8 Movies I Loved in 2011

8. Attack the Block

Someone finally figured out that Huge Spectacle does not equal Good Alien Invasion Movie. What’s more: this is actually a Great Alien Invasion Movie with awesome, inventive monster designs and characters I cared about. Making the characters likable was a special feat since the film tries hard (and succeeds) to make the audience hate them at first.

7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

My only problem with this movie is that it means there’ll be no more Harry Potter movies. A fine end to a great series.

6. Hanna

Not just an action movie about a girl-assassin. I love how artfully it was shot and how the butt-kicking is alternated with quiet character moments as Hanna adjusts to life around people for the first time.

5. Crazy Stupid Love

Not only made me laugh and turned me into a Ryan Gosling fan; it made me think about relationships and commitment in a new way. The most underrated movie of the year.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I made sure I was good and pumped up for this movie by watching every Planet of the Apes movie and TV show ever made, but that could have backfired had Rise not lived up to expectations. It did a lot more than that though. It may just be the best Planet of the Apes movie yet.

3. The Muppets

I’m a muppet of a man.

2. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Though I kind of quit posting about it, I never gave up my dive into old Sherlock Holmes movies this past Fall. I made it through six of the Basil Rathbone films, watched The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, sat through half of the 1922 John Barrymore silent film, and finally saw Season One of the Benedict Cumberbatch series. What I learned from all that was to be really patient with people’s taking different spins on Holmes. Which is to say that Guy Ritchie’s is not Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, but I enjoy him in the same way I enjoy Tony Stark and Jack Sparrow (which is to say: considerably). And now that I’m used to him, I very much liked watching him run around Europe trying to stop Moriarty from killing Watson and taking over the world.

1. The Adventures of Tintin

The best Indiana Jones movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark, the best dog since Benji, the best 3D since Avatar, the best motion-capture since ever, and the best pirate battle since…well, ever too, I guess. Sorry, Gore Verbinski.

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17 Movies I Liked Okay in 2011

37. The Eagle

The more I think about it, the lower on the list I think I should have put this. I love an historical action film and the Roman Empire had some great visual style, but I’m remembering that the story here didn’t make any sense. That’s the problem with making this list at the end of the year; I forget stuff like that. Still, my recollection isn’t that I disliked it, so the visuals and action must have been pretty good? Maybe I just blocked out the worst parts. I dunno; you tell me. I’m certainly not watching it again to find out.

36. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An intriguing drama with some great actors, but very, very slooowww.

35. Sucker Punch

Awesome visuals and set-pieces; confusing message about female empowerment. Hell, just confusing in general.

34. Beastly

Beauty and the Beast for the Twilight crowd. And me, apparently. Not exactly original, but I’m a huge sucker for that particular fairy tale and Beastly hit the right beats to make it work for me. Vanessa Hudgens doesn’t give me a ton of reasons to believe Alex Pettyfer would fall that hard for her, but he’s great in it and sells the attraction anyway.

33. Drive Angry

Great grindhouse schlock. Didn’t exactly make me love Nicholas Cage all over again, but it’s my favorite thing he’s done in years.

32. Conan the Barbarian

I’ve seen the Schwarzenegger Conan movies countless times, but I don’t hold the first one in as high regard as most fans do. In fact, I like Conan the Destroyer a lot better. Which is to say that my standard for this movie was pretty low and it met my expectations just fine. It’s not a great movie and it’s not everything a Conan movie should be, but compared to the rest of the sword-and-sorcery movie genre that exists in reality and not an ideal world, it’s toward the top of that pile.

31. Our Idiot Brother

I loves me some Paul Rudd, but this is not his best movie. It’s funny in parts, but the message is overly simple: that uptight women need to chillax like the bros.

30. The Adjustment Bureau

A good thriller marred by a rushed ending. Still, I love Matt Damon and I totally bought the romance between him and Emily Blunt.

