The New Optimism: Hey, This Summer Didn’t Suck - 18 Best Summer Movies of 2011

Here are the 18 movies that made summer 2011 a damn fine one.

Just a note: I missed some of the smaller films this summer, like Submarine and Beginners. I have heard great things, so if a smaller film isn’t on this list it’s just because I couldn’t find time to actually see it yet.

Fast Five. This movie started the summer off with just the right tone and attitude. There’s no way the fifth film in a fairly stupid car series should be the best yet, or one of the best of the summer, but this was. Justin Lin made up for the tedious grit of Fast & Furious by just having a ton of fun; bringing in The Rock as a federal agent hunting down Vin Diesel and Paul Walker was brilliant, as was the idea of assembling a heist team out of favorite characters from the last four films.

Hobo With A Shotgun. A completely insane homage to 80s video nasties and Troma films, Jason Eisner’s feature debut is blood splattered goodness in the best possible way. And it features a Rutger Hauer performance that hangs right on the line where you wonder whether or not he gets it. Wonderful stuff.

Bridesmaids. The sleeper hit of the summer, and I think the box office story of the year. An R-rated comedy with no big stars that focuses on women and has a generic title like Bridesmaids? Nobody expected this to be a huge, monster hit. And despite never taking the #1 spot at the box office, word of mouth kept the film going and going and going. It’s earned $166 million and it cost $35 million, making it one of the year’s biggest success stories, and hopefully leading to more greatness from Kristen Wiig and Paul Feig.

Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen films aren’t supposed to be ACTUALLY good anymore. They’re supposed to be good enough that uptight New York film critics like me can find stuff to like and then nobody else goes to see them. But Woody’s latest, a light and enjoyable ode to Paris in the 20s while also being a sly criticism of nostalgia, was legitimately good. And it did really well; like Bridesmaids the fact that a movie as good and smart as this (the whole film is basically easter eggs for English Lit majors) performed well at the box office is heartening.

The Tree of Life. New Malick. Always sure to be an event, but not always sure to be great. I hated The New World, for instance. But Tree of Life was the real deal… as long as you look past the bookends. The farther I get from the film the nature of the bookends bothers me more and more, but the beauty and majesty and perfection of the long middle section also grows. This is probably one of the few films from this summer that I will continue to seek out in theatrical screenings, since it is just so stunning on the big screen.

X-Men: First Class. How did this end up so good? The film was rushed, the FX are obviously unfinished, and Fox has spent the last few years cementing their reputation as the studio where superheroes go to be killed. But Matthew Vaughn, working with Jane Goldman, understood the tone we want from our superhero films right now, which is fun and light and hope-filled (you’ll notice a certain lightness in many of the movies on this list, and I think that’s no accident. I don’t want dumb films in bad times, but there’s nothing wrong with movies that make you feel like everything’s going to be alright). And then that cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James MacAvoy are everything I want in my X-Men films going forward. Now we just have to see if the film’s box office, which was okay but not great, was enough for Fox to keep this franchise afloat.

Troll Hunter. Like Hobo With A Shotgun this was a Magnet film, and it’s an example of why they’re one of my favorite distribs. The found footage genre is so, so played out, but this Norwegian gem managed to find new life in it by focusing on folklore. What’s also great is that the troll designs are imaginative and awesome and fun.

Page One: Inside the New York Times. This documentary is fascinating because of the way it peeks into how the internet and digital delivery is impacting one of the nation’s great papers during a time when it’s dealing with other problems, including perceived issues with credibility. The Times is trying to roll with the punches and continues to deliver top notch journalism while sales are down and sites like The Huffington Post make a living stealing their content. The upside: David Carr, the media reporter for the Times, is a charismatic star player who deserves a doc all his own.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Another great doc! This one looks at the Legally Prohibited From Appearing On Television Tour that O’Brien launched after he lost the Tonight Show gig. It has incredible access and shows an intriguingly human side to Conan as he deals with his anger at NBC. Conan is a natural performer, which means he doesn’t know how to turn off, and you’ll be exhausted just watching him go and go and go.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. This film is a triumph, a wonderful conclusion to a mostly-great film series. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves distill everything that’s great about JK Rowling’s finale to her epic Potter story. They ended up with a film that balances real, honest emotion with spectacular action and excitement. I think Deathly Hallows Part 2 really raises the bar for summer blockbusters.

