Welcome everyone to Movie-Thoughts’ first annual Turn of the Year Awards! While everyone else is making Top 10 lists for the upcoming awards season, we thought it would be more worthwhile to talk about what we feel are the most notable movies of the past year, good or bad. Read about our Best and Worst moviegoing experiences, our biggest surprises and disappointments, the most well-crafted movies, and the overall Best movies of the year. Then, after you’re done reading what we think, tell us your thoughts in the comments section below!
Most Surprising – Drive
What helped this movie win this award, admittedly, is the fact that I had almost no expectations for it before walking into the theater. There had been some good buzz about it in the press, but everyone knows that when it comes to movie buzz one is best to take everything with a grain of salt. My only anticipation was that it was going to be full of car chases and tough guy one-liners, with a romantic angle to keep the ladies interested. What I ended up seeing was an incredibly tense and exciting story shot with incredible patience and style, with a romance more reminiscent of old westerns than any action film of the past thirty years. It is an unlikely combination of elements that make up a unique moviegoing experience that you simply will not forget. If we at Movie-Thoughts actually bothered to make a Top 10 list, this film would easily make the top five.
Best Moviegoing Experience – Super 8
I feel the need to begin by saying that I’m not old enough to really appreciate the nostalgia that this movie causes because I wasn’t yet born when super 8 cameras were a staple of amateur filmmaking. That being said, however, as a kid I loved to reenact the movies I adored with my friends, whether by dressing up like Indiana Jones or a Ghostbuster or playing with Batman and Star Wars action figures. I even tried once or twice to make stop-motion animation movies using those action figures. My lack of amateur filmmaking experience aside, Super 8 still holds a lot of nostalgia for me. What really makes it the best moviegoing experience of the year for me, though, is the entire emotional experience of it. It was simply the most emotionally affecting movie I saw this year, and testament to this is that even during my second viewing it made me cry again over the same exact scene. I don’t think I can say that about any other movie I’ve seen. And even though I cried at one point – twice – the overall emotional ride was enormously satisfying and positive. For no other movie this year did I feel as close to the main characters as I did with those of this film, and it’s not even because I relate to them all that much. They felt genuine and real on every level, and because of that I truly cared about them. I relish the directing, writing, and acting, and will doubtless continue to do so for years to come.
Most Well-Crafted – Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This award could have gone to a number of movies, but this Planet of the Apes prequel has left the biggest impression. Looking back, I’m still seriously impressed with the writing by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and the special effects used to bring Caesar and his fellow apes to life are staggering. Making Transformers look as good as they do in Michael Bay’s films is nothing short of impressive, but making CG animals (and especially people) look genuinely real has been notoriously more difficult, and for all but one or two moments I completely bought in. The pacing of the movie is superb, which is due in part to top notch editing by Conrad Buff IV and Mark Goldblatt. However, the main reason for such phenomenal pacing is due to Jaffa and Silver. The advancement of the plot and progression of the story work in tandem so that important details and events are set up with great competence, and emotional moments are appropriately weighted because they are properly founded. Now, I certainly didn’t shed any tears, but emotionally connecting with a CG character (though not quite to the degree of Toy Story 3) that spoke all of one word is remarkable.
Worst Moviegoing Experience – Abduction
Aside from the obvious reason that it was an overall terrible movie, seeing Abduction at the theater was a terrible experience because it’s one of the more embarrassing things I’ve done over the past year. Part of that embarrassment came from empathy – I felt genuinely embarrassed for the big-name actors in it who were clearly only after a paycheck, which included Alfred Molina, Maria Bello, Jason Isaacs, and Sigourney Weaver. The rest comes from how I saw the movie alone and had to sit surrounded by teenaged and preteen girls. While watching the movie I could not help but laugh aloud at certain points (for various reasons, but all tied to the film’s pathetically low quality), and my fellow theater patrons were none too pleased with me. On two occasions I actually remember being shushed by what appeared to be a twelve year old girl sitting in front of me with her mother. I can only imagine that the reason why the mother didn’t bother to shush me was because she was laughing just as loud as me, but in her head. I realize I sound like a bit of an obnoxious jerk, and in all honesty that realization adds to the displeasure of the experience. Walking out of the theater I knew that some people thought of me as “that guy”, and as a longtime moviegoer and fellow hater of “those guys” I felt truly embarrassed, even though the movie truly warranted my unwelcomed reactions and in any other circumstance my lack of approval by girls barely old enough to wear training bras would faze me as much as bullet would an aircraft carrier. Watching Abduction was painful enough, but how it made me look and feel was worse. If only Taylor Lautner wasn’t so damn funny!
