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Three months and upwards of 15,000 words later, I’ve finally finished this crazy countdown.  Woo.

10.  50/50

The Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Seth Rogen cancer movie.  Will Reiser’s touching and funny script was one of the best of the year and, in my opinion, should have received an Oscar nomination.  The film certainly wasn’t perfect; it felt like there was another gear the movie could have hit.  But it was solid throughout and an easy recommendation to just about anyone.  We had a little debate on how the movie treated women, and perhaps unsurprisingly I come down on the side that the female characters are treated fairly.  That said, while I’ll always advocate for more Anna Kendrick, the romantic subplot there was a bit icky.

9.  Paul

Back to back movies with Seth Rogen in a supporting role!  I saw Paul in theaters and then watched again on some movie channel, so I’m confident in my ranking here.  I’m not sure I can describe the film any better than by saying it is exactly what you’d expect a Simon Pegg/Nick Frost sci-fi send-up to be.  One reason their films work so well is that they obviously adore the films they are paying homage to, so there’s always a much welcome sense of reverence.  Pegg and Frost are great and bring a really funny supporting cast along for the ride along with some fun cameos and just enough twists to keep things interesting.

8.  Warrior

Look, just go see Warrior.  Unless you can’t handle violence at all, you won’t be disappointed.  I won’t say the movie was mismarketed, necessarily, because in some sense it is an MMA movie and that’s a perfectly fine way to sell the movie.  But it also is, more generally, an amazing sports movie, and more general than that, a film about family.  The film generated a lot of comparisons to Rocky, and while in some sense that’s too facile a comparison (hey, they are both movies about fighting!), I also think it is spot on.  Not just the similarities between Sylvester Stallone’s and Joel Edgerton’s characters, but the way the films capture the visceral essence of fighting, without going over the top, and the way the scripts hit notes of desperation and joy with subtlety and nuance.  Also, you’d have to be insane to miss Tom Hardy in a movie with fighting.

7.  X-Men: First Class

A very solid, taut film.  I thought they did a good job preventing the movie from sprawling too much,  impressive given the sheer number of characters introduced.  It may sound weird, but this is the film that made me appreciate Michael Fassbender.  I’d seen him in a handful of things prior (notably not Hunger, but I had seen Fish Tank), and later saw him in four other 2011 movies, plus Prometheus, but it is in X-Men that I realized how masterful he can be riding the line between power and insanity.  Basically, he’s always playing Patrick Bateman.  The rest of the cast is a lot of fun, but there are so many I won’t bother going through them all, except that I think it needs to be pointed out that Lucas Till, the guy who plays Havoc, is the guy from Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video.  You’re welcome.

6.  The Names of Love

Copying from my film festival writeup: Superficially, The Names of Love exhibits many of the hallmarks of the traditional romantic comedy.  Jacques Gamblin is your straitlaced leading man.  He’s a government official in charge of investigating avian deaths, does stuff by the book, and you can tell he is goody-goody because he wears glasses.  Sara Forestier is your impossibly attractive free-spirit of a leading lady.  They meet cute, get together, break up, and I won’t reveal the end. But the film is much more layered than that.  We learn at the beginning (through flashbacks that are 500 Days of Summer by way of Amelie) that Forestier is the daughter of an Algerian father who came to France after the war and married a hippie.  We also learn that she was sexually abused as a teen, something the family tries to avoid talking about.  Gamblin is the son of two very staid technophiles who always get into better, but failed products (e.g. Betamax).  His immigrant grandparents were victims of the Holocaust, something the family tries to avoid talking about. I bring all that up because in many ways the movie is about how so much of who we are is where we come from, whether we embrace it (as she does) or hide it (as he does).  But counter to that, the film is also about not letting where come from determine who we are.  There’s also a minor political bent to the film as she employs the tactic of sleeping with members of the opposite political party, in order to eventually persuade them to join her side.  And he continually votes for a losing candidate. The film is also quite funny at times.  It has, hands down, the funniest Holocaust humor you’ll see all year.  Being French, the film is also maybe a touch more risque than our romantic comedies generally are.  But the nudity actually has a legitimate purpose here.  One other than establishing how crazy hot Sara Forestier is, I promise.

