Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscars 2012: The Best of the Rest

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Tree of Life - Emmanuel Lubezki
You don't have to like the movie to appreciate the beauty of its photography -- a true achievement. The Artist and Hugo are contenders here as well. 

BEST EDITING 
The Artist - Anne-Sophia Bion, Michel Hazanavicius
I'd go for Hugo or Dragon Tattoo, but Artist won the A.C.E. award. Can't imagine the Academy would disagree, especially as they've matched up for at least the last 5 years. 

BEST ART DIRECTION 
Hugo - Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
Seems to be the most likely film to make voters aware that art direction is a thing. It had some truly gorgeous sets (ditto Midnight in Paris). Beware the ever-present Artist love. 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN 
Hugo - Sandy Powell
If Colleen Atwood isn't nominated, go with Sandy Powell. #OscarNerdProTip 

BEST MAKEUP 
The Iron Lady - Mark Coulier, J. Roy Helland
*Edit* Changing it to The Iron Lady, based on consensus. Whatever, don't really care, both it and Nobbs were pretty blah. Zzzzzzzzzs. 

BEST SCORE
The Artist - Ludovic Bource
Lock it in. Easiest call of the night.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
The Muppets - Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet"
Um, did anyone see Rio? I played the shit out of Angry Birds Rio, that's all I know.

BEST SOUND MIXING
War Horse - Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson, Stuart Wilson
Because war films always do well here. And who doesn't love horses?

BEST SOUND EDITING
Drive - Lon Bender, Victor Ray Ennis
Because of pure obstinance. And because the foley was noticeably good.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Hugo - Robert Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossman, Alex Henning
Hugo had some of the best 3D yet. (Although I thought Transformers was actually really good as well.) Planet of the Apes: James Franco Edition could be a triumph for the mo-cap crowd though.

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Rango - Gore Verbinski
Haven't seen it yet (I *might* be able to get to it before the ceremony -- thanks, Netflix!), hear it's great. I actually quite enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 2. Fuck anything Shrek-related. WTF are the other two.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Separation - Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Saw it, thought it was excellent. It certainly seems to be the critical favorite (but critics don't vote). One of the others is apparently a Holocaust movie though, so watch out.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Celebrities seem to love those West Memphis Three kids. Let's go with that one.

BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECTS
Saving Face - Daniel Junge, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Because I literally just looked up a few predictions and a lot of them said this one. Maybe another crazy lady will try to hijack the acceptance speech again.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
A Morning Stroll - Grant Orchard, Sue Goffe
Seen all these and I'm going against my gut here. The flying books one (The Fantastic Flying Books...) seemed to be the most Oscar-y of the bunch, but I picked against my favorite under similar circumstances last year and was wrong, so I'm hoping for a repeat. Plus, this one has a zombie.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Raju - Max Zähle, Stefan Gieren
The rest are more light-hearted, so it'll stand out more in the minds of the voters. Probably.

Extremely Blah and Incredibly Silent: Oscar Predictions

Well, I finally did it -- I managed to see all the major category-nominated films. I make it my mission every year, and this is the year I finally did it. If it's nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, or any Acting awards, I've seen it. Unfortunately, it felt more like homework this year than any other I can remember -- 2011 was really a bummer of a year for Films. Note the capitalization. While there were a number of excellent genre efforts -- Drive, Contagion, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fast Five (seriously), etc. -- there just wasn't much in the "prestige picture" category. The best of the bunch, by my estimation -- Hugo and Midnight in Paris -- were clearly second-tier efforts by their (first class) directors. Enjoyable, yes, but essential? No. The Academy had a number of chances to nominate some genuinely interesting films -- Take Shelter or Melancholia, for example -- but passed in favor of nostalgia (some call it narcissism -- and no, I don't count The Tree of Life as "interesting"). Sigh. Surely this will prove to be a year to forget -- as seemingly all the major contenders have done, as most are set in -- or look back on -- previous years or eras (or, you know, prominently feature fucking DINOSAURS). Anyway, I have a feeling that this rant isn't anywhere near over, so let's just get on with the predictions. Read on if you dare. My picks are in bold (as if there would be any other reason for bolding one but not the others).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Bérénice Bejo - The Arist
Jessica Chastain - The Help
Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer - The Help

