HOUSE, KIDNAPPED is a gimmick movie. Whereas HOUSE was supposedly shot in a single take (I call bullshit), KIDNAPPED is a simple mean-spirited home invasion movie made up of a series of long takes, eventually utilizing split-screen towards the back end as the film builds to its chaotic conclusion. Honestly, I don't think there are many redeemable things about the movie aside from its gimmick, but I was obviously impressed enough with the filmmaking to consider it one of the best movies I saw last year. Had it lacked the style that it does, it would simply be another conventional home invasion film that hits a lot of familiar beats, but the manner in which the filmmakers decided to shoot it added a certain level of unpredictability and excitement to the proceedings.
#25 X-MEN: FIRST CLASS - I had some issues with this one, pretty much all of which had to do with the lesser mutants. I also felt it was unnecessarily long and generally not as entertaining and fast-paced as I'd hoped, but it's well acted and has one of the best "Fuck Yeah!"-inducing endings I've seen in a really long time. The film does what it's supposed to do, which is set up the X-MEN mythology as we've all come to know it, and it does it considerably well. When putting this list together, I didn't think this would make my top 30, but I obviously like it a lot more than I thought I did in hindsight.
#23 THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE - One of the biggest cinematic surprises of last year for me was THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE, which I went into knowing nothing about. British actor Dominic Cooper gives not one but TWO of my favorite performances of 2011 here, playing dual roles as the sadistic son of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi soldier who's taken away from his family to assume the role of Uday Hussein's double. Based on a true story and set in the 80's, THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE hit the spot for me in a lot of ways and proved to be both very worthwhile as a biopic and satisfying as a genre film. It nails the 80's aesthetic and excess that I adore, with Cooper giving a wild scenery-chewing performance as Hussein that would make Tony Montana himself nod his coke-covered head in approval.
#21 RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE - This one took a while to get going, and even at the half-way point I was still unsure of where I stood on it. Thankfully, it really picks up towards the back end and goes to some rather interesting places and proves to be a humorous satire on what the Christmas holiday has evolved into. Produced in Finland, RARE EXPORTS brings a lot to the table, but it does it in a manner so seamlessly that it becomes easy to forgot you're watching a mash-up of horror, action, siege film, and 80's Amblin-esque adventure. Above all else, it's a creative deconstruction of the Christmas lore and mythology. It's quite possible that you'll never look at mall Santas the same way again once you see this movie. Refreshing, original, and beautifully-shot, with a wonderful score and a great ending that should, in theory, leave you satisfied.
#19 THE IDES OF MARCH - Based on a play that, itself, was loosely based on the 2004 Democratic presidential primary campaign of Howard Dean, IDES OF MARCH is a solid political thriller with phenomenal, intense performances from some of the best actors working in Hollywood today: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, and the always impressive Phillip Seymour Hoffman. IDES OF MARCH has no shortage of ruthless behind-the-scenes behavior, back-stabbing, and posturing, and certain interactions between the aforementioned actors in the film are some of the best examples of cinematic dogfighting to hit the screen in 2011. Aside from the acting, what I liked most about the film was George Clooney's directing; this could have been a bland dialogue-driven film, but Clooney (and, it should be said, composer Alexandre Desplat and DOP Phedon Papamichael) manages to keep the whole thing interesting on a cinematic level without ever taking away from the story.
#18 KABOOM - Sold completely on the fact that it stars Roxane Mesquida of SHEITAN, who I had a short-lived fascination with at one point, and having only seen one of Gregg Araki's films beforehand, I went into KABOOM with no expectations and came out of it, for the most part, pleased. Seeing as I was more aware of the reputation of Araki's films than the movies themselves, the most impressive thing I got from KABOOM was how visually playful it managed to be, with a neon color palette, garish cinematography, music video style editing, and borderline cartoonish scene transitions. Another impressive aspect of the film was how much shit Araki threw at the wall, figuratively speaking; unfortunately, not all of it sticks. Basically, the film deals with sexual experimentation, but there's also a slasher element to it with shadowy figures in animal masks, a cult-like secret-society plot thread, and a lipstick lesbian (Mesquida) with supernatural powers. It's bonkers. Had it not fallen apart in a major way towards the end, KABOOM would be much higher on the list.
