Jan 1, 2012

Best of 2011: Movies

Happy New Year!

2011 has been a truly banner year for spy entertainment across the board. In movies alone, I think we've had more of them in 2011 than in any other year since I started this blog in 2006. But it wasn't just quantity; it was an overall year of quality, too. Some years, the pickings have been fairly slim in choosing a best spy movie of the year, but 2011 has offered an embarrassment of riches for fans of the genre. There have been enough good ones that in another year, something like Hanna or X-Men: First Class might have easily grabbed the top honors. But not this year. I could probably even make a Top 10 list rather than choosing a single winner. And, as it happens, I'm not choosing a single winner. It's a tie.

Best Spy Movies of 2011: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Since it was first announced over two years ago, director Tomas Alfredson's feature film adaptation of the classic John le Carré novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (previously made as an excellent 1979 BBC miniseries) has flown high on my radar. I've breathlessly followed the lengthy casting process, which packed the film with star after star, and barely contained my anticipation as Europeans had the chance to see the film months ahead of its U.S. release. Reviews out of the UK were stellar, as expected. As a serious contender for Best Picture, overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seemed almost preordained to achieve the top spot on a list of best spy films of the year. But it was never a given. Alfredson was adapting my favorite novel of all time, a dense and complex work that had previously barely been contained in a 7-hour miniseries, into a 2-hour feature. Could he possibly satisfy dedicated fans of the novel? Yes he did—thrillingly. (Read my full review here.) We couldn't have hoped for a better film version of the story, and now all my hopes turn towards further Smiley films from the same team.
Far less preordained was that I'd be equally thrilled by the fourth film in the Tom Cruise-starring Mission: Impossible franchise. I absolutely love the TV show upon which these films are ostensibly based, but I haven't loved any of the previous films in the series. Upon its initial release, I hated the first one (though I've since come round on it a bit), and the second was even worse. I did like the third one, but not enough to expect to enjoy the fourth anywhere near as much as I did. Sure, the casting was promising, but then there was that ridiculous title. Yet Brad Bird (The Incredibles), in his first live-action feature, delivered the most sheer fun in any spy film this year. Prior entries in this franchise have owed more to James Bond than the series whose theme music they share. Ghost Protocol, however, not only incorporates more aspects intrinsic to Mission: Impossible than the previous movies (including quite a few sly in-jokes for fans of the TV show), but also finally succeeds in out-Bonding Bond—at least for the moment. It delivers all the huge, larger-than-life, world-at-stake spy action that Quantum of Solace failed to. The much-hyped sequence with Cruise mountaineering about outside the tallest building in the world is itself worth the price of admission. I've seen it twice so far, and I can't wait to see it again. It's great stuff. (Watch for a full review soon.)

The fact that both of these spy movies were opening in the U.S. in the same month has fascinated me, since they perfectly represent the polar extremes of the spy genre. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a realistic, tightly-plotted, character-driven period thriller about loyalty, betrayal and office politics set mostly in the smoke-filled confines of a government bureaucracy, whereas Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a silly, way over-the-top action movie filled with spectacularly improbable gadgets and deliriously impossible stunts. About all they have in common, interestingly, is that both movies begin with a mission going wrong in Budapest. But they're both undeniably spy movies, and together they represent just about everything I love about the genre—on both extremes. I kept trying to suss out which one I liked more, and finally realized it was a tie. A perfect tie. I couldn't be more satisfied.

Honorable Mention

As I mentioned above, either Joe Wright's stylish teen assassin movie Hanna or Matthew Vaughn's equally stylish paen to Sixties spy movies with superheroes, X-Men: First Class (review here), could have taken top honors in another, less crowded year. Both deserve to be seen. Neither Colombiana (review here) nor Killer Elite (review here) ever would have had a shot at the title, but both delivered exactly what I wanted from them in their respective corners of the genre. 2011 really was a very good year for spy films.

Worst of 2011

It was so good, in fact, that I don't actually have a pick for the Worst of the Year. The actual worst spy film of the year, qualitatively, was probably the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, but even that was enough fun that I'd feel pretty churlish to actually saddle it with that demonstrative. The most disappointing spy movie of the year, for me, was probably The Debt. While I had no expectations whatsoever for Abduction, I had high hopes for The Debt (review here), since its pedigree included writers of both X-Men: First Class and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It fell seriously short of my expectations, but was by no means the worst of anything. So I'm not picking a worst spy film of 2011!

Stay tuned for a look at the best and worst spy television of the year...


Delmo said...

Glad you enjoyed Ghost Protocol. I loved it as well. How old is the pic of Brosnan? He looks great!

Tanner said...

I'll get my full review up soon!

The pic's from 2004, when he did a Cava campaign in Spain. So not technically champagne... but close enough!

Bob said...

I certainly agree with you on Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, but I have to disagree with Ghost Protocol.

I am in favor of the film trying a little harder to incorporate the "team" concept and some of the action scenes are spectacular.

