Happy New Year, faithful reader! And welcome to the Movie Snob’s annual Year in Review. If I saw a movie on the big screen in 2011, I may include it in this column, even if it was technically a 2010 release. I saw 64 movies this year, and I hope you find something in here worth renting some time. Although if you’re looking for horror movies, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Movie of the Year. Well, my pick this year is actually a 2010 release: True Grit, by the Coen Brothers. I have not yet seen the John Wayne original, but I can’t imagine it was any better than this rough-and-tumble Western about a young girl on a quest for revenge against her father’s murderer. Excellent performances from Jeff Bridges as the broken-down old marshal who helps her, Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger who’s pursing the same man for a different crime, and of course newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the intrepid Mattie Ross.
Runner-Up. I know it has caught plenty of flak, but I thought The Help was a tremendously moving story about life in the pre-civil-rights-era South. Emma Stone proves her acting chops once again, and Bryce Dallas Howard does a fine job as well, but Viola Davis owns this movie as the long-suffering but dignified maid Aibileen Clark.
Best Action/Adventure Flick. I give the nod to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco as a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Andy Serkis (in his usual motion-capture capacity) as Caesar, the first of the intelligent apes. Maybe it was my imagination, but it just felt more intelligent than your average action flick. Coming in a close second was Thor. It was Apes’ opposite on the intelligence-o-meter, but I got a big kick out of this cheesy comic-book tale about familial dysfunction among the Norse gods. Two smaller productions that I really enjoyed were Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper as a guy who gets into a lot of trouble after messing around with an experimental drug that makes him super-smart, and Source Code, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier on a weird mission to stop a terrorist attack by going back in time—and becoming somebody else.
Best Animated Movie. Well, I had never seen The Lion King before, so I made sure to see it during its recent theatrical re-release. And sure enough, I thought it was a great movie, and the best animated feature I’ve seen in a long while. Among first-run movies, I will happily pick Tangled, which I thought was a very enjoyable telling of the story of Rapunzel. The animation was first-rate, and so was the tale’s creepy villain, Mother Gothel.
Best Comedy. This category is always a struggle, and I didn’t give any comedy a B+ or higher this year. A few did qualify for a straight B, such as Cedar Rapids, starring Ed Helms as a wide-eyed small-town guy who cuts loose at a convention in the “big city” of Cedar Rapids. Paul was an entertaining comic riff on the extraterrestrial-come-to-earth genre. Bridesmaids is more than a little crude, but still pretty darned funny. Crazy, Stupid, Love is more of a dramedy, I guess, but I think it had enough decent laughs to include it in this category.
Best Documentary. There were several good ones this year. I’ll give top honors to Disney’s African Cats, which follows two mothers (a lion and a cheetah) as they go about the business of raising some little ones. I thought the cheetah’s story was especially amazing. But I have to mention four other documentaries that I thought were very worthy. Born to be Wild 3D, about habitats run by people who save and raise orphaned elephants and orangutans. Project Nim, which is basically a biopic about a chimpanzee who was raised like a human child for the first few years of his life, followed by some sad years of being shuffled around and mistreated after the experiment was shut down. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a very interesting look at some ancient cave paintings in southern France that I had never even heard of before. And finally Page One: Inside the New York Times, which raises but cannot answer the question of whether the Gray Lady can survive in the Age of the Internet.
Best Drama. Setting aside this year’s runner-up for Best Picture, The Help, I’ll pick the winner of the 2011 Best Picture Academy Award—The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth. It’s a touching story of friendship between the tongue-tied monarch and his unorthodox speech therapist. Among 2011 releases, I really liked Of Gods and Men, the based-on-true-events story of a Catholic monastery trying to survive in war-torn Algeria.
Best Foreign Film. I usually have a few to choose from in this category, but not this year. The only notable movie that more or less fits this category is Carmen 3D, which is a film of a performance of the opera Carmen at the Royal Opera House in London. I had never seen an opera and know nothing about it, but I really enjoyed this, my first exposure to the form. And the songs are so catchy!
Honorable Mentions. In the action category, I’ll give one thumb up to both Super 8 (which includes some really nice acting by Elle Fanning) and X-Men: First Class. In the mood for a road trip? Try The Way, or perhaps The Way Back. The former is a labor of love by Emilio Estevez, about a handful of pilgrims walking the El Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. The latter is the supposedly, but apparently not really, true story of some guys who break out of a Stalinist concentration camp during a Siberian winter and attempt to walk thousands of miles to freedom. And I have several more dramas for you if you are in a dramatic mood. 50/50 is about a young man who suddenly has to face the Big C—potentially terminal cancer. It’s based on a true story. Another Year is a 2010 character study about an older British couple, their grown son, and a sad single woman who is their friend. If you’re in the mood for romance, check out Like Crazy. The story is simple—two young lovers face a serious obstacle in the form of the immigration service—but the actors do a great job of conveying passion and heartache. Another 2010 release I saw in 2011 was Rabbit Hole, a study of parental grief after the death of a child, and starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. And before I sign off, I’ll give a quick shout-out to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the remake of Footloose, and Martin Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, which you may still be able to find in theaters. The 3D version of Hugo is probably worth it, in my humble opinion.
That’s it! Best wishes for happy moviegoing in 2012!