Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Movie Honors in 2011

Top 10 lists never seems to be enough to tell you about all the quality cinema within a given year. 2011, like so many other years housed a plethora of good movies that I feel like I need to share with all of you. In order to do that the way I see fit, I've decided to break down 2011's best films into ten genre based categories i.e. Foreign, Drama, Horror, Festivals, etc. You'll notice there isn't a set number of films in each group, just the titles I felt necessary to share from this calendar year under my criteria for consideration (films must have at least a New and York and Los Angeles limited release within the calendar year to be considered). Some categories are low because of so few quality titles or because I did not see enough quality titles in that particular sub-category to include more. There is also no set ranking here, the titles are just listed in random order. So without further ado, here we go...

Top Foreign Films in 2011

13 Assassins
Japanese director Takashi Miike is a beast when it comes to making movies. Every year it seems he turns out multiple films and each year they are not only worth watching but memorable. This year Miike's 13 Assassins easily made my list. Its a thrilling action that was on a number of year end lists in 2010, but based off my own qualifications 13 Assassins only played festivals within the United States barring it from consideration until this year. 13 Assassins follows a group of assassins that come together to seek revenge on an evil lord in 19th century Japan, a time when the samurai was losing his stature and power. The action has a delicate build to a relentless 3rd act that should not be missed. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray and DVD

A Somewhat Gentle Man
This one of the first movies I saw in 2011. Highly praised at a number of festivals in 2010, A Somewhat Gentle Man was a film I had to see. The comedy/drama follows Ulrik, a Norwegian man (Stellan Skarsgård) who has been released from prison after doing a twelve year stint and must readjust to life outside of prison. The dark comedy left me with a stitch in my side from all the laughter stemming from the situations Ulrik has to cope with in regular life. The foreign comedy has a dry sense of humor that isn't for everyone but I really found it be a nice surprise. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full review)

Coming of age stories always intrigue me, and this wonderful little British comedy received high praise from 2011's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah making it a must see for me. Richard Ayoade's directorial debut follows Oliver Tate, a fifteen year-old who is dedicated to loosing his virginity before his next birthday. The comedy is snappy and filled with witty dialogue that is prime for continuous laughter. Oliver is a hilarious character and actor Craig Roberts does a notable job in the lead. Actors Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, and Paddy Considine too deliver performances that help to make this comedy a memorable one. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

The Last Circus
From the first production still and plot description I was bent on seeing this movie. Then it played Fantastic Fest in 2010 to rave reviews making that unwavering desire to see it even stronger. Set in Spain and spanning multiple decades the horror tells a multi-generational story of a father and son who are clowns. The film focuses mainly on the son, who must play the role of the sad clown. The Last Circus is like a opera without any singing. It is a beautiful tragedy. It is over-the-top and totally insane in moments and absolutely gut wrenching in others. It is heavy-handed yet carries a certain level of grace and sophistication. The easiest way to describe it is stunning. It is a movie I will gladly keep on my shelf for many many years and share with as many people as I can. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray and DVD

The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar is one of those directors that if he made it, it is worth watching. Not all of his films have been my absolute favorites, but nonetheless his movies always make me think. His latest is no different. The Skin I Live In threw me through the ringer. I tend to like revenge movies and boy is this ever one of the craziest tit for tat stories I've seen in some time. I'm not going to spoil any of the details to this film, all you need to know is Pedro Almodóvar directed, Antonio Banderas gives a spectacular performance, and it is fabulous. It also contains one of my favorite scores in 2011 by Alberto Iglesias. Availability: Currently in Theaters/Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on March 6th, 2012.

The Yellow Sea
This is one of the best thrillers I have seen in years. Brutal and thrilling from beginning to end. The story follows a cab driver whose wife has gone missing and the lengths he is willing to go through in order to try and find her. Director Hong-jin Na is really setting a standard for edge of your seat thrillers. The Yellow Sea features some of the best and most grueling action I've seen this year. It also houses one of the best knife fights I've seen in a long while. Availability: Import Blu-Ray or DVD

Cold Fish
Every since I saw "Suicide Club" I knew Japanese director Shion Sono was someone I needed to keep my eye on and Cold Fish is another example of why I was right. This thriller is about the lengths one can push another individual, ultimately creating a killer. It is hilarious in moments, erotic in others but horrific throughout. Most of all Japanese actor Denden delivers an award worthy portrayal of a serial killer that caught me by surprise and left me stunned. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

