First off, let me say that my list isn’t going to have a lot of films that other reviewers’ lists are going to have or films that were big in 2011. Why? Simple reason is that with a full time gig, writing all kinds of articles for GUY, keeping a presence on CHUD as much as I could, and trying to keep up with a fiery, energetic two-year-old, I simply couldn’t catch a lot of the big films I wanted to in 2011. But what I did manage to do was get into the smaller, indie scene more than I ever have before. And the majority of them were good, some truly great. And several of them are represented here.
Honorable Mentions: Puncture, Griff The Invisible, Fire of Conscience, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Black Death, Rubber, Stake Land, X-Men: First Class, Thor.
Films I Missed: A shload of films I know I should have seen but didn’t / couldn’t for one reason or another: Attack the Block, Moneyball, The Ides of March, Tintin, Shame, Hanna, The Artist, Tree of Life, Contagion, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Iron Lady, Bridesmaids, The Descendants and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, these are the ones I did see and did enjoy.
David on Bay Rong (Clash):
Going back over the films I’d seen this year for this list, I revisited my review for this Vietnamese actioner from director Le Thanh Son and starring Johnny Tri Nguyen and Ngo Thanh Van and realized that I probably enjoyed it even more in retrospect than I did when I saw it. Fantastic martial arts action and gunplay, a story that parallels Ronin to a degree – definitely more in homage than in ripoff – and a cast of lowlifes and double-crosses for a case that controls a military satellite. Tri Nguyen pulls off some unbelievable fight moves in this thing, and Ngo was no certainly no slouch herself in that area. And they clicked on the drama side, and there were several twists and turns in the story. What I especially liked is that Le didn’t cheap out with extreme close-ups and migraine-inducing cutting of the action. There are plenty of nice master shots of the fights, which were all well choreographed, with an MMA tilt to them. The film has a nice gritty, washed out look and you can get a good feel for the underworld of Ho Chi Minh City.
Current rating:3.5 out of 5
Contributing factors: The look of the film, Le’s action directing, Tri Nguyen’s and Ngo’s fighting ability and chemistry in the non-fighting.
Performance to savor: Ngo was the most complex character in the piece. And holy crap is she gorgeous.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You simply can’t go Rong with this movie!”
David on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo:
David Fincher films are simply not to be missed. And this one seems to be the biggest departure for him from what we’re used to. I went into this film fresh, not having read any of Stieg Larsson’s books nor having seen the original, so there were no preconceptions for me. What I understood was that there was a 40-year-old mystery to be solved and that Rooney Mara is getting a lot of lip service from her performance, which are well deserved. I just caught it this weekend and for the first, say, 110 minutes, I liked how Fincher, Daniel Craig and Mara unraveled the mystery, though the film did drag at times. But I was very interested in Mara’s half of the film and Lisbeth Salander as a character, with a lot of layers and baggage. The scene you probably know about is terrible, but her payback isn’t and I was just all over Mara’s performance in the movie. Daniel Craig as Michael Blomkvist wasn’t nearly as engaging, but he was passable enough to shepherd us through the mystery half of the film until Lisbeth joined him and they had good chemistry I thought. Really could have been a much better movie if not for the completely unnecessary epilogue, though. Or, rather, I’d like to see more of what Lisbeth was doing in said epilogue.
Current rating:3.6 out of 5
Contributing factors: Fincher’s solid construction of the film.
Performance to savor: Again, Rooney Mara owns in this movie. Most fearless portrayal I’ve seen this year. I actually saw her much smaller film, Tanner Hall, this year and though that was pedestrian at best, she was fine in it.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Best Swedish tattoo mystery remake this year.”
David on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:
I’ve enjoyed most of the MI movies over the years and this is just an example of a great popcorn flick by one of the biggest action stars in the world in a franchise that has always suited his particular talents. Two words in that last sentence should particularly stand out to you: action star. Why? Because there was minimal CGI bullshit in that crazy Burj Khalifa scene. Dude got out on the friggin’ building and did his shit. Maybe not for every single shot, but dude was hanging outside the tallest building in the world for a movie. Cruise always delivers that level of commitment, particularly this franchise and I just respect the hell out of him for doing it. Yeah, there’s been the rough patch for him personally in the middle part of last decade, but Cruise is still one of the true movie stars in the biz and a talented performer. Another thing I liked about this installment was that it was the most straight-up film in the franchise. No IMF traitor lurking in the shadows as in all the three previous films. Just a mission, limited time and no chance to prepare. Now the keepaway scene in the parking garage is a bit much, but that chase scene in the sandstorm can’t be denied.