I'll eschew the usual paragraph ramble for a much easier 'Fun Facts' format:
Fun Fact about Bérénice Bejo: She was Shannyn Sossamon's handmaid in A Knight's Tale, which is one of my favorite movies. Bonus: To type the 'é' character, hit Ctrl + Alt + 0233 on your keyboard.
Fun Fact about Jessica Chastain: She was better in both Take Shelter and The Tree of Life last year.
Fun Fact about Melissa McCarthy: She could very well win this thing. (Neither fun nor factual, I know.)
Fun Fact about Janet McTeer: She has really big boobs, which she displays in Nobbs.
Fun Fact about Octavia Spencer: She will probably win this thing. Feces figures prominently in both hers and McCarthy's performaces. Interesting.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill - Moneyball
Nick Nolte - Warrior
Christopher Plummer - Beginners
Max von Sydow - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

This one figures to be a lock. You can tell by the fact that I italicized "figures" that it's not quite a lock (and there I go with the italicizing again). Branagh can be dismissed as a "tip of the cap to the veteran" nomination, Hill can be dismissed because he was -- sorry, but not really -- not that great, and Nolte, while certainly deserving (just saw Warrior a couple nights ago and DAMN was it great) and old, he can't quite touch the dueling octogenarians, von Sydow and Plummer. Von Sydow, a contender, make no mistake, was clearly the best part of a flawed, flawed film, and gets extra points for being in The Seventh Seal, but Plummer has simply won too many precursors for him not to take home the statue (plus von Sydow stole Albert Brooks' nomination for Drive... grr). Plummer was revelatory in one of the year's best -- and most underrated -- films, and will give Billy Crystal reason to make a Viagra joke. Veterans getting their due and boner jokes are two of my favorite things, so let's hear it for Plummer (who was, by the way, awesome in, and not nominated for, The Insider back in 1999).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis - The Help
Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams - My Week with Marilyn

This is a touchy category. Everyone seems to be in a tizzy (which actually sounds kind of fun) about the fact that Davis played A MAID. People (and by that I mean less than reputable journalists and bloggers) are crying "Racism!" and "Typecasting!" Whatever. She was the emotional pillar of an otherwise forgettable (and surely exploitative) "message" drama. She treated The Help like it was the heavyweight drama it could've been, not the lightweight Oprah episode it turned out to be (which is a good thing, if that wasn't clear). I think her closest competition is Close, what with all the makeup and genderbending and whatnot (and who could be a tempting choice for some voters). Streep misses out because a) Her film was an absolute snoozefest and, b) She so clearly undershot her own talent, doing an impression rather than acting for most of the film. Mara was great but has to wait her turn (in the parlance of awards season). Finally, Williams was wasted in an absolute trifle of a film. One of my least favorite movies of the year. I wanted to punch the lead in his smug face the entire time. Anyway, it would be a sizable upset if Davis didn't win.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Demáin Bichir - A Better Life
George Clooney - The Descendants
Jean Dujardin - The Artist
Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
Brad Pitt - Moneyball

I'll start with this:  The two best performances of the lot were Bichir's and Oldman's. But, because of their subtly, they have no shot. I'm a bit surprised to see two such finely-tuned performances nominated, actually. Normally, a more "showy" performance, like Michael Fassbender's (literally) would have made the cut (not that I'd have had any problem with that, as he was *very* good -- also, circumcision joke). But good on the Academy for nominating the world-weary Bichir and the restrained (for a change) Oldman. Moving on, there is some general competition here for the first time since 2008 (when Sean Penn wrongfully beat out Mickey Rourke). It's tough to choose between the distinguished triumvirate of Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt. All have their pros and cons. Clooney has been raking in precursors, but his performance relies on the twin crutches of voiceover and wife-in-a-coma; Dujardin is the lead in the presumed Best Picture winner, but may have been upstaged by a Jack Russell Terrier; and Pitt was charming as always, but can a baseball movie win such a big award? I say no (although he'd get my vote). Between Clooney and Dujardin, I think the Academy will go with the Cloon-dogg because of his celebrity and the fact that the film might not win much else but voters will want to reward it where they can. The Artist will get its trophies. A Dujardin win is *very much* a possibility though...

