Calamity Jim’s Top Ten Movies of 2011

Hi blog readers (my dad)!

So I’m home sick from work today and thought it would be a good time to try to write another blog entry after this small 9-month gap.  (Welcome Calamity Jim Jr!  Just kidding.)  Also, my brother inspired me by writing something on his own long-neglected blog.

So here goes with my list of my top ten movies of 2011.  As always, this list only includes movies that I have seen. (Some movies I HAVEN’t seen but I suspect might be in contention if I had: Take Shelter, Drive, Melancholia) And I’ve lumped documentaries and dramas in together, mainly because of my choice for #1, which is an odd combination of both.  Let’s begin…

#10 — RANGO

I don’t think this movie got as much love as it deserves, although it will probably win the Oscar for best animated film now, which it certainly should.  It’s one of the most deeply weird animated movies I’ve ever seen.  It has deliberately ugly character design, a completely insane protagonist gecko-chameleon-thing voiced by Johnny Depp, and includes lines like “I found a human spinal column in my fecal matter once.”  Also cameos by Hunter Thompson and Clint Eastwood, sort of.  It’s nothing like the Shrek-style kid-friendly story with occasional pop culture allusions that we’ve been conditioned to expect from non-Pixar CGI films.  And it’s nothing like the Pixar formula either. It’s its own, completely bizarre thing, and it has Harry Dean Stanton voicing this horrible thing.

# 9 — PARIAH

This is a movie that I think about 20 people saw, although Meryl Streep gave it a nice shout-out in her Golden Globe acceptance speech.  It’s a semi-autobiographical story by writer and director Dee Rees about coming out as a lesbian as a teenager.  The lead actress, Adepero Oduye, is just amazing, along with just about everyone else in the movie. (Charles Parnell, the guy who plays her father, who is also incredible, does the voice of Jefferson Twilight on The Venture Bros.)  In a year where a movie like The Descendants — where not a single word that’s said in two hours sounds genuine — is as widely acclaimed as it is, it’s really refreshing to see a movie like Pariah where everything that’s said sounds real.  It never seems acted or written.

#8 — HUGO

I just really enjoyed this movie.  I think it has the best use of 3D that I’ve seen since Avatar, plus a really compelling and almost scary performance by Ben Kingsley. It’s true — as has been widely pointed out — that for the last third or so of the film, the plot kid of fizzles away, and everything becomes a Scorsese PSA for film preservation, but I don’t mind it.  Everything on screen it so beautiful that the plot is almost beside the point.  Plus  this movie redeems Sacha Baron Cohen for me after the hugely disappointing Bruno.

#7 — RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

This was the year’s happiest surprise for me. I expected this movie to be at best decent; instead it was by far the best summer-blockbuster-type movie that I saw this year.  It was thrilling and genuinely moving pretty much throughout. James Franco is great, and Andy Serkis plus however many WETA animators are just astounding as the rebellious chimp Caesar, who is the most convincing and moving CGI character I’ve ever seen.  Bonus points for [spoiler alert] telling the story of the end of humanity in a minute-long sequence during the closing credits.

#6 — THE TRIP

The first I knew of this movie was seeing a clip on YouTube of one of the Michael Caine imitation bits, which itself is worth the price of admission.  That plus the whole “we rise at daybreak” bit, which Calamity Jane and I still quote compulsively.  Basically Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise their roles of “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon” — heightened (I assume) versions of their real selves — that they played in Tristram Shandy. They go around the Lake Country on a tasting tour of fancy restaurants and we learn just how sad and terrible a person Steve Coogan is.  The two-hour movie is adapted from a 6-hour miniseries that aired on the BBC, which I’m very eager to see if I could figure out how.

#5 — BRIDESMAIDS

I never got the whole “Bridesmaids is the Hangover with women” idea, because Bridesmaids is a LOT better than the Hangover (which I liked).  It’s very funny, but also does a good job of making you care about the characters, especially Kristen Wiig’s lead.  It was the best comedy I saw all year. It got a lot of press for “proving that women can be funny,” which I suppose it does, for anyone who hasn’t managed to become aware of that in the past century or so of talented female comic actors. What did impress me was that the movie was actually made, because it certainly is true that there aren’t many comedies out there that focus on women who aren’t constantly talking about men. My guess is that’s not because there aren’t a lot of talented women out there writing those scripts! It’s because we like our women in comedies to be ritually humiliated sex objects — see Katherine Heigl. And yes, Melissa McCarthy poops in a sink.