However, the film really does lack a villain. Michael Nyqvist really has nothing to do in the film. There is no character development. His two action fight scenes with Cruise are beyond belief in the physical shape he is in.

Then there is the main plot line of a madman trying to start nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. Come on, this plot is straight out of a sixties Bond movie (complete with aquiring a satellite).

Finally, we have the cliched character played by Simon Pegg. How many movies have you seen the "technical" person played for laughs, and certainly an overdose of them in this film.

Finally I agree that this film is better than the second one. But I feel that this film belongs in that mind numbing category with the Transformer films. Really, when you look at recent 'action' spy films like Casino Royale or the Bourne films, how can this even compare.

Tanner said...

Ah, Bob, you're forcing my hand! I was waiting to discuss all this in my review of the movie, but you're right, M:I-GP does have problems--lots more problems than you mention, even. Nyqvist doesn't seem a believable physical match for Cruise at all, and the paper-thin plot doesn't hold up to any scrutiny. Even worse, the real climax happens in the middle of the movie, and nothing after Dubai quite lives up to that tour de force. BUT... to me, none of that matters one bit. Brad Bird directs it with enough cocky assurance, and with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek, that it doesn't matter. You DON'T scrutinize the plot as you're watching the movie! (At least I didn't--even the second time, after I HAD scrutinized it following the first.) You don't even think about it, because Bird's always throwing the next thing at you and the cast is so game and their interactions so charming.

As to comparing it to recent spy action movies like Casino Royale and Bourne, well I think that's where it stands strongest. You CAN compare them, because MI:GP is a direct REACTION to them. I love that the spy genre has this auto-correct mechanism in the symbiotic relationship between Bond and his imitators. Whenever the Bond films get too silly, the imitators shift gears and become more serious. When Bond gets to serious, the imitators balance things out and get sillier. And we've always got both options at the box office.

When Bond reached its most recent apex of absurdity in the preposterous Die Another Day, the genre reacted by giving audience more serious action spy movies like the Bourne films. Bond had to compete, and Bond got more serious again (much to the series' benefit) in Casino Royale. Bond has stayed serious, and now the imitators are see-sawing in the other direction. You see, even if Bond is being serious at the moment, there is still a place in the spy marketplace for over-the-top daffy action of the Roger Moore variety. And right now, M:I-GP is providing that, and I welcome it.

I agree with your Transporter comparison, but in a totally different spirit from the one in which you make it. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the daffy action of the Transporter films (with the second one being the perfect example). But they're lower budget neo-Eurospy affairs that will never truly compete on a Bondian level. The Mission: Impossible movies, however, can. So Brad Bird delivers a mega-budget, much glossier version of Transporter-style way-out-there action. And it works so well!

I like serious spy movies and I like fun spy movies. And I'd never want to see the marketplace dominated purely by one or the other. I like the auto-correct. And since I prefer my Bond more down-to-earth, I'm happy for the imitators to take up the silly side for now. Especially when they do it as well as Bird does in M:I-GP.

So when I was trying to decide what the best spy movie of the year was, that kept going through my head. It had seemed obvious forever that TTSS was destined to be that film. And, indeed, I loved it when I saw it. But was it my FAVORITE spy movie of the year? I don't know. M:I-GP was just so much sheer, exhilarating fun that I couldn't stop thinking about it. I keep wanting to see it again (especially in IMAX, which is truly spectacular), and I already have seen it again once. Then it hit me that between the two of them, these two films contained everything that I love about the spy genre. TTSS offers the complex plot and rich characterizations (neither of which are present in GP, as you point out, while M:I-GP offers the spectacular, over-the-top thrill ride of classic Bond. Casino Royale was the rare film that sort of combines those things in a perfect medium. And that's great. But the two extremes are also pretty great on their own, particularly when there's one of each out at the same time like this.

It's a great time to be fan of spy movies!

Bob said...

Tanner, I do agree with you in that it is a great time to be a fan of spy movies. Looking forward to Haywire in January. Also, loved 'Page Eight' on PBS this year and 'Killer Elite' was one of those guilty pleasure films.

As a fan of the Flint and Matt Helm films, I agree there is room for the serious and the fun spy films.

Good observations, Tanner.

Tanner said...

Yep, total agreement there, Bob!

Whoops, re-reading your initial post, I see I made a mistake. I thought you compared it to the TransPORTER movies, but you compared it to the TransFORMER movies. To clarify, I like the Transporters; like you, I do NOT like the Transformer movies. I also don't really see any connection between M:I-GP and Transformers, though. For one thing, Bird did an incredible job of staging action scenes that made sense and seemed easy to follow. I can't make heads or tails of Michael Bay's messy Transformers action scenes.

Kees said...

I must say I was disappointed by MI-4. Despite the beautiful scenery and locations the story/plot/script never clicked in my opinion. No chemistry between the main characters and no original plotlines and a forced rhythm in the action/slow 'meaningful dialogue' -scenes.
But I do look forward to seeing Jeremy Renner in the new Bourne!