#17 KILLER ELITE - As I look back on all the movies I saw from 2011, I can say with confidence that KILLER ELITE is the most MACHO of the bunch. I mean, for fuck's sake, we have Jason Statham (whose BLITZ was pretty close to making my top 30 as well), Robert De Niro, and Clive Owen all in the same movie. As much as I love De Niro, I wouldn't think of the movie any differently had he not been in it; I never got the feeling that he was going through the motions for a paycheck (to be fair, De Niro phoning it in is still better than most actors working today), but for me it was all about the pairing of Statham and Owen - two actors who I admire greatly for different reasons but hold in the same regard nonetheless. In the film, which is apparently based on a true story, Statham plays a mercenary who comes out of retirement to do one more job and, in the process, finds himself in the crosshairs of an "attack dog" and all-around man on the streets for the mafia-like S.A.S. (British Army Special Forces), played by Clive Owen. When they inevitably clash, it's fucking awesome. I could talk about this movie for days, but I'll just say that A) Clive Owen rocks a mean mustache, B) Dominic Purcell, who's unrecognizable in the film, shines as one of Statham's cohorts and sports some damn fine Lemmy-esque facial hair himself, and C) I loved the color palette, which reminded me, visually, of William Friedkin's CRUISING. Oh, and the name of Owen's character is "Spike". SPIKE! Are you fucking kidding me?!! Overall, a solid movie for what it is and one of Statham's bests in my opinion.
#16 THOR - THOR has been part of a running joke between myself and a friend of mine (Hi, Sammy!) who fucking despises it for some reason. I honestly can't comprehend how someone could hate this movie; it's fun, the special effects are stunning, and the comedic fish-out-of-water moments are genuinely humorous. What's even more baffling to me is how someone can slam this movie, but then go on to praise CAPTAIN AMERICA, which I found to be incredibly dull and anti-climactic. Chris Hemsworth, who I initially doubted, is quite impressive in it and holds his own amidst a great supporting cast, including Natalie Portman, who appears to be slumming it but does a decent job nonetheless, and the unassuming Tom Hiddleston, who's quite good as Loki. Plus, where else will you see Ray Stevenson and Tadanobu Asano (ICHI THE KILLER) side by side? Street cred!
#14 HUGO - Thankfully I made it to the last show before it got pulled from the nearby theater and I got to see it in all its 3D glory. There's not much to say about HUGO other than it's a wonderful little children's movie from the same guy who directed some truly unspeakable scenes of violence in movies like GOODFELLAS and CASINO to name a few. Ironically, it's also a movie that obviously embraces modern technology and filmmaking techniques while paying tribute to FILM and the history of cinema in a way that doesn't isolate the younger demographic. For me, it does drag in spots, but it's without question one of the most visually-stunning films of the last year.
#13 MARGIN CALL - An ensemble piece that revolves around a group of investment bankers during the early stages of America's financial crisis. Not exactly the GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS that I was hoping for, but a great film with some solid performances nonetheless. I especially loved the prevalent sense of panic in this one and watching in awe as the characters went out of their way not to fix the problem but to essentially spread the problem around to other people and pretend like nothing happened.
#11 FAST FIVE - I'm not a fan of the FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies. Enjoyed the first one for what it was, didn't like the second, never bothered with the third and fourth. So for me to just jump into a series five movies in would be a big leap and a gamble that could result in me losing two hours of my life that I'd never be able to get back, but the positive word of mouth gave me that extra push I needed. Turns out FAST FIVE is one of the best Action movies of 2011, if not THE best. And to think, I almost slept on it. Figuratively speaking of course. Actually, literally sleeping on it wouldn't be so bad (I've slept on worse). My preconceived notion of this being a movie that solely panders to the street-racing crowd was crushed when I realized that this was in fact a heist film more than anything else. Sure, it has the elements of modern-day Carsploitation cinema that these films are associated with, but FAST FIVE, thankfully, brings so much more to the table than that; it's a well-paced, balls to the wall Action movie with some truly amazing set-pieces and great characters. It's also nice to see Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson realizing his potential as a natural Action star. Cinematic junk food of the highest order.
