Cinema Knife Fight Presents: THE BEST MOVIES OF 2011

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  THE BEST OF 2011
By MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES

(THE SCENE:  A majestic movie theater, elegantly decorated, with an audience decked out in black tie tuxes and top designer gowns, a group fit for the Academy Awards. The camera pans through the audience to reveal select guests, and we see a large contingent of superheroes, including Captain America, Thor, Green Lantern, young Charles Xavier, Magneto, and other X-Men, all chatting with Samuel L. Jackson; a group of raucous apes led by a super intelligent chimpanzee who keeps throwing bananas at everyone; cowboys and aliens; medieval witch hunters, assassins and hired killers, one in particular who keeps racing a car up and down the aisles; Caribbean pirates led by a drunken Jack Sparrow; a group of kids filming everything with a Super 8 camera; vampires, lots of vampires, including two who can’t keep their hands off each other, even with a shirtless buff werewolf sitting behind them tossing popcorn at them; Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and Daniel Craig, sitting with a young Goth girl covered in tattoos to his right, and  fending off cowboys and aliens to his left, all the while trying to ignore his ghostly wife and kids sitting behind him.)

(On a stage in front of the movie screen, sit MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome, everybody, to our CINEMA KNIFE FIGHTBEST OF 2011” column, where we reveal our Top 5 Best Movies from 2011. As you can see, we’ve invited a lot of folks from these movies, and they’re all here anxiously waiting to see if their movie makes the final cut.

L.L. SOARES:  I wonder if they’ll still be here when we do our WORST OF 2011 column?  They won’t be so excited then!

MA:  No, they won’t. They’re certainly all invited back for that WORST OF column, which we’ll be bringing to you right after this one. Speaking of which, why don’t you start us off this year?  Here’s the envelope with your #5 pick. (Hands LS an envelope.)

LS:  What do I need this for?  I know what my picks are already!

MA:  I know, but it’s for dramatic purposes, for the audience here and at home.

LS:  Dramatic purposes?  How about this for some drama? (raises arms dramatically)  To be, or not to be?  Hmm. Not to be. (Hits MA over the head with a large mallet, knocking him to the ground.)  Okie-dokie, now that we’ve gotten the drama out of the way, here’s my #5 pick. (drum roll begins as LS tears open envelope).

And it’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO! Even though I had already seen the Swedish movie version of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling book, David Fincher did an excellent job with his remake. It’s rare that a remake gets raves from me, and even rarer that I would include one in my Top 5 list. But this one really worked for me, especially the fantastic performance by Rooney Mara as punk rock hacker Lisbeth Salander. Even though I pretty much knew the story going in (Fincher takes a few liberties with the ending), DRAGON TATTOO somehow seemed fresh and vibrantly alive, mostly when Mara is onscreen. The Swedish original was a really good movie. Fincher’s remake is just as good.

MA (getting back up and shaking off dizziness):  Give me a minute. I think I need to spit some teeth out.

I liked THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO also, but not quite as much as you did. It just missed my Top 10 List, and that’s because there were a lot of movies I liked this year. Had this been another year, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO most likely would have made my BEST OF list, too.

Okay, before I reveal my pick for the 5th best movie of the year, a special announcement:  this just in!  (A colossal envelope swings from a wire across stage and crashes into LS, propelling him off stage and out of sight.)  Thank you, Godzilla, for that timely telegram.

My pick for the 5th Best Film of 2011 is one that, in all honesty, I’m embarrassed to admit I liked so much.

LS (from offstage):  It wouldn’t be the first time!

MA:  No, it wouldn’t, but you gotta be honest in this business, and however a film strikes you while watching it, you have to report on that, not what other people think. So, my #5 pick is the Amanda Seyfried movie, RED RIDING HOOD.

(The audience gasps).

I know, it’s not a popular choice. Most critics panned this one.