Current rating:3.7 out of 5
Contributing factors: Again, the Burj Khalifa Spider-Man bit, the sandstorm chase, Brad Bird’s solid direction…and maybe Paula Patton stripping in the car.
Performance to savor: This is Cruise’s movie through and through.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You’ll jump on your couch for it!”
David on Hobo With a Shotgun:
The trailer for this film from director Jason Eisener was the winner of a Grindhouse competition by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino that threatened to out grindhouse Grindhouse itself. Back in April I called it a “batshit rendition of a Canucksploitation joint…that unloaded both barrels on restraint and sanity with this hyper-violent, blood-soaked, squishy and at times laugh-out-loud-funny effort.” Hauer was choice as a grizzled hobo that rides the rails into some Canadian shithole (aka Halifax) run by scumbag kingpin Drake (Brian Downey) and his two offspring paragons of ’80s assholery, Slick and Ivan (Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman). So what makes the place bad? The usual: crime, hobo fighting, random murder, drugs, roasting busloads of children, manhole cover decapitations. Then of course, there’s The Plague. If you can imagine satanic Knights of the Round Table bikers in cast iron armor and a penchant for heavy metal and pet octopi, you might have a sense of the lunacy that kicks up a notch from its already considerable level before they blaze onto the screen. Hauer saying “enough!” and taking the law (i.e. the shotgun) into his hands and offing the miscreants surrounding him made for a hell of a fun ride.
Current rating: 3.7 out of 5
Contributing factors: Did I mention The Plague? I want my spinoff movie stat.
Performance to savor: Hauer is back, baby.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Boomstickalicious!”
David on A Better Life:
A moving tale of illegal immigration that very well could force even the most staunch conservative to at least give a second thought to his position on the issue. Director Chris Weitz’ film echoes to a degree De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in the tale of illegal immigrant, Carlos Galindo (Demian Bechir), who is faced with a major and very risky decision to try to better his and his American citizen son, Luis’ (Jose Julian) precarious situation in Los Angeles. Day laborer Galindo has the chance to buy his boss’ landscaping business and truck and take over his clientele. But since he doesn’t have the money, he has to make a desperate plea to his sister, who is legal by way of marriage. When his sister comes through, things are looking up. But then the unthinkable happens and Galindo must try to make it right or risk losing everything, especially the chance to try to reconnect with his son, who knows nothing of his heritage and is distant from him. Bechir was recently recognized with a SAG Award Nomination for his stellar performance. His Carlos is hard working, honorable to a fault and regretful that he and his son have drifted away from each other. His performance is really stirring, and the film has a lot to say about the complexities and realities of illegal immigration. It’s really shot and acted well all around.
Current rating: 3.8 out of 5
Contributing factors: The lip service Weitz gives to the underground Latino situation in L.A.
Performance to savor: Bechir is excellent. Period.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It should be illegal how good this movie is!”
David on Captain America: The First Avenger:
Was this the movie that fans of the comic book (including me) were waiting for? For the most part, yes. This Joe Johnston film was a cog in the wheel of the pending Avengers movie, but a fun outing on its own. Johnston gave it that right blend of retro, futuristic and Americana, with solid performances on both sides from stars Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving. I remarked in my review that the work from both stars was no surprise. At this point, who doesn’t know that Evans is a more-than-amiable screen presence capable of handling action and drama just fine (check him out in Puncture, one of my hionorable mentions). Also, he’s already cut, but that shot of him emerging from the Project: Rebirth chamber showed the extra work he put in in getting ready for the physicality of Cap. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in, including the two Fantastic Four movies. And if you need any convincing on Weaving, well then I weep for you. Hayley Atwell was also a worthy match to Evans. I called her performance as Peggy Carter “competent and measured, not prone to fawning, and tough but not inaccessible.” Tommy Lee Jones adds his own deadpan one-liners charm and Stanley Tucci is great as he usually is as Dr. Erskine. As far as the visual effects, the cut and pasting of Evans onto Rogers’ pre-procedure body was seamless I thought. The rest of the film looked great as well. The costume in particular came off well. From what I saw so far, I fear that the modern one in Avengers won’t be as good. Drawbacks though include not enough attention being given to the Howling Commandos, and really, some second act adventures of them with Cap, which was generally glossed over by Johnston, would also have been welcome. But overall, I really liked the finished product.