I Saw the Devil
Earlier I said "The Skin I Live In" was one of the craziest revenge movies in 2011 and I stand by that but I Saw the Devil is one of the most relentless revenge films ever. The story follows a secret agent whose pregnant fiancee is murdered by a local South Korean serial killer. The secret agent takes matters into his own hands setting out punish the serial killer repeatedly. When I say repeatedly, I mean it, in a catch and release method the secret agent really puts a stretches the limits of what we thought the human body could endure and still live. The horror is not an easy watch and certainly contains a number of scenes that could make squeamish audiences turn their heads but it is well worth it. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Shot in a documentary fashion this enjoyable fantasy horror follows a group of college students who are ghosting a Norwegian trollhunter. The film provides a number of chills and thrills as well as some fun action following the trollhunter as he takes on trolls throughout Norway. For a low budget found footage movie, I really dug the troll encounters and the tension each capture would contain. This is another horror that I would happily own and show off to friends for years to come. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Top Documentary Films in 2011

I hate car racing. It bores me. I like cars, but car racing, not interested. In comes Senna a documentary I'd heard absolutely nothing but positive about. Like-minded people who do not fancy car racing raved about this doc, so I had to give it a chance. They were right! Senna is a beautiful and painful human story about one of the world's best Formula One racers. He was an hero to Brazil, his home country and a icon to so many other Formula One drivers. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray, DVD

Project Nim
No other documentary took me through such an emotional roller coaster than Project Nim in 2011. The doc follows a chimpanzee throughout his life who was used in a scientific research. The research, if a chimpanzee could string words together to formulate sentences and communicate with humans. This movie made me laugh and cry. It infuriated me and fascinated me. It is a documentary that certainly deserves a look. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on February 7th, 2012.

Errol Morris is one of those filmmakers that when he makes a new documentary, you should probably watch it. Once again Morris delivers a engaging focus point, a sizzling tale about a former Miss Wyoming who was charged with abducting a young Mormon missionary into sexual escapades. The documentary is consuming. Listening to Joyce McKinney as she recants her side of the story is like the best gossip from co-workers or friends. The documentary isn't really an awareness documentary with some mission to it but instead just an eye-opener to one crazy story that is a lot of fun to listen to. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray, DVD

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Love him or hate him the kid has talent and this concert documentary displays that talent in a way that may make a few new fans of the pop star. Before seeing this documentary I'd never heard a full track of Justin Bieber, after watching, I bought his album. I'm not saying this movie will make you into a listener of his music but it will open your eyes to his talent. Not only that but Bieber is a true internet sensation and director Jon M. Chu does a solid job of documenting it and re-creating some of the fan fervor this Canadian kid has created by uploading some tracks to youtube. Regardless of your opinion on the pop star, this is a documentary that is worth watching just for the human story of this kid propelling himself from nothing to selling out Madison Square Garden. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

How to Die in Oregon
Assisted suicide is a loaded topic of discussion, one that many of us probably have very heavy beliefs and/or opinions about.  How to Die in Oregon is a touching doc that focuses on a number of patients who have chosen to use assisted suicide under Oregon's state law. The film chronicles the various subjects from different periods in their decision making process to the final day. Let me just say that this documentary does not hold back very much if at all. A few subjects leave the actual passing out of the documentary but the impact is still there. This is one that left me thinking long and hard about my own feelings on this matter. The documentary has an agenda, but it is presented in a way that is not overbearing. Availability: Releases on DVD February 14th, 2012

Page One: Inside the New York Times
The transformation of how we get our news since the birth of the internet is a fascinating topic. The internet changed news and how we absorb it.  Page One is a consuming documentary chronicling one year inside the New York Times media desk, a department that was created to cover the transformation of the media industry. The film digs into aggregate journalism something that I myself am apart of. When I first started this blog much of my day-to-day post were nothing more than aggregate journalism. Scouring the net for movie related news, then posting the information with my thoughts on the particular subject. There are thousands of sites just like mine doing the exact same thing. And I'm only covering entertainment industry news, there are bloggers covering world, political and local news as well. Perhaps this doc hit a little closer to home because of the blogging I do and how other people like myself have changed how people take in their news for better or for worse. It is a fascinating subject that is still evolving and Page One does a stellar job of illustrating the whole picture. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Top Animated Films in 2011