29. Moneyball

I also love Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he’s wasted in this movie). The game-changing formula that this movie is based on is fascinating; I just never got a great feel for what the movie is trying to say about it. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? A little of both? If it’s a little of both, why does it matter enough to make a movie about it? The film works a little better as a drama about Brad Pitt’s character, but even then I’m left unsure what it’s trying to say and I’ve spent some time thinking about it.

28. The Green Hornet

I probably would have hated this movie had I been a Green Hornet fan, but I’m not and I don’t mind its light-hearted approach. I allow myself one Seth Rogen movie a year so’s not to get burned out and I enjoyed this one. Kind of wish I’d held out for 50-50, but oh well. This was fun, if dumb.

27. Fast Five

Speaking of dumb fun, Fast Five could have squandered the opportunity of putting Vin Diesel and The Rock in the same movie together. The cynical me actually expected it. But it didn’t. Not only did it make the most of their screen time together, it built a storytelling engine that will easily (and interestingly) power this series for the next few movies. On the other hand, them dragging that safe down the street at the end was helladumb.

26. The Mechanic

I only have vague memories of the Charles Bronson original version, but what I do remember was handled more to my liking in this one. I know that’s cryptic, but I’m mostly talking about the last five minutes of both movies. Anyway, a better-than-average Jason Statham vehicle, improved by the presence of Ben Foster.

25. Source Code

Nice scifi story. It didn’t stick with me like a great movie should (maybe ’cause I figured out what was going on too early?), but it kept my attention and I rooted for Jake Gyllenhaal to figure out a way to save and end up with Michelle Monaghan’s dead character.

24. Bridesmaids

Very funny and I like the meta-message it sent about gender equality in Hollywood films. I didn’t buy into the romance like I was supposed to (mostly because I didn’t like Kristin Wiig’s character much), but it was still a funny movie with actresses I love and some nice heart.

23. Arthur

My friends who’ve seen the original tell me that I’m not supposed to like this, but – like with Green Hornet – I have the luxury of getting to judge it purely on its ability to make me laugh. Which it did. And the relationship between Russell Brand and Helen Mirren was awesome and touching.

22. Friends With Benefits

An almost perfect romantic comedy foiled only by a resolution as cheesy as those in the other romantic comedies it mocks. Between this and Bad Teacher though, I’m right on board the Justin Timberlake Is Awesome train now. I was already there with Mila Kunis, whom I’ve loved since That ’70s Show.

21. Real Steel

Unambitious, but it does what it does – tell a sentimental story about a man’s redemption, both to himself and to his son – really well.

Elizabeth Swann and the Curse of the Black Pearl

As we get closer to On Stranger Tides, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films for some context. Though Stranger Tides is the first of three more Pirates movies, reports are that it’s not beginning a new trilogy. Each of the films will stand on its own without directly leading into the next. I’m curious to see how audiences will receive that in comparison to the first set. Most everyone loved Black Pearl, opinions were divided about Dead Man’s Chest, and At World’s End was generally hated. The new films are designed so that each stands or falls on its own.

Personally, I like At World’s End a lot, but it took me two or three viewings to figure out what was going on. Or – more accurately – how much I needed to care about everything that was going on. The world of the Pirates movies is so thought-out and complex that by At World’s End there are so many characters with so many unique motivations and agendas that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Which is why so many people threw their hands up and declared that it wasn’t worth it.

I don’t really blame them. When even the jilted love-interest of the female lead in the first movie has become a fully-realized, developing character with his own story arc, some overload is to be expected. The trick is to realize who the protagonists really are and follow her (oops, gave it away) story. Everyone else exists only to support her story, regardless of how interesting and diverting he may be. Jack, I’m looking at you.

Curse of the Black Pearl opens on Elizabeth Swann and At World’s End closes on her. It’s pretty clear to me that the trilogy is about her. I’m not saying though that seeing the films from that perspective is going to fix everyone’s problems with them. A lot of people simply don’t care for Elizabeth – I don’t understand that, but I acknowledge it’s true – so identifying her as the main character is only going to make those folks less satisfied with the films. So I’m not trying to defend the first three Pirates films as universally great cinema (even though I think they are); I just say that if they’re going to be criticized, they should be criticized for what they are: Elizabeth Swann movies.