5.  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I don’t think this movie broke any new ground in the franchise spy movie world, necessarily.  But it hit nearly all the notes it was supposed to, and hit them well.  For example, the dorky computer guy as comic relief has kinda been done before.  Casting Simon Pegg in the role, however, nearly ensures the character will be fun.  The stuff about Tom Cruise doing his own stunts was a neat marketing ploy that actually fed into an exciting scene in the movie.  And they did a good job letting Cruise be the star that he is, allowing him to shine while leading a team of supporting characters.  The climactic fight scene in the parking garage was really great.  My only complaint, really, is that we needed more Lea Seydoux (and, perhaps related, it appears we’ve been seeing the limitations of Paula Patton as an actress).

4.  Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I have a ton to say about this one, to the point where I probably should have just written a separately post, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The scene in the backyard is, almost definitely, my favorite scene in any 2011 film.  I’ve seen the movie roughly three times now and I still laugh out loud when it comes on.  A lot.  And though it doesn’t necessarily match the tone of the rest of the film, it shows the writer, director, and actors firing on all cylinders through a combination of verbal and physical humor with layers of meaning.  The film was funny and touching throughout, with only a few rough patches or weird tonal changes.  I won’t highlight the big names in the stellar cast, who were all really great (even if Marisa Tomei was somewhat underused).  I will say that someone needs to get Liza Lapira her own vehicle soon, it is getting a little ridiculous she hasn’t had a chance yet.  Also, I was really impressed with Analeigh Tipton, I thought she did a fantastic job with her character.  Oh, and I would watch roughly a million movies starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

3.  The Artist

Hey, remember that time a silent movie won the Oscars?  Not entirely certain I have anything to add after the film survived the Oscar gauntlet (including being pimped by me for virtually every category.  So instead, I’ll suggest everyone go out and see OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which is a spy spoof movie directed and co-written by Michael Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin as a French takeoff of Bond and Berenice Bejo as the female lead.  I saw it last week and it was quite funny.

2.  The Guard

I’m kinda fascinated to hear about the McDonagh brothers childhood.  Martin wrote and directed In Bruges and the upcoming Seven Psychopaths.  And John Michael wrote and directed this one, another dark comedy, about an Irish cop (Brendan Gleeson) who teams up with an FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to bring down a drug ring (headed up by Mark Strong).  What makes the McDonagh movies good is that they stand alone as action dramas.  A comparison to Tarantino may be crass, but they understand and respect the conventions of a cop movie.  What makes the McDonagh movies great is partially the fantastic casts (or, perhaps better put, Brendan Gleeson), but also the rich vein of dark, reflexive, satirical humor that permeates throughout the script.

1.  The Muppets

My favorite line from any 2011 movie just might be Animal’s in this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOBILqLviF4.  What can I say?  Animal is the best.  Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller did a fantastic job capturing the feel of a Muppets movie while making it seem fresh and relevant.  The songs were also pretty solid; we’ve been over this before, but the one that won the Oscar was probably the third-best song from the film.  And the celebrity cameos were pretty great.  I particularly liked Neil Patrick Harris’s line (“No, I don’t know why I’m not hosting this.”)  Above all, I guess, the movie  just seemed like a lot of fun.

Every year I finish these things later and later. Like I said in my ages-ago first post, it was mediocre year at Filmfest DC. So let’s finally plow through the rest of the films and move onto the 2012 Oscar season.

An Article of Hope, USA, dir: Daniel Cohen

The best of the fest, this documentary kept me utterly spellbound. In 2003, Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli in space on space shuttle Discovery. He and the rest of his crewmates were killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

His space exploits didn’t make Ramon a national hero. His participation in Israeli airstrikes against Iraqi nuclear facilities twenty years prior and a prominent career in the Israeli Air Force had already done so. The film traces this remarkable man’s life as both a man and a national symbol.

Ramon carried with him into space a miniature Torah that survived Bergen Belsen and a pencil drawing made by a teenaged Auschwitz victim. Entwined into the story of Ramon’s preparations to become an astronaut are his thoughtful considerations of what it meant for him as an Israeli, a Jew, and son of Holocaust survivors to launch into the heavens.

The capacity crowd in my screening seemed predominantly Jewish and based on the sniffles I heard throughout the film and the questions asked at the Q&A, they strongly responded to it. As neither a Jew nor someone with connections to Israel, I was still very moved by the film and its portrayal of an extraordinary man. It simply works as a film that should affect any audience.

