Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Eleven Movies for ‘11

It was an oddball year at the movie theater in 2011. Studios reported their worst profits since 1995. Big franchises ruled. The year marked some of the biggest flops in history. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences continued its failing (and flailing) campaign to make their Oscar ceremony more accessible to mainstream audiences, yet it was another year when independent filmmaking dominated the quality output for the year.

It was a tough year to be a movie critic, as newspapers continued to fight against their deaththrows and critics continued to be the bottom line that got cut from their budgets. There wasn’t any stability to be found in the movie output either. The quality of filmmaking this year was wildly erratic as the Hollywood machine continued to pump out known commodities. The results ranged from some of the best reboots (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), sequels (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2”), remakes (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Fright Night”), and comic book adaptations (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) in recent years, to some of the worst in all categories (“Conan the Barbarian”, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Priest”). And on top of all that, the 3D bubble burst.

Yet, 2011 also brought some of the most rapturous movies I’ve seen in years. Those quality movies came from all different directions as well—science fiction, western, horror, true life, noir, action, retrospective. In none of those categories, however, did the best of the best conform to the typical clichés of their respective genres. All these movies were highly original and wholly magical. With a few of them, I didn’t even fully recognize their genius at first. Like so many great films, these movies get better with time. These are my eleven favorite movies of 2011 in the arbitrary order I felt about them today, followed by an alphabetical listing of the next eleven and my five least favorites listed from very worst to still pretty damn bad.

1. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malik’s impressionistic, autobiographical meditation on man and his significance in both his own existence and the greater existence of all the cosmos is pure cinema. Malik expresses here a story that could be told in no other format than cinema. He uses sound, photography, editing, music, dialogue, epilogue, prologue and composition in what can only be described as a cinemascape that doesn’t tell a story so much as it tells of life, what it is and how it is.

The primary characters in the movie are a family residing in a Texas small town in the 1950s. The boys are boys and will be boys. Their father (Brad Pitt) is a troubled man who makes up for working too hard by pushing his boys too hard when he is home. Jessica Chastain plays their more free spirited mother, who submits to her conditioned role when the father is around.

Sean Penn plays an older version of one of the boys in what looks like a modern society at first. His story becomes more surreal as the movie progresses and eventually it appears as if he inhabits some sort of afterlife. The movie also shows us the beginnings of life on Earth, from the first division of living cells to a time when dinosaurs roamed. It all seems fairly disconnected in the listing, but Malik finds connections between all these stages of the conditions of life as we understand it.

Some might classify “The Tree of Life” as a “difficult” movie, because it ignores so many of the conventions we’ve come to expect from a movie experience. However, there is beauty in this film that has rarely been captured on film before. There is poetry. There is enlightenment. But mostly, there is life.

2. Hugo. Martin Scorsese’s 3D period adventure “Hugo”, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of all things we generally go to the movies to experience. On top of that, it is a celebration of and homage to those very same elements. The movie tells the story of a young boy who lives in a Parisian train station and fixes the clocks. He is in possession of an automaton and a book that tells him how to make it work. When a toy maker takes the book from the boy as punishment for stealing, it sets off a series of events that unfolds an incredible mystery about the toy maker and his storied connection with the automaton.

Scorsese drenches the film in historical references, both in the story and his lavish production design. He uses 3D as a tool to highlight many of the earliest innovations of cinema. The story is greatly connected with cinema’s origins, making Scorsese a perfect director as possibly the world’s biggest cineaste. The 3D elements also highlight the rich world of the train station and the movie’s source of tension, the station inspector who chases our hero in his determination to throw any stray children into the state orphanage.

Scorsese draws the audience into the story with two mysteries, the boy’s and the toy maker’s. Once we’re hooked he envelops us in a history of cinema told through his own bold cinematic notions and brilliance. I’ve never seen a movie with so much love of its own origins in it. It honors cinema in the way Americans sometimes honor the men who have fought for our freedom throughout our country’s history. “Hugo” is at once great cinema and a tribute to cinema as a whole.

