Branden Chowen’s Favorite Films of 2011

Given my current standing in life as a graduate acting student, I have limited time and funds to go see new theatrical releases, which makes year-end lists incredibly difficult. I usually spend a lot more time sitting in front of my HDTV than I do in movie theatres, and this year was no exception. Before I jump into my ten favorite films of the year, it should be noted that I have not seen some of the major releases from the past two to three months, and when these get released on home video early next year, this list could change dramatically. I am confident, however, that of the films I was able to see, these ten are the best.

It doesn’t matter how solid or disappointing a year in film has been – and from what I’ve seen, 2011 leans more towards the latter – top ten lists are always difficult. For me, there was one clear winner, while the rest could slide around into any slot and I’d be happy. I’ve surprised myself with this list, which includes three summer blockbusters, a couple family films, a foreign film, and, disappointingly, only two horror flicks. There are plenty of films that I would love to talk about, but didn’t make the list. Check back for the next episode of The Drive-In, Inside Pulse’s movie podcast that I co-host along with Brendan Campbell, for a mention of those. But, enough with the preliminaries, let’s get to the list.

10. 13 Assassins
More than the simple revenge movie that a summary of it might suggest, Takashi Miike’s remake of 1963s The Thirteen Assassins wonderfully and beautifully mixes exquisite cinematography with some of the most brutal violence I’ve seen all year. I was able to catch this one on Netflix Instant Queue, and was blown away. This is one of the first samurai films I’ve watched, but it has set the bar incredibly high. Miike, who also directs one of my favorite horror films, Audition, continues to assert himself as one of the greatest living directors, and anyone with a penchant for violence with meaning should adore what 13 Assassins has to offer.

9. Insidious
In a year that was rather light on quality theatrical horror releases, Insidious stands out as the one film that made me jump the most. Paranormal Activity 3 did a great job trying to steal this title, but after seeing Insidious a second time and still getting chills up and down my spine from the sheer terror of it all, I was forced to give the nod to James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s latest offering. The admittedly clunky third act is not nearly bad enough to topple the goosebump-inducing ride that is the first two acts, and because this is also available on Netflix Instant, anyone who missed it should give it a shot.

8. The Muppets
The Muppets is undoubtedly the most charming, sincere, and endearing film released this year. Jason Segel takes over the reigns as writer, and does a marvelous job preserving the spirit that Jim Henson and company created with the original Muppets back in the 1970s. The humor is special in that it can make both naïve youngsters and hardened film fanatics laugh out loud. The songs are always creative and help push the movie forward, which should keep even the youngest audiences entertained. The Muppets is nearly perfect family affair that I have to recommend to anyone with a heartbeat.

7. The Myth of the American Sleepover
Talk about being blindsided by a movie. The Myth of the American Sleepover was a film I probably never would have seen if it wasn’t streaming on Netflix Instant. I don’t remember how, but I do recall reading about this independent film last year, probably because it was filmed in and around my hometown in Michigan. When it finally popped up on Netflix, I had no excuse not to give it a look. It was one of the best Instant Queue decisions of the year, by far. Myth follows the story of a group of teenagers as they try to enjoy their last few nights of summer vacation. The story is as simple as that. What makes Myth so compelling is 1) the performances from the young, unknown actors, and 2) the screenplay by writer/director David Robert Mitchell. Myth is special because it isn’t until later in the film when one realizes how invested in the characters he or she may be; the beauty and magic of Myth sneaks up on the viewer, but is unforgettable once it does hit. Myth is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, and one that has potential to be one of my favorites of all-time upon repeat viewings. This is a sleeper hit that fans of independent film need to see.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
Although this series has some weak spots – I’m looking at you, Goblet of Fire – I have never watched a more fulfilling, exciting, and successful film franchise quite like Harry Potter. Some complained that last year’s effort was a bit boring, and although I enjoyed it, everything that happened in Part 1 pays off incredibly well in Part 2, which is almost entirely climax. For a film that has six films of set-up, and all the hype that goes with that, it would’ve been much more likely for Part 2 to fail to deliver a rewarding conclusion, and as someone who has never cracked a Harry Potter novel, I had no idea what to expect. In both a nod to JK Rowling’s source material, and David Yates’ directing, Part 2 ends as my second favorite movie in the franchise, barely losing the number one spot to Order of the Phoenix, and my fifth favorite film of the year. Pretty good for a film franchise I had no interest in a year ago.

5. Drive
There’s no doubt that I have a man-crush on Ryan Gosling. I have yet to not be blown away by a role of his, and his performance in DRIVE, though not as breathtaking as his Blue Valentine work, is excellent. What sets DRIVE apart, though, is the work by the ensemble cast of supporting characters. Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, and Albert Brooks all turn in some incredibly emotional work. Ron Perlman does a decent job as the muscle, but I had a hard time believing some of his work, especially at the beginning of the movie. I put that on the casting decision, not Perlman, who is usually wonderful in his roles. Drive is able to grab the viewer from the very beginning thanks in large part to the stellar music. The 80s-inspired soundtrack is not only one of my favorite film soundtracks of the year, but one of the best overall CDs of 2011. With brutality that comes out of nowhere – which is something I adore, as you might notice while reading this list – and a sincerity that is unusual for a film of this nature, Drive was one of the best reasons to sit in a movie theatre this year.