All I want to say about this one is that, in spite of how stupid some of the plot points were, this movie mesmerized me and really pulled me into its fantasy world of a village terrorized by a werewolf. Forget that it’s about Red Riding Hood, and you’ll find it’s a surprisingly entertaining werewolf tale. Sure, it’s directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first TWILIGHT movie (2008), but RED RIDING HOOD is much better than the TWILIGHT movies. It’s written by David Johnson, who also wrote ORPHAN (2009), another movie I really liked, and it also features Gary Oldman as an insanely driven werewolf hunter who  is so intent on killing werewolves, he wears silver fingernails.

But the best part of RED RIDING HOOD is the lead performance by Amanda Seyfried. I’ve seen Seyfried in several movies now, and she’s mesmerized me in all of them. By that I mean, I can’t stop looking at her, and I don’t mean that in a creepy way. I mean she has a presence that really rivets you to the screen.

(LS returns to the stage with a cannon.)

MA:  Errr, maybe we ought to call a truce until we finish this column. We might not survive to our #1 Picks.

LS:  Sure. Whatever. (Cannon goes off and propels a giant fireball across the stage.)

MA:  What the—?

LS:  Oops. It went off by accident. (Winks slyly at camera.)  Anyway, I have to admit, I haven’t seen RED RIDING HOOD, so I really can’t comment on it. The idea of a horror version of “Little Red Riding Hood” sounds kind of lame and cliché to me, but, like you, I’m a fan of Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman, so who knows? Maybe it’s as good as you claim it is. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on this one.

MA:  My pick for the 4th best movie of 2011 is the assassin thriller KILLER ELITE starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Robert DeNiro. This was a hard hitting action spy drama, full of espionage and exciting action sequences. I especially liked that you had two strong leads pitted against one another, Jason Statham vs. Clive Owen. It was like having two Jason Bournes going head to head in the same movie, and even though Statham got top billing, I actually enjoyed Owen’s performance more. Having DeNiro in the mix only added to the fun, and, combined with some really well done and intense fight scenes, KILLER ELITE thrilled me from start to finish. I loved it.

LS:  Zzzzzzzzzzz

MA: Wake up!

LS  (jumps up from his seat): Oh yeah, yeah. I’m awake. I’m awake!

It’s just that I found KILLER ELITE so boring that even your mentioning it right now put me to sleep. And I like Stratham, Owen and DeNiro—just not in this movie. I found the whole thing pretty tedious. There is no way it would make my Top 20, much less my Top 5.

MA:  I guess you’re just not that into espionage movies. I was really into the cloak and dagger stuff in this one, the secret organizations, and the multiple assassins all trying to kill each other, never sure who they can trust, even members of their own organizations.

LS:  Which brings me to my Number 4 pick for the Best of 2011 (pulls out envelope). By the way, you’re the one who insisted on these stupid envelopes. So why aren’t you using them for your picks?

MA: Last time I tried using one you hit me over the head with a mallet. I changed my mind, thank you very much!

LS: Good thinking. So after this one, I can forget about the envelopes.(Tears open envelope). My Number 4 choice is a tie: MELANCHOLIA and DRIVE.

In Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA, Kirsten Dunst, in a terrific performance, plays a manic depressive who has an elaborate wedding day, only to fall into deep melancholia at the reception. Meanwhile, a new planet, called Melancholia, has suddenly appeared in our galaxy and is on a collision course with earth!! Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Dunst’s more grounded sister, suddenly finds she is just as helpless as her sister in the face of this new threat. With a great classical music score and beautiful – almost painterly – imagery.

In DRIVE, I thought Ryan Gosling was able to do an amazing acting job with as few words as possible, as a stoic getaway driver who wants to be a race car driver. Carey Mulligan is his love interest, whose husband has been doing some prison time. Great performances all around, in a kind of stark, existential film full of unspoken dread. Comedian Albert Brooks plays it straight here and turns in a spooky performance as a gangster who seems like a nice guy until he suddenly erupts with violence. Ron Perlman is his partner in crime.

