The Halftime Top 10, 2011 Edition

July 12, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

I started compiling mid-year Top 10 lists a number of years ago, in large part to argue that there are oases in the vast desert of the early-year movie release schedule. Since that first list was posted in July 2004, the landscape hasn't changed much. Winter and early spring are when crap is dumped into multiplexes, summer is for blockbusters, early fall isn't much better than early spring, and the November/December period is when the Oscar contenders emerge from hibernation. One could be forgiven for thinking the true movie-lover might dine exclusively on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs from January to October before venturing into theaters as Christmas lights begin to decorate the nation's landscape. For those addicted to multiplex loitering, however, there's almost always something worth seeing. The trick is picking out the gold amidst the dross. The Halftime Top 10 is my stab at doing something along those lines.

Fatherhood has forced a change to my movie-going habits in 2011, as many of readers have noted. Although I will write more than 100 reviews this year, I won't come close to 150. From January to June, I penned 59 reviews of new theatrical releases. Historically, I write more reviews from July to December, but not many more. Expect my 2011 output to be between 120 and 130. That represents the least active I have been since 1992, when I scribed 182 reviews in my first (pre-Internet) year reviewing films.

Although I'd like to think most of what I have missed was not worth seeing, that would be untrue. It might be accurate if I referred only to the Hollywood product, but I am aware of numerous well-respected foreign and independent films I have been unable to see. The press screenings for these are almost always held at times when I can't attend and their distribution is so limited that it is difficult to get to them on weekends. So I wait for Netflix and, for the most part, don't review them unless they blow my mind.

I have never claimed any Top X list compiled by me represents a "Best of..." list. I dislike the term "best" for any list, since it pretends objectivity for something that is subjective. Even the most respected roster of all - the once-per-decade Sight and Sound Top 10 - is not a true representation of "the best." It perhaps comes closer than any individual list, but is in many ways less interesting. Personal lists reveal information about their compiler. Voted lists are often so influenced by politics and mass thinking as to be meaningless.

Take the example of Citizen Kane. It is widely regarded to be the best film ever made, but is it really? If you look at most of the "important" lists, you'll get that impression. Personally, I don't know. It's extremely well-made; it was groundbreaking; it stands up as well as anything from its era. It's one of my favorites, but not my favorite. The thing is, if you ask 100 random people what the best movie is, you're not going to get many Citizen Kanes. There will be a few, either from people who want to sound knowledgeable or from the few who truly do think Citizen Kane is the best movie. But you'll get a lot of other titles, some of which may be surprising. A lot of people think Star Wars is the best movie. Ditto for The Return of the King. And The Dark Knight. Some will even argue for (gag!) Twilight. IMDb ranks The Shawshank Redemption as #1, based on reader voting. Where's Citizen Kane? #38. The most recent Sight and Sound poll, conducted in 2002, has Citizen Kane in the #1 position for both critics and directors.

So what does all this mean? That IMDb voters are not to be taken seriously? That critics and directors have their heads so far up their collective asses they don't have a clue what really constitutes "the best"? Neither. It simply means that amalgamated lists are largely useless when it comes to numerical rankings. The IMDb 250 and Sight and Sound Top 10 are excellent recipes for finding rental material but they are no more authoritative than any individual's list.

I compile Top 10s from time-to-time (typically twice per year) for fun. I pick from what I've seen - which, for 1H2011 limits me to 59 choices - and don't take my picks too seriously. Someone reading this may agree with me but, more likely, I will stand alone. This is a list of favorites, not objective bests.

A note on eligibility: If I saw a movie theatrically between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2011, it's eligible. This includes late-year carryovers. Since I assemble my end-of-the-year lists in late December, there are always a few titles I miss. Rather than ignore them, I slide them into the following year. Two titles on the 2011 Halftime list are "officially" 2010 films; they didn't open locally until 2011 and I didn't see them until then, so they're on this list (and, in all likelihood, will also be on the end-of-the-year list as well).

As for my least favorite halftime movie: that would go to Season of the Witch, barely edging out Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon.

Rankings are in reverse order.

10. The Lincoln Lawyer: One of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Not a "great" movie in the conventional sense, but engrossing and entertaining, and a reminder that, no matter how often he is used as a punch line, Matthew McConaughey has talent. This is one occasion when he puts it to good use.

9. Source Code: When you sit down to think about it, Source Code doesn't make a lot of sense, but it works while you're watching it, at least in a Twilight Zone fashion. Movies that play with reality have been popular during the last year-or-so (think Shutter Island, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau), and this is as good as any of them.

8. Submarine: I'm a sucker for quirky coming-of-age stories, and this one is nothing if not "quirky." The thing that makes this film work is that the humor is deadpan and self-deprecating rather than over-the-top. While most American coming-of-age comedies tend to be raucous, this British import is low-key, and all the more enjoyable for it. As usual with "small" films, unless you live in or near a big city, this one probably didn't open anywhere near you.

7. Midnight in Paris: It has been a while since Woody Allen has attempted a story in the science fiction/fantasy vein - something he did occasionally during his most fertile period. This is one of his most enjoyable recent films - probably his best since Match Point. Like that dark thriller, this one works in large part because it doesn't feel like recycled Allen. Sure, there are times when the Owen Wilson character talks like the writer/director, but every frame isn't dripping with angst, and that's a good thing.

6. Hanna: As well-crafted and well-acted a thriller as you're likely to find, this one had me on the edge of my seat almost from start to finish. It contains some great individual moments and never seems predictable. This is one I'll probably pick up for my personal DVD/Blu-Ray library because I could watch it several times without being bored.

5. Rango: Who would have expected a non-Pixar entry to be the best animated film of the year (at least so far)? What's more, this one was released in 2-D! If there's a negative associated with Rango (and it's not a negative as far as I'm concerned), it's that the movie might almost have been too adult.

4. Super 8: Nostalgia plays a role in how strongly one reacts to J.J. Abrams' homage to '70s and '80s Spielberg. I have found that those born before about 1980 adore the movie. Those born later like it, but feel it's derivative and can't figure out what all the fuss is about. This takes me back to the summers of my youth. It's delightful to find that they still sometimes do make 'em like they used to.

3. Certified Copy: A mind-fuck movie that never really plays straight with the audience. It's frustrating and fascinating at the same time, and it is landing high on this list (with a shot at the end-of-the-year Top 10) because its obtuseness is mesmerizing. One part of me wants to deride the movie for being too clever, while the other wants to write a ten-page paper arguing in favor of my interpretation. This is one of two 2010 titles to show up on my 2011 list.

2. Blue Valentine: And this is the other one. Blue Valentine would have placed on my Top 10 list of 2010 if I had seen it in 2010, but it will almost certainly be recognized in 2011. It's a romantic autopsy providing only a small dollop of fantasy; it's more interested in the reality that comes after the "meet cute" than Hollywood's idealized version. I found the film compelling and emotionally true, and sometimes almost too honest.

1. Tree of Life: Tree of Life stands atop the mid-year list because it's the most ambitious movie I have seen all year and, although there are parts of it that don't work, the project as a whole mesmerized me. Still, that being said, if nothing eclipses Tree of Life between now and December 31, I will be disappointed. This is a solid Top 10 contender, but not a true #1.