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!

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