10. Fast Five
I'm as surprised as you are to find that a fifth entry into a franchise made it onto this list. But director Justin Lin brought such a high energy to this movie that I can't help but love it. The action is completely bonkers, with a train heist and a final battle that ventures into ludicrous territory. And speaking of Ludacris (see what I did there?), he and Tyrese and the rest of the gang are all back to join Paul Walker and Vin Diesel for Fast Five, giving this movie a continuity that few action franchises take care to implement. Throw in Dwayne Johnson as an agent hot on their trail and some homoerotic confrontations, and you've got yourself a hell of an action movie by a director who continually ups the ante, quickly becoming a rising star in my mind. Bonus: stick around for the post-credits sequence, which left me instantly wanting to see Fast Six.
Spielberg's return to the action/adventure genre is leagues above his last attempt at similar fare. Thanks to a script the spans the globe at a whirlwind pace and the vision of perhaps the world's most beloved mainstream filmmaker, Spielberg's first foray into animation was a blast at the theater. Herge's original artwork is brilliantly recreated by Weta Digital with a 3D flair, and the result looks phenomenal and pays respect to the mountain of source material popular all over the world. For me, the highlight was a long continuous shot of Tintin scrambling through a city chase that lasted around three minutes; it's my favorite shot of the year.
Matthew Vaughn did the unthinkable: with a fresh cast and a new time period, he revitalized a franchise which, thanks to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was on life support. And from start to finish, he did it in under a year. With such an effects-heavy film, that Herculean task alone is enough to earn my undying respect, but Vaughn also made a pretty damn good film that learns from the best of its genre predecessors: it's funny when it needs to be, respects the characters, contains legitimately good storytelling, and is a lot of fun. The casting was great, spot-on in choosing McAvoy as a young Xavier, and rising star Michael Fassbender proved that he's not above blockbuster fare if the script is solid. Bonus: the filmmakers also pulled together an awesome selection of character actors for the military personnel, and Kevin Freaking Bacon is the villain.
A movie I had absolutely no interest in seeing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes kicked my ass and made me rethink my cynical outlook regarding franchise reboots. The motion capture technology makes the CGI apes much more interesting to watch than the humans, but the film effortlessly succeeds in convincing us that Caesar's transformation from an intelligent pet to the leader of a revolution is justified from a character standpoint. And that character work, not just for Caesar, but for all the CGI apes, is the highlight of the film. There are some fantastic "blockbuster" moments - the Golden Gate Bridge sequence comes to mind - but this is really a character piece, and ultimately is a movie that I don't love with all of my heart, but also one in which I can't find anything that I really don't like about it. If you skipped it because the trailers looked ridiculous, do yourself a favor and check it out.
Perhaps the year's most underrated film, Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is about as subtle as a hand grenade. It's a tale of brothers at odds, taking the underdog story to new heights by doubling the stakes and having the two fight for MMA glory. As someone who doesn't care at all about mixed martial arts, I was shocked to be as pulled into the story as I was, a testament to the solid writing and immersive work by lead actors Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Nick Nolte's drunken father character is surprisingly effective and frankly the guy deserves more recognition than he's getting. Warrior is not only one of my favorite films of the year, but I'd argue that it's one of the best, too.
5. Take Shelter
It's been almost a full year since I've seen Jeff Nichols' film, but its images are still with me. Michael Shannon's towering work as a man who may or may not be crazy is easily my favorite performance of the year, and this film also introduced me to the wonderful Jessica Chastain, an actress who is sure to have an exemplary career in years to come. A sense of dread looms over the film much like the (possibly imaginary?) storm clouds, and from the excellent cinematography to the eerie score, Take Shelter had me hooked from the start.
Gore Verbinski's western is a rare gem: a kids movie almost entirely too adult for kids, with offbeat performances from a terrific cast and stunning animation in ILM's first completely CGI feature. Hans Zimmer's score is memorable and fits right in with the kookiness of the tone, and the production design (featuring discarded human trash as the animal city of Dirt) is inspired and original. The humor flies as quickly as the whip-smart dialogue, and the question of identity as seen through the eyes of the main character is fascinating. Rango is one for the ages, though it may be a bit too intelligent for all ages.
3. The Artist
The feeling of knowing almost nothing about a movie before going to see it and walking away awestruck is one of my favorite things in the world. Such was the case with The Artist, as I saw it before any of the Best Picture hype began and I just knew it was a silent black and white film. It's a throwback to the silent era of classical American filmmaking and the conflicts presented with the rise of "talkies" and sound in movies. In that way, it's essentially 2011's Singing in the Rain, but with a dash of Sunset Boulevard thrown in since it deals a bit more with themes of obsolescence. The performances are outstanding, and though the movie is never subtle, it's one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year.
Nicholas Winding Refn's 80's-fused tribute to all things cool is as violent as it is beautiful. Los Angeles is as much a character as any of the extraordinary cast (Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Carey Mulligan, and Ryan Gosling, who practically oozes cool). The cityscapes and valleys of the City of Angels are shot in a way that would make Michael Mann proud, and the noir story is punctuated by one of the most hypnotic scores of the year. Some may claim there is nothing but style on display, but that's OK with me - any film that opens with as much suspense as this one gets a pass to do whatever it wants. Refn and Gosling are planning to work together again in the future, and I can't wait to see what else this director/actor combo has in mind for us.
Joe Cornish's debut is a pulsing cult classic that is exactly the kind of movie I love to watch. It has memorable characters with vibrant personalities, unique dialogue, a wet neon Amblin-on-ecstasy vibe, an awesome soundtrack, and endless rewatchability. I won't talk it up any more since I'm seeing it on a lot of "Most Overrated Movies of 2011" lists, but the fact that it's my favorite film of the year should, if you've read this far, at least convince you to seek it out. Cornish (who co-wrote Tintin with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat) has secured a place next to Rian Johnson on my "directors to watch" list.
Think I'm crazy? What are your favorites? Let me know in the comments or e-mail The Not Just New Movies Podcast and maybe we'll talk about some of your answers. (NotJustNewMovies@gmail.com) Until next time...