Clocking in at a few minutes under an hour, I think director Daniel Cohen should consider cutting it down to 40 minutes to qualify it for a Documentary Short Oscar run. But that sounds like that is not in the cards and a PBS showing will hopefully come in the future. Wherever it turns up, you should seek it out. A.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, USA, dir: Pamela Yates

Three minutes into this film my friend’s mom’s face filled the screen. 30 years ago, director Pamela Yates filmed When the Mountains Tremble, a documentary about the then-raging Guatemalan civil war and it was my friend’s mom who helped Yates connect with guerilla groups. Getting shocked out of your seat by a familiar face is an interesting way to begin a documentary.

Would it be cruel to say it was all downhill from there? I don’t wish to be flip about it and maybe linearly the film didn’t truly apex right at the beginning, but it does seem to suffer somewhat from mission creep and loose editing. Yates returns to Guatemala to film a follow-up and finds a country working to mend the rifts of the past. Researchers comb through piles of police files and fields of mass graves. But the wheels of justice turn slowly and it happens that some of the footage Yates shot 30 years prior could help make the case against army commanders who committed horrible atrocities.

The film is a mixture of a making-of documentary of the first film, a chronicle of the pursuit of justice, and a rumination about a documentarian’s responsibilities. I found it to be a bit overly introspective and not constructed well enough to make it all compelling. It’s too much telling instead of showing and it needed a stronger touch in the editing room to keep it from meandering. D+

Free Men (Les hommes libres), France, dir: Ismael Ferroukhi

Every ethnic and social group apparently needs its Nazi resistance film. In the past few years, the Danes had Flame & Citron, the Dutch Black Book, and French Communists had Army of Crime, which played Filmfest DC in 2010. And now French Muslim immigrants have Free Men.

Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet fame, plays Younes, an Algerian immigrant trying his hand in the black market in occupied Paris. After his capture, Nazi police threaten to send him back to Algeria unless he infiltrates a local mosque and reports back on the activities of the imam, a man thought to be involved in local Resistance activities and the smuggling of Jews out of France.

The imam immediately sees what the largely lapsed Younes is up to, but he lets him hang around. As he becomes more integrated in the mosque’s community and reconnects with his faith, Younes begins to join them in their illicit activities.

As a tale about how oppression begets radicalism, it’s a welcome message if not breaking any new ground. Its main sin is a lack of climax. It establishes the characters but all the furtive glances around the mosque and dashes through secret hallways build to a mini-caper at best which whimpers more than enthralls. C+.

Policeman (Ha-shoter), Israel, dir: Nadav Lapid

Let’s finish with the worst of the fest. Policeman endeavors to tell both sides of a terrorist stand-off. The first half of the film follows Yaron, a commander in an elite anti-terrorism taskforce. He’s about to become a father but an inquiry into an incident during a previous mission could derail his career. He and his close-knit unit discuss how to handle it.

Halfway through, the film abruptly shifts focus to Shira, a college-age upper-class radical. She and some chums are planning an attack to bring down Israel’s elites. The details of the plot are withheld from the viewer, but their violent intent is not. The father of one of her co-conspirator realizes something is about to go down and tries to stop them.

Even as Shira and her group launch their plot and Yaron’s unit is called in to combat it, the story never really returns to Yaron, leaving the first half of the film unresolved and totally separate from the second half. With only half of a movie to establish them, I didn’t end up caring about any of the characters. It was sort of neat to see a contemporary Israeli film that depicts some part of life beyond the Palestinian conflict, but otherwise it completely dragged. D.

17.  Delhi Belly

In case you missed this Indian flick, Delhi Belly is a screwball comedy about three bumbling roommates who, through a series of coincidences, end up facing off with the mob.  The term Delhi Belly, if you don’t know, seems to mean something along the same lines of Montezuma’s revenge, which should suggest something about the film’s humor.  The comparison isn’t perfect, but I peg it as kind of like The Hangover, but with more of a 90s feel to the action and comedy.  At any rate, this movie is really funny and really could and should have crossed over to American audiences.

16.  My Week with Marilyn

My first attempt to see this movie was cruelly thwarted by a fire alarm at E St., fortunately I was able to see it later at AFI Silver.  I understand, to some extent, the incredulity of those who questioned the decision of a story involving Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier focusing instead on a 17 year old intern as its main character.  But I think one would be better served to view this film not through the prism of an Oscar biopic, but a coming of age tale that happens to involve famous people.  The film is light and fluffy, but fun and engaging throughout.  It was a very pleasant palate cleanser during the run of Oscar watching last year.  Kenneth Branagh was solid.  He may have been my pick for the Oscar, though that was largely due to the thin group of nominees.  Michelle Williams was absolutely riveting in the role, and my choice for Oscar.  My only real criticism was that the film could have used more of Judi Dench and Emma Watson, both because films just need more of them in general, and because their characters were fun and underutilized.