Part of the trouble in identifying whose movies these really are is that it’s impossible to tell until the entire trilogy is done. Again, this is because all the characters are so fleshed out that you don’t know who to focus on. Black Pearl’s opening on Elizabeth doesn’t really tell us anything. Harry Potter isn’t about Dumbledore just because he’s the first person to show up onscreen. And even once Black Pearl is finished, you can’t tell that Elizabeth was the primary antagonist.

Judging from Black Pearl alone, Pirates of the Caribbean has three main characters: Elizabeth, Will Turner, and Captain Jack Sparrow. They all have their own agendas and at first glance, Elizabeth’s is actually the weakest. Her primary goal throughout the film is to keep Will safe. She steals his cursed necklace because she doesn’t want him identified as a pirate by Norrington and her father, then – after a brief diversion in which she seeks to save all of Port Royal from Barbossa’s men – she spends the rest of the movie trying to protect Will from the Black Pearl’s crew. And that’s pretty much all she does.

In contrast, Jack – who I’m going to argue is the least important character – seems to have the strongest agenda: reclaiming his ship. Most of the film seems to be about that and even the name of the movie appears to reinforce the idea that this is where we should be keeping our attention. And because Johnny Depp is so freaking charismatic in the role, we certainly want to keep our attention on him.

Will lies somewhere in between. His motivation plays exactly the role in the story that it appears to. He’s in love with Elizabeth and wants to rescue her (again making her appear to be a plot device), but that changes as he learns about his father. If we’re only looking at Curse of the Black Pearl, Will is the protagonist. Though his motivation is no more or less strong than Elizabeth’s (both are trying to protect each other) or Jack’s, Will is the only character who appears to grow or change in the course of the film. At least at first look.

Elizabeth is a strong, independent character from the first moment we see her and she stays that way throughout. She bucks convention as often as she can. She loves pirates, hates corsets, and never actually consents to marry Norrington.

Meanwhile, Jack is Jack. He’s unchangeable and we love it that way. He’s Bugs Bunny. You can drop him into any situation and it instantly becomes more interesting, but there’s no story to be told about him. That would require growth and we like Jack just the way he is when we first meet him.

Will, on the other hand, learns a valuable lesson about prejudice and stereotypes. It’s interesting. After watching Black Pearl this last time, I realized that my son’s probably the right age now to appreciate these movies, so I started watching it again with him. He quickly had some questions about pirates: Are they good guys or bad guys? If they’re good, why does everyone want to put them in jail and hang them? If they’re bad, why are we rooting for Jack? It was nice not to have to stop the movie and explain this myself, because those are exactly the questions that Will’s asking. I just told David that his answers were coming. (The answer, of course, is that it’s much more complex than that. Not everyone in a group is going to be just like everyone else in that group. I’m pretty pleased with and grateful for the teaching opportunity.)

But even though Will is the most overt protagonist in Black Pearl, Elizabeth joins him in a subtle way. The movie talks a lot about choosing paths. Mostly in reference to Will, who chooses to become a pirate at the end, but Elizabeth also chooses a new path for herself. Though she never agrees to marry Norrington and live out the traditional life of an English governor’s daughter, she sure does wait a long time to announce that she’s not going to do that either. She keeps her options open, not because she’s torn about which choice to make, but because what she really wants to do is pretty damn scary. It’s a choice between safety and adventure, and though the repercussions of her decision aren’t as dramatic as Will’s, her choosing to help free Jack and proclaim her love for Will is an important development in her character.

Helping to drive that decision is Elizabeth’s discovery of just how powerful she has the potential to be. In Jamaica, her influence is extremely limited, but at sea she’s able to control events in very cool ways, including mounting rescues and leading a crew of pirates into battle. That makes her integral to the theme of piracy-as-freedom. In fact, that central theme – though directly talked about by Jack – is seen most clearly in Elizabeth’s story.

So that’s why there are two main characters in Black Pearl. I suppose you could argue that the rest of the trilogy focuses on them equally, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’ll suggest that by the end of Dead Man’s Chest, Will’s starting to drop out of the contest and into a supporting role, even while the movie appears still to be focused on him. But that’s a post for another day.

