And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I’m sure you’ve been on pins and needles since January 1st waiting with bated breath, mumbling incoherently to yourself, “I can’t wait any longer. I need Carson’s 2011 Top 15 List now!” Well here it is! And looking over it, I can’t believe some of the movies on it either. If you would’ve told me going into 2011 that I’d like a certain high profile cash grab comedy sequel, I’d tell you you were bananas. I mean, this is not the Top 15 I expected. But that’s the great thing about movies. They surprise you when you least expect it. Now just a reminder. Not all of these films came out in 2011. Qualifications for the list are only that I saw the movie in 2011. So let’s stop wasting time and get down to business!
15) Source Code
Writer: Ben Ripley
Director: Duncan Jones
You guys all know how much I loved this script. To me, it’s still one of the best sci-fi screenplays of the last decade. Therefore, it was going to be hard for the film to live up to that love. And right away, I didn’t like some of the changes. My main gripe was changing Christina from an introverted artist into a perky happy semi-girlfriend. The reasoning for this change was that it would make more sense if the two knew each other beforehand because it would be easier for Colter to convince her to help him after every time reset. What they didn’t realize was that that’s the exact reason they shouldn’t have changed it. You WANT things to be difficult for your character. You want it to be hard. And Ben Ripley’s original script handled that perfectly. Despite that, director Duncan Jones managed to craft a pretty entertaining little thriller. Just enough to pull this film by its bootstraps into the Top 15.
Writers: Chris Mass and Mike Akel
Director: Mike Akel
I think this film originally came out in 2006. Chalk is sort of like a high school version of The Office, but without the production value. What helps you overlook that though is the casting, which is top-notch. Chalk documents (or mockuments) a group of high school teachers that include the “maybe” lesbian gym teacher who takes her job way too seriously. The science teacher desperate to win “Teacher of the Year,” even though his students are smarter than he is. And the history teacher whose utter lack of social skills makes every class a mumbling bumbling journey of awkwardness. Like all micro-budget affairs, Chalk has its share of questionable moments (there’s a dream sequence that any halfway intelligent director would’ve burned off the negative), but the film hits a lot more than it misses. This was one of the funniest films of the year for me.
13) The Descendants
Writers: Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Director: Alexander Payne
George Clooney and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to hate him. No, but seriously. I do. No, seriously though. I really do. Having said that, The Descendants is a film that never would’ve been made had Clooney not been involved, so cheers to that. You want to talk about non-commercial? Try a mother who’s in a coma for the entire movie, and who (spoiler) our characters take off life-support at the end. This requires our hero, Matt King (Clooney) to get his two daughters together, the beautiful but angry 16 year old Alexandra, and the hilarious but naïve 10 year old Scottie, and begin telling family members throughout the Hawaiian Islands that she isn’t going to make it. The power of the movie comes from Matt’s disconnect with his daughters. He was never the caretaker in the family, and now must learn on the job. The two subplots include Matt deciding whether to sell a huge chunk of commercial real estate that his descendants purchased as well as confronting the man he learns was sleeping with his wife, who coincidentally stands to make a lot of money if Matt sells. What I liked here was the unexpected humor, the difficult to predict plot, and the exploration of Matt’s broken relationship with his oldest daughter. The Descendants is slow and certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you like character driven films that take their time, this one might be worth checking out.
