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It's like an Amblin movie from the 80s! Except that, minus the Amblin pictures that Spielberg actually directed himself, it's actually better! I was too busy enjoying the shininess of Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek to notice just how funny J.J. Abrams is; here, as solo screenwriter in addition to director, his skill with young-teenage dialogue shines as brightly as his lens flares. Like Hugo and The Artist, among others, Super 8 is a movie about making movies, but with an aching coming-of-age kick absent from its 2011 siblings, or, for that matter, the likes of The Goonies. The kids communicate through their ambitious home movies, just as the actual monster communicates through disaster-movie destruction.
Technically speaking, it has some story hiccups and maybe one too many defeatist moments for the indomitable Kermit the Frog, but practically speaking, little this year made me as happy as Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and James Bobin's revival of Jim Henson's Muppets—a wonderfully entertaining run-through of a simple getting-the-band-back-together narrative. That's not just nostalgia: The Muppets recalls Toy Story 2 or a great Simpsons episode in the sheer consistency and ebullience of its joke-writing (and songwriting! Can Best Song be an all-Muppet category this year?). It makes the act of doing silly comedy seem transcendent.
The first two features by Aaron Katz were beautifully shot movies about people hanging out. Cold Weather introduces a plot, slowly but surely, until it turns into an amateur detective story with surprising tension between the central mystery, the slacker-ish protagonist, and his wary older sister. With his natural eye and sense of place, Katz captures a semi-seedy underbelly of Portland. This is the best character-based mystery since Brick.
It sounds like a simple Hollywood thriller, and it sort of is: a sci-fi Groundhog Day, with a soldier reliving the same eight-minute fragment of time in hopes of finding the identity of a terrorist bomber. But Duncan Jones, director of Moon, has a way of rooting science fiction in a single character's psyche and point of view. As such, everything about Source Code that could seem cheesy—its twists of plot and timeline, its gimmicky structure, its unlikely love story—comes alive with crackling feeling.
The Tree of Life
This feels like the movie Terrence Malick has been trying to make, or thinking about making, for decades. The origin-of-life sequence gets a lot of love, and it does justify the big-screen experience so much more beautifully than most summer movies, but the impressionistic story of life in 50s Texas dominated by an unhappy father (Brad Pitt, never better) is just as remarkable, especially for its employment of child's-eye-view cinematography (courtesy of the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki) that never turns condescending or cloying.
Some people called this movie twee because it has a few scenes with a talking cat. I'd probably go "emotionally unsparing and near-devastating" more than "twee," but, you know, that's just me. Miranda July goes bigger and smaller in her follow-up to Me and You and Everyone We Know: through a tight focus on a couple who tries to get their life together in thirty days before an adopted cat arrives at their home, July channels the power to stop time, to disappear, to change everything. In other words, powers we all have and that still can't fix us. The thirtysomething ennui didn't strike me as self-pitying or cute. It pretty much just struck me, hard.
X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn helps get the X-Men series back on track with a witty, exciting reminder of what can be done with this world and these characters: superheroics that feel connected to the world at large, even if by goofy historical revisionism. Michael Fassbender has done great work all year; as Magneto, he proves himself a potential movie star, and former next big thing James McAvoy is reinvigorated into his own best work in years.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
In other revitalized-franchise news, they finally made another awesome Planet of the Apes movie, twenty-nine years after Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and, as it happens, most closely related to that underrated fourth entry in the original film series. The climactic ape mayhem is a given, and immensely satisfying, but Rupert Wyatt spends ample time building to and explaining the circumstances of the ape-versus-human conflict; the mechanics of the ape revolution turn out to be fascinating beyond even the sight of gorillas leaping at helicopters (also: that).
I'm not a Juno hater, but it's thrilling to see Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody toss out that movie's innate likability for their reteaming, about an alcoholic YA writer Mavis Gehry (Charlize Theron) who returns to her hometown to claim her high-school boyfriend. Yet the two movies aren't unrelated: Young Adult is as cynical and sad about the idea of nostalgia as Juno was, well, sweetly nostalgic for the ways that you can define yourself as a teenager. As Mavis, Charlize Theron never overdoes her queen-bitch routine, containing so much disdain, anger, and heartbreak in slight narrowing of her eyes or quivers of her lips. It's a razor-fanged performance in a smart, pointy, sometimes very funny movie.
Is Drive to old-school Michael Mann fans as The Muppets is to old-school Kermit fans? Possibly. It's certainly Mann-worthy, with one of the highest gorgeous-shots-per-minute ratios since Public Enemies, but its sensibility is more pulp and less opera. Director Nicolas Winding Refn understands that the key to a memorable thriller is less hurtling action than the tension, character, and mood that linger in between the screeching tires.
... and the Worst: You know, it's always a struggle to suss out whether I should single out the literal worst movie I've seen in a given year—usually either a disastrously incompetent indie, some manner of studio junk that I saw out of morbid curiosity, or some unholy offspring of the two (what's up, The Double!)—or a higher-profile movie that I particularly hated in proportion to the number of passes it got from other critics. In 2011, I'm going with the latter in the form of Real Steel, because it's a companion of sorts to Super 8. Or at least that's what I read with increasing disbelief: that this 80s filmed and enthusiastically (over)acted Shawn Levy joint was a reasonable, enjoyable evocation of 80s Amblin pictures. More accurately, it evokes the kind of bastardized Spielberg popularized by the likes of Michael Bay and Brett Ratner— only I found Transformers 3 and Tower Heist less excruciating to sit through this year. To be clear, I'd happily watch a boxing-robots movie that didn't feature performances and emotions pitched to the cheap seats at top volume (loud is the new sincere) and a complete lack of interesting things for boxing robots to actually do.
The Top 25 films of the year, as voted on and praised by our stable of film critics.
Jan 9, 2012