3. Melancholia. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” takes us back into ‘our place in the cosmos’ territory. The movie tells a tale of two sisters. One is getting married; the other has planned the wedding. The bride seems to be a free spirit, but at times her spirit seems too much for her if not for those around her. Her sister is a control freak, who can’t be satisfied with the random acts of others. All the while, a new planet is entering the close vicinity of Earth’s orbit. Will this be one of those events that people remember as “Where were you when?”, or will it spell humanity’s doom?

Do these two subjects belong together? More so than you could possibly imagine. The dichotomy of the sisters’ personalities is a metaphor for the contradictory nature of the human existence. We’re intelligent, but visceral. We want peace, but we fight. We strive for enlightenment, but we insist upon strict logic and resist change and new ideas. One sister is possibly bi-polar; the other could suffer from OCD. They are each other’s opposites.

Along with all this metaphoric philosophizing, Von Trier fills his movie with striking images and detailed character study. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg turn in career defining performances as the sisters, and Kiefer Sutherland is perfectly cast as the sister’s husband, who is very enthusiastic about the celestial developments of the plot. “Melancholia” is stunning cinema and deep insight into what it means to be human and how we cope with the burden of life.

4. Moneyball. “Moneyball” is just a damn good story told expertly. It’s mostly a character study of two men who broke the mold when it came to thinking outside of the box in the big business of professional baseball. Rather, it is a business study even more so than a character study.

So, as I understand it, professional baseball clubs are mostly paid for by each individual club’s own revenue. This creates an imbalance between teams that operate in a very large market like New York or Boston. These clubs have much more revenue than the smaller clubs and can spend more money than the smaller clubs like Oakland, which doesn’t really benefit from the San Francisco area because that city has its own ballclub.  Well, in 2002 the Oakland Athletics did the unthinkable; their GM, Billy Beane, took the perennially loosing ballclub to the post season, not with big name players, but with has beens and wanna bees. He and his assistant did this with a computer-generated equation that re-evaluated how to win baseball games using players’ existing statistics.

I know, it all sounds a little pedantic and boring, but the filmmakers make it work buy selling the audience on these two unlikely team builders, much in the same way Beane did with his bargain basement players. Brad Pitt plays Beane and Jonah Hill plays his assistant in one of the years most overlooked performances. They sell us on these men with how crazy their ideas seem even to them. They’re desperate, and desperation sometimes brings out the best in people. The desperation feeds into the story of the film and makes for one of the most observant and involving sports flicks in a long time.

5. Red State. Kevin Smith is really a ‘love him’ or ‘hate him’ kind of filmmaker. I’ve personally fallen more toward love him, but with a few reservations. “Red State” on the other hand is nothing like a Kevin Smith movie. Smith, for some reason, insisted on selling the movie as a horror flick. It most certainly is not, however its subject matter is certainly horrific. He shoots it like a horror movie too, which is one of the reasons it doesn’t feel like a Kevin Smith movie.
The movie starts off following three high school boys who think they’ve all found a way to lose their virginity. If they knew how this would turn out, they’d never have questioned the argument for abstinence.

It centers most of it’s action around a religious compound run by a charismatic madman, obviously based upon fanatic leaders like Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church or David Koresh. Michael Parks’ performance as the cult leader is nothing short of brilliant.

After the FBI gets involved with a tactical unit on site led by John Goodman in another brilliant performance, the plot develops in ways no experienced cineaste could even expect. What evolves is a wholly original movie that examines our country’s obsession with how both religion and government insert themselves in our lives in ways that we rarely want. Smith’s highly intelligent screenplay doesn’t blindly rip religion, but rather religious fanaticism. Nor does it trash the individual efforts of government agents involved in such incidents as Waco, but rather it criticizes the bureaucratic manner in which such actions are handled.

I suppose in its own way it is a horror movie, but it isn’t the standard slash and shock horror movie we generally associate with genre filmmaking. “Red State” is about the horrors our actions might lead us toward.

