One thing we at Place to Be Nation like to celebrate is the subjectivity inherent in entertainment — be it in wrestling, comics, music, television or, indeed, film. With that in mind, ten members of the PTBN staff will be picking the movies of the PTB generation. In this series, panel members will collect their five favorite films of each year, beginning with the year in which the oldest writer was born — 1976. The only rule given to each contributor was to provide his or her own criteria. Some writers may go with the most artistic films, while others might side with the most iconic blockbusters. We welcome your lists on Facebook and Twitter. Each staff member has submitted a list of five movies from 2011 ranked 1 through 5. A first-place vote is worth five points, a second-place vote worth four points, and so on. Using that point system, we have identified the top 5 movies of 2011.
2011 saw another divided panel, with three movies finishing in a tie for the top spot. But before we reveal the top 5, let’s see the movies that received votes, but fell short of making our final list.
50/50 — 5 points
Bridesmaids — 5 points
The Skin I Live In — 5 points
Super 8 — 5 points
Warrior — 5 points
Hugo — 5 points
The Muppets — 5 points
Martha Marcy May Marlene — 5 points
X-Men: First Class — 4 points
Source Code — 4 points
The Adjustment Bureau — 4 points
The Descendants — 4 points
Immortals — 4 points
Everything Must Go — 3 points
Footnote — 3 points
Horrible Bosses — 3 points
Submarine — 3 points
Cedar Rapids — 2 points
Contagion — 2 points
Young Adult — 2 points
Beginners — 1 point
Cave of Forgotten Dreams — 1 point
Take Shelter — 1 point
Unknown — 1 point
And now, let’s see the top 5 movies of 2011, as voted by the Place to Be Nation staff.
5 (tie). Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
8 points, ranked by 2 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Kati Price and Andrew Riche at No. 2
Andrew Riche: If you have followed my submissions for this Movies of the P2B Generation series, you might tell that I have quite a soft spot for Tom Cruise’s movies. While many critics and moviegoers have mocked his personal belief system and dismissed his films as one-dimensional and unilateral, Tom Cruise has never ceased to impress me in his willingness to push his own boundaries as an actor even within the confines of superstar-driven franchises. A perfect example of Cruise’s ability to try out new things in the same suit would be his portrayal of secret agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films. Notice that with Cruise as the producer, each of the (soon-to-be) five installments have used not only different movie directors and screenwriters, but each was far different in style from the one before it.
While Brian de Palma ramped up on the paranoia aspect for the first one, John Woo brought the high-octane action (doves included) for the second one, and J.J. Abrams brought his mystery box (and some lens flares) to the third one. That is why it did not surprise me when Cruise went out of left field again and chose Brad Bird (who had previously strictly made animated films like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) to continue the adventures at IMF. Ghost Protocol was Bird’s first-ever live action directorial effort but, despite the more mature source material, did not stray too far from his viewer-friendly attributes (He even recruited his music composer Michael Giacchino to do the score). Bird certainly made the first one count, as he took a fly-by-night plot and morphed it into the most enjoyable of all the current Mission: Impossible films. It shows Bird’s movie magic that he took a recycled plot from the first one (IMF is disbanded after being blamed for an international incident and Hunt’s team has to go rogue in order to stop a Russian terrorist) and made it fresher and more vibrant than ever before.
The movie should be seen just for the exotic location scenes in Moscow or the visually stunning action sequences like Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower or a chase through a sandstorm in Dubai. But on top of that, Bird gets the little things right from establishing Hunt’s team of covert partners (played by Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg) as enjoyable characters that can carry a scene and putting the emotional weight on Hunt and Jane Carter’s quest to avenge the loss of their loved ones. Roll it all into one, and you get a movie that consistently impresses you in many ways and is not of the typical, blowhole action sequel variety. Thanks to Cruise’s daring moves and Brad Bird’s sublime direction, Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol one-ups its previous installments by not only having you guessing until the end, but also keeping you thrilled long after you already know the answers. It may officially be the fourth of the Mission: Impossible films, but it goes first in my book.
5 (tie). Rise of the Planet of the Apes
8 points, ranked by 2 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Kati Price at No. 1
Kati Price: This film is a remake of the classic Planet of the Apes. I have never seen the original Planet of the Apes nor the 2001 version with Mark Wahlberg, so I cannot compare them. I knew nothing about the previous films going into Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’m glad because I had no expectations. I imagine even if I had, I still would have been impressed. The CGI in this film was phenomenal! I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that they weren’t real apes because they were so life-like. The acting was great as well. I am a huge John Lithgow fan anyway, but he was great in this. The connection between James Franco’s character, Will, and Caesar was exceptional.
I really had no complaints about this movie. I loved everything about it.
