The Best of the Rest, 2011 Edition

[9 January 2012]

By Ben Travers

Let the prissy critics have those indie movies no one’s heard. After all, at the end of the year no one’s able to see them unless they live in New York or L.A. Let’s discuss the movies we all saw, or at least had the chance to see. These are the best films of 2011, by genre, that received a wide release in the U.S. of A.

Best Action Movie - Hanna

Let’s be honest – this will undoubtedly become runner-up to M:I Ghost Protocol. However, since Tom Cruise’s latest run as Ethan Hunt has yet to hit theaters and I have to honor some stupid thing called “journalistic integrity,” I can’t yet name it the best movie of the year. Action movie. I meant action movie. I mean, who could honestly believe the fourth installment in the Mission Impossible franchise was the best movie of the year? Hahaha! Haha. Ha.

So anyway…the (temporary) honor of Best Action Movie goes to Hanna, director Joe Wright and actress Saoirse Ronan’s far superior follow-up to their first collaboration, Atonement. Though certainly one of the most unlikely (and unappreciated) wide releases of the year, Hanna is nevertheless an extremely engrossing, high-octane jolt of calculated action bravado.

Yes, it’s about a 16-year-old assassin who’s assigned to kill a government intelligence officer…by her dad…after being raised in the wilderness…for her entire life. Yet Hanna offers many widely appealing action staples: a very cool man vs. a small army fight scene, plenty of chase sequences, and a this-time-it’s-personal third act twist. Don’t be afraid, people. Embrace the oddity. At least, after you see M:I 4.

Runner-up: M:I Ghost Protocol (journalistic integrity only goes so far)

Best Animated Movie - Puss in Boots

OK, so I was half-right about this movie. Back in August, I said the teaser trailer for Puss in Boots was the best trailer for what was probably the worst movie of the last months in 2011. It’s still the best trailer, but it was far from the worst movie. In fact, the movie I said was probably the best movie with the worst trailer, War Horse, may end up being inferior to the suave feline with a knack for trouble.

If the Academy Awards nominated actors for their body of work in a year rather than a singular performance, I would not only be pulling for Antonio Banderas – I would expect him to get his first career nomination. Though his work separately in Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Puss isn’t quite substantial enough for the Academy’s high standards, the two polar opposite turns together show Banderas’ surprising versatility. Between the two, though, it’s his frisky kitty that sticks. The soft growl, the purred pickup lines, and the outrageous exclamations all add up to a uniquely comical performance. It’s Banderas who holds Puss in Boots together during the dull flashbacks and less compelling supporting characters. I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong.

Runner-up: Rango

Best Comedy - 50/50

A woefully mismanaged marketing campaign kept 50/50 from being this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. Instead of focusing on the distinctive true story of a young man diagnosed with a rare kind of spinal cancer and the loyal if offbeat friend who helps him cope, distributor Summit Entertainment released trailers making the movie look like Judd Apatow’s latest frat fest with the cancer plot a darkly personal plot point to place sex jokes around. I know it’s got to be difficult marketing a movie about cancer, but this was far from the best way to go.

Nevertheless, the movie itself couldn’t be in better shape. Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes through the seven levels of grief with a command unbefitting to his young age. Seth Rogen, as his friend, is his usual frat-boy like self, but this time we get to see more of the brotherly love and less of the fraternity hijinks. Finally, Anna Kendrick continues her ascension in my heart, er, I mean, my list of young, talented actors. She pulls off some difficult scenes that ask her to be both professional and inexperienced, uncomfortable and comforting. The trio works beautifully together to bring home a darkly and warmly funny script worthy of all the awards it gets, and, just as importantly, your hard-earned money.

Runner-up: Bridesmaids

Best Drama - Warrior

My full review for this masterpiece from director Gavin O’Connor is forthcoming, but for now, let me just say this – it is a downright crime Warrior failed to earn $150 million, 15 Oscar nominations, and worldwide acclaim as the best American sports film since Rocky. And just like the Sylvester Stallone classic, it’s not really a sports movie. It’s a drama. It’s a great drama. It’s the best drama of the year. I say that with The Tree of Life, what I also see as a masterpiece, currently sitting in my #2 slot.

Runner-up: Moneyball

Best Horror Film - Insidious

I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, so forgive me if the critically-acclaimed Paranormal Activity 3 is actually a better film. I couldn’t gather the courage to see that in a dark theater late at night before returning to my undoubtedly haunted apartment. What little bravery I had was sucked from me when I sat down on a Saturday afternoon to watch Insidious, an absolutely terrifying film made for even less money than the aforementioned blockbuster. Never have I felt less safe in my own home than during the last 20 minutes and the two weeks that followed.

Runner-up: Contagion (more on this later)

Best Music Movie - Footloose

Yes, I’ve mentioned my love and slight bias for the reeeeemake (usually, a term I pack with as much disdain as possible) before, but damn it – it just fits here, right? So what if I had to, kind of, make up an unpopular genre to give Footloose a bit more attention? It deserves it, after all.

