Yes, dear readers, as we turn the final pages on 2011, Review would like to take a look back and give a very subjective and personal list of favorite movies from the past year. While some of the movies listed here may not have played on the big screens in the mid-Michigan area, almost all are available on DVD rental from local outlets such as Family Video, via Netflix, or from the newest distribution method, Redbox.
1. The Tree of Life: Although I hadn't read or heard a word about this film until seeing it listed as one of Time magazine's best films of 2011, The Tree of Life was one of the most profound movie experiences I've ever had. Writer/director Terrence Malick's story goes all the way back to the Big Bang and beginning of the universe and culminates with scenes of the afterlife and the collapse of our sun and end of life on Earth. It's an intensely polarizing film, which moviegoers either hated or loved. It won the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival after a screening filled with boos and walk outs, which ended in a standing ovation. This is a heavy and challenging film with a non-linear story line and breathtakingly beautiful visuals. The Tree of Life was the most visually stunning film of the year with some special effects by Douglas Trumbull, who did the effects for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many reviewers were reminded of 2001, being led to metaphysical questions by Malick, who is a philosopher filmmaker. The story revolves around a Texas family with three boys who experience a life changing tragedy that still haunts the eldest son, played as an adult by Sean Penn. Also featuring Brad Pitt as the family's father, who is torn between his love of his sons and his desire to toughen them up to survive life's difficulties.
2. Midnight in Paris: Longtime fans of writer/director Woody Allen were thrilled to enjoy a great and hilarious time travel comedy set in Paris. Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring novelist who is visiting France with his fiancée and her parents. His book is largely about nostalgia originating in his desire to have lived in Paris during the Twenties when so many great writers, artists and musicians lived there. Through some unexplained magic, as the clocks chime midnight, Wilson is picked up by a vintage car and taken to a party where he becomes fast friends with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who takes him to meet Gertrude Stein at her famous salon. Highly recommended for all Allen fans and anyone who enjoys witty and smart comedy.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: Although a fan of the J. K. Rowling series of books, this reviewer hadn't seen the last two or three movies in the blockbuster series. But I was eager to see how the filmmakers and Rowling finished up her grand tale of young wizards battling the evil Lord Voldemort. I wasn't disappointed. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fitting and fabulous conclusion to the series, and it was a joy to see how the three main actors had grown from being young children in The Sorcerer's Stone into being young adults in the final two films.
4. The Green Hornet: As a young boy growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana in the Sixties, I thrilled to the adventures of Batman and The Green Hornet on television. So I was eager to see the film adaptation and was rewarded with one of the most enjoyable movies of the year. While the TV series co-starring the late Bruce Lee played it straight, with none of the camp comedy of the Batman series, this film adaptation is an action comedy with plenty of both. Seth Rogan plays newspaper publisher Britt Reid (The Green Hornet) with a light comic touch, not playing it too silly to detract from the action and drama. The film might not have needed the magic of 3D, but it has great fight scenes and special effects. Christopher Waltz, who was brilliant in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards, plays a Russian mobster trying to unite the Los Angeles crime gangs under his leadership.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger: During World War Two, as America and the Allies battled Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy, some comic book superheroes went to war as well. One of them, Captain America, was created out of that war and was hugely successful with readers. This Marvel Comics film introduces viewers to a skinny and short Steve Rogers who is yearning to enlist with his friends to fight for freedom. After several rejections a scientist enlists him to be the first trial of a “super soldier” serum that is intended to create an army of unbeatable men. Captain America is a fun exercise in WWII nostalgia and Chris Evans is terrific as Rogers/Captain America. Also starring Tommie Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving who once again hides his face behind a mask (as he did in V for Vendetta) as The Red Skull.
6. Super 8: LOST creator J.J. Abrams wrote and directed this Steven Spielberg production. Abrams takes us back to the late Seventies, following a team of high school friends who fall into a great adventure as a monstrous alien attacks a small town. Just as Spielberg hid his Great White Shark in Jaws until the second half of the film, Abrams only gives quick and partial glimpses of his E.T. until late in the film. While the cast is filled with terrific young actors, this is not a film for children under 14, but is great fun for adults. It's a loving tribute to Abrams' and Spielberg's childhood filmmaking adventures with friends and one of the most enjoyable action films of the year.
7. Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame: Asian historical epics are a particular favorite of mine, and this film directed by Tsui Hark was terrific fun. It features the lavish sets, colorful costumes and dazzling scenes of martial arts. Most of these films make extensive use of wire work to make their actors fly over building and scamper across tree tops, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Detective Dee is based on a real historical figure that is featured in a series of books and this film has him employing modern logic along with knowledge of Chinese magic and superstition to solve a series of murders. Battling a seemingly endless army of assassins and being spied on by the Empress' agents, Dee used his intellect and powers of observation to solve the murders. A must see for fans of Chinese epics.
8. X-Men First Class: Another pick for my fellow comic book lovers, this film is more engaging and features a better story than any of the other X-Men films. This prequel begins by introducing us to childhood versions of Professor X and Magneto and other mutants. Kevin Bacon has a fun role as the evil Sebastian Shaw, a powerful mutant himself, who attempts to enlist the X-Men to his plan to defeat humans who have been persecuting mutants out of fear. The movie begins during WWII but mostly takes place during the early Sixties, where Shaw is forcing the Soviet Union to place missiles in Cuba hoping to begin WWIII and lead the U.S.S. R. and U.S. to destroy each other. It's great fun seeing Professor X as a handsome and slightly vain young man with a full head of hair (Xavier has been played by the magnificently bald Patrick Stewart in three previous X-Men films).
9. Rango: Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski, who have teamed up for the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films, collaborated on this animated comedy about a chameleon who is lost on vacation by his owner and ends up in a Western town in the middle of fighting between desert animals. The movie looks as good as the best Pixar and Disney animated features and is a fine family film.
10. The Artist: The only film on my list that I haven't had the chance to see yet, I include it on the list on the basis of the rave reviews and predictions that it will win a bucket load of Oscars next year. The Artist is a French romance film about an older actor in decline and a young actress on the rise as the film industry changes over from silent film to movies with sound. The movie is in black and white and almost entirely silent. Regardless, viewers have been thrilled by the film's beauty and story, plus it's a movie that seems to be the critic's favorite film of the year.
Bonus Pick - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (American version): As this issue of Review was going to press, this film has not yet hit the theaters, opening on December 21st. But from all accounts and judging by the two trailers that have been released, this is going to be one of the best action dramas of the year and should be nominated for several Oscars. The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two books in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy have already been made into very successful films in Sweden, and I must admit that I cringed when I heard that an American adaptation was in the works, but everything I've seen leads me to believe that Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara will be stunning in this version. David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven) directed the movie and is planning to adapt the other two books in the series, which will excite fans of the books, especially those who haven't seen the Swedish versions. Mara looks more like the character described in the books than the actress in the Swedish films, and it should be thrilling to see her in action, taking down the bad guys with kickboxing and her taser.