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The best movies of 2011

Apes, black birds and dinosaurs rise to the top

Photo: Merie Walla, License: N/A

Merie Walla

I believe they represent a more hopeful attitude than previous doomsday eras. When evidence shows that what we once thought was science fiction is science fact, especially when that message is something like, “It’s mathematically impossible that we’re alone in the universe, and we can see where our neighbors might live,” one hardly needs Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams’ wide-eyed orb-spotting to instill some awe and wonder back in the populace. All that’s left to do is assess how we are coping with the information – emotionally, spiritually, socially – and who better than Terrence Malick or Lars von Trier to weigh in?

Despite (or perhaps due to) its world-changing implications, the Large Hadron Collider is a force for good and knowledge, and I was grateful that this year, the Ron Howards of the world (Remember Angels and Demons, where the Illuminati used CERN to try to destroy the Vatican? Let’s hope you don’t) stepped aside and innovative filmmakers stepped up to provide context, meaning and emotionally honest appraisals of life in this new universe.

Portrait of the filmmaker as a young man

Directors’ childhood obsessions reared their ugly heads this year

by Rob Boylan

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays Gil, a vacationing screenwriter working on a novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. That a screenwriter would have this notion seems about par for the course, as Hollywood has almost completely turned itself into just that: a nostalgia shop. Comic books, toys, cartoons, amusement park rides, old movies and now even board games – it’s all fair game for a cinematic rendering in a way that didn’t exist, or at least not with any real quality, a decade ago.

Gil, of course, magically goes back in time and visits his favorite writers in 1920s Paris, falling in love. For most of today’s directors, it’s not nearly as far a journey. Many just can’t get past how rad the ’80s were, or get over how wizard the ’70s were, when Steven Spielberg made their favorite movies. But in these re-tellings, the memories they are reshaping are too often secondhand themselves, memories that directors like Spielberg, George Lucas, the Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) or Martin Scorsese originally got from the B-movies, serials and television of their own childhoods. Like the ever-worsening quality of a cassette tape, the further down the generational line you get from the original, the more fuzzy and shapeless things get.

Released under a veil of unwarranted secrecy, J.J. Abrams’ retro monster movie, Super 8, was a case of both the excitement and frustration that comes with the childhood nostalgia picture. Executive produced by Spielberg, Abrams’ childhood idol, Super 8 looked to recreate both the era and the energy of films like E.T., Close Encounters and The Goonies. In the first half, Abrams gives us the story of a troop of pre-teen filmmakers making an 8mm zombie movie. It featured some of the most heartwarming, refreshing sequences of the summer, watching this everyman group of kids take shape through the trauma of death, crushing on the same girl, a failing film and, oh yeah, a giant, starving alien attacking their town. But it “evoke[s] memories of classic summer blockbusters a little too eagerly for some,” according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and users are forbidden from even speaking of Super 8’s ubiquitous lens flares on the Something Awful forums. It’s in Abrams’ rendering of a malevolent alien searching for food and parts to fix his ship, though, that he fails to become his idol. Going for easy scares, he forgets that Spielberg’s most enduring and endearing images of aliens were of benevolent envoys, not devourers. E.T., his best-known alien, was a friend to Elliott when few others would be. He was based on the imaginary friend Spielberg had as a child, and he inspired openness and caring, not fear. E.T. was a “he,” not an “it.”

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