6. Poetry. Halfway through Lee Chang-dong’s mournful “Poetry” I thought that while this was certainly a good movie, I couldn’t see it becoming great. The movie follows a grandmother who is the sole provider to her teenaged grandson. He spends most of his time in front of the television. She searches for purpose. One day a girl from the grandson’s school turns up dead. At about the same time, the grandmother enrolls in a poetry class.

Soon after, the grandmother is approached by some of her grandson’s friends’ parents. The dead girl’s mother has accused their sons of raping her, which led to her suicide. They want the grandmother to join them in paying the girl’s mother off to avoid a criminal investigation. Was her grandson part of this gang rape? Would she protect him even if he were? He shows her no respect and does nothing with his life.

The answers to these questions are what push this movie into cinematic greatness. The grandmother’s reserved nature makes her own perceptions impenetrable to the audience, turning this rather straightforward drama into a mystery of the woman’s soul. We see the grandmother struggle to grow through her poetry class and other developments. Nothing, however, suggests the depths she keeps in reserve. That discovery is a stroke of brilliance that comes as both a surprise and inevitability.

7. Meek’s Cutoff. “Meek’s Cutoff” is a quiet meditation of a western. It’s a deconstruction of the genre that tackles both the uncontemplated realities of the American western mythologies and the unfair perceptions of Native Americans in the Hollywood west. The story is told mostly from the perspective of the women who accompanied foolhardy men into the frontiers searching for something that was as probable as winning the lottery is today. Michelle Williams plays a wife who knows both her place and when she’s being lead on a fool’s errand. The women weren’t supposed to know more than the men; that doesn’t mean they didn’t.

She’s part of a wagon train being guided by a man who spins yarn after yarn of his adventures as a tracker, trader, gold miner, and every get rich quick scheme of the West, yet he’s a guide. When he appears to be lost for several days, his load of stories starts to stink. Then, they come across an Indian, who some think can rescue them with his knowledge of the land, while others feel he will lead them into an ambush. The division in the ranks brings out all of their true natures, and we realize what a slight grasp civilization holds on our basest human nature.

Some people have said that the open ending has left them unsatisfied, but this is precisely the ending such a story requires. The pioneers would not have a notion of where they would end up from there. Everything they came for is now in question. The open ending also serves the film’s metaphor to our current political machine quite well. The future will always be in question when we follow ideologues and fear mongers in our decision making process, for they don’t operate in a system of solutions, but one based on derision, misinformation and divisiveness.

8. The Descendants. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” is like a great poem about a father’s love for his daughters. It’s an epic melodramatic poem that gets complicated by the ever-driving elements of life on an elevated dramatic level. Our hero’s wife is in a coma from which he learns she will never recover. Then, he learns she was cheating on him. On top of all this, he’s in charge of a large family trust, which includes land on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Because of certain laws the trust will be dissolved within seven years. It’s up to him to decide what to do with the land with many relatives and Hawaiian residents telling him what he should do with it.

Throughout all of this, his love of his daughters shines through. Even when jealousy might dictate more satisfying resolutions, he plays the better man for his daughters’ sake. Payne’s movie is tender and funny, sad and poignant. He allows us—and even his characters at times—to see the humorous side of not so pleasant situations as we all must do to survive the hardships of life.

The movie hinges upon the performances by George Clooney, as the father, and Shailene Woodley, as his oldest daughter. He is our narrator, she our navigator to find the beauty in the worst of life. I’m not sure how the tropical paradise location affects their journey, but the movie acts as proof that Hawaii is a real place, not just a travel destination. Of course, I’d still rather have to deal with life’s hardships there than in Missouri.

9. Drive. Mood. It is so important when setting the scene for a great cinematic experience. The crime thriller “Drive” is so steeped in mood, almost none of its other elements even matter. Well, they do, but the mood is so right that it makes the movie.

