Marvel's The Avengers.
Yes, you read that correctly. My no.1 surprised me as well, but the more I thought about it and the more I watched it (which was about six times in total), the more this fit.
Is The Avengers a majestic and life-affirming piece of cinema like Life of Pi? No.
Does it encourage its viewers to debate the themes and overall message of the movie, a la The Master & Zero Dark Thirty? Of course not.
Does writer/director Joss Whedon bring gritty realism to the comic book universe of Marvel, like Christopher Nola did with his Dark Knight trilogy? No way in hell.
So why does a superhero movie tower over the most critically acclaimed movies that I have seen this year? Simple: Marvel's The Avengers represents blockbuster movies at their best, and sadly, what the genre itself has lost. To understand where i'm going with this, let me take you back to 1998. I've already talked about how Michael Bay has had a poisonous influence on the blockbuster genre with Armageddon, but when I used his example of cinematic suck as a backdrop for my review of Battleship, I never fully talked about just how poisonous his contributions to blockbusters were. After the success of Armageddon, Hollywood saw a number Bay-style clones come out of the woodworks, including Bret Ratner with the sequels to Rush Hour and X-Men: The Last Stand; Jonathan Liebsman with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, and Battle: Los Angles; Rob Cohen with The Fast and the Furious, xXx and Stealth; McG with the Charlie's Angles movies and last year's This Means War, among other hack directors who simply copy and/or take various ideas from the Bay playbook. Sure, we had crap blockbusters like Batman and Robin and Godzilla, but at least those movies didn't scrape to bottom of the barrel for entertainment; their excuse was that they were just misguided features that are destined for Riff-Trak glory. Movies like Bad Boys II, That's My Boy, the Transformers sequels, any Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, and The Twilight Saga (to name a few) are just cynically-produced cash cows that think their audience are a bunch of morons who'll watch any sort of bullshit, love it, and want to see more of it.
Joss Whedon doesn't play that game, and he doesn't treat his audience like lemmings. Whedon's a natural for creating characters we care about and using action to move both story and character along, rather than having an action sequence for the sake of having an action sequence, which therein lies the strength of Marvel Studio's finest outing yet: Loki will enslave mankind if he opens the Tesseract and allows a militant alien race to conquer it's people unless Iron-Man, Captain America Thor, the Hulk, and SHIELD agents Romanoff and Barton come together and stop him as a team. Problem is that Director Nick Fury has assembled the biggest motley crue of out of place, arrogant, unstable, isolated and dangerous fuck ups imaginable and they're all used to doing their own thing. It's fun to watch all these egos from Marvel lore come together and fight each other, both verbally and physically.
All of the ensemble actors bring it The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is ever wonderful as Tony Stark, the narcissistic billionaire with a highly weaponized suit. His banter with Chris Evans' Steve Rodgers, the super-soldier out of time (literally, he's been frozen for over 70 years) is a clash of personal styles and egos: Stark is brash, he leaps without looking, and playing by other people's rules isn't his style. Rodgers is a man of action; a natural leader who is willing to do what it takes to see a mission through., and has little patience for personal bullshit. Watching the two going back and forth leads to some of the movie's best lines, including this priceless, deadpan response when Rodgers asks Stark what hind of man he is without the suit: "Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist." Speaking of Evans, he's wonderful as the unofficial leader of this rag-tag group of freaks, yet allows us to see how much of a fish out of water he is as he adjusts to the 21st century. As the Norse God of Thunder, Chris Hermsworth shows his character's maturity from the last time we saw him in Thor, and we see the personal conflict between saving the planet he has come to love, and trying to reason with his self-exiled brother, even-though his transgressions make him a man that's far past help.
The newest member of the team is Mark Ruffalo, playing Bruce Banner, after Edward Norton didn't return to reprise his role. Here, Ruffalo finally gets Banner down to the letter, in ways Norton or Eric Banna never did: he's a loner who avoids conflict because of his alter-ego will endanger those around him, but is learning how to keep the beast at bay. as SHIELD's two top agents, the master archer Hawkeye and maser spy Black Widow, Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson represent the real rough and rumble-style of combat and cunning their characters bring to the table. Hawkeye is the Jason Bourne of the group: he has no superpowers or gadgets, but he has great skills with a bow and arrow, and can more than handle his own in a fight; whereas Black Widow uses her sex appeal and her youth as skills to gather intel for SHIELD, and if need be, she can throw down with the rest of the boys. Of course, a superhero movie is only as good as it's villain, and Tom Hiddleston as the God of Mischeif, Loki has it in spades. He's a delusional demigod, looking to harm his brother for his actions after he was defeated by him in the first movie, and Hiddelston makes Loki feel dangerous and more of a menacing threat than he was in Thor. And before Samuel L. Jackson delivered a career-best role as the house slave Stephen in Django Unchained, he dives into his most juiciest role in years as Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, a man who's not entirely honest with the team he's assembled, and has secrets he's keeping close to the chest. but mostly: he's a badass mofo! It's pure joy to watch the "bad motherfucker" reclaim his mantle and put it to good use.
Marvel's The Avengers, as I said earlier, isn't some life affirming masterwork, or even a meditation on current affairs. But in this age of quickie audience gratification, soulless popcorn flicks that are crapped out by Hollywood suits, and how mainstream popcorn films are copying the Michael Bay playbook of catering to the bottom of the barrel in entertainment because the audience doesn't give a damn about story, character, pacing, or a coherent plot that doesn't contradict itself, or treat the audience like morons, it's a damn-near revelation that Joss Wheedon was able to get every aspect of the superhero team-up so god-damn right. This is what the summer blockbuster can, and should be.