10. The Guard
The poster for The Guard states that it is like "Hot Fuzz plus In Bruges...Better than both." Unfortunately, that statement rings false, as it is better than neither. No worries, though: The Guard--directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of In Bruges director Martin McDonagh)--is the funniest comedy of the year. Filled with Irish slang and vulgar expletives, The Guard tells the story of Boyle (Brendan Gleeson in the best role of his career [and he's been in some wonderful stuff]), an unorthodox cop who has to team up with an uptight FBI agent to take down an international drug smuggling group. It's hilarious, violent, and contains some of the best dialogue heard this year (a lot like In Bruges back in 2008). Every quip and sarcastic remark is stated to perfection, and when the credits roll, you'll be cheering when Gleeson's name crosses the screen.
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Like most things in the movies, the real-life counterpart is probably a whole lot less exciting. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the real life version of international espionage, and--although there are no invisible cars, rock-hard chicks in bikinis, or intricate fights with hand-to-hand combat--it shows us that excitement can be found anywhere where betrayal is present. The title of the film contains the code names of four of the main characters. Which one, if any of them, is a spy double-crossing their own government and giving important information to the Soviets? It doesn't particularly matter, not when you're watching an all-star cast of British actors smoke cigarettes, fly spiteful and accusing words at each other, and break into classified files looking for an answer. It's confusing and sometimes a bit slow. But it feels right. And it feels real.
8. The Descendants
Anybody who knows me can ascertain that I am a huge fan of Alexander Payne's Sideways. It is one of my favorite films of all time, and my roommate Steve Cooper and I used to watch it on a (it seemed like) weekly basis. So it's safe to say that I had high expectations for The Descendants, Payne's follow up to Sideways, starring George Clooney as a father and husband whose wife--who may be carrying on an affair--ends up in a vegetative-state coma. That's not a great premise for comedy, but the film isn't made just for laughs: it provides a delicate and thorough look at real-life characters and the unpredictability the occurs on a daily basis. It's not as good as Sideways, and it doesn't need to be. It's about people. Not specifically good people or bad people. Just people, figuring out life for themselves, whatever their motivations may be.
7. I Saw the Devil
American horror movies have nothing on other country's. It's not even close. Don't tell me an American-made horror film you watched the other day is really disturbing if you haven't seen some of the brilliant stuff that comes out of France, Japan, or Korea (specifically Inside, Martyrs or Audition). Add South Korea's I Saw the Devil to the list: easily the most graphically violent (it makes Hostel seem like a Pixar film) and disgusting movie of 2011, it is sure to unsettle your stomach and make you watch through your fingers during the most horrific scenes. A police inspector's wife is murdered, so he begins a secret investigation to find the serial killer. Quickly into the film's run time, he finds the killer and instead of arresting him or killing him on the spot, he let's him go over and over again, just to catch him again and again, always with violent and torture-filled results. Although I Saw the Devil is unrealistic and a bit over-the-top at times, it's graphic nature and masturbatory revenge-fantasy plot makes it one of the most entertaining watches of the year 2011.
It's time to start taking Brad Pitt seriously as an actor. I've been doing it for years: from his early disturbing turns in Twelve Monkeys, Seven, and Fight Club to his later-career serious roles in Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Tree of Life, the man's got a talent far and above many of his contemporaries. In Moneyball, he takes his best role yet. As chair-throwing, tobacco-spitting Billy Beane, the Oakland Atheletics' general manager who created a baseball team with statistics instead of talent and almost led them to a championship, Pitt fills the role with an emotional heft that is unexpected and brilliant. This isn't a sports movie in the traditional sense, which makes it all the more watchable for people who find watching baseball kind of boring (me). It's a movie about going against tradition and history. And even if you're not successful, at least you went against the flow and tried something creative, exciting, and different.
5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Nope. Still haven't bought or read any of Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy starring punky heroine Lisbeth Salander. And after director David Fincher's adaptation of the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I still don't really feel the need to. How could it be better than this? Lisbeth's portrayed by Rooney Mara, in a star-making turn that recently earned her a best actress Oscar nomination (well deserved). The story is good, if not a little typical, like a long version of Law and Order: SVU Sweden. But Fincher's deft direction (and--to a lesser extent--Trent Reznor's haunting and fitting soundtrack) really sets it apart. Just like with one of last year's best, The Social Network, Fincher elevates his subject matter into something that is at times disturbing but always watchable, due to his perfected use of the camera and music. The rumor is that most of the cast has signed on for the inevitable sequel. All except for Fincher. Here's hoping that whatever project he chooses to direct next, he continues his streak of epic entertainment.
4. Super 8
It doesn't happen very often nowadays: you park your car, walk into the movie theater to purchase your ticket, take a seat in your favorite spot, and become filled with a sense of wonder and awe that takes you back to some of the finest childhood movie-watching experiences. Super 8 did that to me. Director J. J. Abrams is a master at doing this (think of some of your favorite first season moments of Lost and the great remake of Star Trek), but his talent really comes into fruition with this. A film that harks back to classics starring children such as The Goonies, Super 8 is as much about the joy of making movies and creating something meaningful than kids discovering an alien force negatively affecting their small 1970's town. It doesn't fizzle out your senses with mindless action or cheesy dialogue. It treats the children and their plight with honesty and a tenderness that is rarely seen in cinema nowadays.
3. Attack the Block
Kids vs. Aliens. Seems to be a running theme here. But don't let that minor plot point fool you: as much as Super 8 is an homage to the Spielbergian films of yore, such as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Attack the Block turns the story into an action/horror/comedy in the same vein as Shaun of the Dead. Starring unknowns (other than the hilarious Nick Frost) basically picked up from the London streets, Attack the Block simmers with street talk, humor, violence and a great pounding soundtrack to accompany the alien-killing action. When creatures start falling from the sky, a street gang who owns the block with their crime and attitude must band together to take out the alien "big gorilla wolf-looking motherfuckers". And let me tell you, Bruv, the excitement that follows is a lot sicker than staying at home and playing FIFA.
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to restore some faith in a typically tired gimmick. I'm talking about 3-D, of course. One of the most overused, money-grubbing techniques in film making today, 3-D almost always makes a film worse than it would be without it (let alone make it better in any way). There are exceptions of course: Avatar is exponentially better in 3-D, and Jackass 3 was at least an original way to employ it. But Hugo, a movie ultimately about the importance of cinema and film preservation, is one of the first films to make me forget I was wearing 3-D glasses. And that's a bold statement. Hugo's about a boy searching for a secret in a Paris train station, a secret his father left for him that unlocks many mysteries in his life. It's dazzling and extravagant and provides a nice lesson about the history of film. Movies may not mean much to some people, but sitting in the theater watching Hugo, I was home.
He does it again. No, not Ryan Gosling, who had a great year starring in films such as this, The Ides of March and the (quite) funny Crazy, Stupid, Love. I'm talking about Nicolas Winding Refn, the director who can take any interesting subject and turn it into violent and essential art-house cinema awesomeness, as he did with two of his previous films, Valhalla Rising (on this list last year) and the incredible Bronson. Drive stars Ryan Gosling as Driver, a Hollywood stuntman by day and criminal getaway wheel man by night. Driver slowly falls in love with his cute neighbor (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) and gets involved with the wrong sort of gangster (portrayed with effective eccentricity by Albert Brooks). As Driver rides the highway to hell, a heist goes bad and--like some of the vehicles in the movie--his life spins completely out of control with flashes of brutal violence, masked gunmen and dying love. Go ahead. I know you want to. Take the wheel. Experience the rush of Drive.