Two movies that I really enjoyed this year. They both deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

MA:  I didn’t see MELANCHOLIA, so I can’t comment on it, but I did see DRIVE, and it made my list as well, so I’ll reserve comment on it until later.

Coming in at #3 on my list is COWBOYS AND ALIENS. Again, I think I liked this one more than a lot of other people did, but I really enjoyed the mix of a western movie adventure with the alien invasion story. It was all rather cool to me.

This one featured two superstars, Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, but it was definitely Craig’s movie, as he’s the main character and delivers the more memorable performance. Ford is somewhat cast against type, as a grizzled old ranch owner who has little regard for the law, but who does soften eventually in time for audiences to like him a little bit more. Strangely, I liked him more at the beginning when he was a pain in the backside.

Directed by Jon Favreau, who directed the IRON MAN movies so far, COWBOYS AND ALIENS was nicely paced and featured fine special effects that included some neat aliens, alien ships and weaponry. While the look of all this alien stuff actually ran hot and cold throughout the movie, the end result was entertaining and satisfying. The film also featured a fine supporting cast, which included the likes of Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown, and Keith Carradine, to name just a few.

LS: Don’t forget Olivia Wilde as Ella Swenson! WOWEE!

MA: While not perfect, COWBOYS AND ALIENS was one of my favorite summer movies, in a season where there were lots of good movies.

LS:  I liked COWBOYS AND ALIENS, and thought it should have been a bigger hit than it was. It was a clever idea, and you’re right about Craig being the best thing in this one. While I enjoyed it, it wasn’t a movie that I was gaga over. But I can see why you liked it so much. At least it tried to be original.

Now on to my Number 3 pick is Pedro Almodovar’s excellent plastic surgery horror film THE SKIN I LIVE IN. As the elaborate back story unravels, we learn the secrets of Dr. Robert Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas, and his mysterious patient/prisoner Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya). I don’t want to go into too much detail about this one, since it’s chock-full of surprises that will astound you. But I thought this was one of Almodovar’s best films in years, and a great reunion of him and star Antonio Banderas (they last worked together on 1990’s TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN!).

MA: Now for my #2 pick. It’s DRIVE, the ultra-stylish thriller starring Ryan Gosling. Everything about this movie was efficient and slick, like a well-oiled engine. It was also extremely refreshing, as it didn’t play like a traditional action thriller at all. Kudos to director Nicolas Winding Refn, who turned in one of the more stylish mainstream movies of the year.

I liked Gosling’s quiet, understated performance, playing a character known only as The Driver, a man who makes his living driving getaway cars. I loved the chemistry he shared with Carey Mulligan, who plays his cute neighbor, a woman he falls in love with, and as a result tries to save when her ex-con husband returns home and lands the lot of them in deep trouble.

Albert Brooks also delivers a deliciously evil performance, cast against type as a cutthroat loan shark. His scenes are GOODFELLAS scary!

DRIVE was an action thriller that worked not because it had the most car crashes or the loudest explosions, but because it showed us the people involved in these situations up close. We were inside the cars with them, and we were taken for a ride that cut through all the action nonsense seen in too many action movies these days and went full throttle for the jugular, often-times spilling lots of blood along the way.

DRIVE is an intense thriller, not to be missed, certainly one of the best movies of the year.

LS:  I can’t disagree with you here, since it was Number 4 on my list. It was definitely one of the movies I enjoyed the most in 2011.

On to Number 2, I suppose. And my choice for the second best movie of 2011 is….(drum roll)….THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE)!

When Tom Six set out to make a sequel to his notorious midnight movie THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) from 2009, he easily could have just started where the last one left off, as most directors would have done. But Six has a more sinister agenda this time around. Part 2 focuses on Martin (Lawrence R. Harvey), a grotesque little man who is also obsessed with the first movie, and desperately wants to create his own version of the Human Centipede. The problem is, unlike the first movie’s Dr. Heiter, Martin has absolutely no medical training and has to improvise when creating his own 12-person atrocity. With one of the bleakest endings of the year – which absolutely works – I thought this was one of the darkest and most original movies of 2011.

