The Movie Club

Best Movies 2011: Captain America and Hanna were both pleasant surprises.

Somehow, the best comic book movie of the year was about Marvel’s squarest hero.

Still of Chris Evans from Captain America: The First Avenger

Phototgraph by Jay Maidment / © 2011 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.   

Michael, Dana, Stephanie,

Ah, my beloved Ghost Town! Way back when it came out, I called it a “Monday Surprise”—a movie that’s so unpromising or ineptly marketed that it never dawns on you it could be anything but lousy, but then it turns out actually to be pretty awesome and it’s all you want to talk about at the office Keurig come Monday. (Other examples: Bring It On, Galaxy Quest, The Iron Giant.) I had two Monday Surprises this year: Joe Wright’s existential thriller Hanna and the superhero movie Captain America: The First Avenger.

Before I saw it, Hanna was a mystery, thanks to its muddled advertising campaign; while I watched it, it was a puzzle, as I tried to unravel why these characters both loved and wanted to kill each other. But once I embraced the cipher at its center—the eponymous tween supersoldier (Saoirse Ronan) raised by her father (Eric Bana) in the desolate tundra—I recognized it as a cracked, violent, wistful fairy tale about a lost princess trying to find her way back home. By the time the espionage agent played by Cate Blanchett stepped out of a wolf’s mouth in that astonishing amusement park-set finale, I was as rapt and discomfited as a child hearing Grimm’s tales for the first time.

As for Captain America, I never expected that Marvel’s squarest superhero would make for the year’s only good comic book movie—that it would make a virtue of its squareness, in fact, to deliver thrills and laughs as sturdy and straightforward as its hero. Chris Evans is extremely dull, I must say, but he’s perfect as super-patriotic Steve Rogers, who just wants to do something for his country, darn it, and so submits to an experimental procedure that transforms him from reedy weakling to, well, Chris Evans. The movie surrounds that big slice of beef with several deliciously aged hams—Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and (best of all) Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, who’s not just a Nazi but a super-Nazi, worse than all the other Nazis!

Stephanie and Michael, I didn’t warm to Twilight: Breaking Dawn–Part 1 or Bill Condon’s work on it as much as you did. In fact, this movie was where I hopped off the Twilight train; where once I had admired how the earlier movies stoked fans’ passions expertly, playing Edward versus Jacob in a way designed to inflame the kinds of people who leave 79 comments on a movie review, this time around I thought the raptures and bodily torments of the fourth book were essentially incompatible with making a PG-13 film mothers can bring their teenage daughters to. Especially in the birth scene, which was so allusive as to be incoherent. It just made me wish Condon had sublet that scene to David Cronenberg, or Peter Jackson, both of whom would have devoured it like, you know, a vampire devouring the abdomen of his beloved in order to give her an emergency Caesarian section. (Spoiler!)

But there was one bloody romance this year I adored, and it’s one I know several of you adored as well, so I want to make sure we mention it: Andrew Haigh’s understated, wonderfully acted Weekend, about two British lads who meet, have sex, do some drugs, argue, and fall in love, even as the clock is ticking for one of them to leave the country. There were so many things I admired about this movie, but I’ll focus on two. First, I was thrilled with how politically aware the film was, but also how subtle it was about its politics. Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) discuss marriage, attachment, and the difficulties of being yourself in lower-middle-class Britain—as you would, were you falling in love over the course of a weekend. Haigh’s screenplay is so smart—a marvel of condensation and intimation, but not afraid to let its characters speak their hearts when the time is right.

In fact, his screenplay is so good it’s easy to forget how beautifully he directs the movie. Weekend is set in one housing complex and the neighborhoods surrounding it, and Haigh’s camera explores the many surfaces and pathways of that world, putting the public nature of urban living in conversation with Russell’s private personality and Glen’s extroversion. The most romantic moment in the film frames the two men in Russell’s upper-floor window as they kiss late at night, and it’s not just swoonworthy, it’s revolutionary—at least for Russell, who before this fateful weekend might never have imagined himself, lit only by candlelight and the stars, having a movie-quality smooch in front of God and his neighbors and everyone. It was my favorite movie of the year, and the best romance I’ve seen in a long, long time.

That moment stands out for me in a year that, despite my reservations, was full of wonderful scenes and exchanges. What stood out for all of you? What were your favorite movie moments of 2011?

Yours 4-ever, or at least until I move to Portland,