#4 — POETRY

This is a very disturbing South Korean movie focusing on an elderly woman just beginning to struggle with Alzheimer’s, who is taking care of a grandson who may or may not have committed a truly horrible crime with awful results.  This is not a feel-good movie, despite the subplot of the protagonist taking up poetry. I didn’t know anything about the lead actress, Yoon Jeong-Hee, but Wikipedia tells me she was a major star in the 60s and 70s.  You can see why, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. There’s so much going on under the surface of every scene and conversation it’s almost painful to watch.

#3 — MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Aaaaaand speaking of movies that are very good but also horribly disturbing. Wow. John Hawkes takes another step to being eternally typecast as a vicious backwoods patriarch. Elizabeth Olson plays a teen who is recovering from her time at an abusive cult (led by said John Hawkes) in upstate New York.  She’s staying with her sister — (Ms. Isringhausen from Deadwood, a lot of Deadwood love in this movie) — and her wealthy husband at their country house. And, hoo boy, did her time at that cult screw her up. In tone, this is closest to a straight-up horror movie. You get deep inside Martha’s mind, and it’s not a pleasant place to be. Smart editing makes it hard for you tell what’s past and what’s present in a way that mirrors the lead character’s trauma and makes you just as paranoid as she is. This is a creepy creepy film, made worse by a spooky ambiguous ending.

#2 — THE TREE OF LIFE

This is the movie that ought to win best picture at the Oscars, though I have a strong hunch that it won’t — the terrible The Descendants will. It’s almost stupidly ambitious, telling the story of the entire life of the Universe through the story of one Texas family in the 50s. Yes, that means there are dinosaurs, plus the big bang, the death of the planet, and some cool obviously Cassini-inspired shots of Saturn.  Most of it is people though. I’ve never seen a movie that’s shot like this one. Ultra close-ups, loving, lingering shots on body-parts and curtains and shadows. And through all of this, it puts out its own thesis on the meaning of life, death, the Universe, and everything. I’m not sure I agree with that thesis, but I challenge you to show me another movie that does that. This movie gets a hundred brownie points for sheer balls, but somehow manages to be entertaining and visually arresting as well. See it.

#1 — THE ARBOR

I know, what? If about 20 people saw Pariah, I think four people saw The Arbor. I only did because it was on Netflix Streaming. So, The Arbor is a sort-of documentary  about the life of Andrea Dunbar, an alcoholic British playwright from the Yorkshire slums. The Arbor tells Dunbar’s story mostly through the words of her kids and acquaintances — the actual recorded voices of these people, which are then lip-synced by actors on the screen. It sounds strange, but it’s incredibly compelling. It also includes bits of Dunbar’s actual plays that illustrate her own story, staged outside in the midst of the housing projects she’s writing about. And Dunbar’s story, and that of her kids, is terrible and brutal and fascinating. And by the end of the film, you feel pity and admiration and loathing for Andrea Dunbar and her kids. And it’s all real people going through real life.

The movie also makes the wise decision to provide subtitles for the absolutely impenetrable Yorkshire accents. Here is a sample. Just kidding. (Cardboard box? You were lucky!) But seriously, between this and the Red Riding movies and books, remind me never ever ever to go to Yorkshire. I think it’s on a Hellmouth.

But anyway, this is the best movie I saw in 2011. It was real and terrible and beautiful all at the same time. Also, Netflix streaming! How can you go wrong.

*****

So those are my top picks.  Look forward shortly to another post about what I thought the biggest disappointments were. A hint: you may have gathered that I’m not a huge fan of The Descendants. Another hint: watching Midnight in Paris is as fun as vacationing in Yorkshire. More soon, faithful reader(s). Leave comments!

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4 thoughts on “Calamity Jim’s Top Ten Movies of 2011

  1. Other rellies read it too, CJ. See Melancholia at your peril. It was so long I’m surprised I’m not still watching it.

  2. Yorkshire is a very big place, and parts of it are very beautiful (and many people are open and friendly), though parts are not. It’s sort of like Texas (in fact people in Britain, including people from Yorkshire, frequently make the comparison.) However, if WOLF HALL is anything to go by, southerners, with some justification, have been badmouthing the place as filled with violent savages at least since the 1500s.

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