#10 RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - Easily the most fun I've had watching a movie in the theater last year. I mean, I wasn't doing back-flips down the aisles or anything, but RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES grabbed my attention, made me legitimately love an animated monkey despite said monkey being set up as the usher of an ape apocalypse (ape-ocalypse?), and had me leaving the theater buzzing as if I were a little kid again. The general consensus amongst people I talk to who love this movie as much as I do is that it's an undeniably flawed film in certain respects, but its problems can be overlooked for the simple fact that it's entertaining and the character of Caesar is almost impossible not to invest in, thanks mostly due to the unsung performance of Andy Serkis - that pretty much sums up my thoughts on this movie.
#9 BIUTIFUL - Saying this may put me in the minority, but Alejandro González Iñárritu is not a director who I get excited about. I've enjoyed what I've seen of his films up to this point for what they are, but they're all a bit too pretentious and annoyingly similar in certain ways (although I do appreciate Iñárritu's fondness for women with small, perky breasts and pointy nipples) for me to express any love for them whatsoever. The same can be said for this movie. I don't "love" it per se, but I can't deny that it's a great film and well-deserving of a spot in the top ten list of anyone who sees it. BIUTIFUL sees Javier Bardem play a Cancer-stricken father who spends his final days comforting his children and preparing them for the future. That being said, the film didn't really hit me on an emotional level like it did a lot of other people I know who saw it. I was never close with my father, nor has anyone close to me ever died of Cancer (knock on wood). Superb film, though, if a bit boring and overlong. Needless to say, Bardem is phenomenal.
#7 RANGO - Had no desire to see it (not a fan of Johnny Depp, nor do I watch much animated films), but the strong word of mouth piqued my interest. I'm glad I watched it because it turned out to be a charming and shockingly enjoyable little movie. First of all, the animation is stunning, which seems to be the most compliment that this film receives. Second, I love that this is a children's movie that can potentially appeal to both kids and adults but panders to neither; it's cute, quirky, and funny enough to keep children entertained, but there are also enough thematic elements and subtle inside jokes to appeal to grown-ups. Also, there was never a time while watching RANGO that I felt like what little amount of intelligence I have was being insulted, or, on the other hand, that I felt like I was above the material because it was too childish for my tastes. Not to mention the numerous Spaghetti Western homages throughout. Excellent film. Still not in a hurry to see the next Johnny Depp movie, though.
#6 RED, WHITE AND BLUE - A grimy and sleazy Southern-flavored love story where everything goes horribly wrong. Hands down, this movie has one of the best scripts and most cleverly-constructed plots out of everything I saw last year, and it features some of the most satisfying moments of violence I've seen in quite some time. Great performances all across the board, a compelling group of incredibly flawed characters, a conclusion that hits you like a sledgehammer, and a consistently scummy atmosphere that will make you want to take a shower by the time it's over. If you haven't seen it, do so.
#5 BRIDESMAIDS - There are a lot of movies on this list that I didn't have much of a desire to see in the first place, or came close to not seeing altogether, and BRIDESMAIDS is one of the prime examples. On the surface, it doesn't appeal to me in any way. I don't watch a lot of modern-day comedies. I went into it thinking it would be an ironic, absurd film about a bunch of women juxtaposed with obscene situations and vulgar dialogue. A female version of THE HANGOVER, basically. What I got was a surprisingly touching story about someone who I could relate to. Kristen Wiig's character is, for lack of a better term, a loser. She's in her thirties, single, full of self-pity, and she's standing by as her best friends gets ready to marry and move on with her life; I'm beyond the point of seeing my friends get married and start families, but I can certainly relate to the other aspects of Wiig's character that I just mentioned. It took me a while to get into the movie, and there were times where I found the characters to be very obnoxious (especially Wiig's), but I was ultimately both moved and thoroughly entertained by the film.