Current rating: 3.8 out of 5
Contributing factors: Production and costume design were also very good.
Performance to savor: Tucci does much with not a lot of face time.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Imperious Rex, that was entertaining!”
David on Rise of the Planet of the Apes:
It’s surprising that this film was this good, and squarely because of the apes and not the humans involved. Not only do the apes rise in this movie, but so does mo-cap, which gave an unbelievable quality to the simians on screen, particularly Andy Serkis, whose work in this area is going to get him an Oscar nod at some point in his career. Really, the apes and the story are the main thing going on here, but it’s more than enough. It’s a clever and faithful precursor to the films that people of my generation (yes, I’m old) generally love. And really, I didn’t think there’d be any reviving this franchise after the 2001 remake. But Rise not only revives it, it kicks it into a potential new franchise of its own, one that’s more than worthy of the original.
Current rating:3.8 out of 5
Contributing factors: Mo-cap. Mo-cap. Mo-cap.
Performance to savor: Serkis. Serkis. Serkis.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You’ll go apeshit!”
David on Margin Call:
Detailed and engrossing Wall Street drama with a fantastic ensemble performance that bypasses all of the ancillaries that can be found in a movie of this type like an inside informant, whistleblower, evil corporate executive misdeeds, federal indictments, murder and such. It’s a real-world take on the beginnings of the 2008 Financial Crisis, headed up by erstwhile Spock, Zachary Quinto (who also produced), Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons. The film really benefits by the non-sensationalism on display here. It just features an A-list cast doing great work in a play-by-play analysis of a firm (said to be based on Lehman brothers) that never veers into the boring, especially considering that the majority of the film is dialogue. This could just as easily have been a play, in fact. It’s an accessible account of a complicated situation, written smartly by first-time director, J.C. Chandor.
Current rating:3.9 out of 5
Contributing factors: This is all about the script and the performances.
Performance to savor: Spacey, Tucci, Irons.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Invest in this movie!”
David on Warrior:
Rousing fighter movie reminiscent of Rocky 2 (don’t get caught up in all the Rocky hype associated with this movie, Edgerton’s story is straight up 2) that features strong performances by the two leads, and also Nick Nolte as their formerly abusive drunk father on the slippery path to redemption. Keeping with the Rockyverse, I mentioned that director Gavin O’Connor goes more Clubber Lang than Apollo Creed with the many heartstring moments, but the two-pronged story of brothers who clash in an MMA tournament is nonetheless a stirring experience, particularly in the last half of the film. The fighting is bonecrunching, particularly from Hardy, and the submissions feel like they’re forcing your own leg up your poophole. O’Connor is really good about putting you inside the ring.
Current rating:4.0 out of 5
Contributing factors: The physicality on display is terrific.
Performance to savor: For me, Hardy, hands down. His was the more meaningful arc between he and Edgerton (who was also good). His opening scene with Nolte I remarked as: “The disdain is rolling off of Hardy and he barely has to say a word. But nearly every word he does say is a veiled dagger aimed at his old man for his past misdeeds.”
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It’s one Angle Slam away from true greatness!”
David on Drive
Typically, when a film is titled Drive, and about a wheelman available for hire to the criminal underworld, but doesn’t really feature all that much actual driving, one might think that that would be cause for valid resentment of the film. After all, The Transporter was about exactly the same thing and had crazy driving. Fortunately, some atmospheric direction from Nicholas Winding Refn, coupled with his strangely pseudo-timeless placement of the film (this looked like it could have taken place in the same universe and time as 8 Million Ways to Die or To Live and Die in L.A., especially with those opening credits and Ryan Gosling’s scorpion Members Only Jacket), make for a winning combo. Albert Brooks is some evil gold and Ron Perlman livens the place up in his inimitable style. But of course, the true draw is Gosling, who was pretty much owning this entire year. His sedate performance (sedate at least until it’s time to waste the ever-living shit out of bad guys) is really something to be enjoyed. Nary a wisecrack nor a one-liner to be had. Just all business, introspection and the most relaxing getaway drive in recent memory.
Current rating: 4.0 out of 5
Contributing factors: The soundtrack was quite good as I recall.
Performance to savor: Er, uh…Gosling.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “One of Car and Driver’s Ten Best!”
