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Movies! 2011!

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Without much preamble, these are my favorite movies that were in theaters between the months of May and August, which I consider to be “the summer months”.  These aren’t necessarily what you think of when considering prototypical summer movies- I didn’t even see Transformers:  Dark of the Moon (which is what I think of when I think of big action blockbusters) or Hangover II (which is the same thing, but with comedy).

These are just 10 movies that I saw last summer that I would recommend to anyone.  Here we go:

The Tree of Life

If I were picking a favorite movie of the whole year, this would probably be it. It is one of those “swing for the fences” movies, which to me are always more exciting than, well, “bunts” I guess. I love that this movie takes big risks and sometimes doesn’t succeed.  I love that some people really hate it- aren’t those the movies that always mean something down the line?  I love that it is as beautiful as watching that Planet Earth series, especially since one of the more common criticisms is that it is no more than a series of unrelated pretty pictures.

I don’t agree with that at all, but I also think that it is a movie that doesn’t bash you over the head to tell you exactly what it is. My brain has been in a million different places this year, and I think this movie is perfect for that mindset. It tells a story, yes, but it lets you decide what the story means to you. Personally, what I saw was beautiful and moving.  I guess I agree with the people who say it is pretentious, but in this case, it earns its pretension. Great, great stuff.

The Trip

A stealth comedy for me; I had no idea how funny I’d find this.  I saw Tristam Shandy, the last collaboration between stars Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom.  I was underwhelmed. The Trip, though… wow. It is the best use of Steve Coogan so far, playing a dickish version of himself, who brings along his puppyish friend Rob on an assignment to review quaint restaurants in Northern England. From there, I was treated to scene after scene of these two guys basically free-associating conversation, from an impromptu eulogy given by Coogan about Brydon, to a much You Tube’d scene of dueling Michael Caine impressions. You get the sense that Coogan and Brydon are recreating actual conversations they have had at one time or another; this is a movie about two really funny guys talking to one another.

Bridesmaids

Not at all a stealth comedy; I fully expected this to be funny. But Bridesmaids was even better than funny- it was grounded in relatable moments and therefore these women were recognizable to anyone who saw it, male or female. The degree of difficulty in making this movie must have been tremendous- how do you make every single member of a fairly large cast unique AND funny? Anyway, Bridesmaids is as good as everyone says it is.  And where I’d love to see this cast work together again, I hope there is no sequel. Comedy sequels are especially difficult to pull off (I can’t really think of one that was good), and I’d hate to see even one bit of varnish on the original.

Fast Five

The best of the blockbuster summer action movies, without a close second. I am on record as enjoying each of the previous four Fast/Furious movies. They are unique in that each one was exactly as good as the one before and after it (but if I had to pick one, I would say go with Tokyo Drift).  But Fast Five made two crucial tweaks, the first being less car thievery, more Ocean’s 11 capery. The second tweak was even more important- add The Rock.  By doing these things, Fast Five transformed itself into something great. Yes, great… because it knows exactly what it is and goes about achieving that with ruthless professionalism. There are set pieces at the beginning of this movie that would be the climax of lesser movies (the train heist comes to mind). This is probably the most Fun (capital ‘F’) movie of the summer.

Meek’s Cutoff

Maybe the least Fun movie of the summer. Its slow, its deliberate, the dialogue is mumbled much of the time, and there is a whole lot of bonnet-wearing, for whatever that is worth. It is also the most suspenseful movie I saw all year. If you submit and put yourself in the place of any of these 1800s settlers who are lost in the Oregon desert, it doesn’t take long to realize how fucked they are. The more you think about it, the more nerve-wracking their situation becomes. Something as simple as a broken wagon wheel absolutely would be devastating, if you really think about it. Then consider the terrain of the unpaved Oregon desert and think about how easy it would be to break one of those wheels. (spoiler alert:  they break a wagon wheel).  I don’t know if my tiny little words can convey how much this movie worked for me, but give it a try- you will be done in 80 minutes or so.

Midnight in Paris

The best Woody Allen movies make me want to live in them, and this is the first one that has done that for me in a long, long time. That may be because the idea of living with, say, Jason Biggs (Anything Else) or Hugh Jackman (Scoop) isn’t that appealing.  Well, maybe Hugh Jackman- the guy seems up for anything, doesn’t he? It would just be hanging with a pal, a “mate”, as they say… Anyway, Paris looks as beautiful here as New York does in some of those classic early Woodys (Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters), which is very beautiful indeed. My only problem with this is that I think that the character of Ines is fairly one-note; she is nothing but an unlikeable, shrill bitch. Other than that, this is my favorite Woody Allen movie since Deconstructing Harry.

X-Men: First Class

As good as X2, with Michael Fassbender as Magneto taking the MVP. The rest of the X-Men here are just fine as well, but Fassbender takes the character and improves on the complexity and darkness of what Ian McKellan brought to him. That can’t be an easy thing to do; maybe one day he’ll play young Gandalf and we can really see how good Fassbender is.

Fright Night

I love the original Fright Night, so I was surprised that I thought this one was just as good. In fact, I’ll say this is the best horror remake since Dawn of the Dead; Colin Farrell brings his own sort of menace to the role of Jerry Dandridge and the story is different enough that the idea of remaking it is warranted. I like the tone that Marti Nixon, a writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought to the movie as well; at the very least, we finally have someone mention how terrible the name “Jerry” is for a vampire.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Maybe the cure to Alzheimer’s isn’t worth it… after seeing this movie (in which the cost to curing the disease is a plague that wipes out the world’s population while simultaneously granting simians super-intelligence) and Deep Blue Sea (in which the cost is smarter/faster/deadlier Mako sharks), maybe we should just leave well enough alone. So much has been said about Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar that I don’t feel like I need to get into it all that much, but I will say that he is the reason to see this movie. Caesar is pretty incredible to watch, and the movie gets better the more you think about how they achieved it.

Combo:  Non-monster sequences of Super-8 and first half of Friends with Benefits

Super 8 was wonderful until the pay-off of the monster, when it became generic feeling to me. Still, I can’t deny that those early scenes created a sense of nostalgia in me, which seemed to be the mission statement of the movie. Friends with Benefits followed the trajectory of a typical romantic comedy, but was much funnier and smarter than most of its ilk. Until the movie got to the inevitable “pseudo-break up” of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake before the equally inevitable “reconciliation”, Friends with Benefits was about as good as one of these movies get.

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