The story is almost as old as the cinema itself. It has a few unique twists. A man, known only as Driver, hires himself out to anyone. He asks no questions and he sees to it you avoid the law. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic by day. He has no attachments, until one day when a woman from his apartment building speaks to him. Soon feelings develop and Driver finds he has something to lose. A score goes wrong and he realizes he has also placed her at risk. He does what he does to fix that.

It’s all simple enough, but under the sure handed direction of Cannes Best Director winner Nicolas Winding Refn it becomes something beyond a mere crime drama, it becomes beautiful. Ryan Gosling plays Driver as the very definition of stoicism, and comedian Albert Brooks takes a nice late career turn as the villain.

10. Another Earth. “Another Earth” is my favorite kind of science fiction movie. It doesn’t involve little green men or lasers or explosions. It involves the human spirit. It takes a premise right out of “Astonishing Tales” and explores the emotional impact of its implications in a very specific situation unique to only two people on the planet.

As the film begins we meet a young woman who has been partying. She has her whole life ahead of her, having been accepted into a prestigious school. We learn that a second Earth has been spotted in orbit with our Earth. Then the woman plows into the car of a family of three. Four years later the young woman is released from prison. She still can’t live with what she’s done. She tracks down the only other survivor of the crash, the husband, to make amends. Before he understands who she is, she begins to have feelings for him and eventually he for her.

Before tracking the husband down, she entered a contest to be the first person to travel to the second Earth. The second Earth is still a mystery, but a communiqué makes it clear that the other planet Earth is a mirror to our own in some ways, a parallel planet with the same people who have lived different lives. Suddenly she sees as way to repay the husband what she took from him. But, can she bring herself to reveal who she really is?

This independent movie shows us what it is to live with a mistake. It explores our need to change what we’ve done wrong and how that is impossible, no matter the circumstances. It also explores our need for companionship and compassion from others. How many of us really look at who the person in the mirror is? How many would actually like that person? What would we say to that person to make the choices we’ve saddled them with understandable to them?

11. 13 Assassins. To call Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” a blood bath would be an understatement. It is a blood shower, a blood hurricane, a blood tsunami. Yeah, that’s about right.

“13 Assassins” is a samurai picture in the same vein as the Kurosawa classic “Seven Samurai”. It takes place—as do most good samurai pictures and American westerns— at the end of the era it is depicting. Japan’s feudal government is coming to an end as western style politics begin to take over. In the political realm, corruption is the rule as one claimant to the throne sets in motion a series of assassinations to secure his ascension, which is not rightfully his.

A few samurai, loyal to the true heir are hired with plausible deniability to assassinate the pretender. There are thirteen willing to go on the sure suicide mission. Their personalities and specialties run the gamut, from archers to explosives experts. Yes, this indeed does sound like a good western, for the Japanese samurai picture is a direct descendant of the American western.

What sets this samurai picture apart from others I’ve seen—although it is a subgenre of action that is generally excellent—is Miike’s extreme vision. The massive amounts of action and blood achieved in the picture would seem too far over the top from any other director, except maybe Quentin Tarantino. Miike also succeeds in tying in the politics very well with his action so none of it is done out of gratuity. “13 Assassins” will satisfy any extreme action fan, and it will satisfy the cineastes who might otherwise balk at such excess.

The next eleven (in alphabetical order):

Even I’m getting a little sick of hearing how good Kristen Wiig’s raunchy girl comedy Bridesmaids is. But the truth is, on top of being very funny; it’s actually very intelligent. It has both a heart and a brain to go with its funnybone.

City of Life and Death, the true-life retelling of the treatment of Chinese refugees by Japanese soldiers after the 1937 Rape of Nanking on the other hand, is far from funny. This story is closer to a horror movie than a typical war movie. This film is as raw as the psychological wounds China has born since they were inflicted.

Just in time, before everyone has forgotten what a vampire movie is supposed to look like because of the “Twilight” franchise, along comes Fright Night. A remake of the popular late 80s horror/comedy, this new version proves that horror can be genuinely funny and genuinely scary at the same time.