David on A Bout Portant (Point Blank)
A Bout Portant is an espresso shot of a film. It wakes you up in a hurry and doesn’t last very long. It’s 84 minutes of tense action and gripping situations, with a manic portrayal by Giles Lellouche as an everyman caught up in a situation way over his head. Lellouche is Samuel Pierret, a nurse’s aid in a hospital who saves the life of a thief, Sartet (Roschdy Zem), after an assassination attempt by some people who hired him. But soon thereafter, Pierret’s wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya), who is in the middle of a high risk pregnancy, is kidnapped. Pierret is told if he doesn’t spring Sartet from the hospital, she’ll be killed. From there, Pierret must navigate the Paris underworld, where the roles of law and criminal are reversed and there’s no one he can trust accept the man he just sprung from custody.
Current rating: 4.0 out of 5
Contributing factors: The French underworld is a complicated place.
Performance to savor: Lellouche and Anaya portray a really believable, loving couple. It’s easy to see why he’d go through what he does to try to save her. And she has a great fight with a female cop who’s looking to chuck her and her unborn baby out a window.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Mon dieu, that was exciting!”
David on Viva Riva!
A richly-characterized crime noir with a distinctly African flavor. This is essentially the first major film to come out of the perennially-troubled Central African nation of Congo in two decades. In that time the country has seen repeated warfare and infighting, and continues to struggle with a stigma of poverty and rape among other things. But Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga shows us that, while the country does have its problems, it has some interesting stories to tell as well. Viva Riva! won a bunch of African film awards and has several memorable performances backing up Munga’s exploration of a Congolese hustler, Riva (Patsha Bay), debauching himself in Kinshasa after stealing a truckload of gasoline from his Angolan boss, Caesar (Hoji Fortuna), which is the equivalent of gold in the gas-starved city. Caesar shows up in Kinshasa with a couple of men murdering their way across the the city in order to track Riva down. And Riva’s obsession with the seductive Nora, (Manie Malone), the moll of a local crime boss only adds to his troubles. I’ve spent time in Kenya and seen local productions and from countries like Nigeria, and they’re not usually very good. But this is not only a great African film, it’s a great film period.
Current rating:4.0 out of 5
Contributing factors: Munga giving you the unedited flavor of Kinshasa, for good and bad.
Performance to savor: All around, but mostly Bay, Fortuna, Marlene Longange and Malone is great as the alluring Nora.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Riva bomaye!”
David on Troll Hunter:
An unexpected and entertaining delight and an example of how the recent trend in found footage films should be done. The movie tells the story of the footage shot by student filmmakers, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and their camera-man Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), who accompanied a Norwegian troll hunter (Otto Jespersen) on the job. And it played like the funkiest Discovery Channel documentary ever filmed. The trolls were usually obscured by low light, nighttime or night vision, but were still rendered well, and were at times hilarious and others quite scary. Rules for hunting trolls and how to eliminate them are laid out well. Like for instance, if you’re an Evangelical, probably best to stay out of the country altogether. The hunting footage is often tongue in cheek and adrenaline-inducing. And the added measure of the Norwegian government, and their local representative, Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen), head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board, trying to keep the secret of the existence of trolls comes off like mockumentary fodder. The mix of dry humor and tense action scenes made this an engaging winner.
Current rating: 4.1 out of 5
Contributing factors: Proper usage of found footage technique, highly convincing trolls.
Performance to savor: Jespersen…and the trolls
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Troll!”
David on Fast Five:
What the hell business did this movie have being as good as it was? It’s the fifth installment of a franchise that’s finagling with it’s own timeline with each subsequent film. And it turns out to be the best one yet. Don’t know what’s keeping Mark Wahlberg and company from coming out with The Brazilian Job, but they may as well go ahead and pick a new location for their sequel if it ever occurs, because this film has flat out stole their thunder. And what’s more unanticipated is that now it’s effectively changed the entire basis of its own franchise from street racing into a full-on heist pictures, which are already poised for two more outings. Director Justin Lin, who has steered the franchise since the third film, Tokyo Drift, is turning himself into a highly bankable action director, with an eye for his own continuity and what the fans want.
Many are the film series that crank out sequels with little to no reference to prior installments. Few are the ones that not only have a sense of from whence they came, but a willingness to reuse its own characters to continue the story. Lin did that in a big way, recruiting talent from all of the previous installments (save Tokyo Drift, which technically hasn’t happened yet), to assemble a cast for this ensemble heist yarn. At the center are the series’ main three: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster. And the supporting members of their team, Rome (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Vince (Matt Schulze), Han (Sung Kang), Gisele (Gal Gadot), Leo and Santos ( Tego Calderón and Don Omar) all are given proper attention and character moments and aren’t just scene fillers.