12) The Hangover II
Writers: Craig Mazin & Scot Armstrong & Todd Phillips (Characters by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore)
Director: Todd Phillips
No. This is not a misprint. I am actually including The Hangover II on my list. Before you think I’ve started drinking early for New Year’s Eve, let me try and explain. When I kept hearing that this film was exactly the same film, beat for beat, as the first Hangover, I rolled my eyes at how lazy Hollywood was. I mean why not try to do *something* different? But after seeing the film, I understand exactly why they did it, and consider them sorta geniuses for the choice. The script is the most unpredictable of all the variables in filmmaking. Yeah, you could nail it in three months. But there’s a chance you might not nail it for a year. You just don’t know. And the problem with Hollywood is, they’re not waiting until you figure it out. They set a date and wherever that date arrives, that’s the script they go with. This is the reason why we have so many bad sequels. The writers try to write an entirely new story and simply don’t have the time to explore it (see the Matrix sequels as examples A & B). So the Hangover team said, “Hey, we already have a formula that works here. We try to write a whole new movie, it’ll be all over the place. Let’s just stick with what works.” So while there was nothing particularly new in The Hangover II, the structure of the film was solid, creating a story that not only made sense, but was pretty tight – rare for a sequel. In addition, outside all of that screenwriting jibber-jabber, I just thought this film was funnier than the first one. I mean when Ed Helms learned that he had had sex with a tranny, I honestly lost it. And that may say more about me than it does about the film, but I loved that they took chances like that. This was easily the biggest shocker of the year for me because I expected to hate this film. Bring on Hangover III baby!
11) Super 8
Writer: J.J. Abrams
Director: J.J. Abrams
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I loved Super 8. But I certainly did like it. If there’s any director I’d trust to take me back to the Steven Spielberg era, it’s JJ Abrams, who kicks ass in every direction. What really impressed me in Super 8 was the casting and the perfect chemistry between the kids. I was reminded of what it felt like to be back with my own little bike gang as a kid going off on some daily adventure. I was a little disappointed that the monster was so independent from the main plot, but Elle Fanning more than made up for it. This girl is going to be a force in the future. That scene where she gives her first zombie performance while Joe puts make-up on her would’ve had me falling in love if I were 14 again. And a special mention goes out to Riley Griffiths, who gave a great performance as the director of the group. Super 8 had its faults, but it was a monster/sci-fi movie with some heart, which is rare to come by these days.
10) Troll Hunter
Writer: Andre Overdal and Havard S. Johansen
Director: Andre Overdal
I remember when I first saw this trailer I screamed, “I have to see this now!” I unfortunately had to wait seven months before I finally got my hands on it but it was well worth the wait. Over here in America, we’re getting bored with all the horror, alien, and ghost found footage films. Seeing a found footage film, then, that revolved around… TROLLS??? Giant trolls at that?? In a movie where the visual effects were pretty darn good? That’s fresh. What I think got me more than anything though, was the detail that went into the mythology. For example, if there’s a guy who hunts trolls, then aren’t there a bunch of dead trolls lying around? These guys developed not one, but two methods of disposing of troll bodies that were actually believable inside the universe they created. It does get a little repetitive near the end but you’ll be surprised at who you’re rooting for in that final battle. These are the films that inspire me – where people just go out and do something different and it ends up catching a wave. A unique and fun movie.
Writers: Gavin O’Connor & Anthony Tambakis & Cliff Dorfman
Director: Gavin O’Connor
I’m kinda surprised this movie didn’t do better. I think one of the variables that screws up box office prediction is Middle America. As you rise up in the screenwriting ranks, you become focused on creating smart character driven fare that will impress Hollywood folks. In the meantime, the movies that play well in Middle America are Paul Blart and the latest Adam Sandler abortion. I thought Warrior was going to be the perfect hybrid. It had a couple of respected up-and-coming actors. It was a feel-good underdog story. And it featured ultimate fighting, which plays well in Middle America. So I don’t know if they didn’t sell it well. I don’t know if the stars weren’t big enough. I don’t know if not being able to use UFC’s name had anything to do with it. But the movie didn’t do well. And yet it’s one of the better sports movies I’ve seen in a while. Tom Hardy plays one of the biggest bad asses you’ll ever meet. Joel Edgerton plays the underdog role to perfection. And the final match up in the film is more than emotionally satisfying. I wish this film would’ve done better because it deserved it.
8) Friends With Benefits
Writers: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck (story by Harley Peyton and Keith Merryman & David A. Newman)
Director: Will Gluck
Yesterday, I highlighted one of the worst films of the year, No Strings Attached. So why am I now celebrating its doppelgänger? Because Will Gluck is one of the few young comedy directors with a unique voice. There’s something different about his films that stir up the butterflies at the bottom of your stomach. I didn’t love Easy A, but I recognized its originality. And this film has that same kind of unique charm. But what really sets it apart is the killer chemistry between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. I mean these two are perfect together. Every scene between them sparked. It was the exact opposite of No Brains Attached. As I was watching “Benefits,” I actually wondered, in a science experiment way, what these two movies would’ve played like had they switched actors. Would “Strings” be the good one and “Friends” the bad one? I’m not sure. But I do know that any movie with Kutcher is probably going to be terrible so thank God this experiment never happened.
7) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Writers: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (spun off the novel “La Planete Des Singes”)
Director: Rupert Wyatt
I don’t know who Rupert Wyatt is and what he directed before this, but he and the writers of “Rise” deserve a filmmaking medal. They took a franchise known for putting style over substance and rebuilt it to highlight substance over style. Not only that, but they turned a major franchise into a character-driven silent film! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream release take that big of a chance before. Because that’s what this is – a silent film. And to couple that with two acts that don’t feature a single major set-piece, instead focusing on a conflicted ape who’s trying to come to terms with his emerging intelligence? – I mean, I still can’t believe they did this. And even more impressive – THEY PULLED IT OFF! I loved “Rise.”
6) Midnight In Paris
Writer: Woody Allen
Director: Woody Allen
Let’s be honest. Woody Allen isn’t trying to make good movies anymore. He’s just trying to keep busy. That was confirmed for me a few years back when he cast Jason Biggs and Christina Ritchie in a movie. Lucky for him, actors still believe it’s an honor to work with Woody for some reason, and that means sooner or later he’s going to hit. Well, that moment’s finally come. Midnight In Paris is a wonderful little film, particularly if you have any interest in the famed city, which I’ve held a fascination with for much of my life. But what really grabbed me here was the time-jumping! You know I’m a sucker for time-travel, and who would’ve thought Allen would be writing a time-travel film at this stage of his career? Watching Owen Wilson stumble through 1925 Paris, bumping into Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald among others, all while trying to figure out what was going on, was hilarious. I also have a renewed appreciation for Allen’s dialogue. This is a man who has written dialogue-driven films for 30 years, and seeing how he crafts his scenes to maximize the character exchanges was enlightening. The only thing that would’ve made this movie better was a Nutella crepe from the sacre couer court!
5) The Disappearance Of Alice Creed
Writer: J Blakeson
Director: J Blakeson
One of the challenges of low-character-count contained thrillers is the limited amount of choices. I read so many of these things that peter out in the second act, and that’s due exclusively to writers running out of ideas. Every once in a while, though, someone figures out how to make it to the finish line. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed follows two men who kidnap the daughter of a wealthy man and demand a ransom. 97% of the film takes place in two rooms and not once does it get boring. There are all these little twists and turns that come right at the moment these films usually start grasping for life support. In combination with a disarmingly confident directing style (watch the opening scene where they construct the room to see what I mean), you get the feeling you’re watching something special. We talk about subtext and dramatic irony a lot on the site. If you want to learn how to utilize these tools effectively, clear 90 minutes out of your schedule and watch this film. It’s pretty awesome.
Writers: Kristin Wiig & Annie Mumolo
Director: Paul Feig
Bridesmaids easily wins the underdog film of the year award. Some people didn’t think it would make a hundred bucks, much less a hundred million. But the character work in this female Hangover elevated it beyond your standard bodily function comedy, which it did, ironically, have plenty of. I just thought Kristin Wiig was perfect as this misguided naïve woman on the wrong side of thirty who was about to lose her best friend to marriage. Despite all of the juvenile desperate stunts she pulls to win her friend back, you still root for her. You still want her to succeed. And that’s the mark of a great character. Even the cliché inappropriate friend role was nailed by Melissa McCarthy, who had me rolling on the ground when she stole all the puppies. In a year with a lot of lame comedies, it was nice to watch one that actually made you give a shit.
