Saturday, December 31, 2011

BEST AND WORST OF 2011

By my last count, I saw 98 new movies released in theatres in 2011. Most of those I didn't actually see in the theatre, of course. And more than 60% of them I saw at the tail end of the year, sandwiched in the four months between September and December when the studios decide to unload the stuff that actually looks interesting all at once. But I'll leave the raw statistics to Billy Bean in Moneyball or Kevin Spacey in Margin Call (both of which I saw but didn't make the list).

To put it bluntly: I'm a bit tired of watching movies at this point. I need a break both from compulsive viewing and impulse blogging. I'm not sure if this will be the last Best-Worst list I ever do, but I know for certain this will be the last blog entry for quite a while. For 2012 is The Year I Write The Book…not the blog. And I need to get crackin'.


But before I go, here's how the chips stacked and the popcorn popped for me film-wise in 2011…


THE BEST

10. Shame

There are sequences in Shame you watch in awe of director Steve McQueen's facility with actors and camera. For example, Michael Fassbender's wordless seduction of a married woman on a subway car achieved solely through glances. Or the minutes-long tracking shot of Fassbender taking a midnight jog through Manhattan. Then there are the sequences you watch through your fingers, wincing at McQueen's complete lack of subtlety, feeling bad for his emotionally (and often physically) naked actors. Say, the extra long close-up of Fassbender's agonized face as he achieves joyless orgasm. Or, maybe, Fassbender descending into the "bowels" of a gay sex club, lit with demonic flair and cut to ominous thumping house music. This movie about a Manhattan sex addict who can't display emotion (and his couch-hopping sister who displays WAY too much) takes a lot of risks—some of which succeed brilliantly, some which fail miserably. Even the core brother-sister dichotomy teeters wildly between the painfully obvious and the fascinatingly self-aware. The key is McQueen is willing to take those risks (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, even more so), for better or worse. And I must applaud them all for that.

9. The Robber

Admittedly, I'm the target audience for this little-seen Austrian film. An existential crime thriller about an ex-con who does nothing but run marathons and rob banks? Count me in. You know from the start Johann's twin compulsions are going to bring about a tragic end. But the key—as they tell beginning marathoners—is not in winning or even crossing the finish line but enjoying the race. The Robber (which could have as easily been called The Runner) is a fine race, all the way to its harrowing finish. I've only run one or two marathons but have fantasized (and written) endlessly about robbing banks. I'm pretty sure if I had the balls/skills to pull a heist on the Bank of America, it would end something like this.

8. Contagion

Two things I learned from Contagion: 1.) Bats and pigs should never get together 2.) From now on, avoid the bowl of peanuts at the airport lounge. The DNA for this up-to-the-minute supervirus thriller may be cheesy, star-studded Irwin Allen ‘70s disaster flicks, but Soderbergh's cold, methodic direction crystallizes the genre, raising the stakes on The Towering Inferno a zillion notches. The way in which he dispatches with myriad characters and subplots all in under two hours is nearly as mercenary as the MEV-1 virus itself. When I first saw the trailer for Contagion, I thought it an odd choice for Soderbergh—didn't we get enough of this stuff in the late ‘90s with Outbreak and Virus? But midway through, his suspect motivations became startlingly clear: 1.) Give our germaphobic, Purell nation the horror movie it really deserves 2.) Give a generation of moviegoers what they secretly want—to see Gwenyth Paltrow die a horrible onscreen death. Thanks for both of those, Steven. Even if I can now no longer touch the poles on the subway without gloves.

7. The Descendants

Alexander Payne's razor-sharp satiric edge may have dulled a bit in the seven years since Sideways, but this smoothing over works for The Descendants—perhaps Payne and Clooney's most mature work. Sure, there are still a few flip jokes, both verbal AND visual (as witnessed in the pic above). But there's a well-earned world-weariness that underlines and softens them all. The Descendants is a film about coping with loss, betrayal, familial duty and loud Hawaiian shirts. And a reminder that Payne is still the modern master of the sad-funny moment.

6. A Dangerous Method

Given that this film comes from the man who gave us Crash, Videodrome and Naked Lunch, I'm tempted to call Cronenberg's drawing room drama about the birth of psychoanalysis his most "reserved" work. But that's not exactly the case. Cronenberg's old obsessions are still on full display: the war between mind and flesh (or "New Flesh"), the limits and liberations of sexual perversity/promiscuity, the human brain as the ultimate erogenous zone. It's just that here the same themes are poured over in dialogue, analyzed and then re-analyzed by the three main characters—Jung, Freud and their star patient Sabina Spielrein. You'll find no freaky highway three-ways in the back in the back of a speeding car (though Kiera Knightley does get a little "verklempt" in a moving stage coach and later enjoys a good spanking). What you'll find is the headiest, most intellectually stimulating film of the year, even though based on psychological concepts more than a century out of date.