Winnie the Pooh
Disney went old school and it totally worked. I've been begging for a call back to hand drawn Disney animation and it looks like I wasn't the only one, Winnie the Pooh is a return to the old bear we've known for so many years. Availability:  Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

The Adventures of Tintin
Tintin is a big ball of fun! It reminds me of all the adventure movies I loved growing up. It is a genuine blast! Steven Spielberg shows us that even with the 3D cgi motion capture action, he still knows how to direct a thrilling adventure around the globe. The movie also contains the best one track shot in all of 2011. Availability: Currently in Theaters

Kung Fu Panda 2
The first Kung Fu Panda is a lot of fun and the sequel didn't disappoint. One testament to the sequel is that it doesn't necessarily feel like a sequel, it could very well stand on its own. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

I've always been a big fan of westerns and Rango is just a fun western playing into all the typical tropes of the genre. It moves along a fun pace that will keep audiences of all ages engaged and houses some stunning animation that wasn't created by the juggernaut that is Pixar. One thing I loved about this movie was its ability to make the cgi desert creatures look authentic. Some of these desert animals are ugly and kinda scary to look at and I applaud that they didn't try to make them look cutesy in fear of scaring little children. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Top Comedy or Musical Films in 2011

The Guard
Technically, this film should be in the Foreign category being made in Ireland, but it is so damn funny that there is no way I could not include it in the Comedy category. Brendan Gleeson plays Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a unorthodox Irish police officer who is blessed with the gift of wit. Gleeson is a riot in the role. Nearly every line of dialogue can be mined for some form of laughter based off Gleeson's confrontational and sarcastic portrayal. Don Cheadle also stars as an uptight American FBI agent who finds himself unexpectedly working alongside the quick-tongued Sergeant Boyle. The laughter in this comedy stems from a darker more dry place, but it is nonetheless side-splitting. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 3rd, 2012.

One of the funniest movies of the year. What looked to be just another ensemble comedy ended up being a hilarious vehicle for longtime SNL regular Kristen Wiig to show of her wit. A rising comedy that had me crying from laughing so hard. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen back in top form with a film that appeared to be just another romantic comedy set in Paris but ended up being a superb homage to drawing inspiration from Paris. Owen Wilson delivers a first-class portrayal of a man awe inspired of the history that unfolds at night in Paris. A Woody Allen film always deserves a look but this one deserves a buy. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

The Muppets
The Muppets make their return and it was everything I could have hoped for. It made me laugh, it made me cry, hell it made me laugh and cry at the same time. The film is connectable for old fans of the Muppets while also easily attachable for a new generation. As a friend described to me after seeing the film, "Its like a nostalgic blanket of joy." A statement I couldn't agree more with. The Muppets is a joyful return to a group of characters I've cherished for a long time. Availability: Currently in Theaters

The Trip
Another film I could technically place in the Foreign category because it is from the UK but it is an absolute scream and I've placed it here instead. The film is a cut-down version taken from a six-episode UK television series. The Trip follows Steve Coogan who has been asked to tour and review six of the country's best restaurants. When his girlfriend backs out on going, Coogan is forced to call a friend to tag along who is also a constant source of vexation. Coogan and Rob Brydon who have collaborated previously in "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" are dynamic together. The duo really just work fabulously off each other providing continuous laughter. The fact that this film also mirrors as a food/travel show really adds something I extra, pardon the pun, ate up. I love travel and eating shows and The Trip very much plays itself like a mockumentary of that type of programming. Think Anthony Bourdain without the clever insight and just a ton of jokes. The movie is great but I also recommend tracking down the six episode series from the UK as well. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray, and DVD

Top Horror Films in 2011

Some would want to argue its placement in Horror, but Steven Soderbergh's film is exactly that. Contagion is a gripping look at a horrifying virus and its spread across the world that is sharply put together and executed. It may not be a Horror in terms of a masked killer running around, but the elements of horror are all over this film like germs in a public bathroom. Cliff Martinez deserves major credit for creating one of the year's best score's, an odd combination of unnerving and addicting. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 3rd, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin
A must see film. A haunting horror about a mother who fails to develop a motherly bond with her first born son. Tilda Swinton delivers a chilling portrayal that could easily warrant an award. We Need to Talk About Kevin really worked under my skin because of the way it is structured and executed. The film leaves a lot of development untouched and opens more questions than it actually answers but it stayed with me after the fact. The film feels like a slap in the face to American parenting but it also raises a question on whether the film would reach the same outcome even if every precautionary step was taken. It is a film that will leave you talking and discussing with everyone who has seen it. Availability: Releases in limited Theaters on January 20th, 2012