Amazon of the Week: Solara

I don’t think The Book of Eli holds up all that well as a movie, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the character of Solara (Mila Kunis). She doesn’t start out especially tough – she’s as frightened and dominated by Carnegie (Gary Oldman) as the rest of the town – but she’s brave enough to take her chance at escape with Eli (Denzel Washington) when she sees it and soon becomes outright heroic.

Kunis is a huge part of what makes Solara a successful character. Even during her time playing the annoying Jackie on That ’70s Show, Kunis brought a lot of strength and intelligence to a character who on paper only needed to be pretty and bitchy. She continues giving those qualities to her film characters, which is why I love watching her movies even when she’s not wreaking holy vengeance with a submachine gun.

Amazon of the Week: Deadly Little Miho

I’m not sure I can explain what’s so cool about Miho from Sin City.

So cold. So deadly. So mysterious. Trying to describe what makes her cool is like trying to describe why you like Wolverine. “I don’t know. She’s just cool!” Only she’s not completely overcooked the way he is. She’s new. She’s fresh. She’s drawn by Frank Miller.

Amazon of the Week: Marion Ravenwood

There are several reasons why Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best of the Indiana Jones films and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) is at the top of the list. Although she plays the damsel in distress for a significant part of the movie, she never feels like she’s filling that role. She’s strong, she’s capable, and if you’re a guy in her way, she’ll either seduce you, punch you, or drink you under the table depending on what the situation calls for.

Of the many problems Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has, the biggest is that it didn’t continue the story of Indy and Marion. Kate Capshaw’s whiny, spoiled Willie Scott is no substitute. And though Alison Doody’s Elsa Schneider was pretty tough in The Last Crusade, she lost points by being a villain (though I should probably watch that again with fresh eyes; I just remember being disappointed at the time).

It was smart of them to bring Marion back for Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but a shame that they didn’t give her a lot to do. She wasn’t nearly as tough and cool as she’d been in Raiders. But then again, neither was Indy.

Amazon of the Week: Martha Jones

But first: some housekeeping.

If you missed having the Art Show post this week (or Pass the Comics or Quotes of the Week, for that matter), be sure to check out/subscribe to/follow the Adventureblog Annex where all that stuff is now. I know that starting Yet Another Blog is spreading myself pretty thin, so I’m going to pull back the content I  was putting into spin-off blogs Amazon Village and Dear Dairy. As fond as I am of the idea of them, I’ll probably end up killing them for no other reason than to keep things simple and efficient.

So here’s the plan. This blog will be much more about original content than it has been. Art, other people’s comics, and quotes are in the Annex. News links are on Twitter. Personal stuff (and weird YouTube videos) are on Facebook.

One of the things I tried at Amazon Village was to have an Amazon of the Week. I use the word Amazon loosely to describe any strong, independent woman, because frankly I can’t come up with a better term. Lisa Paitz Spindler calls them Danger Gals, which is awesome, but I’m not stealing her name. Anyway, I love these characters and have meant for years to start a feature spotlighting my favorites, so here we go. The first three weeks will be reposts from Amazon Village and then we’ll get into new ones.

Martha Jones probably won’t be the only companion of the Doctor to be featured here, but she gets to be first because she’s my favorite.

Yeah yeah, I’m as in love with Rose as anyone (other than folks who think it’s cool not to be in love with Rose, of course) and was heartbroken by how her story played out. But it’s Martha who really has my heart. First of all, I get the whole Unrequited Love Thing. I’ve been through that and it’s just as terrifying as the Eternally Separated From The One You Love Thing, if not more so. And not to make Rose or anyone else seem unheroic in comparison, but Martha’s a warrior for a) sticking in that situation for as long as she did and b) finding a way to continue sacrificing herself even once she’d pulled away from the Doctor.

More than any other Companion, Martha feels like she’s got a life worth following outside of Doctor Who. We should’ve gotten a spin-off with her instead of Torchwood.