The storyline follows a man who works on an Alzheimer’s research team. When one of the apes being tested gets agitated and attacks, all of the apes are put down. Unaware that the reason for her agitation was that she was protecting her newborn, Will finds it and rescues it. He takes the ape, Caesar, home and raises him. Caesar grows up and Will is forced to put him into a sort of an ape rescue facility. We learn that the apes are wildly mistreated here. The Alzheimer’s drugs that were being tested made the apes highly intelligent. Caesar uses his intelligence to break out and get the Alzheimer’s drug. He gives it to all of the apes in the facility and they break free. This is the start of the war against man and ape. They escape to go to the redwood forest — as this story takes place in California. The film ends with a map teasing a second film.
This is a highly dramatic film and may be scary to children, but as an adult, this film is definitely worth the watch. It will keep you on the edge of your seat and leave you wanting more. The second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivers as well, but I’ll save that for a possible later review. If you didn’t see this in theaters I feel like you really missed out. But it is still a great movie to watch at home. I know it comes on TV from time to time so be on the lookout for it and watch it. It is great and definitely deserves its place on our list.
4. The Artist
10 points, ranked by 2 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Steve Wille and Andrew Woltman at No. 1
Steve Wille: When The Artist arrived in theaters, friends and family balked at attending with me. Most couldn’t get past what they felt was the gimmick of the silent film, that it was merely manufactured as “Oscar bait.” It’s a shame for them, because those people missed a gem of a film, an homage to old Hollywood that was still completely original in scope. The Best Picture award winner, written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, used the silent movie genre to tell the tale of an actor shunned as Hollywood moved to “talkies.” Casting played a role in the success of the movie, as utilizing a mainly French leading cast, with actors unknown to mainstream American audiences, made sure that the film didn’t deteriorate into gimmick territory. Jean Dujardin, a well-versed French actor, was captivating in the lead role, working his way to the Best Actor Oscar statue. Without the safety of the spoken word, he relies on facial mannerisms and body language to convey the story. As his star falters, a dancer, played by Berenice Bejo, befriends him on her way up the Hollywood ladder. Their relationship oozes charm to the audience, as Bejo’s Peppy Miller enchants both the fictional and actual movie audiences.
Though this is a French film, Hazanavicius casts some faces familiar to the American audiences to bait them into the theater. John Goodman, a name that continually pops up in our series of best movies, plays a loud, pretentious head of a movie studio. And, yes, you don’t need someone to speak to infer their pompousness.
What surprised me most about The Artist is how quickly it whisked me into its world, despite its silence. If it weren’t for the group of seniors in the crowd discussing plot points (who said that kids were the most annoying people in theaters?), I may have entered a trance-like state, captivated by the performances. If a black-and-white silent film scared you away originally, I highly recommend you take a chance on this. Despite sweeping many awards, it took in under $45 million domestically, suggesting that many missed it, and that’s a shame.
14 points, ranked by 5 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Nick Duke at No. 2
Nick Duke: Once Iron Man proved to be a massive financial and critical success, the path was cleared for Marvel to follow up with movies focusing on other characters that once would have been considered B- or C-list. Easily the project I was both the most excited about and the most worried about was Thor. As a longtime fan of the God of Thunder in the comics, I was a bit concerned that a big-screen version would focus too much on the elements of the comics I always thought didn’t work quite so well. I was convinced Thor would wind up being just another superhero movie and that the Donald Blake character would be used as yet another example of “everyman gets powers, saves the world.”
Thankfully, that isn’t what Marvel Studios had in mind at all. No, they went all out. Well, maybe not all out, but about as far out as an initial Thor offering could go. We got THOR. Not Donald Blake, not Eric Masterson, but THOR. Just Thor. Thor the Asgardian God of Thunder who was once worshipped by the Norsemen. Along with that, we got a glimpse into Asgard, the realm eternal. Odin, Frigga, Loki, Heimdall, the freakin’ Warriors Three, the Lady Sif. The gang was all there, and my inner Asgardian fanboy was jumping for joy.
But, the film is more than just fan service for fans of the Odinson. It’s got a few really stellar performances, namely from the film’s titular character and his brother turned villain. As much as Robert Downey Jr. now embodies Tony Stark for many people, Chris Hemsworth now IS Thor to me. He had the right mix of charm and arrogance early in the movie and made Thor’s character shift over the course of the film completely believable. However, the film wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki set the stage for the character to return as the big bad of The Avengers, and also served to make Hiddleston one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. He was able to make Loki relatable by portraying a character driven by his desire to be accepted and loved by his father. When Odin ultimately rejects Loki, you almost sympathize. Almost.
But in addition to the acting and the fan service, the film also has some pretty stellar effects. The trip to Jotunheim is visually stunning, rivaling anything from even the best fantasy franchises. Asgard is beautifully rendered, and even Asgardian technology such as the Destroyer or the Bifrost look amazing when put on screen.
