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The Best Films Of 2011...So Far

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist June 21, 2011 at 4:05AM

Well, today is the first day of summer, more or less the midpoint of the year, and looking back over the the first six months of 2011, it’s definitely been a bit more of a scattershot movie year compared to the arthouse heavy start of 2010. We'll be honest, compiling this list wasn't exactly easy, the year has been uneven so far, but that said, it's certainly not without highlights: Terrence Malick finally delivered his long awaited film, Woody Allen flexed some of the old magic we love him for, and Michael Winterbottom found life and heart from a familiar comic pairing, while Joe Wright moved completely in a new, exciting direction. Over at the multiplex, big summer entertainment has already made that overpriced, greasy bag of popcorn worth the price with J.J. Abrams proving that genre thrills don't have to be empty, while one of the year’s best efforts unfolded beautifully on the small screen.
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"Submarine" -- It is apparently stated in someone’s contract somewhere that a conversation about Richard Ayoade’s winning coming-of-age dramedy “Submarine” cannot take place without some sort of major mention of Wes Anderson films. And yes, while the film does have similarities to Anderson’s “Rushmore” because the story also features a prototypical misfit teenager cut from the Holden Caulfield dreamer mold (though far less assured and the angst is more melancholy), to draw further derivative conclusions is reductive and missing the point. While Ayoade’s film also pops with style and music, it is cut from a distinctly different cloth, taking its cues from the electrical cinema of Lindsay Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard and to a lesser extent Hal Ashby. More important than all the comparisons are the fact that “Submarine” pops and careens forth with an electrical energy we haven’t seen on screen in sometime. You know how some first time filmmakers’ debut work just bursts with a romantic drunkeness of ideas and exuberance? “Submarine” is that film and while it tilts into a rainy-day serio-sadness a little too far in its second half, it’s still an exciting and bold debut that knocked us off our feet.

Super 8” -- Shrouded in secrecy, with the monster and even much of the plot kept tightly under wraps, all that we knew of J.J. Abrams' film before it hit theaters was that it was going to be a summer blockbuster that played as an homage to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin films of yore. Well, this wasn’t just a slavish imitation. Falling somewhere between “The Sandlot,” “Goonies,” “E.T.” but more importantly, something uniquely from the mind of Abrams, “Super 8” was a big dose of nostalgia with the goods to back it up. While, yes, the plot is driven by a monster that escapes from a hideous train wreck and kids who team to stop it, many frustrated by Abrams (seeming) lack of investment in his own creature were missing the point. Easily the writer/director’s most mature film to date, Abrams was much more concerned with capturing the torrent of feelings that kids ride through on the cusp of adolescence. Those intangible emotions of young love, parental loss and the terror of facing the world at times without your friends or family to catch you, are winningly captured by Abrams in his highly entertaining film about a town under siege. And don’t listen to the naysayers. When it’s time for the monster to appear to cause havoc, Abrams doesn’t shy from the fireworks. The train crash nearly blew out our eardrums in IMAX and the climatic sequence delivers some best blockbuster bang for your buck so far this summer. Both tender and explosive, low-key drama and wide-screen epic -- and highlighted by a truly astonishing turn by Elle Fanning and an Oscar worthy, superb score by Michael Giacchino -- “Super 8” is a fresh, large-hearted, big summer spectacle just like they used to make.

Midnight In Paris” -- Continuing his Euro flavored adventures, Paris seems to have brought Woody Allen to life in one of this best efforts in years. Opening with sweeping shots of Paris from morning to night set to jazz that immediately brings to mind “Manhattan” the latest from Allen almost seems spun from his own dreams and inspirations. Owen Wilson plays the surrogate Allen, Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who laments never putting his efforts toward writing a truly great novel (sound like anyone you know?). However, in Paris with his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) he feels suddenly inspired and thanks to a midnight walk through the streets and quick bit of magical realism, he’s soon transported back to the ‘20s where he’s hanging out with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and watching Josephine Baker and Cole Porter perform. Yes, it's a trifle that still doesn’t rank among Allen’s great works, but there are few directors we’d rather see work out their own hesitations and reservations about their life’s works than Woody Allen. And if means traveling to 1920s Paris for a whimsical adventure through literature, art and music, we’re happy to take that journey.

The Trip” -- If you’re not familiar with the pleasantly curmudgeonly dynamic between Brit comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brdyon, “The Trip” is as good a place as any to start. Directed by Michael Winterbottom -- who previously brought the pair together in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” -- the film finds the duo playing fictional, bickering versions of themselves. A self-absorbed Coogan invites Brydon on an assignment to review high end restaurants in northern England mostly because he can’t find anybody else to go with him. As the two tour, eat and talk, we are treated to endless, hilarious celebrity impressions (Brydon emphasizes that his take on folks like Michael Caine, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins have been described as “stunningly accurate”) and blisteringly funny, casual asides. But underneath the constant quipping is an aching melancholy heart, as Coogan escapes time and again to call his girlfriend now auditioning in Los Angeles, with the distance and disconnection palpably felt over the dodgy transatlantic cell phone signal. Though edited down from a much longer six part series that aired on British television, “The Trip” doesn’t miss one beat. Hilarious, heartfelt and hugely enjoyable, if you can’t get away on vacation this summer, a detour with Coogan and Brydon instead, is a winning substitute.

This article is related to: Films, Foreign Films, Super 8, The Tree Of Life, Meek's Cutoff, Jane Eyre, Bridesmaids, Midnight In Paris, Submarine, Hanna, Beginners, Mildred Pierce, The Trip, I Saw The Devil, Win Win


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