We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
Pat yourself on back, moviegoers - we're halfway there. We've traversed through ugly January and February films (Big Momma's: Like Father, Like Son), survived a barrage of 3D (Hop, Gnomeo and Juliet), and I personally live to tell the tale of the year's worst movie, Beastly. Now it's time to celebrate the triumphs of 2011, of which there are certainly a few. Some of them will even be part of the entire year's best films. I don't anticipate Beginners, Win Win, The Tree of Life, or even Midnight in Paris to be pushed out of Oscar-conscience any time soon.
7. Fast Five
Recap: Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) get put on the top of the Feds most wanted list after a prison break and dead DEA agents. They two bring a gang of drivers together to pull one last job in Rio De Janeiro. Reason: Fast Five is enjoyable in all of its magnitude. The acting is hilarious, the tough-guy lines were very amusing, and the action worked on the mechanical level of The Dark Knight more than any regular action movie. Its action scenes were meticulously engineered, and embraced the idea of logic only when it looked cool. Sending the guys with a car over a cliff? Sure, they’ll do it. Dragging a bank vault around with two cars and two chains? Yeah, it’ll be done.
For a movie like Fast Five, the film gives the audience everything they paid for, and even more. It's two-hour plus length makes it feel like its never going to end, which is wonderful. Its a movie that you don’t want to stop.
6. Midnight in Paris
Recap: At the stroke of midnight, a struggling novelist in 2010 (Owen Wilson) is strangely carried off by a car to the 1920's, where he hangs out with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and the mistress of Pablo Picasso (Marion Cotillard). Reason: Midnight in Paris is a pleasing little gift from a filmmaker whose lighter work can be just as fulfilling as his heavier stories. Here, the neuroses of characters are relatively tranquil, and the general magic of nostalgia is at the forefront. A large chunk of Midnight’s thrill is its presentation in showing artists that we have forgotten – even if the movie likes to slow itself down a bit in order to make these references, and for Allen to toy with the existence of art’s most important characters. Packing his sweet short story with quaint poetic irony and purely beautiful imagery, Allen succeeds in showing his audience of temporary tourists that Paris is indeed a city where history’s finest artists can create some of their most inspired work.
Recap: A 16-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) raised by her father (Eric Bana) is on the run from the CIA, who mysteriously want her dead at all costs. Reason: Hanna isn’t the usual action thriller, especially when considering American standards for that genre. It’s very capable of offering some great action (the overall amount is aplenty), yet at the same time it can be just as intensely quiet, embracing subtlety as if it were a whole different creature. More correlative to the pacing of a movie like Run Lola Run than a lazy association like Kick-Ass, Hanna is a movie that books it with all of its might during some scenes, as fueled by pulsating adrenaline from the Chemical Brothers. During other moments, Hanna walks coolly away from its violent aspects. Constantly thoughtful when working through somewhat familiar emotional and physical territories, Hanna rarely fails to sneak up and surprise its audience.
4. X-Men: First Class
Recap: A group of superhuman beings band together to stop an evil all-powerful mutant from manipulating the start of World War III. Reason: X-Men: First Class acknowledges the power of the minds with its frugal use of hand-to-hand combat and creates something more important than a clashing of freaky capabilities. In fact, when it does finally give its audience a fight scene or two, these moments are the least interesting. This film is so sharp that it make stand-off situations, which are truly meeting of minds, to be more exciting and intense than elaborate destruction and all-out chaos. Its packing of subtext and true emotion even shows how thoughtful the concept of the entire X-Men universe can be. As with any battle, whether it be mutant vs. mutant or mutant movie vs. audience, X-Men: First Class makes it clear that the most important weapon is not brawn, but brains.
3. Win Win
Recap: A lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) suffers from stress as he struggles to make financial ends meet. Things become even more complicated when his client’s grandson, Kyle (Shaffer), shows up at his door. Reason: Win Win is an indie underdog that tells its story about real people with real problems using the same spirit of Frank Capra, the director who gave America (and the world) It’s A Wonderful Life. Genuine humor is mixed beautifully with emotional moments that exhilarate the human spirit, without having to solely rely on a sports metaphor or scene at a championship event. Its moral sense is portrayed expertly, with the film having optimism for its characters, and even more wonderfully, its audience.
2. The Tree of Life
Recap: The story of a midwestern family in the 1950′s, and a boy’s (Hunter McCracken) struggle to connect with his father (Brad Pitt). Reason: Whether we can immediately comprehend it or not, The Tree of Life is the new 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it will be for quite some time. Malick’s film doesn’t earn this high distinction just because it features an “experimental” sequence mixed with an obscure narrative. It’s also for the fact that The Tree of Life has the ability to cast spells on its audience, as its gorgeous aesthetics completely immerse the viewer into its spirit for extensive amounts of time.
Recap: When Oliver (Ewan McGregor) meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Mélanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away, this new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who – following 44 years of marriage – came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. (SXSW synopsis) Reason: Mike Mills’ Beginners is a positively alluring act of complete catharsis – a testament to the idea that an artist can find the greatest truths in life, love, and death by increasing the understanding of their own souls. Told delicately through three praiseworthy performances from Laurent, McGregor, and Plummer, the film offers fantastic imagery to go with its natural quirkiness, all of it blanketed by an undeniable honesty about love and death that is never abandoned for melodrama. Tapping into elements of love such as Freud and Jelly Roll Morton, Mills has created something that might even register along with the more romantic corners of Woody Allen’s filmography. Like something with the barometer of frank force that makes Annie Hall so fantastic, Beginners is a film that can be as gorgeously personal for its audience as it is for this courageous filmmaker.