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash - The Descendants
John Logan - Hugo
George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willmon - The Ides of March
Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin - Moneyball
Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Another tricksy category. Let's toss out March -- hey, they had to have five nominees (this is hardly Best Original Song), right? Hugo can go as well -- the Academy will surely shower it with technical gold -- it won't win here (also, pretty sure I just made a golden shower joke). I think Tinker's script is a real nocturnal equine though -- what happens if the two top contenders split the vote? Assuming that doesn't happen, it's between Descendants and Moneyball. I'll use the same logic as above -- Moneyball got a lot of nominations (6 of 'em, good for third-most) and figures to get a win somewhere. Plus, there's a lot of star power among those nominees. I thought that while Payne et al.'s script was strong (and, as stated before, it would be awesome to see Dean Pelton give an acceptance speech), it relied too much on voiceover in the first 30 minutes (maybe I've taken too many screenwriting classes). It could go either way, but I'm putting my (hypothetical) money on Moneyball.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumulo - Bridesmaids
J.C. Chandor - Margin Call
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Asghar Farhadi - A Separation

This is always my favorite category -- AMPAS takes more chances here than anywhere else. We've got not one but *two* wild cards this year -- Margin Call and A Separation. Both were great -- multi-layered and uncompromising -- but all the old white dudes in the Academy probably won't be voting for scripts that make Wall Street look bad or are written by Middle Easterners. A Bridesmaids win would be a nice story, but the problem is that it's not entirely deserving (of a win, not the nomination). That leaves Hazanavicius and Allen facing off. I'll stick to the formula -- Paris has 4 nominations, and this is probably the best place to give it a win. Plus, you know, it had dialogue and whatnot. Maybe this is just me holding out against what very well could be an Artist sweep, but I don't think it will win as many trophies as most seem to think.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne - The Descendants
Martin Scorsese - Hugo

Here's where the Artist love starts (or, rather, where it will begin to crest toward the end of the broadcast). I think (well, hope) it misses out on some of the other awards it's projected to win, but winds up taking the top two prizes. I just don't see it for any of the other nominees. Payne's the "Hi, happy to (finally) be here" guy. Allen is the "Screenplay is enough" guy. Malick is the "My 'art' does not need your validation" guy. And Scorsese is the "I'd be an honor, but..." guy. As in, but... it's clearly The Artist's year. Hazanavicius certainly deserves some recognition for the gumption to make a contemporary silent movie (especially interesting is that it comes on the heels of a movie about talking -- The King's Speech -- and a movie with a *lot* of talking -- The Social Network). I'm actually fine with him winning -- I just can't get that excited about the other nominees. A Scorsese win for his foray into 3D and kid's movies would be a delightful surprise, but I won't be able to muster anything but mild disappointment if/when he loses. About the only nominee that'd get a reaction out of me (other than surprise for Allen or Payne) would be Malick. I didn't like the film, to be sure, but it would certainly be deserving for the scale and visual supremacy of his direction, and a welcome "change of pace" nod form the Academy. But... it's gonna be Hazanavicius.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
The Artist 
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close 

Hugo
Midnight in Paris 

The Help
Moneyball
War Horse
The Tree of Life


A few things:  The Artist is going to win. I didn't think the film was all that great. I can't even bring myself to get that mad about it (a stark contrast to last year). There's just not a lot to get excited about here. The Help and Extremely Loud are both melodramatic and exploitative; Moneyball and War Horse are less than the sum of their parts; Tree of Life is an artistic triumph and a narrative disaster; Descendants is long on both charm and contrivance (and really isn't all that memorable); Hugo and Midnight are fine films and my two favorites of the bunch, but... eh, I just can't champion them with any sort of fervor (now if Drive was nominated... but it was never going to be). This AV Club column put it best: "The Oscars—and to varying degrees, all awards—are not about greatness, but about consensus. And The Artist is a point of agreement." It might not be the objective Best film of the year (whatever that means anyway), but it's the one about which the most people could say, "Yeah, that was pretty good." In a year like this, if that's the best we can do, I'll take it. And The Artist is. Pretty good, that is. That's all it is, and all it'll ever be, trophy or not.

