Wednesday 7 December 2011

Top of the Scots 2011 | The Best Movies

Maybe I'll find myself in the minority, admitting this, but for me at least, 2011 has been kind of a lean year in terms of good movies.

One of two things is happening here, I think: either I've managed to miss most of the good stuff, which is entirely possible, or the year in film has just been a bit shit.

I'd plump for the latter as an explanation for the moderately disappointing selection on show below... but then, I would, wouldn't I?

See for yourself!

The Best of the Best

5. Paranormal Activity 3
 dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Now I didn't love Paranormal Activity 2, but I certainly didn't despise it like so many cynical movie critics did either. My expectations for Paranormal Activity 3, then, were mild to moderate. Neither massive nor marginal: I imagined it would be perfectly serviceable, and that would have suited me just fine, in much the same way as the SAW movies did.

Colour me the colour of surprise when it turned out Paranormal Activity 3 was actually pretty damned terrifying. It's far from the smartest film on the block - narratively there's not a whole lot to it, and it ends, I'm sorry, terribly - but for all the thrills and chills of the fan camera, and the excruciating Bloody Mary moment in the bathroom a little later on, Paranormal Activity 3 deserves its place on the lower end of this list. In every sense.

For more on Paranormal Activity 3, read the full review here.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
dir. Rupert Wyatt

I only sat down with Rise of the Planet of the Apes over the weekend there, and I'm somewhat wary of awarding it a place in The Best of the Best today, because while my thoughts on it have yet to completely coalesce, even now I'm not convinced that it is, all things considered, a particularly terrific film.

So why's it here?

Andy Serkis is why.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have its fair share of silliness, bad acting, poor pacing, and plot holes big enough for entire other narratives to fall through, but even if it's not great genre cinema in the final summation, what it is is a film oriented around a single great performance. And what a performance it is!

Somebody needs to give Andy Serkis an Oscar already. The man has almost single-handedly made the case for motion-capture in the movies today, and never has his work been better, or better rendered, than in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

That's right: I'm saying Caesar is more awesome than Gollum. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well worth seeing for Andy Serkis' affecting central role alone. There are other reasons to watch this movie too, but never mind them for the moment.

As established, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a last-minute addition to this list, so there's no review for me to link you to -- but I will be writing about it here on TSS in the not too distant, so do stay tuned.

3. The Woman
dir. Lucky McKee

As established - never more clearly than in the best books bit of Top of the Scots last year - I have a bit of a fondness for horror, in film at least as much as in literature. Hence, I guess, the presence of Paranormal Activity 3 on this list, which I expect will earn me a few raised eyebrows... maybe even a proper sneer or two!

But while you may argue I'm giving Paranormal Activity 3 more credit than it's due - what can I say? The pickings have been pretty slim this year - let me say in no uncertain terms that The Woman is a great deal better... and a great deal harder to watch. It's a deeply disturbing portrait of a family living in fear of a husband and father with fire in his eyes, and evil in his heart. It's about what becomes of them when dear Daddy captures a wild woman from the forest, and decides, in his infinite, awful wisdom, to "civilise" her.

The Woman isn't perfect, but it is - and it is easily - the best horror movie I've seen in 2011. With Lucky McGee at long last unleashed, by gum, he's only gone and come good!

For more on The Woman, read the full review here.

2. Drive 
dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

Though I have been known to, uh... to digress from time to time, we shall say, Drive isn't the sort of film I have any business banging on about here on TSS, where by and large I try to talk about speculative fiction. Hence the complete and total lack of a review of this film to date. Doesn't matter how hard I stretch the definition, Drive isn't in the least speculative.

Saying that, I did review director Nicholas Winding Refn's last film before this: Valhalla Rising, a stunning, shocking, superlative piece of work. You can read that piece here, but in short, I was blown away by it.

Well, Drive is miles better than Valhalla Rising.

Never mind the best horror film, or the best superhero movie: Drive is the best film, full stop, of 2011. It's about a wheelman on the run from a job gone wrong who falls in love with Carey Mulligan, because it's hard not to, and it is, quite simply, brilliant.

So you must be wondering: why's it in second place?

Why indeed. Well, it's complicated. This was one of the harder decisions I had to make, in putting together a list like this. But though Drive is assuredly a purer, more impactful, more artistic vision than our grand-prize winner, the latter's larger legacy is such that I couldn't stand to see it in second place, not with everything that it's meant to me, through the years.

What am I talking about?

Well, there's no sense keeping you in suspense...

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
dir. David Yates

"It all ends."

So goes the poster for the second part of the adaptation Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I've posted. And indeed, it does.

I don't know that I completely believe we'll never hear from Harry Potter again - though more likely it'll be his kids we learn about rather than old man Harry - but say we never did: I'd be great with that. Really, great.

Earlier this year, my other half and I spent a couple of months re-watching all the Harry Potter movies, from the very first film on though the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which neither of us had managed to see at the cinema. When it was over, and it took us a while, I'll admit - a few of those movies are pretty darned tiresome the first time, never mind the third - I was well and truly ready to put this franchise to bed. For once and for all.

