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.
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...