Craig Brewer’s loving tribute to the Kevin Bacon-starring original was the pleasant surprise of late summer thanks to Ren MacCormack’s new Bahston accent, Kenny Wormald’s excellent interpretation of a role previously perfected by a beloved American actor, and some impressive dance numbers paired with catchy new tunes. There are so many small moments of joy to be obtained along the way, as well, I won’t ruin them for you. Just see it – maybe then I won’t have to write another recommendation.

Runner-up: None (come on – there aren’t any good dance movies anymore)

Best Romance - Crazy, Stupid Love

Perhaps the biggest shock is that Crazy, Stupid, Love isn’t winning the romantic comedy category. I mean, it’s a tender, loving, and, at times, outrageously funny film. It can’t be a romantic comedy, though, because that genre has a stigma around it. They have to be clichéd, riddled with sex jokes, and ridiculously predictable.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is none of those things. It’s genuine in every beautifully orchestrated scene. It’s funny in its small moments and its bigger ones – especially one featuring the whole cast together (if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about). It sweeps you off your feet like no other movie this year. Hence, best romance – not romantic comedy.

Runner-up: The Adjustment Bureau

Best Romantic Comedy and more...

Best Romantic Comedy - No Strings Attached

OK, so working within the aforementioned confines of the genre and coming out on top is no small feat. Both the winner and the runner-up are incredibly predictable and actually feature plots based around casual sex. What separates the winner from the loser isn’t much. If you like one more than the other, than I’m not going to put up much of an argument. Though their plots are incredibly similar (sex buddies who slowly become couples), what I like more about the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman version is the couple’s chemistry.

Don’t get me wrong – JT and Mila Kunis are no slouches. After all, she earned that Academy Award nomination and he earned his…well, job as an actor. But Portman won the Academy Award for a reason. She even manages to bring the likable if formally flawed Kutcher up to her level. Well, maybe not quite that high, but lofty enough to make the movie as innocently sweet and fun as it intends to be. There was no When Harry Met Sally or Love, Actually this year, but I’ll settle for something I’m happy to find on TV some lazy Tuesday night.

Runner-up: Friends with Benefits

Best Science Fiction Movie - The Adjustment Bureau

You may have noticed the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt picture a few slots above as the runner-up for Best Romance, and I really think that’s where it belongs. The film’s success came from its stars’ talent, passion, and chemistry – all of which sprouted from their characters’ budding romance. The science fiction angle was merely passable. I mean, what was with those hats? Weird.

Yet in a weak year for sci-fi, The Adjustment Bureau managed to hold onto its title throughout the year after its early March release date. After major disappointments (like Cowboys and Aliens) and minor ones (like Super 8), The Adjustment Bureau kept looking better and better. I wouldn’t have bet on it early, but I’m glad to congratulate it late.

Runner-up: Source Code

Best Sports Movie - Moneyball

Can Aaron Sorkin do no wrong? I mean, we all know Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip didn’t pan out quite as planned, but even the last few episodes of the NBC bomb were far superior than much of what’s on the network’s schedule today. After that, Sorkin wrote the undervalued Charlie Wilson’s War, the appropriately regarded Social Network, and now has adapted the unadaptable – a math book.

Moneyball was not only met with the wide embrace of most critics, but the public as well. It’s earned more than $74 million domestically, such an impressive sum it’s sparked Oscar talk for its writer and its star. Brad Pitt deserves it, too. His portrayal of the renegade Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane is almost as incredible as Sorkin’s remarkably entertaining script. What will he do next? Adapt the phonebook?

Runner-up: Uhhh…nothing. Wait! Warrior!

Best Superhero Movie - The Green Lantern

That’s right. Screw all you haters. I’m not about to get into this again. Let me just say, if you really, honestly, truly believe Captain America is a superhero movie then you must in turn believe Sylvester Stallone to be a superhero as well. While I’m fine with that classification, I can only accept it if its made a worldwide standard. Until then, running kind of fast and jumping kind of far only make a man athletically gifted, not super.

Runner-up: Thor - Can gods be superheroes? Meh. Inconsequential.

Best Thriller - Contagion

Another weak category in another weak year, Steven Soderbergh’s epidemic thriller comes out on top almost by default. Frankly, there wasn’t much competition. Still, the all-star cast earns their film its prize. It’s not your typical thriller, but it does provide the requisite frights, even if its final message is little more than what your mother told you every day before dinner.

If only Gwyneth Paltrow would have washed her hands. Then we would have been spared this chilling image of the late mother and wife, as well as the dozens of grotesque demises that follow in Soderbergh’s spookfest. Contagion would be the most harrowing documentary ever filmed if the events depicted were, in fact, true. As is, its terror lies in the plausibility of their occurrence sometime soon.

Runner-up: Super 8

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