On paper this looks like another haunted house movie with all of the typical elements in place and while that all may be completely true, the James Wan directed horror still works in tremendous fashion. It provided scares in all the right moments, maintained a level of paranoia and unknown throughout the tale, and most importantly had a assembly of characters I didn't spend the movie picking apart. Insidious also holds one of the better haunting figures in 2011. The demon which looks like half goat and half Darth Maul really stayed with me after watching. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Blu-Ray, and DVD

Paranormal Activity 3
The third film in the mega-successful franchise is probably the most rewarding of the entire trilogy. This time the focus is on young Katie and Kristi and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman find inventive ways to keep the same paranormal shenanigans going on back in the 1980's while being recorded via VHS tapes. As you'd expect Paranormal Activity 3 hosts a bunch of jumps and a ton of thrills and just enough new backstory to keep the audiences coming back for more. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 24th, 2012 (Full Review)

Top Thriller or Sci-Fi Films in 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
A movie I waited all year long for and boy was it ever worth the wait, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a sophisticated spy thriller that is builds its intricate web of elusiveness with absolute precision. The period thriller is gorgeous to look at and should warrant itself a Academy Award nomination for the wardrobe/costuming if nothing else. Director Tomas Alfredson made a quiet thriller that takes a lot of patience and certain level of concentration to follow but packs a near-perfect riveting finish. This is the kind of film that deserves multiple viewings to decode and decipher all of the covert action and subtle details that are laced throughout the absorbing story. Finally the film belongs in a category of best use of score this year with Alberto Iglesias's jazzy and elegant original music. Availability: Currently in Limited Theaters/Expands Nationwide January 6th, 2012

The Lincoln Lawyer
Here's a film that I did not expect to any good. Over the year I've grown fairly weary for law procedural dramas or thrillers, but The Lincoln Lawyer is so good I finished it hoping to see further installments of defense attorney Mick Haller in action. Sophomore director Brad Furman didn't re-invent the wheel by any means but what he did do was put together a smart thriller that pushes all the right buttons at all the right moments. It helps that Matthew McConaughey was made for the sleazy lawyer role. The Lincoln Lawyer has a great cast, a engaging story, and really is an unexpected treasure in 2011. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
A reboot that actually did reboot the storyline instead of just start over. Rise to the Planet of the Apes may have given a few slight nods to the original franchise but this origin story sets up a whole new storyline that focuses on new more current political issues than retreading back through the old threat of nuclear war themes from the previous installments. This reboot firmly establishes a new timeline that 20th Century Fox should pursue with further installments under the 'Apes' banner.  Rise also captures yet another enthralling motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Serkis brings Caesar to life like a real character. It really is a sight to behold. Serkis quite honestly deserves a nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Attack the Block
One of the most buzzed about films in 2011 and for a very good reasons, Attack the Block is filled with thrills, chills, laughs and pure gratification. Set in the UK a group of teen hoods come face to face with an alien invasion and set out to protect their neighborhood. The action comedy has witty dialogue throughout and a cast of teen actors that make each of the characters new favorites to enjoy repeatedly. The creature effects and action provide all of the chills and thrills but it be a sin not to mention Steven Price's entrancing score that helps to propel the adventure along. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I'm going to account for this as one film. I skipped watching Part 1 in 2010 so that I could enjoy the finale of the franchise as one lengthy experience in 2011. I've never read the Harry Potter books so each film was all new to me and reaching the conclusion in these final two parts was a bitter sweet affair. Simply put, I loved The Deathly Hallows. It is not my favorite of the Harry Potter movies, but it was a thrilling finish to a franchise I enjoy and a wonderful conclusion that served me through a full range of emotions. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Hobo with a Shotgun
A new breed of melodrama grindhouse that wont be for everyone but for those that enjoy offbeat extremely violent satire, you are going to eat up Hobo with a Shotgun like broken glass. It does an excellent job of playing to its audience. It is a 21st century film that feels like it could have come from the 80's. It is excessive, hyper-violent and full of energy. It is flawed but overall it is a widely enjoyable film that quickly will become a new favorite of mine. A grindhouse I can easily watch over and over and show to anyone in the mood for a violent and extravagant experience. Lastly, I have to thank Jason Eisener for giving me another Rutger Hauer role to love. I grew up with Hauer and seeing him on screen again which so much passion and vigor really was a dream come true.  Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Top Action/Adventure Films in 2011

