The Highlights and Lowlights of the 1st Half of 2011

It’s an annual tradition for me at The Awards Circuit…sizing up what the first 6 months of the year were like in film.  For me, I found it to be a decently strong year so far, though I know that not everyone shares my sentiment.  About a dozen movies to date have qualified as particularly memorable for me, ranging from very good to masterpiece status.  To give you some perspective, I’ve seen about 80 movies so far this year, and am on pace (with DVD viewings of films I missed in theaters coming into play) to potentially break last year’s record of 200 films seen in a year.  The following is how I saw the year shape up, with breakdowns of the best and worst not just in film, but in terms of performances as well.  I even threw in what my first half awards would look like, so enjoy that.  Let’s get it started now, with the much anticipated Top 10 list.

 

The 10 best films of 2011 so far

The Beaver- Jodie Foster’s masterpiece about how we deal with mental illness is an absolute classic.  Never before has she been as good a director, and working with a phenomenal script by Kyle Killen and career best work from Mel Gibson and Anton Yelchin (plus great supporting work from Jennifer Lawrence and a solid performance by Foster herself).  It was a shame this died at the box office, but it’s the class of the first half of the year to me.  Look for it to easily crack my end of the year Top 10 list too (it’s also the only film so far this year to get a perfect score of 4 stars from me).

Red State- Kevin Smith did a career 180 with this gritty pseudo horror flick, and it’s easily the second best thing I saw all year.  Smith has always directed his actors well, and the supporting turns by Michael Parks and John Goodman are

nomination worthy and some of the best performances he’s ever culled from actors.  Also worth noting is the strength of his direction, as he really gets down and dirty.  The film changes tones a number of times, and it’s a credit to him that the audience can easily go along with it.  The movie is going to be coming out beginning with a VOD run on Labor Day after a very successful limited run a few months ago, so you all can begin discovering one of my very favorite films of 2011 to date!

Midnight in Paris- Each year, some people declare that Woody Allen has made his “comeback” film, but almost everyone can agree that this delightful comedy is more than a comeback for Allen…to me it’s a career highlight and one of his 10 best ever.  It continues with desire to make his films a bit of a travelogue for foreign lands he has a love for, while also being incredible wish fulfillment.  You leave this flick with a smile on your face.  I don’t know that anything else so far this year has been as purely entertaining as this movie.

Bridesmaids- The funniest film of the year so far, it’s also another home run for Judd Apatow’s stable and the first intelligent comedy aimed at women in recent memory.  It’s almost impossible to avoid cracking up while watching this (or quoting the Wilson Phillips song ‘Hold On’ by the time the credits role…or is that just me?), the film is just that effective.  Very few films have had better word of mouth than this one, and it’s incredibly deserving of it.

Super 8- The rare summer flick that doesn’t aim for the lowest common denominator, J.J. Abrams’ homage to early Spielberg and the joy of film is a roller coaster ride mixed with an intimate coming of age story.  A few screenplay contrivances prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still great entertainment.  Some people have taken issue with just what Abrams has as the monster, but I’m not one of them.  It’s loads of fun, and let’s hope more summer movies take cues from this one.

The Adjustment Bureau- Not only does it mix its thriller and character building elements well, but how often do you see action films not shortchange their romantic subplots?  Here, you can argue that the romance is the A story and the action is the B story (and I’m grateful for that).  Political junkies can also appreciate how much Matt Damon feels like a young politician, and the details seem just right as well.  His chemistry with Emily Blunt is a winner, creating one of the most compelling romance of the year so far.

Source Code- Duncan Jones proved he’s one of the most exciting young filmmakers out there with a high octane sci-fi action endeavor that manages to keep repetition from being a bad thing.  His eye for film is very strong, and with a second consecutive 2nd act reveal that you don’t see coming, he’s turning into the type of director who works well with twists, instead of the kind that work in service of them.  I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Beginners- The other winning romance of the year so far, this low key romance has not just a realistic pairing of Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent, but also a great tale of a man (Christopher Plummer) finally getting to be who he always wanted to be.  Plummer deserves an Oscar nomination, but all 3 are excellent, and with a talking dog of sorts giving the flick a bit of quirk, it’s hard not to find this film very appealing.

