Brendan Campbell’s Top Ten Films of 2011

There’s something about top ten lists that get people excited. We’re excited to read them, and in this case, I’m excited to write mine and have you read it. It’s fun to see what someone thought were the “best” films of the year and compare them to your own list of what you believe tops the charts. Whether we agree or disagree, we’re drawn to these types of lists, as they’re just a fun way to wrap up an entire year in one tidy package.

Personally, I know my top ten lists usually have one or two films that come out of left field, and that’s not done to just cause a stir. There’s a feeling you hope to get when a movie is playing or right after it finishes, and that’s a feeling of excitement, or just an overwhelming sense of emotion. It doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes it happens with the oddest of films, catching you completely off-guard. That was the case in one or two of my choices, while others simply just spoke to me on a level that stuck with me while others fell by the wayside.

There’s also my “Up in the Air” of 2011, which is an award I give to a movie I’ve not yet seen but would likely make my list when I do get around to it – just like Up in the Air did when I finally saw it a little while after my 2009 list was posted. There’s been unanimous praise for The Artist this year and it’s one I wish I had seen. When I do get around to that, as well as The Tree of Life, Hugo, and a few others that just weren’t available to see, my list could look quite different in the coming months.

That said, I still stand behind my choices and feel that they deserve a place of recognition regardless of how this list may look down the road. Without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2011…

10. Real Steel

2011 was a fantastic year for family films, both animated and live action. The choice to put Real Steel on the list above the rest was simply the emotional impact the movie had on me. Excuse me? Boxing robots created an emotional connection? It’s true. Real Steel is a film about boxing robots, but it’s also so much more.

Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo star as an estranged father and son duo that embarks on an emotional journey of reconnection and redemption through the not-so-distant futuristic world of robot boxing. It’s a wonderful movie that definitely caught me with my guard down and hit me in the heartstrings for with a solid right hook. It’s a fun movie I’ve yet to forget and one that I cannot wait to see again.

9. Captain America: The First Avenger

What more can I say about Captain America that I haven’t already mentioned in my theatrical and Blu-ray reviews of the film? 2011 was a huge year for superhero movies, and Marvel led the pack with both their lead-ins to next year’s The Avengers in both Thor and Captain America, as well as the unrelated (as far as same universes go) X-Men: First Class.

Captain America: The First Avenger was the best of the bunch, with beautiful art direction that just made the film scream 1940’s war era. That, alongside the Oscar-worthy musical score by composer Alan Silvestri and you not only end up with one of the most visually stunning films of the year, but also one of the best sounding ones as well. If Captain America is any indication, The Avengers will definitely be near the top of the list of “must see” films in 2012.

8. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a huge fan of blockbuster movies. While I’ll be a bit more lenient than others may be when it comes to just how deep and fun storyline is compared to the amount of explosions per minute that take place, I still look for overall quality when it comes to choosing the best. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol does everything right, from the over-the-top action scenes (we’ve all seen Tom Cruise doing his famous run through many of his films, but to see him do it while a sandstorm blows in from behind him is nothing short of epic) to the fresh take on an old franchise.

Five years ago, Mission: Impossible 3 debuted during a difficult time for Cruise in his career, and the film (arguably one of, if not the best in the series) suffered greatly because of it. With what turned out to be an incredibly smart release date, and the advantage of being shot for the IMAX, Ghost Protocol has given Cruise’s career the bump it needs to put the past in the past, as well as the bump this once thought dead franchise needs to excel into the future.

7. Warrior

This is the second Rocky-esque film I’ve had in my top ten thus far and for good reason – the underdog formula really works when done right! Add onto that a powerful story about a broken family that sees their problems come to a head during an MMA tournament and you’ve got so much more than a film about guys wrestling in a cage.

Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy star as Brendan and Tommy Conlon, two brothers who took two different paths in life and only have their hatred for their formerly abusive alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte) in common. While this film works on the emotional story front as is, it hit home for me on another level as I have a younger brother who I’m not as close with as I’d like to be. Our differences aren’t nearly as extreme as the brothers in the film; however, the idea is the same and watching this story unfold really got to me. I’m sure I’m not the only sibling out there that this movie spoke to on this level, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. I went into Warrior not really knowing what to expect, and I left with a better understanding of myself — it’s not every day you take that away from a movie.

6. Shame

Steve McQueen’s film about a man struggling with sex addiction is a fantastically dark film to behold and it definitely earns its NC-17 rating. The thing is, while there’s plenty of sex going on throughout the film, none of it is gratuitous and it all has a deeper meaning than the act itself. It’s a powerful film and one that many won’t be able to get through the first time, let alone line up to see it a second.

Michael Fassbender (who will be known better by most as Magneto from X-Men: First Class) gives an Oscar worthy (and likely winning) performance as Brandon Sullivan, a man who suffers from this life-altering disease and finds his world spinning out of control after his sister, Sissy (played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan) comes back into his life to live with him.

McQueen’s direction is wonderful, staying with shots and single character perspectives much longer than most directors would find comfortable. It really adds to the themes and feelings he’s trying to convey in the film and it really speaks volumes about his vision and his skill behind the camera. Shame is a film that stands out among the rest of the year’s releases and the more I think about it, the more hauntingly powerful it becomes.

5. The Guard

When you think brilliant comedies from overseas you immediately think of British comedies, Simon Pegg, Edger Wright and the likes, and rightfully so as the British are extremely funny. You wouldn’t immediately think of Ireland when it comes to producing the funniest movie of the year, and yet that’s exactly what they did in 2011 with The Guard.