Fast Five
Its strange when you are watching the fifth movie in a so-so franchise and realize its finally caught its stride, but that was the sensation that zoomed over me while watching Fast Five. The fifth installment in the franchise embraced all the right components of the previous movies and put them together in one magnetic action. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

The best assassin thriller movie I never expected. Hanna has incredible balance. It works as a simple suspense action. It works as fish out of water drama. It works as a fairy tale. It works as a espionage thriller. It works as a coming of age tale. It also works collaboratively between all of these various subplots. All of the various levels come together quite nicely and make a exhilarating cinematic experience. Finally it would be a sin to not make mention of The Chemical Brothers hypnotic score. The score energizes all the action while also having an enchanted and playful feel for the more fairy tale elements on display. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Martin Scorsese decided to try his hand at 3D and it ended up being a wonderful love note to filmmaking and the movies. The basic story is about one boy finding his place in life but there is so much more happening within the film that is a real joy to experience. Multiple times throughout the film I was rejuvenated with the spirit of why I love watching film so much. Martin Scorsese really has an adventure to tell in Hugo and while he tells it we realize how much cinema and the art of preserving film means to him (or how much it should mean to all of us). Availability: Currently in Theaters

Captain America: First Avenger
The best Marvel studio movie since Iron Man back in 2008. Director Joe Johnston brought the right bit of classic nostalgia and adventure to a period action with a lot riding on its success. Growing up I read a lot of Captain America and it goes without saying I was very nervous about how this project would turn out. The final product shows that Marvel took extra care with this banner character ensuring a quality product was turned out. The film kept a smile on my face from ear to ear and despite having a rushed finale really was a exceptional experience in 2011. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

X-Men: First Class
Before First Class X-Men fans were pretty weary about anything 20th Century Fox was releasing under the X-Men banner. I mean Fox shit the bed with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and restoring faith seemed like mission impossible but low and behold they pulled it off. First Class is actually my favorite of the X-Men movies Fox has turned out. They went out and got a quality cast, created a engaging script that incorporated historical events providing an extra sense of intrigue, and made it all come together in brilliant fashion. Fingers crossed Fox continues with the First Class storyline and doesn't squander away the good faith restored with this installment. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Director Brad Bird comes along and makes Mission: Impossible worth talking about again. M:I-4 has a wafer thin plot and a forgettable villain but it houses some of the best action sequences of not only the year, but of the entire Mission: Impossible franchise. Availability: Currently in Theaters

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
There is only one reason this movie made my list, the last hour of it. The last hour of this action is an all out assault on your senses seen in the right confines. The Chicago sequence in 3D true IMAX was a sight to behold. It was again, an assault on the senses. Much of it is completely ridiculous and the movie is by and large a over-long mess but this finale makes it all worth watching. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Top Drama/Comedy Films in 2011

Often times my favorite movies come from a very personal place. Something that while watching you can connect with because it feels natural. The film and its characters do not come across as a charade, as some put-on or laced with fantasy but instead something that is very close to a writer/director's chest and utterly authentic. Ceremony is one of those movies. It is undeniably charming and repeatedly hysterical. It is a film that grabbed my attention from the onset with its abrupt start and never let go. A good portion of that rests in the hands of the versed cast but the real meat of it comes from the incredibly talented first time writer and director Max Winkler. A man who now has my undivided attention for any forthcoming future endeavors. Availability: Blu-Ray, DVD, and Netflix Watch-Instantly (Full Review)

The Descendants
One thing that rings true about every single film featured in this category is its ability to have a simple story that focuses on basic human characteristics. Stories that we all can connect with. Movies that feel real and are about people that feel real. These movies I connect with like no other because they are raw stories that get my natural instincts. They aren't forced or derivative they are natural.  The Descendants in particular illustrates a genuine balance. The film tells a tragic story in a funny way revolving around a husband and father who must confront the fact that his wife is dying and he must now raise his two daughters on his own. This is a movie that wears real life on its sleeve giving the audience a balance of emotion like none other in 2011. George Clooney gives yet another fantastic performance that could easily earn him awards. Availability: Currently in Theaters