MA:  I didn’t see this one, and I have no intention of seeing it.

LS: Your loss.

MA: Okay. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. Time for us to make our picks for the Best Movie of 2011.

My pick for the Best Movie of 2011 was one I really had zero expectations for. It certainly wasn’t  one of the superhero movies I was looking forward to the most, but it turned out, not only to be the best superhero movie of the year, but my favorite among all the movies I saw in 2011. Yep, my pick for the Best Movie of 2011 is X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.

This tale of how young Charles Xavier and Magneto first met and got the X-Men together entertained me from start to finish, and as far as how much fun I had watching a movie this year, nothing else came close.

I was impressed by the two leads, James McAvoy as Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These guys easily made me forget about Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen from the previous X-MEN movies. They also shared an onscreen chemistry that really drove this movie along. Additionally, Kevin Bacon lent his talents as a very effective villain, Sebastian Shaw.

Director Matthew Vaughn , who also directed KICK-ASS (2010), once again pushed all the right buttons and made yet another movie that basically kicks ass!  It also features a smart screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and director Vaughn, and a hilarious cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS had the fewest flaws of all the superhero movies this year. I thought both CAPTAIN AMERICA and THOR had higher ambitions, but both fell short, while X-MEN: FIRST CLASS seemed to excel at everything it tried to do.

It also had a memorable music score by Henry Jackman, by far my favorite superhero score this year, and one of my favorite film scores of the year, period.

I even saw this one more than once on the big screen and it held up each time, proof that for me, no other movie comes close this year. Numero uno belongs to X-MEN : FIRST CLASS.

LS:  I went into this one with low expectations as well. After the disappointing third X-Men movie, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), I figured the franchise had run out of steam. But FIRST CLASS breathed new life into the X-movies. It made my Top 10, but not my Top 5.

And finally, my choice for the Number 1 movie of 2011 is a movie I saw at the Boston Underground Film Festival back in August. I didn’t even review it – John Harvey did. It’s called THE WOMAN, and it was directed by Lucky McKee from a script by McKee and horror fiction legend Jack Ketchum. Not only is this my favorite movie of the year, it’s my favorite Jack Ketchum movie so far, and there have been several. It’s kind of a sequel to Ketchum’s novels OFF SEASON and OFFSPRING (only the second one has been made into a movie previously), concerning a family of savage, barely human feral people. In THE WOMAN, there is just one survivor left from the killer clan (simply called “The Woman” in the film, she’s played by Pollyanna McIntosh, who gives an amazing performance here), and while living in the woods of Maine, she’s spotted by Chris Cleek (played by Sean Bridgers, who has been in everything from the HBO series DEADWOOD to the new FX series JUSTIFIED). He captures her and brings her back home for his family to see, and keeps her tied up in a root cellar, where he does awful things to her. The big question here is, who is the bigger monster? The feral woman who has no concept of what it is like to be civilized, or the sadist who puts on a normal face to the outside world, and terrorizes his family and THE WOMAN relentlessly? With an ending that contained a few big shocks – something you rarely see anymore in current horror films–this one was a controversial pick at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and when I saw it, it definitely lived up to its reputation as a powerful, disturbing little film.

MA:  Yeah, I’d say that it sounds a wee bitdisturbing, and since it’s written by Jack Ketchum, what else would you expect?

LS: I just hope it gets a normal theatrical release, so everyone else can enjoy this harrowing gem as much as I did.

MA: So, that wraps things up for us here. We’ll see you next time for our WORST OF 2011 column.

LS (points to movie celebrities in the audience):  Don’t you folks go away!  We’re not finished with you yet!

MA:  That’s right. The WORST is yet to come!

—END—

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

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