The U.S. remake of the Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based upon the first book in the wildly popular “Millennium” trilogy by Stieg Larsson, is in many ways an improvement on the original. Gone is the pulpy plot-oriented direction of both the Swedish movie and book. In their place are David Fincher’s moody direction and the incredible performance of Rooney Mara as the titular girl.

This year’s early thriller Hanna gave us a spy flick the likes of which had never been seen before. It follows a girl who is hunted by a secret government agency. The fact that she is able to elude this black ops organization suggests that she is more than she seems. The reasons why are surprising, but it’s the subtle way in which her story is told that makes this movie a cut above the average spy flick.

Insidious may very well be the scariest movie I’ve seen. It ranges between scares based totally on sound and expectation to images that borderline going over the top. It is far from subtle, and you definitely don’t want to watch it by yourself.

What is terrorism? This is the question at the heart of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, a documentary that details the actions and their repercussions of a member of the “eco-terrorist” group the Earth Liberation Front. This fascinating documentary covers all angles, including the ELF standards of operations, a detailed account of the investigation against their actions, and the ramifications of refusing to rat out your colleagues. 

The surprising thriller Margin Call shows us just what might’ve happened during the 2008 stock market crash that lead to the controversial government bailout. With an all-star cast we see just what the men on Wall Street are willing to put over on their clients for what truly may have been for the good of everyone.

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a welcome return to form for the long-time prolific filmmaker. Harkening back to some of his earlier classics, like “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Stardust Memories”, this movie is an ode to Paris and the artists, writers and musicians of the 1920s. This movie is what we refer to as “a treasure.”

J.J. Abrams was in tribute mode as well when he made his super secretive sci-fi flick Super 8. Acting as homage to the late 70s and early 80s movies of Steven Spielberg, Abrams might just as well have opened up a time capsule and simply discovered an unreleased movie from the era. On top of that, the movie acts as thrilling mystery and social commentary paralleling the Red Scare of that time period with our own confusions of Muslim and terrorist beliefs today.

TrollHunter might be one of the strangest movies on the list. A Norwegian film, this story is presented as a documentary that asks, what if trolls really existed and were part of a government cover-up perpetrated against the Norwegian citizens? The made up mythology and special effects create a solid illusion for yet another fantasy picture that questions what we are told by our authorities and what they hold back.

The five very worst movies of the year.

No movie irked me more this year (or has for many years) than Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This movie looks like director Michael Bay took all the footage he shot and edited it by throwing it into a blender. He added shots of very well paid award-winning actors (and one cardboard supermodel) looking aghast and created the same reaction for the audience.

In any year that didn’t bring us “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 4D could very well have been the worst movie. This movie proves once and for all that cult director Robert Rodriguez needs to shelve any more notions of filmmaking for kids, and in three or four dimensions.

The Roommate at least provided me the opportunity to write one of my favorite reviews of the year at the expense of my college roommate. Thanks for having a sense of humor, roomie. If any of the whiny twentysomethings in this movie had been my roommate in college, I would’ve tried to kill them too.

The filmmakers of 30 Minutes or Less make the fatal mistake of believing that an awkward situation in itself is funny. That must be why they don’t bother to make any effort whatsoever to present anything in a funny way throughout their film. On top of that, they don’t realize that they’re playing a delicate game by trying to pass off serious crimes as comedy. This movie is anything but delicate.

I’m sure at some point during its creation the comic book inspired horror western Priest sounded like a good idea. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t appear to know anything about religion or god, and they’ve decided to rewrite every rule ever written about vampires. So why do they bother to call the creatures in their story ‘vampires’? Don’t try to figure it out. Save yourself two hours and watch “Fright Night” instead.

As usual my best of and worst of lists are based on my limited viewing opportunities, and there are many films I didn’t see that could’ve changed the face of my lists. This year, I believe three films in particular would’ve had a major impact on my top eleven. Those omissions are “Take Shelter”, “The Artist”, and “Shame”. I’ll try to give some indication as to where they might’ve fallen in my list once I get a chance to see them.

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