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My Best of 2011: Rise of the Planet of the Apes & Hailing Caesar…

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.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is number seven. Check out my original review here.

If you had told me last year that one of the best summer blockbusters would be a prequel to The Planet of the Apes, I would have laughed at you. Hell, I’m still chuckling a bit now, trying to get over how such a strange concept on paper managed to work so well. After all, a movie about a bunch of damn dirty CGI apes taking their share of the planet from us humans, led by a chimpanzee on Alzheimer’s medication, sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. And yet, for some reason, it works incredibly well. I’ll concede that the plot is a bit ropey, and the human characters are quite underdeveloped, but I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to grab its audience so well purely because it creates a fascinating and compelling three-dimensional lead character who we completely understand to and relate to.

Did I mention that the lead character is a CGI ape?

We can debate about Hollywood’s use of CGI. I will concede as easily as the next person that those sorts of special effects shots probably are overused in major motion pictures. To a large extent, I agree with Christopher Nolan’s observation that sometimes something gets lost in translation, and that film makers are too willing to take shortcuts with the technology. The best action sequence of the year, the tower climb from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, was a scene that was created with a minimum of intrusive CGI, and I think that’s why it works so well. I think that CGI should generally be reserved for cases where it’s not practical to accomplish the shot manually, rather than it’s simply more cost-effective or easier to render in computer graphics.

I say that, but I am also willing to concede that CGI can be a tool in hands of the right film maker. Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn managed to produce a wonderful “one-take” action sequence through the use of computer generated imagery, a shot that would not have been possible otherwise. While I consider The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be David Fincher’s weakest film (behind even Alien 3), there’s no denying that he applied the cutting-edge technology with real technique and skill. Even this year, the pre-transformation version of Steve Rogers from Captain America: The First Avenger offered us something that just couldn’t have been illustrated as well using conventional make-up or forced perspective.

However, if you ask me, the year’s best special effect is Caesar, the protagonist from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The movie posters may have fooled you into thinking that this was a James Franco film, but nobody leaving the cinema left with that impression. The movie belongs to the ape who would lead the revolution against his human oppressors. I should be entirely honest here, and concede that the special effects are not perfect of themselves – there are several shots where it seems that monkeys seem a little too smooth or slick, and stray into what must be a primate uncanny valley. While these moments are few and far between, it’s unlikely to fool the audience into thinking Caesar or his companions were played by classically-trained monkey thespians.

That’s not what I meant when I described Caesar as the year’s best special effect. After all, a movie doesn’t succeed or fail based solely on its technical merit. There’s a reason that King Kong remains a classic, even if nobody watching it thinks that they’re watching a real giant monkey. If that were the case, I don’t think anyone would have any criticisms of Avatar, which remains one of the benchmarks of the application of technical skill in modern movie special effects. What makes Caesar so compelling lies beyond the pixels on the screen, past any attempts to convince us he’s a real monkey, but instead in the way the movie convinces us that Caesar is a real character.

I don’t know enough about the motion-capture process to comment on whether Andy Serkis deserves an acting nomination for his work here. I don’t know how the credit what we see on screen can be fairly divided between Serkis and the WETA technicians who brought the monkey life. I will, however, commend both for their work, because Caesar manages to be that rare movie special effect who transcends mere spectacle and engages with the audience as a character in his own right. It’s a very tough thing to transcend the uncanny valley and the skepticism of movie-goers, but Caesar manages to do that.

Without a conventional actor, and without dialogue or human mannerisms, Serkis and the team manage to communicate effortlessly with the audience. This establishes Caesar himself as part of a rare and distinguished breed among movie-goers, placing him with the original King Kong, or Nosferatu, or Pixar’s Wall-E as a character who feels more human than the vast majority of movie protagonists. I’d dare say that Caesar feels like a more fully-realised character than most of the year’s leading roles. It’s rare to find that sort of development in a major movie blockbuster, so it seems especially strange to find it in a computer-rendered character.

I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes might be the new movie I’ve watched most this year. I saw it twice in the cinema, to be sure that I hadn’t simply been hustled the first time – distracted by the flash and substance. I watched it on video again, and it is currently scheduled (coincidentally) to be the annual Christmas movie, one of the rare Christmas chores delegated to my good self. And I think a lot of that charm rests with Caesar himself.

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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