And the addition of Dwayne Johnson as the hulking (holy shit The Rock has never looked more intimidating) DSS Agent, Luke Hobbs, added the Rock vs. Vin dimension that fans have been talking about for years. There are plenty of good character moments interspersed with great action, including the long awaited Johnson vs. Diesel slobberknocker, a foot chase through Rio’s (i.e. Puerto Rico’s) favelas, shootouts and a thrilling bank vault heist through the streets of Rio. This was easily the best action film of the summer, with a hell of a surprising twist to set up the next two installments.
Current rating: 4.2 out of 5
Contributing factors: Character moments, action, gunplay, car chases, a really big safe.
Performance to savor: The Rock, back at the proper level of screen baddass-ness.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It’s Fastastic!”
David on Le Noms Des Gens (The Names of Love)
Truth be told, I would have been good rearranging this top five a number of ways. But when I think of the story told by Le Noms Des Gens, and the type of movie it is – namely a romantic comedy…I don’t do romantic comedies – I’ve got to give it to this film from French director Michel Leclerc. Actually, to call this film just a romantic comedy is to sell it way short. Back when I reviewed it, I mused on whether it’s a “treatise on French race relations and socio-political discussion wrapped up in a romantic comedy.” Or “an introspective exploration of family heritage and coming to terms with a painful past.” Or “a light and seductive ‘opposite attract’ romancer with something to say on the rejection of societal labels, taboos and expectations.”
Well, it’s all those things, told via the engaging story of Baya Benmahmoud (the luminous Sara Forestier), a brash young French-Algerian Muslim liberal hipster whose main hobby is converting men on the opposite end of the political spectrum to her way of thinking by engaging them in naked, carnal political debate, which she always wins. But she soon meets her match in conservative Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) – named just like the French pressure cooker – a veterinarian who works for the French government to assess the possible threat posed by bird flu cases via necropsy.
Arthur is immediately smitten by Baya, who interrupts a radio interview in which he’s partaking to express to him that his views on the dangers posed by bird flu are merely a furtherance of misleading conservative government propaganda. They’re soon drawn to each other, much to the delight of the younger version of Arthur’s self, with whom he has regular conversations about how he’s not living up to his earlier version’s expectations of his life. He also occasionally sees his dead grandparents, whom he never even knew. This is indicative of deeper goings-on with both Arthur and Bahia concerning their complicated family histories. Namely, Arthur’s mother is notoriously tight-lipped about her experiences as a young Jewish girl under Nazi occupation, and in fact living a very Anne Frank life after her parents, Arthur’s spectral grandparents, were dispatched to Auschwitz, never to return. And Baya’s father witnessed the slaughter of his family at the hands of the French military in Algeria as a youth, but it didn’t stop him from immigrating to Paris illegally and adopting the French lifestyle, and even marrying a French woman with no afterward malice to the country. But Baya is distressed that he gives everything he has to his family and never seeks any enjoyment for himself, especially denying himself the expression of his considerable artistic talent
Thus both Arthur and Baya, through these different scenarios, have had no real connection to their Jewish and Muslim backgrounds until they meet each other and begin to question who they are and their origins. Plus, a sexual assault Baya endured as a small child informs on the reckless manner in which she approaches relationships. Then there’s commentary on race relations and immigration policies in France. And all of this is covered while Arthur and Baya engage in this whirlwind and complicated love affair. As heavy as some of the issues raised in the film can be, the film never is. And there’s really so much going on in Le Noms Des Gens, punctuated by a simply marvelous and quite fearless performance by Forestier (let’s just say she has no problem with public nudity) that it seems a miracle that Leclerc could squeeze it all in and still make the film as charming as he does. Gamblin is also quite good as the repressed Arthur. And Leclerc’s and co-writer Baya Kasmi’s intricate and unpredicatable script is weighty and light at the same time. It’s really not hard to pick this as the best film that I saw this year.
Current rating: 4.5 out of 5
Contributing factors: Complicated and winning script, bursting with commentary and charming characters.
Performance to savor: Forestier in the best performance by an actress I saw this year. In my review I described her Baya as “complicated, opinionated, dedicated, deadly serious and lighter than air all at once.”
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “WTF? It’s a romantic comedy. A French romantic comedy! In French! Yep, and it’s still damned good.”