Okay, so that wasn't as bitter as I was expecting. And only three Drive references! I'm proud. Anyway, the rest of the categories are up next (minus the rant). Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House review

Safe House (2012)
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Written by: David Guggenheim
Starring: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard

Safe House is a fun, if not entirely routine, piece of genre fare. The setting -- some of the shadier parts of Cape Town, South Africa -- lends itself neatly to the premise that the supporting cast of Gleeson, Farmiga, and Shepard are slumming it a bit. You can't quite say the same thing for Denzel, since he's been immersing himself in these types of pictures for years. Nor can you say the same for Ryan Reynolds, who doesn't quite have the prestige or box-office draw to fit the "slumming" charge. Looking at the film through this meta, "bigger picture" microscope, Reynolds is really the only one with anything to lose here. Fortunately, he proves game and exchanges his trademark wisecracks for the same kind of stoic charisma displayed in previous genre films like Smokin' Aces. It's just a shame he still hasn't picked a top-flight film to showcase his impressive leading man chops (mmmm... man chops).

Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a CIA "housekeeper" -- a rookie in charge of a rarely-used South African safe house. Director Daniel Espinosa (apparently of Chilean-Swedish descent, because that's a thing) takes great pains early on to establish the tedium of Weston's position -- a position the audience can certainly relate to, having seen more than their share of these action movie tropes. But, as they so often do, things soon change with the arrival of Denzel's Tobias Frost (a surefire Bad Movie Name Hall of Famer), a rogue CIA agent and general badass. The usual fireworks ensue, leading inevitably to Weston's baptism by fire under the watchful (if not entirely willing) eye of Frost. If this sounds a bit like the aging Denzel passing the action movie torch to the younger Reynolds, that's because that's exactly what this is (à la Chris Pine in Unstoppable).

The interplay between Reynolds' eager rook and Denzel's seen-it-all vet largely works, although the same can't be said of any of the other cast members (aside from a quick-but-memorable cameo from Panamanian actor Rubén Blades). The underrated Farmiga, stage veteran Shepard, and stalwart Gleeson (but wasn't it just last year that he was absolutely maniacal in The Guard?) all just go through the motions as CIA honchos, one of whom, it is clear from the first 20 minutes, is definitely the bad guy. (Note: The trailer definitely gives it away.)

The central conflict is (stop me if you've heard this one before) something about a super-secret file that will expose high-level traitors in all the big intelligence agencies. It's barely worth mentioning, largely because the film itself barely spends any time on it, window dressing for the action set pieces that it is. Said set pieces come at you relentlessly, both in number and execution. The whole film -- from exposition to car chase to shootout to denouement -- is chopped to hell by Espinosa and his team of (presumably) Chilean-Swedish sous chefs/editors. Safe House is the latest in the trend of handheld shot/quick cut action movies (and here I thought the trend was dying) -- only they don't stop at the action scenes. If the filmmakers can't be bothered to stop for three seconds to let an ancillary character explain the why the aforementioned file is so important, why should the audience care?

They shouldn't and, I'm guessing, largely don't. Elements such as plot and character development are decidedly secondary in a paint-by-numbers actioner such as this. This is where the title really starts to make sense. For all the whizbang thrills and displays of gruff machismo, Safe House by and large plays it safe, sticking to well-established action movie conventions. I'm sure you can guess who lives out of the headlining duo, and if the one that doesn't make it has a quietly dignified death scene. Or if the file is recovered. If the bad guys get their comeuppance. Etc., etc., etc. While playing it that close to the vest means Safe House can't fail -- not really, not with its built-in safety net -- one can't help but walk away feeling disappointed. It's really too bad that, after biding his time for so long, Reynolds cannot get what Weston does -- a chance to really show what he can do when the pressure is on.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top Films: 2011

