolves around a group of kids filming a zombie film (a small call back to the work of George A. Romero). One night while filming a night scene at the train line, a military train is forced off the tracks in a fiery crash. Something then breaks out of the train and soon causes chaos in the town. J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) uses this film to represent his childhood, making genre films on Super 8 cameras in the vein of Spielberg. This is represented primarily in the main characters. Using the kids as the main characters not only reflects the many sides of Abram’s passion for film-making at that age, but is also a staple of classic 80’s adventure films such as Stand By Me and The Goonies.
No. 7 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Taking the concept of a chimpocalyse seriously, Rise of the Planet of the Apes benefits from the poignant story of struggle over a dominant species and the advancements of film technology. With the forced death of an escaped chimp from scientific testing, head scientist Wil (James Franco) finds the reason for its anger, a newborn chimp hiding in its enclosure. Wil discovers significant human- like brain function in the baby chimp, named Caesar (Andy Serkis). Years Later, Caesar’s actions force him to live in an ape sanctuary under malign conditions. Caesar’s hand is forced, beginning his revolt on humankind. The fascinating creation of Caesar along with the amazingly expressive and Oscar-calibre performance of Andy Serkis will forever be the symbol of motion capture technology, more so than the creation of Gollum or even the recent films of Robert Zemeckis (A Christmas Carol, Beowulf). The connection between both the human and ape characters, including the fight for Wil to save his father and Caesar’s relationships between the other apes in the sanctuary, define the heart of this story. The in depth analysis of both Franco and Serkis characters make their motivations completely believable.
No. 6 Captain America: The First Avenger
Bringing influences in from both Steven Spielberg’s early films and the classic era of comics in the 1940s and 50s, Captain America is both an in depth character study and a cheerful popcorn action flick. It carries over Joe Johnston’s dramatic and action styles to deliver a familiar yet exciting superhero origin story. Johnston uses many elements of the smooth 1940’s look of his first film, The Rocketeer, to bring the most popular symbol of American patriotism to life. Chris Evans portrays both Captain America and Steve Rogers with a powerful presence. Learning about the boy before he becomes the man is vital to this story of having to evolve in superhuman ways. The positively over the top score by Alan Silvestri and the bombastic action sequences keep the film at a tight pace, heading towards the emotionally charged and unique final 10 minutes.
No. 5 X-Men First Class
X-Men First Class is a welcome change to the modern superhero film. Bringing the X- Men characters into a swinging 60’s setting made famous by the Sean Connery James Bond films, gives the film a refreshing and colour charged look. The stylish direction by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick Ass) in being able to sell the 60’s style mis-en-scene to a new audience makes him an action director to watch out for in the near future. The film excels in both the performances form its lead actors and the story of good and evil in the time of nuclear war between Russia and the United States. James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto are incredible as the saints and sinners in this time of war and mutant revelation. Their dynamic performances deliver on every level, McAvoy as the ladies man and professor, and Fassbender as the cold blooded Nazi Hunter. Their chemistry when together works with the tight direction to create intensifying scenes of dialogue that question the moral boundaries on both sides of the mutant ‘issue’.
No. 4 Thor
Capping off the successful superhero films this year is Thor. This story of characters from two different worlds works through the film’s light hearted tone. The film is perfectly balanced to provide an entertaining mix of both fantasy action film and fish out of water story. The action and special effects scenes are filmed to create the sense of sucking the audience into every gigantic set piece. Right from the beginning, everything about the world of Asgard is explained to the viewer, delivering in both the level of detail put into every effect and how these mythical worlds fit into this story of heroism and humanity. Chris Hemsworth creates both an arrogant, strong and sympathetic hero in his first Hollywood leading man role. His chemistry with both the warriors three and Natalie Portman’s character is fun to watch as a god from another realm slowly becomes human. This was also one of the funniest films of the year. The slapstick and fish out of water humour is abundant but never over the top.
No. 3 The Adventures of Tintin
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the famous Tintin comic books is a fun rollicking adventure, showing his passion for playful and original film making techniques. One of these is the ever increasingly developed style created through motion capture technology. This film is head-and-shoulders above others of its type. The facial expressions and body language perfectly extends to guessing which actor is playing which character, particularly Daniel Craig as the evil Sakarine. Of course, this motion capture film also stars Andy Serkis, lending his wild gestures and Scottish drawl as the frolicking and drunken Captain Haddock. The witty dialogue and characterisations by screenwriters Stephen Moffat (BBC’s Sherlock), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) consistently deliver through out this roller-coaster, particularly from Tintin himself. Jamie Bell as Tintin also works in bringing the titular character to life as he brings sweetness to the already likeable adventurous Journalist. The film of course involves one inspiring action set piece after another, sequences of a foot chase through foggy London streets and an enormous motor cycle chase through Morocco showcase Spielberg’s talent for thrilling camera movement. With long tracking shots staying close to the characters during these chases, you see their ever-changing movements and reactions to each tiny situational change through out each set piece. This, along with small winking nods here and there to classic Spielberg films such as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Make this an instant classic among action and animation fans.
No. 2 Warrior
This story of two underdogs competing for the same prize is easily the most emotionally affecting film any man would agree to watch. With friends of mine telling me of their emotional connections to this film, I was able to agree with them whole-heartedly, Mostly due to the poignant relationships between fathers, sons and struggling families. The direction by Gavin O Connor (Miracle) keeps the story focused on the fighting spirit of the main two characters. Joel Edgerton as Brendan Conlon, a physics teacher on the verge of losing everything and Tom Hardy as Tommy, a war hero finding a home and a way to cope with his father Paddy (Nick Nolte), deliver fantastic performances, both showing different and sensitive sides to their somewhat generic characters. Both underdog stories are given equal screen time, not allowing the audience to support one underdog over another. The emotional tare of this family at the hands of Nolte’s character Paddy, makes the climactic and inevitable fight between the two lost brothers even more painful. The MMA fight scenes also deliver a sense of pain due to the grittiness of the choreography and camera work. The camera gets right into each fight scene, delivering every blow straight into your face.
No. 1 Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
My favourite film of the year is also my favourite brutally honest action film of the last five years. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) brings an array of cinematography and mise-en-scene techniques to create a beautiful and enrapturing thrill ride. Though it is almost entirely action set pieces and a simple action based story, the pacing and camera work in set pieces such as the skyscraper climb in Dubai and the Car park jumping fight between Tom Cruise and the villain bring a strong level of inspiration and strength to the many fights and stunts through out. The film also delivers on the affecting chemistry between the main characters. Bringing the aspect of the team into this instalment works best for this film as each personality lends a level of attachment to the unbelievable story. Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner work best as the comic relief and shady spy respectively, while the back-stories of the main characters, lend a surprising level of emotional impact.