4. X-Men: First Class
Not only is Brian K. Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class one of my top four films of the year, it is my number one regret of the year because I wasn’t able to see it in theatres. Though the Blu-ray rocked my world, I will probably never get to experience this gigantic action film the way it was intended. The reason this summer blockbuster ranks so highly on my list is because of sheer entertainment value. Sure, Drive is a deeper, more meaningful experience, as are a lot of films that didn’t make this list, but as a guy who watches films, first and foremost, to be entertained, First Class nails one of my favorite things about going to the movies. The action sequences are awe-inspiring, but that’s no different than most of the superhero films we get nowadays. What makes First Class so memorable is the characters. It’s exciting to see these characters that we all enjoy mature and find themselves. The acting is some of the best I’ve seen in any superhero film, and everything about the movie screams “fun”. Even if you missed this in theatres, action fans deserve the treat that is X-Men: First Class.

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a horror film in the traditional sense: there are no dancing dead kids from the 30s who like to play records, no multiple fake opening death scenes, or any disappearing dining room sets. In this case, though, that it is an excellent thing. Although I enjoyed all the movies I referenced above (Insidious, Scream 4, and Paranormal Activity 3, for those keeping score), Kevin is so far above and beyond any other horror releases that have come out this year or last, that it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I did enjoy those other offerings. The claustrophobic feeling that creeps up whenever I think about this film is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen because it is so real and visceral that it could happen to anyone at any time.

What if your newborn child was evil? Real evil, not “possessed by the devil”, or some other ilk. That’s the problem that Eva – played hauntingly well by Tilda Swinton – faces with her son Kevin. As Kevin ages, he hates his mother more and more. Eva’s husband and Kevin’s father Franklin, played by the grossly underrated John C. Reilly, doesn’t believe the stories that Eva tells her about Kevin, and thinks that Eva is overreacting. The resulting story is terror in its purest form of inescapability. The beautiful montages and imagery that pop up through the entire film, and the way the plot is structured, will keep audiences begging for more. We Need to Talk About Kevin is still in theatres, and is one that any horror fan fed up with the mediocre quality the big studios have been releasing in recent years absolutely must see once. I imagine that will be enough for most viewers, though.

2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The second Rise of the Planet of the Apes ended, I knew it would be written about in this list, I just didn’t know at what number. I loved virtually everything about this return to the Planet of the Apes series, and I can only hope that the sequel to this will be on my list in 2012 or 2013.

As listeners of The Drive-In might know, Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite science fiction films of all time, so my expectations – or, more accurately, my hopes – were high when I went to see Rise. Fortunately the film contains some of the greatest CGI work ever put to film, a beautifully told coming-of-age story that just happens to be about an ape, and Andy Serkis, who will hopefully get some Oscar recognition for his wonderful work as Caesar. Even though the humans rightly play second fiddle to Caesar and the other apes, John Lithgow is another shining star in the film as he plays the sick and aging father of James Franco’s character. As a fan of the original Planet of the Apes, one of the small things that I loved about Rise were all the homage’s paid to the original film. Rise is so much more than the shallow summer blockbuster it could have been, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

1. Super
This is one of the later entries to this list, seeing the film less than a month ago, but the second the Super ended, I knew that it was going to be number one on my list. James Gunn’s ultra-realistic tale of a scorned lover turned superhero uses an incredible mix of comedy and brutality that works much better than it has any right to. Super is a special breed because it can have the viewer laughing one minute, and in tears the next. It’s able to pull this off thanks in large part to some excellent performances from Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, and Liv Tyler. Wilson and Page have an unexpectedly wonderful on-screen chemistry, and their relationship is one of the most interesting and hilarious I’ve seen all year. It’s unfortunate that this film is falling a bit under the radar this awards season because Ellen Page deserves and Oscar for best supporting actress with her touching and hysterical performance as Libby. Though Frank doesn’t stray too far from Dwight, the character Wilson plays on The Office, Wilson manages to find an incredible amount of truth, strength, and charisma for Frank that blows Dwight out of the water. Super is an incredible film, and one that anyone with a strong stomach should seek out.

The biggest disappointment for me in 2011 has to be the lack of high quality horror releases. We Need to Talk About Kevin is almost too good a film to throw in the horror category with releases such as Creature, Apollo 18, and The Rite. As a horror fan, I am hopeful that we can eventually reach a point where deeper, more meaningful movies that have something to say become more prevalent in the genre. That isn’t to say that I don’t adore the Scream 4’s and Paranormal Activity 3’s of the genre, because I do, but there needs to be more options. Hopefully the big studios come to realize that we horror fans are not just mindless idiots that want to see breasts and blood, but we are film fans who can appreciate depth and meaning as well.

The overall disappointment with the horror genre leaks over to the rest of the year’s releases as well. Although I loved the movies on my list, few of them have the staying power that last years films had. Inception, Kick-Ass, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Black Swan, and The King’s Speech would knock most of my top ten movies off of this list. It isn’t that there was a large amount of bad films, either, there just weren’t that many films that had me saying “wow” when the credits rolled, unlike last year.

What does make 2011 special, though, is the quality of the summer blockbusters. I never expect many summer blockbusters to make my year-end list, but this year – and I imagine next year will as well – shows that there can be substance in the summer months. If nothing else, 2011 sets up for an incredible 2012. Though Harry Potter has concluded, The Hunger Games looks like it could be my next favorite film series to follow, and it we’ll also see the end of The Twilight Saga, which is exciting for anyone who gets dragged to them by friends or a significant other every year. The biggest thrills next year, though, will surely come in the form of a special agency named S.H.I.E.L.D., and a Dark Knight. I have a feeling that that list will be even more difficult to finalize.

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