So off to the movies we went; not on opening night, but near enough that I had no idea what sort of critical consensus had emerged.

Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has its detractors, now more than ever I would wager, but for my part, I don't believe the story of Harry Potter, of Hogwarts and Hermione and Hagrid and so on - and there are so many things I could go on about - I don't believe it could have ended any better.

Now it's not quite the artistic marvel that is Drive, or the sort of cerebral cinematic sucker punch that The Woman was, but to be perfectly honest, it's not far off either of those things, and for what is when you cut through all the bullshit a bit of a kids' film, that's a hell of a thing in and of itself. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 marked the most meaningful experience I had at the movies in 2011, and that's why I'm declaring it my favourite film of the year.



Whereas "mild to moderate" was the most exciting way I could think to describe my expectations of Paranormal Activity 3, at least I could put them into words. X-Men: First Class, however, had me at loggerheads with myself.

On the one hand, the thought of yet another X-Men movie after Brett Ratner's predictably empty-headed turn in the director's chair did not sit well with me, because this was a franchise I gave a crap about, and to see it despoiled yet again would have broken my heart a bit. The flip-side of the coin was: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, together again - as a writer and director duo - as they should be.

In the end, I think X-Men: First Class turned out pretty well. Certainly it was the strongest superhero movie of the year, and if it's a ways away from a place in my Hall of Fame - alongside The Dark Knight and Spider-man 2 of course - and still somewhat removed from the heights Goldman and Vaughn have hit before, which is to say by way of Stardust, then nevertheless, it's easily the best thing to have happened to the X-Men since Bryan Singer.

I can't wait to see what's next for my favourite mutants.

Honourable Mentions

Had I seen Black Swan when it was released in theaters in late 2010, it'd have come near-as-damn-it to knocking Shutter Island off of the top spot the last time we did this thing. As is, though I only saw it this year, I can't quite justify slapping Black Swan in with this year's crop proper, so it'll have to make do with an honourable mention.

A very honourable mention. After all, it is a thing a black and bitter beauty. I don't know that either Darren Aronofsky or Natalie Portman has ever been better, and they are a man and a woman of many talents.

Before you ask: no, I'm not being dirty.

Oh, and Never Let Me Go was pretty good too. But again, it came out in 2010.

Better late than never, however!

For more on Black Swan, read the full review here. And here's what I wrote about Never Let Me Go.

Biggest Disappointments

Here we have two movies that disappointed me in quite different ways. Red State was more of a personal disappointment than Thor; I don't know that anyone except me had high hopes for the latest from the filmmaker that brought us such cinematic marvels as Cop Out and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but I've been a Kevin Smith fan for a long time, and not till this abysmal mess did I learn my lesson.

Thor, on the other hand, is actually a pretty decent movie. Which is to say, I had a decent time with it. For one thing: Natalie Portman. For another: fun. It's only here in the Biggest Disappointments section of Top of the Scots 2011 because so many critics insisted it was the second coming of the sort of superhero movie Iron Man exemplified, and it most certainly was not.

For more on Thor, I'd invite you to read the full review here. Meanwhile, here's what I thought about Red State.

Glaring Oversights

Here are just two of the movies I've managed to miss this year!

Or rather: here are two of the movies I had high enough hopes for that they might have played some part in Top of the Scots 2011 if I'd only seen them before sitting down to put this thing together.

And... breathe.

Super 8 I full well expect to be tremendous. I've rarely come away from a J. J. Abrahms movie anything less than satisfied, up to and including Mission: Impossible III, and this one in particular sounded lovely. Nor does the Steven Spielberg connection hurt. I aim to watch Super 8 shortly.

As to The Tree of Life... truth be told, who knows? Terrence Malick is of course a masterful filmmaker. I understand that, but his films have left me completely cold as often as they've bowled me over. I like Brad Pitt. I kind of despise Sean Penn. So we'll see.

Again, I mean to watch The Tree of Life at some point over the holidays, so keep your eyes peeled for reviews of it and Super 8 if and when I do. 

Final Thoughts

Though there have been a few highlights - a gem here and a shiny surprise there - other than the films I've listed, and perhaps a couple of new releases that I've contrived to forget about altogether, meh all over this year at the movies.

To say it's been a quiet one is putting it politely, don't you think?

Please do correct me if I'm wrong. It's happened before!

So what have your favourite movies of the year been, folks? And what about your biggest disappointments?

Remember, sharing is caring. :)


  1. Ah, ha! So I see you enjoyed DRIVE; I knew you would. FYI, your Valhalla Rising review link doesn't work.
    DRIVE has to be my favourite film of the year, bar none. As I say in my review, it is "... a beautifully produced action film that always has one foot to the floor and both hands firmly on the wheel."

    As for other entertainments, PAUL, X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and 50/50 all managed to impress or entertain, with 50/50 perhaps being the strongest of the bunch.
    I also found Thor to be decent, but not what people wanted it to be. It's just a fun, above-average superhero popcorn flick that had a weird directing choice (Kenneth Branaugh, w/ Joss Whedon directing the after-credits scene that Marvel has became infamous for).