The Myth of the American Sleepover
The Myth of the American Sleepover is a gentle, timeless look at the wonderment and exploration of our youth. It is a poignant coming of age tale told from four main characters perspectives as they move through the final weekend of summer. Writer and director David Robert Mitchell deliveres a beautiful film fixed on expressing true human emotions in a dream-like state. Emotions audiences far and wide will be able to relate with because of their universal connectivity. Availability: Netflix Watch-Instantly, Releases on DVD February 28th, 2012 (Full Review)

A simple film that covers some heavy material. It is whimsical, passionate and smart when it needs to be. It is a brave film that feels extremely close to the chest of writer/director Mike Mills yet it is familiar enough that everyone watching will take something away from it. Its non-linear structure does leave the film feeling a little disjointed but in the confides of the story, memories are rarely pragmatic so it is easily rationalized away. Overall this a touching drama that I'd recommend any adult to see. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

50/50 is an emotionally enriching experience. It houses great laughs, a few tears and some very warm unexpected moments. It is hard hitting when it needs to be and satirical in all the right places. Director Jonathan Levine demonstrates an ability to capture some of the more gentile moments in a battle we can all associate with and balance them in between heartbreaking drama and generous humor. 50/50 is by all means one of the most touching and hilarious films of the year. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD January 24th, 2012 (Full Review)

Everything Must Go
Will Ferrell delivers a dynamite performance as a middle aged alcoholic who loses his wife and job on the same day in an unexpectedly good dark comedy. There is nothing new about Everything Must Go in terms of themes being covered. I'd describe it as a watered down "Bad Santa" without Christmas as the backdrop. Saying watered down isn't being fair because the relapse dramedy has its own heart that really shines through, what I meant is without all the extreme bad language and adult situations Bad Santa contained. It takes another person (who happens to be a child) to help the character learn to better himself. It was nice to see Ferrell not goofing off for a change and he really brought his A game to this quiet independent film. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Top Drama Films in 2011

Meek's Cutoff
I went to college wanting to be a history teacher. All of my upper division focus and research was on Manifest Destiny and the New West movement. Anything having to do with the expansion and development of the western American territories post of the Louisiana Purchase I wanted to soak up and learn as much about. Enter Meek's Cutoff, a film as a historian, I ate up. Not so much because of the story and its historical significance but because of the way it completely submerses the audience into the experience. Historically, the film is actually awful at explaining what you are witnessing. There is no setup whatsoever and it finishes off with what could be mistaken as an ambiguous ending. The drama is more of a companion piece for someone who already knows the historical background to the infamous Oregon Trail blazed by Stephen Meek and a number of emigrant settlers across the rugged desert. This is a "what they went through" and not a "lets give you a history lesson" film. While I appreciate both types, I've come to enjoy historical films that expect their viewers have a little background knowledge before going in. It allows the filmmaker to focus on the content, characters and their emotions rather than detailing all of the historical specifics. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

The Ides of March
An engaging drama that focuses on one political staffer getting a lesson in politics while working for a Presidential candidate on the campaign. The Ides of March houses three award worthy performances from Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti. Gosling carries the film without error however both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti overshadow him each in their own pivotal scene. Outside of all the caliber performances, Ides delivers a powerhouse drama illustrating the power political ideologies can have over the masses as well as a crash course in how cutthroat politics can be. Availability: Currently in Limited Theaters, Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 17th, 2012

The Tree of Life
There are things we rarely talk about with other people. Things we internalize and wrestle with ourselves. Questions about who we are and how we became the people we are. Thoughts about what happens when we die. Questions that can be traced back to our upbringing and our parents but also things that are inherent in everyone and everything. Broad stroking questions and/or themes that have been prevalent since the dawn of existence. The Tree of Life comes across as director Terrence Malick's personal thought process through a variety of these massive over-arching questions that we all can relate with. It is poetically inspired, visually stunning and a daring expression of one person's tussle with the questions of life. It is a film that feels inherently personal yet is equally universal. It is a experience like none other, a film that houses fantastic performances conveying honest questions about faith, the meaning of life and innocence. See it, absorb it and discuss it. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Moneyball is a very quiet film that started to work its magic on me after seeing it. It is one of those movies that gave me a huge "aha" moment after watching and just blew me away. On the surface the drama is a nuts and bolts movie about the inner-workings of MLB management. A movie that could alienate some audiences with all of the baseball lingo and statistics but the human element really carries all of the weight. Moneyball  hits a home run with its subtle yet profound message about our own ambitions and determinations in life. Brad Pitt delivers a subdued portrayal as the A's general manager Billy Beane that really helped to build the human element to the drama. Availability: Currently in Limited Theaters, Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD on January 10th, 2012

