R0BTRAIN’s Top 10 Movies of 2011

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When I look back at my time watching the films in 2011, I can’t deny that I’ve had a terrific experience these past 12 months. While I feel like the year might have been devoid of the sort of transcendent movie or game changer the likes of Avatar or The Dark Knight or Inception, we’ve been lucky to have gotten a ton of great pictures, so much so that it was tough to narrow this list down to just ten. In fact, December alone yielded two films that ended up on my list, and had a few more that were terribly close. Pictures such as Moneyball, Contagion , and Midnight in Paris were all films that could have easily made this list, but when it comes down to getting to a final 10, you’ve got to make big sacrifices no matter how bad it hurts.

Now to be sure, the year had its share of big disappointments as well. Season of the Witch got us off on the wrong foot early, but did anyone expect duds like Sucker Punch and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean outing to be so boring, or for Pixar to release their first out and out bad film with Cars 2? Thankfully, we got some pleasant surprises to even things out, especially Fast Five, which kind of blew the roof off every other action film that came out for the rest of the summer movie season. And who knew Rise of the Planet of the Apes was going to be so awesome?

My point is, is that while it wasn’t perfect, 2011 was still able to give us a lot of great cinema. While 2012 looks to be busting at the seams with huge epics that are right around the corner, 2011 gave me enough films that I’m really not ready to stop thinking about them yet.

R0BTRAIN’s Top 10 of 2011

10. Captain America: The First Avenger

If you love comic book films, especially those based on Marvel superheroes, then 2011 was a heck of a good time for you. Thor surprised with its liberal amounts of humor and its epic fantasy sequences, and X-Men: First Class was so good it made us forget about every lousy X film since the second one. If I had to pick a favorite though, Captain America: The First Avenger wins out with its combination of high adventure, nonstop action, and tons of heart.

Director Joe Johnston went back to his roots on this picture, showing us the protégé of Spielberg and Lucas who worked on the crews of classic adventures such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Captain America has the director in his oldschool action wheelhouse; producing a true follow-up to Johnston’s best film, The Rocketeer. With its plucky hero, gorgeous damsel, and villains so bad even the Nazis won’t take them, this is a picture that would have fit the bill perfectly during a Saturday afternoon serial, but as it is, it makes a wonderful final piece to Marvel’s Avengers puzzle.

9. War Horse

There were several blockbusters in 2011 that managed to pay homage to the works of Steven Spielberg, many of which were produced by The Beard himself. For most filmmakers that would have been enough of a creative output for one year; but not for the creator of Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and Jaws. 2011 saw the release of two films with Steven Spielberg as director, and while some might not know what to make of the motion capture epic The Adventures of Tintin, Warhorse gives us Spielberg at his schmaltzy best. The director tugs at your heartstrings with expert precision as we watch the picture’s main character, a horse named Joey, travel from the farms of Britain to the battlefields of WWI. Spielberg wrings every bit of emotion out of the story with amazing setpieces, gorgeous photography, and a John Williams score that just won’t quit.

8. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I had some doubts as to whether Brad Bird could show the same sort of creativity and humor he was able to infuse into his animated films such as The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. About five minutes into Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, those doubts were a distant memory. Once Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his IMF team were globetrotting through exotic locales and Cruise himself was hanging from the tallest building on earth, I couldn’t wait to see what Bird had up his sleeve next. The new Mission: Impossible is mind boggling awesome, with enough chases and fights to make it the best American action film of 2011 with very little competition.

Think Tom Cruise is too old to be playing super spies? Think again. Even with other cast members like Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton doing more of the heavy lifting than ever before, Cruise plays his intense superman as well as he ever has. Nearing age 50, he’s still the hardest working action star in Hollywood, putting his body on the line, and doing whatever it takes to get you into the theater. Mission: Impossible 5 can’t come fast enough.

7. Rango

In a year when Pixar disappointed us for the first time, Rango was there to take up the slack. Hilarious and weird, Rango seemed to free director Gore Verbinski like never before, showing us more wit and eye candy than ten Pirates of the Carribean films put together. With incredible character models from top to bottom, this spaghetti western homage is a wonder to behold with its one glorious sequence after another. Without question, my favorite collaboration between Verbinski and star Johnny Depp; this movie had me in stitches and on the edge of my seat all the way up to its final showdown.

6. The Muppets

The Muppets is a like a sledgehammer of nostalgia; wearing its heart unabashedly on its sleeve as it dares you not to sing along with its silly songs, laugh at its nonstop hilarity and get misty eyed at its earnest love for all of its characters. Director James Bobin and star Jason Seagal have created a loving tribute to Jim Henson’s madcap creations, and even if the voices aren’t 100% right, the heart the film gives us definitely hits it mark. As Kermit and the gang try to put on one last show to save their beloved theater, I sat in amazement as I got to watch The Muppet Show performed anew, which is something I thought I’d never see again. For all involved, I simply say “thank you”.

5. I Saw the Devil

Kim Ji-woon’s tale of sadistic revenge seems to put the nail in the coffin of the Korean revenge thriller genre once and for all, but what a way to go. Kim Ji-woon is relentless here, as stars Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik face off in the ultimate battle of cop and serial killer with a nonstop barrage of knife fights, gun fights, murder and mayhem. The flick barely lets you catch your breath as it effortlessly swings one way and then the next. You honestly have no way of knowing what’s going to happen all the way up to the film’s final insane moments, and thank goodness for it, because you might just want to turn off the movie too early.