#4 FISH TANK - A British drama about a teenage girl who aspires to be a hip-hop dancer and lives in poverty with her single mother and younger sister. You can tell she, as a loner, longs for a sense of community, as well as a male figure in her life; well, she gets one of those things when her mom begins dating a guy who becomes the proverbial wind of change in her life. One of the many things about FISH TANK that I love is that it's a family drama without all of the quirky bullshit you'd see in American cinema. The film seems to come from a genuine place, and the results are utterly compelling. Without getting into too much detail about the plot, FISH TANK goes to some surprising places in regards to the lead character's relationships with certain people, and in general it's fascinating to watch. It's also an amazing film on a cinematic level as well; it's shot in "Academy ratio" (full screen), but it works, and the entire movie looks amazing without being flashy. And regardless of your sexual preference or gender, if you don't want to fuck Michael Fassbender by the time this movie is over, something's wrong with you.
#3 DRIVE - If I were to put this list together based on what I scored each individual movie (which I did, mostly), DRIVE would be considerably lower, but very few movies from last year - if any - had me buzzing like this one did by the time they were over. At the end of the day, I couldn't bring myself to put this movie anywhere but right here. Anyway, I've become a big fan of director Nicolas Winding Refn over the last couple of years and consider him to be not only one of the best "genre" directors working today, but an auteur whose presence will be felt in a major way over the next decade. He's also a breath of fresh air, and if his career up to this point is any indicator, he's someone you won't have to worry about selling out anytime soon. He's one of the few foreign directors who I can think of in this day and age to successfully cross over to the American market without going the remake route. But enough about him. From the obvious visual homages to the neon-lit 80s films of directors like Walter Hill, to the wonderful use of obscure synth-pop, to the old-school tough-guy type of feel that Ryan Gosling evokes with his performance despite his good looks, to the mystique of "The Driver", it's no coincidence that DRIVE hits the spot with me and many other genre movie fans out there. Also, for me, it opens the door many ideas and theories regarding Gosling's character that ultimately makes "The Driver" a very iconic figure in my mind when it comes modern-day genre cinema, but perhaps that's a discussion for another time.
#2 WARRIOR - A lot of people - including me - have complained about this film's incredibly contrived plot, in which everything just conveniently falls into place so that the film can end in a certain way. There's no denying that WARRIOR is predictable to a certain extent, but, for me, it's all about the acting and the emotion. Like RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, WARRIOR proved to be a borderline cathartic viewing experience for me because of the emotions and feelings that it evoked. Did it move me to the point of tears? No, not even close, but in a way it tapped into the primal side of me that made me want to figuratively stand up and beat my chest. Tom Hardy is a beast and Nick Nolte is a powerhouse; seeing the two of them together is awesome and somewhat surreal in that it unites two important genre actors from the old school and the new school. I love how the characters are developed (especially Hardy's), the fight scenes are great, and it breezes by for being well over two hours.
#1 MONEYBALL - Who doesn't love a good story about the underdog? Brad Pitt plays the audacious General Manager of the Oakland A's who defies the old-school mentality of the inner-workings of Major League Baseball to create a winning team out of nothing, and by "nothing" I mean a small percentage of the budget that the more dominant teams in the league have and a group of misfit players who most teams would consider undesirable. Of all the 2011 movies that I saw, I consider MONEYBALL to be the top dog when it comes to pacing and writing. The great thing is, you don't even have to give a shit about baseball to enjoy it; Pitt essentially carries you through the entire film with his natural charm and seemingly effortless performance, and I have to give props to an actor a hated prior to seeing this: Jonah Hill. Not a lot of movies I saw last year gave me goosebumps, but this one did. Phenomenal.
BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST - The only reason this isn't on my list is because I forgot to include documentaries before I posted it. Otherwise, it would be in my top ten. I didn't see many documentaries last year (less than ten), but then again there weren't a lot that gained my interest. As a casual fan of A Tribe Called Quest once upon a time, I sought this one out because I'm at least familiar enough with them to care about the subject matter. This doc basically tells the story of the group, how they formed, how they've matured as artists and as people, and how success eventually drove them apart. What I loved about this documentary is that it took me back to a time when hip-hop was fun and when it was about the celebration of a sub-culture. Nowadays, hip-hop can still be fun, but the culture aspect of it seems to have gotten lost along the way and reduced to the underground scene in favor of celebrating material possessions and promoting certain things that a majority of the genre's target demographic can only achieve through criminal means. Despite certain portions of the documentary portraying members of the group in a somewhat negative light, BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE was a great watch and made me love hip-hop again for about ninety minutes.