5. Martha Marcy May Marlene

Speaking of mind games, this little indie-film-that-could about a teenage girl losing her identity to a cult completely took me by surprise. Who thought a movie so buzzed about at Sundance could ever turn out to be good anymore? Who thought anyone even distantly related to the Olsen Twins could actually ACT?! I hereby admit to being systematically re-programmed by John Hawkes and MMMM. I even dug the "shock" ending, which half the audience at the screening I saw loathed. While they howled in protest at the screen, I sat silently among the other half in the dark, smiling like a loon. Or, better yet, a latter-day Squeaky Fromme.

4. Poetry

Like last year's brilliant Mother, Poetry is another fantastic export from South Korea that deals with a mother (a grandmother, technically) coming to terms with the violent acts of her emotionally distant son (the rape/suicide of a local girl). She's also dealing with the early symptoms of her own Alzheimer's. But, unlike the mother in Mother, 66-year-old Yang Mija doesn't respond to crisis with murder and interrogation. Instead, she signs up for a local poetry class, then gets freaky in the bathtub with the older stroke-victim she sponge bathes for work every day. What is it with Koreans and their crazy mothers? I'm not sure exactly. But it makes for some great art.

3. The Tree of Life

Cut out the stuff with the digital dinosaurs and the cosmos near the beginning and all the heavy-handed stuff with Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and others walking silently through sand dunes near the end, and I think you have the Best Film of the Year. Leave in all the stuff with the kids in the ‘50s running through the gorgeously photographed grass in the backyard, Father (Brad Pitt) staring at them with a vague menace and Mother (Jessica Chastain) staring from the kitchen, vaguely angelic. Plus, everyone ruminating in elliptical voiceover, of course, as per usual in a Terrence Malick film. The problem is…Malick left in the dinosaurs, left in Sean Penn and left in the beach. A few judicious cuts (and a little less metaphysics) and—walla!—a modern masterpiece.

2. Take Shelter

Michael Shannon has carved out a very nice career playing crazies in everything from Jesus' Son to Bug to Boardwalk Empire to Revolutionary Road. The difference is, this time, director Jeff Nichols has given Shannon a proper starring vehicle to examine "crazy" (schizophrenia, specifically) with much more depth than ever before and with enough meteorological foreboding to make the most hardened career weatherman (or career psychologist) quake in his rubber flood-boots. I am onboard with this movie 99.9%. Only the ending—one of those "twisters"—gives me pause. But shouldn't great endings give you some pause? Especially in a film about mental illness? I'm not sure. Maybe I need to schedule an appointment.

1. The Future

I understand it when people say they hate Miranda July. When they claim her movies (and short stories and performance art) are willfully weird, hipster curio objects that reek of an ego run amok through a vintage clothing store in the darkest recesses of Silverlake or Williamsburg. I understand them completely; I'm just not one of those people. What can I say? The talking cat narrator worked for me ("Paw-Paw"). July's interpretive dances in oversized t-shirts on YouTube worked for me. The boyfriend stopping time worked for me. The old guy met through a Penny Saver ad worked for me. And when July's character asked the suburban dad she's having an affair with why he wears a gold chain and he replies that it lets women know he's "ready to fuck"…that completely worked for me, too. Though this movie might seem a slight choice for Best of the Year, there's something incredibly NOW about a thirty-something couple so in fear of adult responsibility and commitment that they can't even keep it together long enough to adopt a stray cat. Me, I'm a dog person. And, it seems, a Miranda July person as well.


HONORABLE MENTION

Bellflower

What better way to respond to a break-up than with flamethrowers and a souped-up muscle car that serves grain alcohol through the air conditioning system? This interesting first effort from Evan Glodell has a lot of problems, can be annoyingly fetishistic in a fanboy type way and, at the core, comes from a very emotionally retarded place. But it might just be the ultimate guy's movie gone off the rails, mashed up with some unknown experimental film from the ‘60s, then burned to a crisp.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams / Into the Abyss

Herzog knocks it out of the documentary park TWICE this year. First, in 3-D, with a film about centuries old cave paintings and mutant albino crocodiles. Second, with a real life gloss on Capote's In Cold Blood. Whether he's traipsing through prisons in rural Texas or underground caves in Southern France, the man is certainly our most tireless and, arguably, best documentarian. When's the last time Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock went spelunking?