Biggest Disappointment – Cowboys & Aliens
When I first heard that this movie was going to be made, I got excited. When I learned that Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, and Paul Dano were cast in it, I got really excited. When I first saw the official trailer for it, I got even more excited. Then, as I watched with a box of Milk Duds in one hand and an overpriced cola in the other, my excitement dwindled the longer the movie ran on. Despite my positive attitude going in, Cowboys & Aliens proved to be another film with a great premise but poor followthrough on execution. I’ve never read the comic that the film is based off of, but if it’s anything like the movie then its writing must be rather dimwitted as well. All of the plot details and various characterizations that stem from the premise get more and more uninteresting as they’re revealed. Aliens that came to Earth solely for the gold? Please. Even the action sequences, which were fewer and farther between than expected, left a little to be desired. And perhaps most heinous of all, the lousy writing made Harrison Ford look bad. Exactly how does one screw up having Harrison Ford play a cowboy? That’s like if Tim Burton screwed up having Jack Nicholson play The Joker. Obviously, a good bit of the blame must point towards director Jon Favreau, but I feel less inclined to fault him for turning a blind eye to the writing for the chance to cast a Hollywood staple like Ford. The writing didn’t help Olivia Wilde either. Her character was meant to be somewhat mysterious and sage-like, but what she really comes off as is vague and underwritten. The potential for her role as a disguised alien could have been capitalized on so much better. Last but not least, the talents of Rockwell and Dano are almost completely wasted. The latter has all of ten minutes of screen time, and the former’s role is about as one-dimensional as the politics of an extremist. All in all, the film is a wasted opportunity on numerous levels.
Movie of the Year – The Tree of Life
This is a difficult award to hand out, because the criteria could be almost anything; most entertaining, most impressive overall, most impactful on culture, or what have you. For various reasons, I have chosen to make the criteria the most interesting. If The Tree of Life does nothing else for its viewers, it gets them to ponder – almost endlessly. There are myriad ways to interpret the film, and while there are some strong suggestions to view certain things in certain ways, almost nothing about the film is declaratory. Some have called this abstractness merely pretension masquerading as great art, but such claims haven’t stopped us from studying the poems of T.S. Eliot or the films of Stanley Kubrick. In fact, I believe that this Terrence Malick film will be studied in film schools far more vigorously and for far longer than any other film released this year, or perhaps even over the past five. It is so interesting because of what it chooses to show and what it doesn’t, what it chooses to emphasize and what it doesn’t, and what it chooses to show at certain moments instead of others. Intrigue begotten from such films stems primarily from how it appears abstract and nearly nonsensical but nevertheless impresses a sense of total deliberateness. Not only are certain elements obviously open to interpretation, but one gets the sense that almost everything is. For lovers of film, The Tree of Life is not an experience they are likely to ever forget.
Most Surprising – The Adjustment Bureau, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
When I first started thinking about the past year in movies, and especially possible Oscar nominees, I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly impressed with much. However, there were a few movies that I really loved, and since I’m terrible at picking just one I’m going to choose three. The first is The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as two people who meet by chance and feel an immediate connection. However, they soon learn that a secret organization that basically controls everyone’s fate is trying to keep them apart. What makes the film work despite that rather silly premise is the chemistry between its two leads. I’ve always thought chemistry was such a mercurial part of any film romance, yet Damon and Blunt give their characters’ connection real weight despite their brief courtship. The audience roots for them because they hold all the promise of a love unexplored and there’s something tragically touching about the way they fight for each other even though they know fate won’t allow them to be together.
The next two are Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. These were two of my favorite action films of the year, and that’s surprising considering how much I disliked the previous installments of both franchises. Though I think M: I 3 is far better than the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, they both suffer from essentially the same problem: a convoluted story that distracts from what made the series enjoyable in the first place – namely pretty girls and outrageous action set pieces. Transformers 2 forgot that audiences don’t really want to see borderline racist robots talk about their own mythology. It’s a mistake that ultimately brought on what I think is the worst idea/scene I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through – robot heaven. The latest installment found its way again by taking away all that distracting dialogue, and got back to letting the robots just blow things up. Was the action completely unbelievable? Absolutely. Did I care? Not in the least. It was fun and visually incredible and I loved every minute. Ghost Protocol also went for insane action. I’ve seen the movie twice in IMAX now and the scenes in Dubai offer some of the most incredible visuals I’ve ever seen captured on film. I gasped when the camera followed Tom Cruise out of the open window to reveal the ground hundreds of feet below. And it even succeeded where the Transformers franchise will always fall short: giving the audience a strong, interesting female character. Paula Patton, whose most significant role prior to this film was as the sympathetic teacher in Precious, is one of the best Bond Girls I’ve ever seen, and she didn’t even appear in that franchise! Patton manages to make her character sympathetic and dangerous without being just pretty. Though admittedly, she does wear the hell out of a certain turquoise dress.
