Wells, 2011 was somewhat hit or miss, cinematically speaking. Sure there were some hidden diamonds in the popcorn tub, but the mainstream Hollywood offerings were far more ape-shit than RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
Plus, someone still keeps giving Adam Sandler money for him to make more movies. We must find Adam Sandler's financial backer and kill him, for the good of humanity. JACK & JILL is such a bad film that it actually transcends cinema and becomes some sort of existential meditation on the nature of human suffering. Is there a God? If He exists, how could he allow JACK & JILL to torment us? If a tree fell in the woods onto Adam Sandler and no one was around to hear it, would cinema fans clap with one hand? What is the point of Evil if JACK & JILL exists? It's enough to make Satan throw his hands up, say "this is just too much!", apologize to God, and ask for his old job back.
But if you looked carefully at the films released in 2011, aside from seeing Matt Damon in every second picture, you could find the odd—and sometimes extremely odd—cinematic masterwork.
1. The Reef
Awesome Australian horror film which gives the killer shark genre a much needed shot in the arm (before biting the arm off and swimming away). Damien Walshe-Howling—possibly the only hunky Australian actor left in the country after Hollywood raided our acting schools—plays the skipper of a bunch of 30-something scuba divers partying hard on a yacht. After the yacht has an unfortunate encounter with the rocks featured in the title, the 8 friends make the decision to embark on a 24-hour long swim for help. Unfortunately for them, something else decides to join them on their impromptu channel crossing: a 7-metre Great White Shark, which has clearly been dieting in the weeks before the shipwreck, as it wastes no time in making the 8 friends the key ingredients in its own personal food pyramid.
This film is an exercise in building tension. The decision to use a real Great White as opposed to the JAWS' school of shonky mechanical FX or DEEP BLUE SEA's CGI grounds the film in a terrifying reality. Well, the shark is real, but not actually in the water with the actors; the two-legged stars and the grumpy school bus-sized predator were filmed separately and then brought together with technical trickery. Otherwise I'm sure the actors would have given extremely realistic performances, but be somewhat literal "bit-part" players for the rest of their careers.
Damian Walshe-Howling: "Wait, that's not a shark, it's a team of LA casting agents coming to take me to Hollywood!"
Absolutely astounding horror/mindfuck film which, when in need of a heart, brain, and courage, isn't afraid to rip them bodily out of both its characters and its audience—all too rare in this era of PG-rated pabulum and endless remakes that echo as hollow as a certain tin man.
The plot actually has nothing to do with wizards, red shoes, and pissed off witches—rather, it follows a film crew who are trying to find out why, 40 years previously, an entire town of people simply got up and walked into the wilderness en masse, never to return. Unwisely, the film crew decide to literally follow in their footsteps, taking the same route the vanished townspeople did. Soon they find themselves in the middle of a dense forest- and then the music starts… instrumental tracks (from THE WIZARD OF OZ, hence the title) that have no place of origin, will not stop day or night, and rapidly increase in volume until they're deafening. The film crew are driven to homicidal madness by the impossible music; to a level that Justin Bieber has yet to achieve (maybe once he hits puberty he'll up his kill count).
YELLOWBRICKROAD: If I only had a stomach…that wasn't full of poisonous berries.
3. Kill List
Absolutely chilling British film that starts off as a crime film, then takes a 3/4 turn into horror movie territory that ensures you won't sleep for a week after watching. The film deals with a former hitman struggling to make ends meet for himself, his wife, and his small child, who is coerced back into the extraneous-hole-in-the-head-making business by a former partner with the offer of a mysterious job that requires a bit of travel but will make them both rich.
Things start off odd: the people they've been hired to whack are a seemingly random assortment of everyday people; get decidedly odder: their targets not only don't seem surprised to see them but welcome them and thank them for ending their lives; and then rapidly veer into a nightmare: the two hitmen realize that this is one hell of a job in more ways than one, and that if they make it to the end of the contract, they should probably take their next job in a safer community, like Baghdad, Elm Street, or Camp Crystal Lake. There are several twists that are fiendishly clever and that I won't reveal here, mostly because after what director Ben Wheatley did to his actors, I'm afraid of what he might do to people who spoil the plot! Wait, what was that sound from my backya—
"How do I contract kill THIS?!"