Drive

At the end of last year's Best-Worst list, I cited Drive as The Most Anticipated Movie of 2011. After finally seeing the film this fall, I think I might still be anticipating it. What I mean to say is…the film I imagined after reading the James Sallis book. Where the novel is a slim, fast-paced noir tale about a movie stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway driver and only kills people when he absolutely has to, Nicolas Winding Refn's take on the material was more along the lines of "violent sociopath who also happens to drive." Add to that Refn's overbearing ‘80s Michael Mann fetish (which I kind of liked) and the casting of alabaster white Carey Mulligan in place of the Latina single mother in the book (which I absolutely did not like) and, needless to say, I was a little disoriented. Despite my misgivings, though, the movie Drive is still a solid crime offering and boasts a standout bad-guy performance from Albert Brooks. The opening anti-"chase sequence" alone is enough to earn it a spot on the list.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Gary Oldman playing against type. Cold War paranoia so thick you can't cut it with a knife. Lots of old Brits brooding and deceiving each other and smoking and drinking single-malt scotch. What more can you ask for out of a spy thriller? D├ęcor! Just take a look at those orange sound-proofed walls.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

I don't remember much of what went on narratively in this strange, hallucinatory film from Thailand, if much happened at all. I just remember the Uncle on his deathbed draining his failing kidneys through the tubes of his homemade dialysis machine. I remember the images of the girl in the river having sex with a catfish. And, most of all, I remember the "Monkey Ghost" (pictured above) who arrives to dinner with red glowing eyes and the family members talking to him casually…as if a Monkey Ghost came over to your house for lasagna every night of the week. I'm pretty sure director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (say that three times real fast!) wouldn't mind that I only remember scattered images though. I'm guessing he might even say that's the whole point.


THE WORST

10. Sucker Punch

The apotheosis of modern day Hollywood action filmmaking as a grab-bag of video game plotlines, back-to-back music video montages and wall-to-wall CGI. A high water mark in cinema if you like that sort of thing. Nauseating if you don't. The only thing "real" about this movie was the headache I had when I turned off the Blu-ray. At least there were some pretty cool images.

9. J. Edgar

I have to applaud Clint Eastwood for stepping outside his tough-guy comfort zone to direct a bio-pic of the most notoriously closeted gay man in American history/politics. But I can't applaud his choice to have DiCaprio under ten pounds of heavy "old-man" makeup for more than half the film. It makes everything he's saying a farce, and all I could do was look for seams in the latex. This is one of those cases where it might have been better to have DiCaprio play the young J.Edgar and an older actor (let's say Jack Nicholson) play the old J. Edgar. Not that DiCaprio's bad in this—he does the best he can under the rubber mask and within the needlessly convoluted Dustin Lance Black script which intercuts back and forth between young and old Edgar "thematically" rather than chronologically. Sometimes, it's better just to follow the timeline. And,sometimes, it's better to leave the makeup to the ladies.

8. Colombiana

Father to Young Colombiana: "Listen to me, daughter. In about 30 seconds, three cartel thugs are going to burst through that door, cut me and your mother to shreds with Uzis right in front of your very eyes. You will be very traumatized, but not so traumatized that your eight-year-old body can't scale walls and hurdle a series of rooftops in escape, as if you were a tween Jason Bourne. You might even use some Parkour. You will then grow up to look like Zoe Saldana, become an expert assassin bent on revenge but with an artistic soul. You know, because cold-blooded assassins in these films must have a artistic side, especially if they are women. You will also have a boyfriend who is a sensitive painter, just in case we didn't get the picture. He will be played by that guy from Alias. Tell me, my daughter—quickly—how do you feel about these things?" Young Colombiana to Father: "Fuck it. Just shoot me now."

7. Passion Play

Mickey Rourke! Bill Murray! Megan Fox with angel wings! How could things go wrong? Wait…did you read that last part? "Megan Fox with angel wings." 'Nuff said.

6. Super 8

The French may call it homage, but in America it's just called brown-nosing. Once again, hyphenate director-producer-whatever J.J. Abrams kneels and grovels at the Altar of Spielberg and suckles the '80s Amblin teat for all it's worth. The result is something sub-Spielberg, *Batteries Not Included or worse. And, seriously, blue lens flares alone (every few minutes) does not a directorial style make. If all of Super 8 were actually shot on Super 8 film, maybe it would be of minor interest. But it's not. It's an HD production through and through, reaching desperately for celluloid retro. And that "H" stands for "hack."

5. The Ward

My love of '70s-'80s era John Carpenter has lead me down some dismal paths—Vampires, Ghost of Mars—and now his "comeback film" The Ward. But this one's worse than bad…it's boring. It almost made me lose my hots for the incredibly foxy Amber Heard (no easy task). I've read interviews where Carpenter cops to having grown bored with filmmaking—it shows here. I've also read he's always wanted to make a western. Film funding powers that be, please let this genre master saddle up and go out with a bang. The world doesn't need another Ward. Or an Escape from New York remake for that matter.