    I haven't yet seen Terrence Malick's new film, but I plan to. I'm a big fan of his previous works and his directing style, and I honestly don't think he gets enough commercial love for the stuff he makes.

    I'm sorry to say Niall, that SUPER 8, was to me, a yawning disappointment that had a lot of potential, at least to begin with. It'll be interesting to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. It has been a bit of a lean year. Super 8 is far and away my favorite movie of the year. I saw it twice in theaters and know for a fact that Santa will be putting a copy of it under my tree this Christmas.

    I found X-Men First Class disappointing, not because there was anything particularly wrong with it but because it felt like a rehash of the first X-Men film only with the characters being younger. I know that is a bit of an oversimplification, but it still felt like an origin story for a group of superheroes who we already have an origin story film for.

  3. I suspect you will find Super 8 to be a disappointment. It starts off promising, but loses that about halfway through. The saddest thing is that without any supernatural/science fiction/weird elements this would have been a very good movie, maybe even a great movie. However, the enjoyable characters, the fun of the amateur film being shot in the movie, and the tension between adults is quickly eclipsed by a rather stupid and boring alien plot. And it has one of the most wtf endings I have ever seen.

  4. I disagree with Harry's assessment of the film, but I think it depends on largely what you bring to it. Super 8 is a film very much in the vein of films like Stand By Me or the Sandlot or ET. It is a film whose true focus is a group of young friends growing up in the 70's and the film has that focus. It is also a film about dealing with loss and the ending is just what it needed to be in order to address the issues the main character was going through.

    I admit to being a sucker for sentimental films and so if you don't like them you'll probably be disappointed. I for one still contend that it is the best film released this year in the SFF category and for me was the best film I've seen in the theater all year.

  5. I though Super 8 was a fun film, if a bit on the disappointing side. The side of the film that sees the kids attempting to film an indie zombie flick was strong enough to stand on its own and could have made an interesting, enjoyable movie. The monster aspect of the story was less explored and, because of this, weak. It came to dominate the second half of the film, interfering with the kid's filming and a lingering drama that had potential. Had it stuck to one or the other, the film could have turned out better. As it was, Super 8 was a pretty decent movie and I would watch it again, have already been tempted to watch it again. The biggest issue? Lens flare. Abrams has a problem and he needs help.


    Thor was one of the better superhero adaptations released this year. Could it have been better? Hell yes, it could have. The romantic subplot is the weakest aspect of the film and should have been fleshed out so that the ending, which hangs on such a sentimental note, would have come across as significant instead of inauthentic. Otherwise, the film was a lot of fun and definitely enjoyable.

    Which is more than I can say for Captain America, which stands as my biggest disappointment of the year.

    I just watched Green Lantern a couple weeks ago and can't remember if I liked it. An ominous sign?


    Harry Potter and the Wandering About the Woods Angsting (Part I) was one of the only movies I have seen this year that makes me regret having wasted my time watching it. I wondered how they were going to split the movie in half when such a large portion of the novel, the wandering about angsting slog, should have been cut down significantly, but then I discovered they just left it in. The worst of the Harry Potter films, which sounds about right since the last book was the worst of the lot.

    Harry Potter and The Homoerotic Subtext (Part II) was much better and, if one excludes that extremely creepy epilogue, is probably my favorite in the series. That said, no matter how good or strong it is is, Part II is still the second half of a film and that first half was an overlong, slow slog that makes me want to bang my head against a brick wall until I forget the experience of watching it.

  6. @Dan - Good catch on the missing link, mate.

    I've got a screener of 50/50 here, actually; will give it a going-over shortly, on your say-so.

    But Paul? For what it was, sure, it was a fair bit of fun. Saying that, it was nowhere near as smart or as funny as I had hoped. I wasn't disappointed enough in it to tar Paul with the same brush as Red State, but I'll admit it did cross my mind. I can only hope these guys get their mojo back before I entirely forget why I expect so much of them in the first place.

  7. @Harry - Wait, so you're saying Super 8 suffers from Stephen King syndrome? Because that's exactly how I've felt about almost every Stephen King novel I've read: would have been, could have been, should have been brilliant, if only it hadn't had to have a haunted car in it, or some such thing.

    A worrying thought. But then I am a total sucker for lens flair, and as James says, no one does it better - wait, no, James said no one does it more - than J. J. Abrams. So there's that?

    Obviously I'm going have to watch Super 8 sooner rather than later; just going from the comments here, it seems to be quite the divisive picture. Needless to say I'm even more intrigued now that I had been.

  8. @James - I'm right there with you as regards The Deathly Hallows' epilogue, incidentally. I mean, really? My only recourse has been to act like it didn't happen. Thus, I'll thank you if you agree to never mention it again. :)

  9. I actually really like the lens flare too, but it was funny because until it was mentioned yesterday I hadn't even paid attention to it in my two theater viewings. I watched the film again last night on DVD and was of course completely aware of them. And liked them a great deal. Is it necessary? No, but I still enjoy it.