4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Fascinating feature-length documentary from barking mad German director Werner Hertzog (GRIZZLY MAN). Hertzog (and his camera crew) actually appear on screen (a necessity due to restricted space; it's hard to conceal a cameraman in a dark, narrow tunnel, just ask anyone who's had a colonoscopy) as they take us to a cave in the French Alps where Stone Age, Cro-Magnon people decorated most of the walls with art representing the fauna of the region, 40,000 years ago. 20,000 years ago, a massive cave-in sealed the cave completely until it was rediscovered in 1996, and the art within was found, preserved so well it looks like it was painted yesterday, rather than so long ago that even Dick Clark probably has only a vague memory of seeing them.
Superb documentary, focusing not only on the cave art but also the long extinct Cave Bear (a huge amount of cave bear remains are also found in the cave, like it was some kind of FLINSTONES factory where the bears were the conveyor belts) and the anthropologists studying it (my favourite being a cute Belgian scientist who turned to palaeontology after becoming bored with his job as a juggler at a circus). All this plus the film is presented in cutting edge 3D that makes Sam Worthington's character in AVATAR look as wooden and 2D as… Sam Worthington's character in CLASH OF THE TITANS.
Still better than anything Jackson Pollock came up with...
5. The Thing (prequel)
When I first heard Hollywood was intending to do a prequel to one of my top 5 favourite movies of all time, John Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece THE THING, my head exploded like an imitation sled dog. Fortunately, the film was clearly made by people who have seen and loved the Carpenter film—or maybe the makers of the prequel ate Carpenter and then became him.
For those of you who've been frozen in a slab of ice since 1982 and aren't aware of the plot, Carpenter's 1982 film dealt with an American research station in the Antarctic which is terrorized by a thawed alien life-form, initially disguised as a husky from a nearby Norwegian camp, that can perfectly copy anyone it absorbs. The 2011 prequel is all about the discovery of the frozen shape-shifter, and what happened to the Norwegian base before the alien made like Eddie Murphy and tried coming to America.
Definitely one of the best remakes in recent memory, the film actually manages to capture some of the tension from the 1982 film it's imitating, helped by a cast that could double as some kind of thespian U.N. (Norwegians, Brits, Aussies, Americans and a Jamaican), and excellent visual effects that are largely mechanical (the effects only fall down with the final creature on board the spaceship, which is so CGI-enhanced it looks like it absorbed and imitated one of the four lead actresses from SEX & THE CITY 2).
"All we can tell for sure is that it doesn't have Happy Feet."
6. Take Shelter
Excellent drama-thriller starring Michael Shannon as Curtis, a construction worker in rural Idaho trying to do right by his wife and 6-year-old, profoundly deaf daughter. This becomes considerably harder when Curtis begins having waking visions of a massive, apocalyptic super-cell storm that destroys his entire community. After the visions become more and more frequent, he does the only sensible thing: he calls a press conference and tells the international media that the world will end on October 28, 2011—oh sorry, wrong whacko—he takes out a huge bank-loan he can't afford and uses money he was saving for his daughter's cochlear implant operation to build a storm shelter for his family in his backyard. Needless to say, this doesn't go down well with his wife and friends, especially after we find out that Curtis' mother was committed to a mental asylum for a mental breakdown when she was Curtis' current age, and he is beginning to show possible signs of a similar collapse.
Is Curtis going insane, or is he having prophetic visions of a real, oncoming storm not seen outside of a SyFy channel movie? Brilliant, tense and clever, with the character study of the family trying to keep above water metaphorically, whilst Curtis' hopes they'll also do it physically- receiving equal amount of screen time as the weird (and excellent visual FX driven) stormageddon.
"Every cloud has a silver linin' my ass!"
7. X-Men: First Class
Brilliant film that totally does a Professor X-style mind-wipe on the bad memories of the crap-tacular X3. This prequel (set in the early days of the Mutant superhero team, when Beast still hadn't gone the way of a Carebear and Professor Xavier still had his legs set in the "walk" position, and Magneto was introducing the Nazis that killed his parents the karmic irony of the whole "iron cross" thing) gets EVERYTHING right: brilliant script, taking advantage of the real Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as its (literal) launching point, and introducing a whole bunch of fan-favourite mutants that are perfectly cast. January Jones is the hard-as-diamonds and probably as expensive too Emma Frost; Jason Flemying is Azrael, a teleporting demon—basically the evil version of Nightcrawler (he's probably just mad because he's after this year, people will associate his name with Gargamel's cat from the awful SMURFS movie); Lucas Till is Havoc, brother of Cyclops (as well as the Mutant gene, the guys in the Summers family carry the Pretty gene as well); and Alex Gonzalez is Riptide (aka Al Gore's Worst Nightmare), a walking Greenhouse Effect.