Captain America: The First Avenger. Some of you may already be grumbling that I left Thor off this list. Tough, it’s my list and I think Thor is empty and bad. But Captain America - this is how you do it! The film captures the pulp excitement of reading comic books and it translates Captain America better than I could have hoped. He’s a tough character in the modern world because he’s so square, and so earnest, but as the world goes to shit around us the idea of a square and earnest hero who is serving the true public good and not his own career or corporate interests is refreshing. This is a movie that makes you remember why you love America in the first place, and it’s not because of what gives Michael Bay a boner. It’s a movie about the decency at the heart of the American ideal, and how Steve Rogers epitomizes that decency -while punching a guy with a skull for a face.

The Myth of the American Sleepover. I don’t know why I haven’t written about this film yet. It’s a wonderful little movie in the tradition of American Graffiti in that it follows some suburban kids through the last night of summer. This group of kids is younger than Lucas’ group, and the film is filled with non-actors, but there’s a level of sweet realism that comes from that casting choice and the age group. This is the kind of film with which you slowly fall in love, and that lingers with you long after you’ve watched.

Attack the Block. Any summer with this movie would be one of the best summers ever. I love Attack the Block and have been singing its praises since SXSW, and I’m glad people are finally getting a chance to see it for themselves. Unlike other nostalgia-soaked kids vs aliens films this summer, ATB feels modern while maintaining that sense of adventure and fun that drove the best 80s movies. I also think that Attack the Block has THE best creature design of the year, and that Moses is my favorite hero of the summer.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’ve been on this film’s side since I read the script years ago, but nobody believed me. I went to the set and saw that director Rupert Wyatt was doing it right, but nobody believed me. I saw a presentation of the film’s FX and said this movie will win an Oscar, but nobody believed me. And then the film came out and everybody saw for themselves that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is smart, fun and most of all character-driven. It’s also a major step forward for performance capture, and it’s a movie where the CGI characters are better and more relatable than the human ones.

Bellflower. I really don’t like this movie. I think it’s sort of moronic, and I think that the script is terrible, and I hate that the whole thing hinges on a cheap third act fakeout. But I love the arguments I have been having with people about this movie, arguments about theme and about larger issues like misogyny and the nature of modern maleness. It’s exciting when a film sparks real, smart debate, and even when I don’t like that film, I have to appreciate what it’s done.

30 Minutes or Less. This is a really, really funny movie. Director Ruben Fleischer proves that Zombieland wasn’t a fluke and that he understands how to make character driven comedies that have a strong action component. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an action film, but it’s a film that moves and has a sense of narrative agility with a couple of small action scenes thrown in. It’s also got a dark center of violence and a small cruel streak that really appeals to me.

Final Destination 5. It’s the best one since Final Destination 2! I don’t want to write too much here because I’m still working on my review, but this film embraces the premise in a way the last two didn’t, and it also ends with a great moment that I think will send you out of the theater happy. Also: the 3D is used to great effect.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Troy Nixey’s directorial debut is assured and spooky, and it features evil little creatures who aren’t just scary, they’re serious assholes. This film has a Gremlins vibe in that the monsters, while threatening, are also sort of major dicks, and that’s part of the fun. Guillermo del Toro’s gothic fingerprints are on the film, and while I don’t think it measures up to the best of his work it’s a solid and fun old-fashioned horror movie filled with neat creatures. What more do you want in the final week of summer?

I’m still catching up with movies I missed this year, and I think films like The Future and The Devil’s Double and Project Nim have a shot at making an amended version of this list. Still, these are 18 summer movies that I really liked and/or would happily revisit again. It’s easy to get caught up in the apocalyptic badness of a Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides or the lethargic uselessness of a Cowboys & Aliens or the quickly evaporating sugar rush of a Super 8, but these are 18 films I think will stand the test of time and that make the summer of 2011 pretty damn good.