Best Movie-going Experience – Drive
I’ve mentioned this moment before in my review, but I’m going to have to go with my experience during Drive. Most people would probably think that the projector breaking and causing an hour delay would be my worst experience of the year, but it reminds me why I will always prefer seeing movies in a crowded theater to the convenience of my own home. The projector stopped dead during the film’s climax, right when Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s characters enter an elevator with a man the audience knows is an assassin sent to kill them. I’ve never heard such outrage come from an audience. The film had built such tension by that point that every member of the audience was spellbound. There’s just something about the communal experience of film that I love. That moment was an expression of how powerfully a film can act upon an audience. It’s the magic of that shared experience that keeps me going to the movies time and again.
Most Well-Crafted – The Tree of Life
I know this film has been accused of being pretentious, but I don’t care. Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is by far one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. As Cliff said, I think the film’s meaning is up for interpretation depending on each individual’s belief system or outlook on life, but I think everyone can agree that Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have made a gorgeous film. Every time I saw the trailer I would be so overwhelmed by the beauty of the images that I would have to fight back tears. For me, the film is about how life on this planet can hold beauty even in the smallest aspects, and the film shows so much of it. I could stare at its images of crashing waves and dappled sunlight for eternity.
Worst Movie-going Experience – Take Shelter
Let me start by saying that I think Take Shelter is one of the best films of the year, but my theater experience nearly ruined it. I really don’t understand why it’s become acceptable for people to disrespect a film and their fellow audience members just because they’ve paid admission. Take Shelter is one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, but the young audience members constantly talking to each other and checking their cell phones hindered my enjoyment. A film can’t be allowed to transport us to another world if the outside world keeps breaking our concentration. So I was not shocked when the group of chatty viewers walked out of the film and didn’t understand what had transpired. And as distracting as they were, I ultimately feel sorry for them because they missed a great picture.
Biggest Disappointment – Sucker Punch
I had such high hopes for this movie. I still sometimes watch its trailer and imagine what might have been, but my goodness what a terrible film. I wrote a piece earlier this year and I suggest you read it to understand why I disliked the film so much. However, let me summarize here. Since the film operated on so many levels of fantasy it was difficult to tell what actually happened to the characters in the real world, and therefore it was difficult to care about the outcome of the girls’ actions. Even more confusing were the film’s feminist politics. Was the asylum staff raping these girls? Did the action sequences and the fetishized clothing mean the characters were actually in control of their sexual power, or just victimized and objectified further? It was all a loud, confusing mess and it’s a shame that a film with such interesting images didn’t have any substance to back them up.
Movie of the Year – The Artist and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Once again, I couldn’t pick just one film, as I had to include both The Artist and the eighth Harry Potter film. Honestly, I could have put both in many of the above categories. As I intimated in my review, The Artist represents everything I love about the medium of film. It is a tribute to classical Hollywood and everything that has kept people going to the movies for so many years. It’s got a gorgeous couple and a compelling love story. There’s tragedy and struggle, but it still ends with an effervescent musical number. It’s a testament to the fact that no matter how the medium changes, the base elements will always keep movies interesting. Frankly, I’ll be devastated if it doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture.
I’ve had a tough relationship with the Harry Potter franchise over the years, but Deathly Hallows Part 2 was the perfect ending to an ultimately very enjoyable series. It was full of emotional payoffs and some surprisingly mature performances from its young cast. For me, it represents the culmination of not only a multi-billion dollar franchise, but also a sort of end to the childhoods of the audience that grew up watching and reading Harry’s story. 2011 was the last year an entire generation could look forward to experiencing a new chapter in Harry’s life. Watching the film is bittersweet for those who grew up with the delicious agony of waiting years for the next book or movie, and the filmmakers respected their audience by giving them a moving experience. I’ve seen the movie at least five times now and there are still scenes that induce nearly hysterical sobs. The scene that visually explains Snape’s (Alan Rickman) actions throughout the entire series is by far my favorite of any film this year. It represents the emotional power the series has struggled to build over these past ten years by making the audience care about its characters. In this year of sequels and reboots, Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the film that stands out as a true event movie that was actually a pretty good film too.