The Guard stars Brendan Gleeson as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a small-town cop with a knack for confrontation, a rebellious sense of humour, as well as unorthodox methods of getting the job done. When the FBI comes to town after reports that a drug-smuggling gang is in the area, Sgt. Boyle finds himself partnered up with Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle). Together the two must work together to stop this drug deal from taking place — all while trying not to kill each other in the process.

The dialogue is sharp and the delivery is quick in this film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh. Gleeson is superb in the role, and is hugely deserving of his Golden Globe nomination for the part. For those who are scared off by accents in films, throw on the subtitles and enjoy the hilarity as The Guard is a movie that shouldn’t be missed.

4. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is known for making his love affairs with cities come to life in the movies he makes and Midnight in Paris is no different. Allen shows just how masterful he still is at both directing and writing when he divulged in an interview that all he knew when he began the creation process for the film was that he wanted to tell a story about the beauty of Paris. What he ended up crafting is an incredibly creative view on life and love through both characters of his own, and a great many historical figures as well.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a writer who is sure that he was born in the wrong era. He dreams of living in Paris during the 1920s and thinks all would be better had that been the case. When he visits Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) he quickly finds himself taken back by the beauty of the city, and also by a magical car that whisks him away to the 1920s every night at midnight.

Everything about this movie is fun and enjoyable. The acting is fantastic, and Wilson (who I believe is one of the most underrated comedic actors of this generation) shines above all, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for his work here. The rest of the cast is just as good, with everyone enjoying themselves and really making every minute of this film a joy to take in.

The art direction and production value of the film is also beautiful, really taking the viewer on a journey to both modern day Paris, as well as Paris in the 1920s. Allen has had a few hits and misses in recent years, but Midnight in Paris is right up there with Allen at the top of his game.

3. Beginners

Beginners is a wonderful story about learning to love and learning to live. Written and directed by Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), the film is woven together by both past and present events in a style that’s both unique and engrossing. Nothing in the film jumps out and yells, “notice me!” and yet it’s one of the most engrossing and heartfelt films I saw all year.

Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver Fields, a young man who has grown up with parents who never really showed affection for one another. Add onto that the fact that his father (Christopher Plummer) was distant as Oliver was growing up and his mother was eccentric in her own right and it’s no surprise that grown-up Oliver has no idea how to handle a relationship of his own. When we meet Oliver it’s 2003, his mother has died years earlier and he tells us that after she died his father came out of the closet and told Oliver that not only was he gay, but he also had a young lover.

Having never seen his father so happy, Oliver’s life is once again shaken when his father is diagnosed with cancer. Trying to piece together his own life and start a relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent) he’s taken a fancy to, Oliver looks back over the years when his father was happiest and tries to figure out just what it is you need to do to find it in yourself to be happy.

McGregor is great, and really carries the load; while Plummer is superb and steals every scene he’s in. The direction is wonderful and the story itself is beautiful. Beginners definitely isn’t one of the best-known films of 2011, but it is one of the best ones.

2. Super

Super was one of two films I saw this year that I knew would make my top ten list as soon as it ended, if not before. The dark dramedy from filmmaker James Gunn is a unique piece of work to say the least, which is something the average moviegoer likely wouldn’t get from the film’s premise.

The movie stars Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) as Frank D’Arbo, an ordinary nobody who takes on the masked persona of The Crimson Bolt after his wife leaves him for a drug dealer (played flawlessly by Kevin Bacon.) This may sound like a lower-budget Kick-Ass, though it’s anything but. Super is a dark, hyper-violent, shocking film that’s also heartfelt, smart and funny. Wilson is perfection and takes the movie on his shoulders from start to finish, with boosts from his superb supporting cast of Ellen Page and Liv Tyler along the way.

In the words of The Crimson Bolt himself, “You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others!” What can you do? You can see this movie as fast as you can, that’s what.

1. Drive

It’s hard for me to actually describe just how amazing a movie Drive actually is. Drive is so good that I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t find its way into the Best Picture category at this year’s Academy Awards. I’d also be shocked if Ryan Gosling gets nominated for Ides of March (as great as he was in that) over his brilliant work here. I’d also be disappointed if Newton Thomas Sigel isn’t nominated for best cinematography, and Nicolas Winding Refn for best direction. Can you tell I’m rooting for this to take home everything, even though I’m prepared for it to be looked over entirely?

Drive stars Gosling as The Driver, a Hollywood stuntman by day who moonlights as a getaway driver. He has a window of five minutes that he gives those who hire him to drive their getaway car, and for those five minutes he’s theirs, if anything happens within that five minutes, he’s there for them, no matter what. Anything that happens after, however, is on them entirely and he’s gone, no questions asked.

Driver leads a fairly simple, quiet life; until, of course, he meets and falls for his neighbor Irene (Carery Mulligan). Irene has a son, and she and Driver hit it off, until her husband is released from prison and some men he owes a favour to come to collect. Looking to protect Irene and her son, Driver agrees to assist her husband in a heist to repay his debt. When that heist goes wrong, Driver is forced out of his comfort zone in a wild attempt to protect those he’s come to care about from being hurt by those who betrayed him.

There’s no movie this year that was cooler than Drive, and as soon as it finished I came home and tried to find out how I could get Gosling’s scorpion jacket from the film. Low and behold I was told that it was not a fashion statement I could pull off, and since I don’t have the physical intimidation factor of Gosling in the film, I chose to just be the character in my imagination instead of in jacket form.

The look of the film just oozes both stylized beauty and pure awesomeness and there’s nothing else that came close to the pure badassness of Gosling’s character in Drive. Not every actor gets to play an iconic character — let alone an iconic badass that has you leaving the theater wishing you could be that cool — but Gosling has now played his; and dammit, I still want that jacket.

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