Best of all, FIRST CLASS takes the homoerotic "Mutants=Gays" subtext of the other films (X2 especially) and runs with it. Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) and Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) friendship basically plays out exactly like a romance (complete with teary-eyed break-up), and the actors admitted playing the parts as a couple. When I saw this film at the cinema, a girl in a row near me actually yelled out "Just kiss him already!" at the pair during the "move the satellite dish" sequence…
"Dammit Charles, that's not what I meant by you being on top this time!"
Bizarre yet entertaining apocalyptic flick by "queer director" Gregg Araki, which with its enigmatic, animal-costumed thugs, prophetic dreams of an imminent apocalypse and hot guys getting naked every five minutes plays kind of like a gay version of DONNIE DARKO with less bunnies and more cocks. Thomas Dekker (TERMINATOR: SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) plays Smith, a college student with an "undecided sexuality" (read "Gaytown with a few lunch stops at Bi-ville") who has several interesting problems. He has forgotten what his college major is supposed to be; he has fallen in love with his insanely hot, nudist… and straight roommate, Thor (Chris Zylka); he has a series of encounters with a bunch of doomsday cultists in animal-head masks and a telekinetic lesbian witch (not Willow Rosenberg); and he seems to have accidentally come into possession of a nuclear bomb. Just your normal college-age student problems, folks.
This is a weird but enjoyable film which has an equal amount of bizarre characters, strange hallucinogenic visions, and hot guys getting it on with the very lucky Mr. Dekker. The only negative point is that the film doesn't end. Rather than just stop, it's patently obvious that Araki just tires of the film after 90 minutes and finishes it off so he can go do something else, like snort pop-rocks off the nipples of a unicorn or something. Big props to Chris Zylka for his excellent portrayal of the hot, nudist, surfer roommate. His constant nakedness in the film must have saved the production a fortune—no need for a costume department!
Chris Zylka's THOR has a hammer to rival the Marvel version…
9. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Great spoof of the "Southern Gothic" subgenre of horror films—horror flicks with pretty young city slickers falling afoul of inbred and/or cannibalistic rednecks, like WRONG TURN, HILLS HAVE EYES, THE 2012 REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE PRIMARIES. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two likeable Southern rednecks breaking in their newly-purchased cabin in the woods during their long-anticipated vacation. At the same time, a bunch of college kids on Spring Break descend on the lake by the woods for a weekend of skinny-dipping, booze-downing, and sex-having. When one of their number, the beautiful Allison (Katrina Bowen) nearly drowns and is rescued by Tucker and Dale, the college kids defer to the wisdom of the four WRONG TURN movies and believe the two hillbillies are murderous, Southern sociopaths out to rape, murder, eat, and/or wear their friend, and try to get her back. Several hilariously violent freak accidents later, and the kids are decimating themselves faster than you can say "Wyle. E. Coyote," whereas Allison is having a great time and becoming attracted to Tucker.
Side-splittingly funny, even when the kids are having their sides split graphically onscreen, this gets my vote for both funniest AND bloodiest film of the year!
"No, I haven't seen FARGO, why do you aaaaaaaaugh!!"
10. Closed for the Season
Awesome horror film revolving around a once-popular amusement park in upstate New York, long shut down and abandoned after a tragedy that killed one person and crippled another. The amusement park becomes sentient due to the emotions released by the tragedy, and is angry and resentful and lonely with no one coming to play with it. Thus the memories that haunt the park have become bitter and homicidal, like Disneyland over Yom Kippur. Two people find themselves trapped in the amusement park, which has no intention of letting them go, unless they can best a series of deadly carnival games, presided over by a living personification of the park, the alternately funny and sinister clown known as "the Carney" (a film-stealing turn by Joe Unger).
Excellent "rubber reality" film in which the normal rules of time and space are jettisoned by a mad dream logic. A woman is being chased by a lethal, indestructible "lake monster" from the carnival's Freak Show, which always terrified her as a child, when another character points out that the lake monster never scared him because he could see the zipper and tell it was just a guy in a crappy monster suit, the terrifying creature BECOMES a guy in a crappy monster suit! (This gives me hope that if I believe hard enough, my life-size Jacob Black standee will actually become Taylor Lautner.)
Awesome, clever film with neat performances and some clever set ups- such as a ring-toss game in which the prize is a teddy bear, and the punishment for failure is a bloody death by a real bear (some executive is lining that idea up for a reality TV show as we speak now).
"Watch out for the Nineteenth Hole; that's the one I'm gonna stab through your head."