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Scream 4- I was completely blown away by just how offbeat and meta this sequel/reboot of the horror franchise was.  The series has never been funnier, but I’d argue it’s rarely been smarter either.  The commentary of the film is as apt as ever, but if you just are looking at it as a horror film, it works like that too.  Film school students should have a ball with this one.

Sympathy for Delicious- Mark Ruffalo showed some real aptitude as a director by taking his friend (and co-star here) Christopher Thornton’s drama and crafting something strangely beautiful out of it.  The film has some flaws, but it’s compelling nonetheless, due in large part to Ruffalo’s passion.  If he chooses to direct again, it’s safe to say that I’ll be there to see it.

Honorable mentions: Insidious, Super, Trust, HappyThankYouMorePlease, Submarine, The High Cost of Living, Paul, Everything Must Go, X-Men: First Class, and Cedar Rapids.

 

Most underrated film of 2011 so far- The Beaver (Honorable mention: Scream 4)

Most overrated film of 2011 so far- The Tree of Life (Honorable mention: Fast Five)

 

10 Best Performances of the year so far

Mel Gibson in The Beaver- Gibson has never been better as a depressed man who finds the key to temporary happiness in a puppet on his hand.  He really throws himself into the role and completely owns it.  His personal life will prevent any awards consideration (and torpedoed the film as well), but based sheerly on the quality of the work, he’s tops in my book so far.

Michael Parks in Red State- The most memorable villain of 2011 so far, Parks

finally gets a character to sink his teeth into with a bit of screen time, after toiling as an underrated character actor most of his career.  Playing a murderous take on Fred Phelps, he makes your skin crawl, but his charisma and charm are undeniable.  Kevin Smith’s little film is too unconventional for the Academy, but if they gave it a shot, this performance would undoubtedly get their attention.

 

Lianna Liberato in Trust- Young Liberato had a very limited filmography before director David Schwimmer tapped her to take the lead in his cautionary tale about the dangers of making friends on the internet.  Her character has to run the gamut of emotions, and she never rings false.  The movie is far too small for Oscar attention, but she’s more than good enough for consideration.

Christopher Plummer in Beginners- Plummer finally got his first Oscar nod a few years ago for The Last Station, but here he gives a truly Oscar worthy performance as an elderly man finally coming out of the closet to his son.  It’s a role that’s more complex than it seems, while also not being as overtly dramatic as it seems.  He has great chemistry with Ewan McGregor, and knocks this role out of the park.  I think another Academy Award nomination is all but assuredly in his future.

John Goodman in Red State- A character that may otherwise have not seemed as strong as he otherwise does, Goodman imbues his ATF agent with integrity and is one of the few truly decent people in the entire film.  He gets the typical Smith monologue to deliver, and he does a terrific job with it.  Goodman almost steals the movie, if not for Michael Parks.

Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids- If the Academy was feeling frisky, they could really do something fun and nominate McCarthy’s scene stealing supporting role in this winning comedy.  She’s brash and hilarious, someone you can’t help but find amusing.  This was a perfect combination of role and actress, and I think she did a wonderful job.

Anton Yelchin in The Beaver- Yelchin has been good before (notably in ‘Charlie Bartlett’), but he elevates his game here as Mel Gibson’s equally troubled son.  He wants nothing more than to be as different from his father as possible, all the while noticing more and more similarities between the two.  There’s also strong chemistry with co-star Jennifer Lawrence as the two troubled high schoolers beginning a tentative relationship with each other.  It’s subtly moving work.

Melanie Laurent in Beginners- Laurent blew me away with her work in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (one of the bigger acting snubs of the last few years, in my humble opinion), and her charming supporting turn here proves she’s got the chops in English as well.  Her chemistry with McGregor is outstanding, and you can’t help but begin to fall in love with her.  She may be able to score her first Oscar nod if members of the Academy fall in love with her too.

Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris- By giving a great take on the legendary literary figure Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s terrific film, Stoll manages to steal a number of scenes from his costars.  I’d be more confident predicting a Supporting Actor nod for him had Christian McKay been able to snag one for ‘Me and Orson Welles’ (a real snub in my book, by the way), but this is a much more popular film than that one, so it still may in fact be in the cards.  Either way, Stoll plays Hemingway just the way I’d imagined him, and deserves plenty of praise for that.

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Elle Fanning in Super 8- Fanning is easily one of the most exciting young actresses out there, and she builds on her incredible performance last year in ‘Somewhere’ with a great supporting turn in this fun flick.  She’s got talent to spare, and one hopes she continues to grow and excel in her field.  I’m pretty confident that she will, making her future incredibly interesting to contemplate.  Keep your eye on her, she’s could potentially end up being one of the greats.

Honorable mentions: Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Jennifer Lawrence in The Beaver, Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life, and Zach Braff in The High Cost of Living.

 

The 5 worst films of 2011

A Serbian Film- The rare movie I quantify as “torture porn”, this really has almost no reason for existing.  The filmmaker’s purpose is completely lost in translation, leaving nothing but upsettingly vicious violence of a largely sexual nature.  I’m far from a prude (no other critic on Earth has defended the ‘Saw’ franchise like I

have), but this went over the line for me.  It’s pretty much just trash.  I sincerely hope I don’t see anything worse in the second half of 2011.

Passion Play- It’s not often that you see a film fail as spectacularly as this one managed to.  Outside of an interesting supporting turn by Bill Murray, almost everything in the movie is staggeringly poorly done.  It’s almost comical (but not quite) how bad this movie was.  I had actually hoped it would be interesting, but my oh my was I ever wrong about that.

The Hangover: Part II- A sad excuse for a comedy, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first one, but that’s ‘Blazing Saddles’ compared to this.  Apparently just repeating the jokes of the first one in a new location was all the cast and crew aspired to, but you need more than that for an effective comedy.  This “comedy” was completely ineffective and an absolute chore to sit through.

Red Riding Hood- It’s pretty much ‘Twilight’ with Little Red Riding Hood and werewolves instead of vampires.  It’s also just as bad, wasting good actors and a director who was edgy once upon a time.  What could have been an interesting take on the material was instead an absolute disaster.

I Am Number 4- Another ‘Twilight’-esque film, this time focusing on aliens hiding on Earth, it’s just not entertaining at all.  I wasn’t expecting much, but even modest expectations here lead to disappointment.  It’s not inept like some of the above atrocities, but it’s sadly a rather boring type of bad…which sometimes is even worse.

My awards for the year so far (winner in Bold, runner-up in Italics)

Best Picture: The Beaver, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Red State, Super 8

Best Director: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Jodie Foster (The Beaver), Duncan Jones (Source Code), Mike Mills (Beginners), Kevin Smith (Red State)

Best Actor: Zach Braff (The High Cost of Living), Joel Courtney (Super 8), Mel Gibson (The Beaver), Hunter McCracken (The Tree of Life) Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris)

Best Actress: Rose Byrne (Insidious), Kat Dennings (Daydream Nation), Lianna Liberato (Trust), Saoirse Ronan (Hanna), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids)

Best Supporting Actor: John Goodman (Red State), Michael Parks (Red State), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), Anton Yelchin (The Beaver)

Best Supporting Actress: Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau), Elle Fanning (Super 8), Melanie Laurent (Beginners), Jennifer Lawrence (The Beaver), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi), Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga), Scream 4 (Kevin Williamson), Submarine (Richard Ayoade), X-Men: First Class (Jane Goldman, Ashley Miller, Bryan Singer, Zack Stentz, Sheldon Turner, and Matthew Vaughn)

Best Original Screenplay: The Beaver (Kyle Killen), Beginners (Mike Mills), Bridesmaids (Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig), Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen), Red State (Kevin Smith)

There you have it, the best and worst that the first half of 2011 had to offer.  Now, it’s your turn to make it known what your top picks were for January through June.  Have at it!


About Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of Indiewire's Criticwire Network as well as the Internet Film Critics Association.