Drive represents a new western set in modern Los Angeles. The drama takes risks that pay off time and time again like little exchanges between Irene and the Driver where no words are said yet all the emotions are conveyed. There is a crazy balance in Drive that is steady and reserved but peppered with brutality and volatile eruption. It feels like Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to make a throwback that paid homage to the thrillers and muscle car movies of the 1970's while it also comes across as a slap in the face to the conventional blockbuster action movie. It plays off stereotypes we see repeatedly and it could have very easily came across cliched and trite but instead it is handled with precision, care, and attention. Drive is a breath of fresh air and reminds us that not all of our heroes have to have a name or even a backstory to leave a lasting effect. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD January 31st, 2012 (Full Review)

Jane Eyre
I remember being assigned to read this book in high school and hating it. In fact, I did not read more than the first four or five chapters before just saying, "screw it, I'm not finishing this." Fast forward twenty years and enter director Cary Fukunaga who gained my undivided attention with "Sin Nombre" decided to adapted the story and I had to give it a watch. That watch was well worth it, Jane Eyre is absolutely stirring. It is a elegantly told gut-wrenching love story. Both Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender deliver striking performances that capture the full joys and pains of undying love. I've yet to watch any other versions of this classic tale and for my money, I've got my definitive version thanks to Cary Fukunaga's direction. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

The Help
Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name, The Help is not based on a true story although it certainly details aspects of a long standing subculture inherent in south. In actuality, the novel started off as a way author Kathryn Stockett used to remember a maid/nanny she was co-raised by. What the book (and film) became however, is much more meaningful. It is a powerful snapshot of how bravery the of a few people can inspire change in many. The period drama is an emotional experience that balances rage, sorrow and gratification in a nearly-spotless fashion. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

A Better Life
On the surface A Better Life is a compelling drama about a father and a son. Focusing on a father trying to teach his son to be a better man. Underneath that tried and true theme however is a much bigger story of a illegal immigrant trying to remain invisible in East Los Angeles while also providing for his son. This is a political drama without ever standing on a soapbox. The story is divisive in that it has a message it is pushing on its audience, but at the same time it never becomes the bleeding-heart that you could expect from a drama with ulterior motives. This is instead a poignant story of what continually happens in the United States. It is a political hot spot that causes plenty of debate on both sides of the topic, however this film presents the situation (or controversy) in the simplest of terms, raw human emotion. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD (Full Review)

Take Shelter
There is a recognizable weight upon a father's shoulders knowing full well they hold the livelihood of others in their hands. Take Shelter sets its sights on a father who fears something terrible is coming and must prepare his family for the worst. Each of his decisions effect all the people he loves tremendously. As a father, I found the drama directed by Jeff Nichols to be bone chilling and unnerving through and through. On the surface, the film focuses on a father/husband whose world is crashing down because he is having paranoid delusions about an apocalyptic future, but beneath the surface the film feels like a stark metaphor for a worsening economic climate. What makes the film so terrific is that both the literal and figurative definitions work without error. Availability: Releases on Blu-Ray and DVD February 14th, 2012 (Full Review)

Warrior is an assault on your emotions. The film batters you all the way through with emotional punch after punch after punch. It is utterly manipulative and entirely on the nose. Everything is written to conjure some specific emotion within the audience. Thing is, despite it being very obvious how much this movie wants to emotionally tear you apart, it works. Part of what makes Warrior  work is the devastating performances by both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. Both sides of this story build beautifully. The opposite stories contrast one another and also mirror each other following two estranged brothers seeking the same goal for different reasons. Much like so many other movies within this list, Warrior feels close to director Gavin O'Connor. There is something he is working through within this film and the culmination is tremendous. The body language that is developed between the brothers in the final fight is utterly remarkable. I could feel each and every punch and kick coming across clear as dialogue. Finally, Warrior features the best bookend of music this year with The National's two song's "Start a War" and "Today." Both songs are a perfect match to film and its destination. Availability: Blu-Ray and DVD