All in all, Thor may not have been a perfect film, but it was a great effort that established the character in the hearts and minds of audiences for years to come. For that, and for bringing the God of Thunder to life, it gets the nod from me as the best of 2011.
14 points, ranked by 6 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Andrew Woltman at No. 2
Glenn Butler: One of the remarkable things about the ongoing development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the confidence it gained as time went on. Obviously 2012 saw a crowning achievement and a broadening of Marvel’s ambitions, but they had already broadened somewhat in 2011 when we got a peek into a couple corners of the Marvel universe not set in our contemporary environment: Thor gave us a heavy dose of Shakespearean drama in the celestial realm, and Captain America: The First Avenger gave us a retro superhero movie set in the 1940’s. The retro superhero movie was somewhat highlighted that summer between this film and X-Men: First Class, but it was Captain America that embraced the genre conventions of the comic-book movie and the World War II movie, along with some tropes reminiscent of old-school sci-fi, twisting them together into a movie that’s more than the sum of those parts.
At the heart of it is the character of Steve Rogers. The Marvel movies like to place great emphasis on their heroes’ efforts to become the hero, but Steve does it a little differently than the others who’ve had prominent roles. He doesn’t come with a towering intellect like Tony Stark, or amazing physical abilities like Thor, and have to hone those powers with compassion and maturity. (To the extent that Tony Stark’s matured over the course of any of these movies. It’s a gradual process.) Instead, when we first meet Steve what he already has is his compassion, courage, and upstanding sense of morality. His struggle isn’t to become the hero spiritually or physically, but to continue to be the hero in a world set against heroism. At the beginning of the film, when Steve is still a weakling, he picks fights with bigger men knowing that he’ll be beaten to a pulp every time, but unable to let a bully go unchallenged. His best friend, Bucky, tries to get him to stop getting into these hopeless situations, but Steve isn’t going to see his ideals die a death of a thousand cuts. When he repeatedly tries to enlist in the US army, he’s not trying to go to war for bloodlust or revenge — he simply doesn’t like bullies, and he can recognize them just as easily on another continent as in his neighborhood. It would be easy to slip into Pollyanna with a character so earnest, but Chris Evans’ performance always shies away from cynicism and keeps Steve likeable. He’s not just The First Avenger because he comes from a bygone era, but because the group needs someone like him as its moral compass, a role he often plays in the comic books as well. If he has any significant character flaw it might be a penchant for self-sacrifice, which is ultimately what costs him the life he’s starting to build for himself toward the end of the movie, but this is also what convinces the powers that be to choose him for super-conversion in the first place.
Captain America also plays into the character’s fundamental patriotism without indulging in jingoism. After some distinctly “rah-rah” moments in the Iron Man movies, Captain America embraces the war-bond stage show as an expression of joyful camp patriotism, complete with Hitler lurking behind the chorus line, while the Captain himself regards it as something of a betrayal of his values not to be fighting when he’s more capable now than ever. (It’s a delightful twist on performativity, though: Chris Evans is an actor playing a soldier who’s forced to be an actor, to portray a soldier.) He’s just joined the army, and so never even had a chance to earn his rank in the battle he’s been aching to join; it’s given to him as he’s shuffled away from the defunct super-soldier program and into the propaganda corps. And yet later in the movie, when he cites “I knocked out Adolf Hitler over two hundred times” as a qualification while storming an enemy compound, we want to go along with him. When Bucky is rescued and learns about the whole Captain America deal, he rejects the artifice because he knows the man, and then wholeheartedly follows him anyway. Rogers is given his muscles, his rank, and his shield, and earns authority through his actions.
If there’s any place where Captain America is a little timid, it’s in sidestepping the uglier aspects of its historical setting. Cap’s time in the propaganda department is spent exclusively with singing girls and might-as-well-be-cartoon-Hitler, and not any of the abysmally racist Japanese stereotypes spread far and wide in the US; likewise, Captain America and his trusty band of stalwarts are sent deep behind enemy lines to snuff out strongholds, and nobody’s interested in liberating concentration camps. Neither of these is really what the movie’s about, and for the sake of this movie that’s fair enough — there’s been much ink spilled on the issues that arise when you have superheroes who should be able to single-handedly (or almost single-handedly) end some conflict or another, but you can’t actually have them do it. (The movie does lightly acknowledge anti-Japanese racism when someone questions Jim Morita’s presence among the soldiers and he shuts that right down: “I’m from Fresno, Ace!” We’re also ignoring segregation in the US army for the sake of Gabe Jones, of course, because for the moment a fun comic-book team-up is more important than a lecture on the history of racism.) Instead Cap faces off not with the Nazis but with something more Nazi-adjacent, the Red Skull’s nefarious Hydra, which the movie goes to great pains to portray as even more evil than the Nazi regime, with a leader who’s even more megalomaniacal than Hitler, who uses even more dodgy racial pseudo-science to claim his superiority. Their soldiers say “hail” rather than “heil,” and raise both arms to salute! They too use work camps as part of their infrastructure, and casually throw away the lives of anyone who can’t work sufficiently, but the work camp we see appears to be worked almost entirely by US POWs. The Red Skull plans on taking over the entire world, including Germany and its meddlesome Reich, but of course his first target is New York City. We’re firmly entrenched in movie logic, but it’s remarkable that the regular old Nazis, the easiest movie villains there are, were not quite villainous enough for the job.
