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My Best of 2011: Rango & Justifying Personal Choices…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Rango is number twelve. Check out my original review here.

It’s December, so that means it’s list time. Critics and pundits will be ranking their “top ten” of everything, and I suppose that I should defer to tradition and offer my own opinion on the “top ten” films of the year. I don’t want to make just another list, though, lost in a sea of opinions of individuals far my experienced and qualified than myself to advise you on the current state of cinema. So I decided that I’d list my own personal choices, by talk about why I chose them and bit and why they appealed to me. I have, after all, already reviewed them all, so I’m not going to try to convince you of their quality (or even my opinion of their quality). Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about why they appealed to me. My list will undoubtedly look very different to yours and – I suspect – to the vast majority of opinions, but the fun in making lists like this lies in defending, debating and justifying your choices.

So, let’s talk about the bottom entry on the list, and the one I feel will be toughest to justify: Rango.

I’m going to confess that I shamelessly put together this list for myself. I don’t pretend that I’m doing a public service, or that I’m highlight some lost classics. These are my choices, and mine alone. Not everybody will share them, and I suspect that I will be quite alone on some of them. Still, as I sat down with a sheet of paper, compiling the list, I found myself struggling a bit. After all, there were only ten spaces, and there were so many good choices. I needled myself into expanding the list to twelve spaces. After all, if the Academy can rank “roughly ten” films every year, I could go a little bit over in the opposite direction, right?

As I wrote down the names of the films I had really enjoyed, or that had really worked for me, I found myself a bit tense. Not only would I have to justify to myself (as much as to anybody else) what I put down on the list, but I’d also have to justify what I left out. In many ways, a lot of that weight fell to the last entry on the list. Not only would I have to explain why that film was included at all, I’d have to explain why I liked it better than Source Code or The King’s Speech or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or We Need to Talk About Kevin or any other one of the serious contenders that had mad it this far. As I looked at the last entry, it felt strange that a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp should have to shoulder that burden.

I could just say “I liked it more” and leave it at that. I could even concede  that it was close and leave it at that. That seems a bit like cheating, to be honest. It seems like a cheeky copout which isn’t fair to anybody involved. I really liked those films. If anybody asked me if they should watch them, I would recommend them in a heartbeat. However, what did Rango have that appealed to me more than any of those other viable contenders?

Did I think it was the best family film of the year? Without spoiling anything, it is the highest ranking piece of animation on the list, and perhaps the one aimed at the youngest audience. Still, I don’t think it was the best family film of the year. Those with younger children would probably have been better served to enjoy the adventurous escapism of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn or even the very light and quite entertaining Puss in Boots. I loved Rango, but I don’t think that kids seem to like it as much as I do. And, to be honest, that’s grand. At the risk of being selfish, this is my list, not theirs.

So why is it on my list when so many great films aren’t? I think it’s the fact that movie is so clearly romantic about cinema that makes it intoxicating to me. Children aren’t going to recognise the direct plot lift from Chinatown, even with the incest plot removed. Similarly, I wonder how many young children got “the Great Spirit of the West” bit, with a Timothy-Olyphant-voiced Clint Eastwood driving a golf buggy crammed with non-copyright-infringing awards crammed in the back. What does the cameo from Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas have to offer your average seven-year who just wants a cool story and some nice action?

The truth is that it doesn’t have that much to offer them, and I can understand why it might leave some viewers cold. However, I ate this stuff up. I am a cinephile and while I loath the school of modern comedy that mistakes pop culture references for humour (see every “x” Movie movie ever), I appreciate when affectionate homage is woven into the fabric of a story. I am a cinematic romantic at heart, but I like to think that I can spot that sort of genuine love of film for a mile off. And Rango just feels like it’s the product of a long-term love affair with cinema.

The plot is relatively straightforward, but the execution is nothing short of fantastic. Even discounting the fact that it looked beautiful, the cast was superb and all the references were logically structured into an appealing whole. Of course, people who aren’t familiar with the references will still enjoy it and appreciate the wit and style, but I think the love of cinema was so skilfully integrated into the movie that it just offered quite a bit more to cinephiles. I hope that doesn’t sound exclusive or snobbish or anything like that, because I don’t mean it too. It’s just why the film appealed to me, and why I can see that it wouldn’t appeal to everybody else.

It’s that sort of abstract property, that invisible “heart” that sets it apart from so many of the films this year. It’s easy to sound cynical in this day and age. I see it all the time. People complain that movies aren’t as good as they used to be, or that Hollywood is somehow even more of a corporate machine than it used to be. I am not sure I can bring myself to agree. Nostalgia goes a long way towards covering up the fact that bad movies always existed, and I think that people tend to focus a bit too much on the negatives.

I wouldn't rattle his cage...

Hell, I loved so many movies this year that I couldn’t confine myself to a top ten. This is while people are complaining about the decline of modern cinema, intend on picking apart blockbusters and franchises and sequels, but I think it’s possible to miss the forest for the trees if we apply too much cynicism. There’s a lot of good out there that we tend to miss when we zero in exclusively on the bad. I not advocating that we ignore the bad films coming out, or that we give terrible movies “a pass”, but just that the cynicism does get a little strong at times.

And, to be honest, you could easily be cynical about Rango. It is a movie that seems to exist solely to reference other – greater – movies. However, I couldn’t help but see the affection in it, the true love for cinema as a whole. And I think that’s what I really responded to.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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