I had to look a bit harder than usual to find my kind of movie in 2011. I usually find one or two one or two summer tentpole movies worth talking about beyond the usual explosions and car chases (think Inception), but most of the blockbusters this year were either underwhelming (any Marvel movie) or kinda sucked (the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, for example). Oscar season almost always provides 3-4 top ten type movies, but this year, the main "prestige pictures" -- The Descendants, The Artist et al. -- fell flat (at least in my book). Hence, my top ten this year is chock full of critically ignored movies, early year releases, forgotten genre exercises, and -- okay, you got me -- a couple of explosion/car chase movies. Here goes nothing:

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically):
Carnage, 50/50, Fright Night, The Ides of March, Melancholia, Paul, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

10) Fast Five / Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (tie)
Directed by: Justin Lin / Brad Bird
Written by: Chris Morgan / André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson / Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton

Let's start off with an ode to the ludicrous. No, not the ludacris, as some of my students would say, but the sheer, jaw-dropping ludicrosity™ (new word) of the two action set pieces that serve as the centerpieces of these movies. In Fast Five, it's the climactic bank vault chase scene. In Ghost Protocol, it's the wall-scaling Dubai scene. Both scenes are ridiculously, unbelievably, ludicrous. It's almost like the filmmakers are daring the viewers to call their bluff -- "You tell us when it's too much and we'll stop." But nobody says "stop." We know that what we're watching is pushing the limits in terms of credibility -- any further and the filmmakers veer into parody territory -- but I think both of these films do a great job of going into that gray area between realism and that parody. It's like they hit the G-spot of suspension of disbelief. The result is, of course, action movie orgasm (guest-directed by Michael Bay, whose latest Transformers movie was the premature ejaculation of action movies -- in a good way). But enough of the extended orgasm metaphor. Both of these movies are pure spectacle in the best possible way, and they carry on the proud tradition of the best action movie of all time, Point Break.

9) Margin Call
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons

Although it's not a horror movie, Margin Call might have been the scariest movie of the year. J.C. Chandor's debut feature gives us an (obviously fictionalized) glimpse behind the scenes in the hours leading up to the 2007-08 financial crisis.  Zachary Quinto is our young naivete who stumbles upon a secret -- and soon wishes he hadn't.  Slowly, the inner workings of American financial institutions and the machinations of those who run them are revealed. Quinto, soon joined by an unusually sympathetic Kevin Spacey and an excellent Paul Bettany, is taken up floor by floor to various bigwigs as the magnitude of the situation becomes apparent, a kind of reverse Dante's Inferno. Satan himself isn't quite waiting up top, but close enough, as Jeremy Irons plays the most chilling, smooth-talkingest devil to hit the screen in some time. His climactic speech to Spacey trying to justify the carnage he is about to inflict on the American economy is one of the finer bits of acting of the year. The Academy fittingly rewarded the film with a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but I wouldn't have hesitated to nominate it for the big prize. Equal parts Glengarry Glen Ross and The Insider, Margin Call combines intelligent writing, a top-notch cast, and a topical story to create one of the year's best -- and most essential -- films.

8) Hanna
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: David Farr and Seth Lochhead
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

Hanna is a slick, stylized action movie from one of the least likely action director/actor duos in recent memory -- Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) and Saoirse Ronan (Briony Tallis, she of the unfortunate haircut and Oscar nominee from Atonement). But the movie works mainly because of the talents of its two central personalities. Each of Wright's features has proven he has a keen eye behind the camera (think That Shot from Atonement, and there was even beauty to be found in The Soloist's Skid Row), while Ronan has consistently displayed an almost unsettling maturity in her brief screen career. Both of those talents are put to good use in Hanna. Particularly memorable are the titular character's escape from a government compound toward the beginning and a shipyard chase scene toward the end. (I would also be remiss to not mention the pulsing Chemical Brothers score, which keeps the tension at level 11 throughout). Both scenes are artfully framed and seamlessly edited. They wouldn't work, however, nor the movie as a whole, without Ronan's heartbreakingly believable performance as a steely-eyed killer who just wants her father back. Just look at those eyes in the poster and you'll see what I mean. They go from hard as steel to soft as rain effortlessly, and I very much doubt there are many actresses PERIOD who could pull that off, much less as a teenager. Hanna is the kind of genre masterpiece that typically gets ignored in year-end lists -- but not here. (P.S. This also has one of the best uses of an end title card I've ever seen.)

7) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård

Let's get one thing straight: the teaser was better. It's a first ballot Trailer Hall of Famer, right up there with Jarhead and 300. (And I'm just putting it out there, but Prometheus could be well on its way). However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came closer to the promise of the trailer than either of the first two movies mentioned. I mean, did you see the opening title sequence? Of course, it used the same song as the trailer, so maybe it's just Trent Reznor and Karen O. that deserve the lion's share of the credit. But no, that would be doing a disservice to David Fincher, the real star of this show and probably the most interesting mainstream American director working right now. Girl picks right up where The Social Network left off, what with all the meticulous shots, obsessive details, brooding atmosphere, and excellent score courtesy of Reznor and Atticus Ross. The whole this is a workshop in filmmaking technique -- Zaillian's script is taut and tense, Jeff Cronenwith's lense work is top-notch, and Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall's editing keeps everything moving briskly along (even if a scene or two feels chopped to hell). Of the "actual" movie stars, Daniel Craig is serviceable as an almost anti-James Bond, Plummer is excellent if not underused, Skarsgård plays it close to the vest, and, of course, Rooney Mara is the main attraction and lives up to the hype. (For what it's worth, I think her performance is about even with Noomi Rapace's in the original.) Although the film wasn't as successful, critically or financially, as many had expected (hey, maybe don't release a movie about rape basically ON CHRISTMAS), it still did more than enough right to crack this list (unlike some others).

6) Contagion
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet

Very rare is the film that makes everyday objects -- a doorknob, a pair of dice, bar peanuts, a credit card -- seem so terrifying. But that's exactly what prolific director Steven Soderbergh does in Contagion, a film at once about a global viral pandemic as well how vulnerable we all are -- as living things, as families, as societies. The movie virus cuts through immune systems just as easily as it cuts through decency, restraint, order -- the very bonds of our society. In doing so, Contagion lays bare the human condition. When the crisis hits, some characters fight the disease (Cotillard, Fishburne, Winslet), some seek to profit from it (Law), and some just try to survive it (Damon, Paltrow) with varying degrees of success. The same can be said of all the characters though, and one of my favorite things about this movie is that Soderbergh pays no mind to whose name is on the poster -- anyone is fair game, and not all the big names make it through. But for a movie so huge in scale -- what with the A-list cast, globe-hopping storyline, weighty moral questions, and, you know, examining the possible extinction of the entire human race -- it's those small, terrifying moments that really make this movie: the camera lingering on a door knob, the slow motion swipe of a credit card, even a simple handshake. This movie really drives home the point that the world is a lot smaller than it used to be. One thing's for sure though: I'm never eating bar peanuts again.

5) Midnight in Paris
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Cory Stoll

The fact that this film is so great despite its leads -- Wilson and McAdams -- really speaks to the talents of Woody Allen and the large supporting cast. Wilson does his best "Aw shucks, just happy to be here" routine (think the second act of Wedding Crashers) while McAdams basically plays Mean Girls' Regina George all grown up. It works, however, because we're not supposed to like McAdams, and Wilson plays the straight man to the varied and eccentric supporting cast. I won't give the central plot device away, but just know that literary and artistic luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein (a blustery Kathy Bates), and Salvador Dalí (a charming Adrien Brody) show up, among dozens of others. The best by far, however, is Cory Stoll as Ernest Hemgingway. Stoll clearly had a blast with the character, delivering his lines (Ex.: "No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.") with the same famous tacitness as Hemingway's prose -- and no small dose of irony. It's details like this that are typical Allen -- the characters' idiosyncrasies and the script's biting humor keep the film form falling victim to its own whimsy (which it easily could have). The result is a paean to nostalgia that's sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, and, ultimately, just poignant enough to make it Allen's first Best Picture nominee in 25 years.