T-4) X-Men: First Class
Writers: Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
It’s confession time here on Scriptshadow. I’m not a big fan of the X-Men movies. So I was hardly looking forward to X-Men: First class. Sure, director Vaughn was trumpeting to anyone who would listen that he was doing something “different” with his super-hero film, but those claims are almost always lip service. So I ignored the film until a bored Tuesday evening, when I reluctantly clicked “Rent” on my Itunes. The next thing I knew, my whole world had changed. Okay, that may be overstating it, but what a kick ass movie (no pun intended)! The character development in this film puts all other super hero movies to shame. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are mesmerizing as friends Charles Xavier and Magneto. Magneto’s inner battle between good and evil was pitch perfect. The training sequences, because they were anchored in that friendship (and not just about special effects), were the best I’ve ever seen in a super-hero film. It almost didn’t seem like a super hero movie. It was more about people. I can’t NOT celebrate that on a screenwriting site. Thank you Vaughn and Goldman for this totally unexpected treat!
Writers: Seth Lochhead and David Farr
Director: Joe Wright
So everybody asks me, are there any examples of bad scripts that became good movies? Take a look at my old script review of Hanna. I thought that script kinda blew. At the heart of the problem was a plot that didn’t make sense. A father trains his daughter to become a perfect warrior then sends her out into the world to meet him later on? Ummmmm, why not just go there together???? On top of this, the script was boring. Hanna was stuck in these weird caves for like 30 pages doing nothing. The only reason I watched this is because I like Joe Wright as a director. And about 15 minutes in, I was ready to turn it off. But then something happened. There was this unexpected kookiness to the story that was never hinted at in the script. A fairytale quality began to emerge. The world was exaggerated in the most unexpected and intriguing ways. But the key change was eliminating all those damn lags in the story. Instead of locking our heroine down in those caves for an eternity, writers Lochhead and Farr kept Hanna on the move throughout, which gave the movie a momentum the script lacked. Wright and his writers actually made a bunch of interesting choices, the most surprising of which may have been the 14-year-old lesbian friendship/relationship that they managed to somehow not make sleazy. Then of course Saoirse Ronan is fucking amazing. She’s right up there with Elle Fanning in that league of dynamite young actresses. This movie was just so much wilder than I expected it to be. What a surprise.
2) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Writer: Steve Zallian
Director: David Fincher
I read the book, which I thought was amazing. I saw the Swedish film, which I thought was underwhelming. So I didn’t know what to expect from this. And that bizarre opening title sequence didn’t help. What the hell drug was Fincher on when he made that? I suppose it wasn’t as bad as the Mission Impossible title sequence, which inexplicably gave the entire movie away before it even started. Worst choice ever? Anyway, back to Dragon Tattoo. This film was fucking AWESOME! Rooney Mara kicked posterior as the girl. If the make-up and costume directors of this film don’t win Oscars for what they did to her, it will be a crime. Every frame of this movie was perfect. Fincher’s unflinching directing was as good as it’s ever been. It seems like his entire career was merely a set of practice drills preparing for this franchise. The big feat for Fincher here, though, was capturing the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. It’s no secret that Fincher sucks with male-female relationships in his films, but he nailed this one. I felt Lisbeth’s pain in the end when (spoiler) she saw Blomkvist walk off with Erika. Young Fincher couldn’t have handled that. And thank you Steve Zallian for changing that way-too-drawn-out ending!
Writer: Hossein Amini (book by James Sallis)
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Any surprises here? I not only loved the original script, but I loved the pared down 30 pages less version they used for the movie. I can’t think of any situation where they cut out that much of an already great screenplay and didn’t lose anything. But while the writing here is awesome, the real star is the director, Nicholas Winding Refn. He’s able to capture a mood up on screen that so few directors can. All you need to watch is the opening getaway sequence to know what I’m talking about. Instead of the typical back-and-forth jokey exchanges you see from antsy directors who fear even the slightest hint of silence onscreen, Refn plays it quiet, allowing the heart thumping soundtrack along with your own heart thumping to do the work for him. Ryan Gosling was amazing as Driver. The cinematography was outstanding. The soundtrack was an instant classic. The directing was first rate. This movie left the biggest impression on me all year so it’s no shock it’s number 1. I still bust out the soundtrack when I’m driving around in the city, pretending I’m Driver, preparing for a getaway. That may make me dorky but that’s what a great film will do to you!