What is villainous enough is Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of the Red Skull, with a delicious Movie German accent he uses to mercilessly chew the scenery. German is a beautiful language and a beautiful accent, Movie German even more so. Stanley Tucci uses a somewhat less cartoonish German accent; there’s room for all kinds. Many of the supporting roles add color, including Tommy Lee Jones playing a colonel whose main character motivation seems to be that he’s tired of everyone’s bull, straight out of countless war pictures, but who’s still invested with enough humor to keep things humming. The production design does a fantastic job immersing us in the world of the 1940’s, integrating a dazzling array of retro-futuristic gadgets, all the gleaming chrome and levers and cranks and crackling energy carrying a vision of heroic science that harkens back to mid-century pulp sci-fi. The first two hours of the movie do such a good job immersing us in its setting that when the rug is pulled out from under it, and Steve Rogers runs out into our Times Square, for just a moment we’re as bewildered as he is. But we, knowing what movie this is and what the next movie will be, catch up far more quickly than he does: the last (and First) piece has made it to our place and our time. It’s time to assemble them.
1 (tie). Drive
14 points, ranked by 3 of 10 voters, highest ranked by Greg Phillips and Andrew Riche at No. 1
Andrew Riche: While there are more specific reasons why fans have been so enamored with “it” movie star Ryan Gosling (the ladies will have no problem telling you theirs), my fandom for the Gos is more of an appreciation for his openness to taking major risks in the films in which he performs. From being a neo-Nazi in The Believer to a drug-addict school teacher in Half Nelson to a low-key guy in love with an inflatable doll in Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling has never shied away from stretching his range as an actor and taking chances on projects that could easily veer to straight up WTF-ness. While there are well-established actor/director kinships like Jennifer Lawrence and David O. Russell or Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino, Gosling became somewhat of a muse or go-to guy for two up-and-coming directors in recent years. One was American director Derek Cianfrance, who had directed him in Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines.
The other collaborator was Nicholas Winding Refn, a Danish director who had previously made lesser-known, crime-related films like Pusher and Bronson. This time, it was Gosling who joined the project first and hand picked Refn to direct Drive. Based on a 2005 novel by James Sallis and adapted for screen by Oscar-nominated Hossein Amini, Drive tells the story of an unnamed man played with calm coolness by Gosling who moonlights the neon-lit Los Angeles streets as a getaway driver for robbers and crooks who pay for his time. The driver falls for a sweet new neighbor named Irene (played by Carey Mulligan) and her boy, whose father Standard just got out of jail but still cannot escape his street debts. When Standard plans to rob a pawn shop in order to pay his debt, the driver offers to help him out, until things go terribly wrong and the driver get mixed up with a bad crowd, led by Jewish mobster Bernie Rose (sinisterly played by Albert Brooks).
While the plot details, like the getaway car in many scenes, takes quite a few swerves and surprising detours along the way, Drive tells a pretty straight story of a heist gone awry and seamlessly amalgamates a multitude of inspirations both modern and classic. Refn continues his love for stylish, relentlessly violent tones in this film while linking together the bravado of ’70’s muscle car genre, the neon-over-morals ’80’s L.A. noir, the Jodorowsky-like poetic existentialism, the Lynch-inspired dreamlike weirdness, and the electronic pop retro soundtrack. One critic wrote that if Stanley Kubrick had made a summer action film, it would look a lot like Drive did, and I agree in a very complimentary way. That does not even factor in the performances, which include not only Gosling’s muted but brilliant leading role but includes Mulligan, Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Ron Pearlman, all of whom hit high notes for their meatiest moments. It’s so un-2011 of a movie that I could not find any movie quite like it, or, frankly, quite as enthralling. Unabashed about embracing a variety of genres in a stylishness only Nicholas Wedning Refn and Ryan Gosling could pull off together, Drive is the artsiest action film I have ever seen, and it never slows up once the movie hits the accelerator.
That does it for 2011. To see the full breakdown of all 10 ballots, click here. Check back soon to see the staff’s top 5 movies of 2012!