Top Festival Films in 2011

The Invader (L'envahisseur)
It is clear with his feature length debut director Nicolas Provost wanted to make a splash and he certainly achieved that with The Invader. It is a film that soothes, shocks, leaving you bewildered and needing to reflect. It is uncharacteristic look at an immigrant vying to figure out how he fits in and exactly who he is but it is also a haunting tale that leaves the audience thinking about the impact Amadou is certain leave with them. Availability: TBD (Full Review)

Rabies (Kalevet)
The best horror movie I saw this year! Rabies is not your traditional horror, instead it plays off all the typical tropes we've seen reused time and time again in countless horror movies. This film surprised me repeatedly which tends to be a hard thing in horror these days. Every time you think you know what is about to happen, Rabies flips it on you. I really hope this film Isreali horror film finds itself a US release in some form so others can enjoy a true change of pace in horror. Availability: TBD

The Loneliest Planet
I saw a lot of quite movies with very little happening throughout 2011 but none that affected me as much as  The Loneliest Planet did. The film follows a young couple as they backpack through the Georgian wilderness. The film plays the off the notion how one gesture can change the entire dynamic of a relationship. The film builds slowly capturing the gorgeous Georgian countryside in a very strange enclosed way. Director Julia Loktev does a compelling job of keeping the audience secure within the confines she wants. For instance we never see the sky, giving a feeling of entrapment within a majesty of the wilderness. Availability: 2012 TBD

Beyond the Black Rainbow
Easily the most interesting experience I faced in a movie theater. It is an endurance challenge that most will not want to take. It is psychedelic, hypnotic, tedious, and eerie. Described to me as John Carpenter meets Stanley Kubric, it is clear that director Panos Cosmatos was going for a different feel to his film and wanted to challenge his audience. The film only runs 110 minutes yet it feels like a 180 minute experience. Its a movie that you can take a deep sigh of relief once its finished, but then it begins to work its magic. Beyond the Black Rainbow stays with you and infects you like a virus. I saw this film at AFI Film Festival and I wanted to see it again later on in the fest It is a film that I would proudly own and test out on would-be victims from time to time. Availability: 2012 TBD

The Innkeepers
A skeptic ghost story. A film that builds off the conventions of what we believe to be a paranormal haunting and raises the question, what is actually happening? Is there a ghost or are we just psyching ourselves out? Ti West is a brilliant director and really knows how to play with the confines of horror and here in The Innkeepers he does exactly that. By the end of the movie, audiences could have a valid argument about what occurred and both sides could have valid grounds. There is a bit ambiguity to Ti West's tale that again, leaves it up to the audience to decide what actually happened. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy work incredibly well off each other as the last two employees working on the last days of a old Inn deemed to be closed. Healy provides laughs in basically every scene he is in and Paxton is pitch perfect in the lead. Availability: Currently available via VOD, Releases in limited Theaters Feburary 3rd, 2012

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre)
Director Nacho Vigalondo seized my attention with "Timecrimes" so I had to see his follow-up. Extraterrestrial is a real funny romantic comedy. Nacho described it himself as Three's Company with an alien invasion going on in the background, which is a pretty accurate description. The romantic comedy is filled to the brim with laughs. Nacho shows off his dialogue skills displaying a uncanny ability to write engaging and hysterical comedy that provides a ton of laughs and feels natural. The cast also helps to ring in the laughs as does the situations that Nacho sets up the romantic triangle set to an alien invasion. Availability: 2012 TBD

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
The Duplass brothers are two guys that I want to see everything they do, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is the duo's second major studio film starring Jason Segel and Ed Helms. Told in a day in the life format, the story follows Jeff as he's sent out on a routine errand by his mother which ends up turing into an adventure that leads Jeff to discover his destiny. Its a small adventure with big heart and laughs. The Duplass brothers have a knack at telling natural stories that focus on simple, mundane ideas and actions but making them feel grand. Once again they pull it off without error. Availability: Releases in Theaters on March 2nd, 2012

You're Next
Another horror film that plays with the confines of horror genre. You're Next feels like "The Strangers" meets "Deliverance." A film that follows a family who re-unites for a weekend only to have their getaway interrupted by a group of armed assailants. The hitch is the assailants did not expect to find a survivalist among the family who begins to strike back. Much like the burglars in "Home Alone" face various traps for their demise, so do these attackers. The horror is full of energy and has some brutally fun kills that horror audiences are going really cheer for. Availability: 2012 TBD