“A Better Life”

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Comic Koz’s 10 favorite films of 2011

By Carl Kozlowski 01/05/2012

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With Oscar season upon us and no good new films on the horizon, this week seems like the best time to spotlight 10 of my favorite films of last year. I still haven’t seen a few of the Academy Awards contenders (“War Horse” and “The Iron Lady” will be reviewed next week, for instance), but out of the more than 150 films I have seen this year, here are the 10 I enjoyed most, grouped into “arty” films and popcorn pictures for moviegoers who appreciate the distinction.

1. “A Better Life”
This brilliant film couldn’t be timelier. It perfectly humanizes the incredibly divisive issue of undocumented workers in its tale of a man and his son bonding as they search Los Angeles for a stolen truck that was the key to a better life. Since they’re “illegals,” the pair lacks the ability to involve police in their search. Shot on more than 75 locations across LA and featuring Demian Bichir in one of cinema’s all-time greatest performances, this film barely got a shot in theaters last summer, but it is a must-see on DVD or Video on Demand now. 

2. “Everything Must Go”
 The usually clownish Will Ferrell plumbed surprising emotional depths to portray a salesman who loses nearly everything to alcoholism, then regains his hope and dignity while selling all his possessions on his front lawn during an eventful week. 

3. “Super
Rainn Wilson (oddball Dwight Schrute on “The Office”) goes gonzo in the year’s most surprising storyline as a man who is pushed too far and reinvents himself as a superhero to set society right. You may think you’ve seen this before in films like “Kick-Ass,” but trust me; Wilson and writer-director James Gunn expertly walk a daring tightrope between stinging satire, outlandish violence and an ending of unexpected wonder and beauty. 

4. “A Separation”
Opening Friday in Pasadena, this film is Iran’s entry in this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar race. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi and starring a cast of Iranian actors, the film starts as a simple tale of a marriage falling apart and grows in ever-unexpected ways to become a Hitchcockian psychological thriller about a man accused of a horrible crime who starts to even doubt himself. 

5. “50/50”
This small-budget film with big-hearted performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen follows Gordon-Levitt in the based on true life story of a twentysomething who learns he has a rare form of cancer with 50/50 survival odds. Rogen stars as the best friend who provides him unshakable support. Most surprisingly, it’s frequently funny in unexpected ways, and a tentative romance between the patient and a therapist played by Anna Kendrick leads to the year’s best ending. 

1. “Bridesmaids”
“SNL” star Kristin Wiig explodes onscreen in an outrageously talented ensemble of female comics as a financially strapped woman caught up in the overbearing theatrics of her best friend’s wedding preparations. Melissa McCarthy steals the show by breaking every imaginable behavioral barrier ever created to rein women in onscreen in a performance that would have John Belushi and Chris Farley gape-jawed with wonder. 

2. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
Fusing sharp writing and intelligent performances by James Franco, John Lithgow and Andy Serkis with some of the year’s most rousing stunt sequences, this prequel to the classic “Apes” film series is both a stunning action film and an allegory for scientific abuses spinning way off the rails. 

3. “Fast Five”
 Who knew that the lunk-headed “Fast and the Furious” film series could reinvent itself as the year’s best action picture by miles? By bringing back original star Vin Diesel, adding Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to the mix and setting its blazing action scenes in Rio de Janeiro, “Five” delivered one rampaging thrill after another while also remembering to keep its lead characters likeable and multidimensional. 

4. “Friends with Benefits”
Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis brought immense chemistry to the screen in the year’s funniest romantic comedy. Definitely sexy and for adults, this film about a couple determined to prove they can have sex and friendship without the complications of love provided endless laughs while mocking its own genre’s conventions. It also had a touching subplot as Timberlake dealt with his father’s encroaching Alzheimer’s. 

5. “Gnomeo & Juliet”
This animated film brought Elton John’s greatest songs to onscreen life both in musical numbers and as the score itself in a clever, sweet and endlessly inventive twist on Shakespeare’s classic romance using lawn gnomes from dueling London neighbors as its central characters.

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