4. 13 Assassins

There’s something that just stirs inside of me when I watch 13 Assassins. Takashi Miike’s throwback samurai epic about 13 warriors who conspire to take down an evil lord is the most visceral action film to come out of any country in the last year. Everything about the film is just classic “men on a mission” formula, but Miike puts the movie together with such care and expertise that it all feels fresh. Goro Inagaki’s murdering rapist, Lord Naritsugu, is a villain that earns a plot against him of this magnitude with his over the top madness, and while Miike simply doesn’t have the time to delve too deeply into the lives of all of his heroes, veteran actors such as Kōji Yakusho and Tsuyoshi Ihara get the job done, and give us plenty of badassery to unapologetically root for.

Best of all, Miike lets it all hang out for the final hour of this movie, putting together a final battle that puts the conclusion of Transformers: Dark of the Moon to shame. Sure, Miike doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to play with, so instead we get a screen filled with wall to wall bloodshed. This battle featuring our mighty 13 vs.200 samurai aligned with the evil Naritsugu is a showstopper of a sequence, reminding me of the best of Kurosawa or vintage John Woo. You want classic action without modern over-editing or CGI overload? Then 13 Assassins has you covered.

3. Attack the Block

If classic ‘80s John Carpenter had decided to make an “anti-E.T.“, I’m pretty sure Attack the Block is pretty close to what that would be like. The movie is just a flat out blast, as we see these rough city kids from a London slum who decide to take it to a pack of alien invaders with wild results. The movie is brutal and unforgiving to some of the kids, but there’s still a lot of humor and heart to go around when this group of lovable miscreants isn’t fighting off alien hordes using only fireworks and flea market samurai swords.

The monsters in the movie are particularly wonderful and creative, like pitch-black bears with glowing teeth, and Cornish gets the most he can out of every scare in the flick. It’s our alien fighting street thugs though, that really make this movie work. John Boyega as the group’s leader Moses is a particular standout, showing a cool confidence and vulnerability that you wouldn’t expect from a guy starring in his first film. Top to bottom, Attack the Block is cult movie heaven, and I think we’re going to be hearing a lot from everyone involved for years to come.

2. Super 8

Do you ever feel like a film maker is making movies specifically for you? Like the director is able to tap right into your brain and pull out everything you love about movies and then just put it up onscreen. That’s the feeling I get every time I go to see a J.J. Abrams movie these days. I suppose we live in a time when movie geeks are growing up become film makers themselves, and that explains a lot of the success of directors like Tarantino and Edgar Wright, but with Abrams its seems like he’s going just that extra step. I love spy movies dearly, and Abrams’ underappreciated Mission: Impossible III is a film that has grown in leaps and bounds for me in the last few years. My devotion to Star Wars, Star Trek and space adventures in general is no secret, so to say that I loved every minute of Abram’s new Star Trek reboot would be a giant understatement to say the least.

With Super 8, it’s just same song, different verse. The part of me that has never stopped loving early Spielberg, especially E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, took in this film with open arms and loved every second of it. Abrams and composer Michael Giacchino simply had my number anytime that they were after it and I couldn’t have been happier. The group of kids at the heart of this story are so good together and so naturally charismatic onscreen that I would gladly watch them in a picture even without aliens. Fortunately, I think the alien storyline still works like gangbusters, creating a total package for this film that I found completely undeniable. Add in Kyle Chandler as a modern day Roy Scheider, and Super 8 is a total winner in my eyes.

1. Drive

When was the last time you saw a character that was as effortlessly cool as Ryan Gosling’s driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive? 2011 was an incredible year for Ryan Gosling, who seemed to knock it out of the park with each successive project, but for me, I felt like Drive was his coming out party. His nameless character in this ultra-cool crime thriller was like getting to see the second coming of Steve McQueen. Perhaps simply the strong, silent type or maybe an autistic maniac, Drive shows us an actor in complete control of his craft every moment he’s onscreen. From his subtly sweet love scenes with Carey Mulligan to his ultra-violent, hammer wielding showdowns, we see the full range of Gosling’s screen power and he’s pretty mesmerizing.

Of course, the picture set around the driver is also fairly amazing from top to bottom. Nicolas Refn’s film is like an ode to ‘80s Michael Mann and veterans like Ron Pearlman and Albert Brooks do some of their best work ever. This goes especially for Brooks; cast against type as one of the scariest villains I’ve seen in some time, surprising us with his brilliantly subtle menace. Bryan Cranston and Carey Mulligan are also exceptional here, crafting characters that you have genuine emotional investments in, desperately hoping they stay out of harm’s way.

The film is so meticulously crafted, from its look, to its music, costumes, and to even the fonts of the opening credits, that it’s all a little dizzying. Director Refn stages beautiful, operatic mayhem, but does so with incredibly intense buildup and character work, so the action is never just about being noisy. The love scenes are dreamlike, the action is violent and savage, and the final result is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Robert Sutton feels the most at home when he's watching some movie scumbag getting blown up, punched in the face, or kung fu'd to death, especially in that order. He's a founding writer for the movies section of Insidepulse.com, featured in his weekly column R0BTRAIN's Badass Cinema as well as a frequent reviewer of DVDs and Blu-rays. Also, he's a proud Sony fanboy, loves everything Star Wars and Superman related and hopes to someday be taken seriously by his friends and family.