4) Hugo
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: John Logan
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley

We all know that Hollywood loves nothing more than to fellate itself. That's why in a couple of weeks, at the end of the nigh-on four-hour smugfest full of self-congratulatory speeches and handshakes, dry tributes, and pomp and (because Billy Crystal is hosting) circumcisions known as the Oscars telecast, the Academy will reward a movie that looks back fondly on an earlier era of moviemaking. Unfortunately, they'll be rewarding the wrong movie. Likely Best Picture winner The Artist is a silent movie, yes, but but it's not silent to make a point or revelation -- no, it's silent because it has *nothing* to say. The same story has been told hundreds of times, and better, and now we're supposed to laud it because it's silent? Not me. The Artist, well-made though it is, is not a revisionist take on the genre so much as a revisiting of it, a nostalgic trip to your childhood home only to find that nothing has changed, no new perspective offered after so many years. Your playthings as you left them. And that's all The Artist is -- a plaything. You enjoy it for a spell, then you leave it behind. No so with Hugo. Hugo reminds us that filmmakers trade in dreams, not trifles, and that an old dog (Scorsese) learning new tricks (3D -- and one of the better uses of it thus far) is much better than a new dog showcasing the same old tricks (both literally and a METAPHOR!). Hugo is the rare film that truly transports its audience to a different place, a different time, into the dream of its maker. It's because of this (and, you know, the fact that none of my top 3 were nominated) that Hugo would get my (hypothetical) vote for Best Picture.

3) Beginners
Directed by: Mike Mills
Written by: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurant

The plot of Beginners -- McGregor's recently-widowed 75-year-old father, Hal (an Oscar-nominated Christopher Plummer), comes out of the closet and then, just as quickly, begins slowly succumbing to cancer -- is not immediately relatable to at least 99% of the population. Most can relate to parts, certainly, but not the whole (especially once you throw in the fact that he also starts dating a French actress). Yet, Beginners is the year's most humanistic film, and its exploration of the moments of soul-crushing confusion that life sometimes presents us with is something anyone can relate to. That confusion is mirrored in the film's structure -- the film flits between past and present, with Hal's death as its fulcrum (this would be spoilers if not for the fact that Hal's death is announced within the film's first few minutes). There is Pre-and Post-Hal, if you will. Pre-Hal, McGregor's Oliver struggles to come to terms with his father's sexuality (resulting in some of the year's most genuinely funny moments). Post-Hal, he meets the aforementioned actress (played by a very winning Mélanie "Shoshana" Laurant) and struggles with his inability to form long-term relationships (resulting in some of the year's most genuinely sad moments). The story's eventual ending is not as important as the journey, which is the structural and emotional equivalent of a roller coaster. Perhaps McGregor spends too much time in the dumps (his graphic designer character spends much of the film working on a project titled "The History of Sadness"), but Plummer's effervescent performance (and his little dog too -- way better than the one in The Artist) more than makes the occasional spell of doldrums worth it.

2) Bellflower
Directed by: Evan Glodell
Written by: Evan Glodell
Starring: Evan Glodell, Jessie Wiseman, Tyler Dawson, Rebekah Brandes

A preface: I've never seen anything like Bellflower. Never. With every other movie on this list, there's something else out there like it (except for maybe Melancholia -- that ending, good god). But not Bellflower. Set in the colorless urban sprawl of Los Angeles, it's part romantic comedy (complete with meet-cute at a cricket eating contest), part road trip, part acid trip, and part study of misdirected machismo. The largely plotless film is a series of interconnected vignettes (they're even titled) about a group of aimless California twentysomethings (none of whom seem to work), centering on Glodell's Woodrow, who, along with his friend Aiden (Dawson), idolizes Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior villain Lord Humongous. The guys spend most of their time building flame throwers and whiskey-spewing automobiles in preparation for the coming (wished for?) apocalypse. But, as so often happens, boy meets girl, then (SPOILERS, but not really), girl breaks boy's heart. The narrative, such as it is, gets more and more fractured from there as the film careens toward its end, spiraling into multiple plotlines as it explores Woodrow's tortured (and and somewhat stunted) psyche. The last act or so has a sort of fever dream quality, which is augmented by the film's unconventional cinematography -- Glodell and cinematographer Joel Hodge shot digitally on some kind of homemade Go-Go-Gadget camera, the likes of which could probably have built by Woodrow and Aiden. Oh, and did I mention the entire thing was filmed on a $17,000 budget? It takes a filmmaker with a singular vision to pull this off, and Glodell is that filmmaker -- Bellflower is that vision realized.