15.  Super

This is a dark, dark superhero movie from the twisted mind of James Gunn that falls into the increasingly popular subgenre of a regular guy decides to put on a costume and fight crime.  Rainn Wilson stars as a cook in a diner whose wife (Liv Tyler) is lured away by a skeevy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon).  Drawing inspiration from TV’s Christian superhero The Holy Avenger (the impossibly awesome Nathan Fillion), Wilson becomes the Crimson Bolt and starts fighting crime, with the now-standard subplot of questions about whether a vigilante is good or bad for operating outside the system.  Ellen Page, who works at the comic book store Wilson went to research superheroes, figures out his identity and forces her way into being his sidekick, Boltie.  This film is the rare dark comedy where both the “dark” and the “comedy” work really really well, both separately and together.

14.  Colombiana

You have to hand it to Luc Besson, the man knows how to churn out top notch action movies.  I think he understands better than anyone else the essence of an action film: a badass character doing badass things.  It is no coincidence that Besson films tend to have short running times.  He believes in taut movies stripped down to their bare essentials.  And they are pure joy to watch, for fans of the genre.  The “twist” here is that the main character is a chick.  A very very badass chick.  Zoe Saldana (who, admittedly, may never surpass the highs of Drumline) cements herself as a viable action star and adds another movie to her collection of films where she is generally just awesome.  The cool thing here is that the character is written and played as an action hero who happens to be female, not a female action hero.

13.  Bellflower

I was kinda dreading seeing this Spirit Award nominee, after reading some less than exciting descriptions of the movie.  Let me tell you, do not believe any summary of this film you read.  Including mine, probably.  It was like other people watched a completely different movie than I did.  The movie is insane, there’s no question about that.  For me, the film is about relationships.  One type of relationship is friendship.  The guy best friends chase women, install a whiskey tap into their car, build a flamethrower, you know, normal guy stuff.  I won’t lie, this part of the movie does feature some of the requisite indie movie ennui.    But did I mention the time they built a flamethrower?  Another type of relationship is love.  I thought the movie did a fascinating job handling the ups and downs of the relationships here.  It was touching, exciting, nerve-wracking, and downright scary watching the main character try to deal with his feelings.  The ending, in particular, was absolutely insane.  And quite possibly the most brilliant thing I watched in a 2011 film.  I also kind of fell in love with Rebekah Brandes.  I thought she was amazing in the movie and I hope April Apocalypse ends up this high on next year’s list.

12.  Kaboom

Oooh, look at Jared going back to back arthouse on you.  Though it is perhaps no coincidence that I’d also use “insane” to describe this film.  Let’s put it this way.  The movie is partially a look at college relationships/sexual awakening, and partially a sci-fi, doomsday cult flick.  So, yeah.  Thomas Dekker is quite good in the lead role.  And there’s lots of sexy time with Juno Temple, which is nice.  I have no idea who I’d recommend it to, since I don’t think it is for everyone, but I want someone to like it as much as I do.

11. Captain America: First Avenger

A slightly underrated Marvel superhero movie, I think.  Not sure I have a ton more to say about it.  I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much the cast got to shine in their limited opportunities.  I had been pretty down on Hayley Atwell, but it turns out that may have been more a reflection of the terrible Brideshead Revisited than on her acting abilities.  And I think this role may be the perfect one for Chris Evans, who, in my opinion, kept finding roles that were close to a good match for his combination of charm and smarm but not quite on the money.

The summer blockbuster season has drawn to a close so let’s look back on the best films of the first 2/3 of the year. The one film we all share may surprise you.

John

1. Headhunters
2. Hope Springs
3. The Hunger Games
4. 21 Jump Street
5. Brave

Adam

1. Marvel’s The Avengers
2. The Dark Knight Rises
3. Lockout
4. 21 Jump Street
5. Total Recall

Brian

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
2. Marvel’s The Avengers
3. 21 Jump Street
4. The Dark Knight Rises
5. John Carter

Jared

1. The Dark Knight Rises
2. 21 Jump Street
3. Wanderlust
4. The Raid: Redemption
5. Lockout

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