1) Drive
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Hossein Amini
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston

Instead of the usual rambling paragraph, here's a list of my Top 10 Favorite Things About Drive:

10) The Pacing
That is to say, the editing. (Matt Newman was robbed of an Oscar nomination.) This isn't your typical crime thriller film, which bounds from one action set piece to the next. No, in Drive, the quiet moments of character building are just as important as the action scenes (which are few and far between). This is a film that unfolds at its own -- perfect -- pace.

9) The Pink Titles
See the poster above. Love 'em, and the retro look they give the film.

8) The Violence
As I said before, the action scenes are few and far between. But when they come... oh man. Exclamation points in a sea of ellipses. The motel scene, the strip club scene, the "Albert Brooks stabs a guy in the head with a fork" scene, and, of course, The Elevator Scene that everyone talks about. Sudden, visceral, and utterly unforgettable, all of them.

7) The Acting
Whether it's Carey Mulligan's ethereal object of affection, Bryan Cranston's wounded yet prideful mechanic, Ron Perlman's loutish gangster Jew, Albert Brooks' (again snubbed) paternal psychopath, or Ryan Gosling's nuanced Driver, each cast member elevated their archetypal characters and delivered precise performances...

6) The Dialogue (And/Or Lack Thereof)
...despite a script that was reportedly less than 80 pages (a film of Drive's length would typically have a 100+ page script). One of the most immediately noticeable things about Drive is the dearth of dialogue, especially when it comes to Gosling's nameless, almost wordless antihero (silent performances are all the rage this year). But what is absent on the page is made up for on the screen -- his Driver is the epitome of the old Fitzgerald proverb "Action is character." That said, what dialogue there is is very good. Consider Gosling's "My hands are a bit dirty," to which Brooks replies, "So are mine." The script is full of smart writing like that.

5) Homages
Drive is full of homages to directors like Michael Mann (the Los Angeles at night milieu), John Carpenter (the score as well as the creepy, Halloween-esque beach scene -- a personal favorite), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï is an obvious inspiration), Sergio Leone (Driver would be right at ease in those old Eastwood roles), as well as dozens of others. Drive wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it updates them and elevates what could have been a simple pastiche to a work that fits right alongside those that inspired it.

4) Los Angeles
I'm a sucker for any film that takes place in L.A., and especially one that can make even its grittiest parts (downtown, parts of the Valley) look cinematic. A tip of the cap to Newton Thomas Sigel's photography here as well.

3) Ryan Gosling's Scorpion Jacket
I mean, c'mon. That thing just looks good.

2) The Music
From Cliff Martinez's airy, synthesized score (he clearly has a diploma from the John Carpenter School of Film Scoring) to the electro-pop of the soundtrack, the music fits the tone of the film tighter than Gosling's leather driving gloves. Two of my favorite songs of last year came from the film. The first is Driver's theme, College's "A Real Hero":


A great song, and kitschy European pop always makes a movie seem more artsy. The second one plays over the opening titles, "Nightcall," Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx (of CSS fame):


Moody and low, it fits the film perfectly. Good to see Soundwave from Transformers is still getting work as well.

1) The Opening Sequence
Absolutely flawless filmmaking. Probably the most deliberate -- and intense -- chase scene ever filmed. My jaw is still on the floor.

Yeah, it's February already, but some of these weren't even in theaters in my neck of the woods in 2011 (and I had to catch up on a few on the 'Flix). Better late than never, right? For kicks, the Worst Movie I Saw This Year was either the remake/prequel of The Thing (just not necessary) or The Iron Lady (pure Zzzzzzzzzs). Feel free to let me know if you think I'm over- or under-rating anything. Next up: Oscar predictions!