4. Red State

Please, God, if you exist, deliver us from Kevin Smith already! You're WAY late to the game on this. I mean, honestly, you should have shut this guy down in the late '90s. Right around the time of Dogma.

3. Cowboys and Aliens

I'm pretty sure if you gave just the title of this movie to a class of high school creative writing students they could come up with at least eight more interesting films. But, no, they gave it to eight overpaid Hollywood screenwriters who, together, came up with little more than a metal wristband that shoots lasers. Dreamworks, I hope you got your money's worth. Because absolutely no one else who saw this movie did. Thank my lucky stars, I saw it for free.

2. I Melt With You

See the picture above? That's not a recreation of Munch's The Scream; it's just Jeremy Piven high on coke. Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe and Some Other Guy I Didn't Recognize are in the other room, also high on Oxycontin and Ecstasy and booze, bemoaning their lives as privileged white males in their 40s against a non-stop soundtrack of obvious '80s alt-rock songs. Because that's what you do in these Big Chill warmed-over movies. That and a lot of designer drugs. And have plenty of banal conversations about LIFE. I watched this movie on cable only because its meager plot involves a suicide pact between guys in their 40s—slightly similar to a screenplay I wrote years ago. The difference is mine was a comedy. I Melt With You is too—it just doesn't know it.

1. Your Highness

Placing this harmless medieval stoner comedy as Worst Movie of the Year might seem like a potshot (no pun intended) on my part. But, be certain of it, there WAS harm done here. First off, harm done to the relatively funny script I read a few years back, apparently tossed away then undermined by lazy, knee-jerk improv and lame dick/gay panic jokes. Second, harm done to the careers/credibility of everyone involved—from Oscar winner Natalie Portman to James Franco to Danny McBride (fast on his way to becoming Larry the Cable Guy 2.0) to director David Gordon Green, once on his way to becoming the next Terrence Malick and now seemingly on his way to shooting second unit on the next Adam Sandler flick. Third, and most importantly, the harm done to the $18 in my wallet. Your Highness falls between the cracks of all the genres it attempts to celebrate/exploit. As a comedy, it is not funny. As an '80s style sword and sorcery movie, it boasts little adventure and too much modern CGI. In short, Your Highness is a big, steaming Minotaur turd of a film. Or perhaps just a Minotaur cock (see above). It's a backyard movie based a drinking game joke that probably should have stayed just that…in the backyard, as a joke between friends, shot on VHS.


DISHONORABLE MENTION

Carnage

After hitting a home run last year with The Ghost Writer, Polanski returns from house arrest with this tossed-off real-time quickie based on a hit play that all takes place in one apartment. There are some good moments, but the material (smug Brooklyn parents squabbling over their children) doesn't really do Polanski's close-quarters gifts justice the way it did in Repulsion or even Death and the Maiden. Hopefully next time, someone gives him a more interesting script and lets him out of the house.

Of Gods and Men

I have to go against the critical grain on this very well-reviewed, yet very dull film about a group of Algerian Trappist monks under threat from Muslim fundamentalists who must decide whether to leave their monastery and live or stay and face certain death. Such a great, of-the-moment set-up! Such potential for stimulating discussion and debate! Instead, the monks mostly sit around looking forlorn. There is discussion, but, for me, none of it as interesting as its premise. I don't know—maybe if I was Muslim or Christian or a monk, all the polite brooding would have worked for me. But a monk I am not.

The Beaver

Not even a talking beaver puppet or Jodie Foster can save Mel Gibson's career at this point. This one had an interesting premise and was free at my local library. So I gave it a shot. In the end though, it felt like an insult to people suffering from real-life major depression. An insult delivered by Mel Gibson and a talking beaver puppet.

The Rum Diary

I'm kind of suffering from Johnny Depp fatigue at this point. But I went ahead and paid for a matinee of this since it's a kissing cousin to Gilliam's awesome Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And Depp was a wonderful Hunter S. Thompson in that. Long story short: Somewhere around Barstow (and the Second Act), the drugs never took hold.

30 Minutes or Less

You know it sucks when the movie's only 80 minutes long and midway through you're already cracking bad jokes in your mind about how the movie should have taken a lesson from its title. The thing is, that bad joke is on par with about 90% of the ones in this film. A disappointing follow-up to Social Network for Jesse Eisenberg. More disappointing for people (like me) who were hoping for more than a minute or two's screen time from Fred "Remo Williams" Ward. Travesty!


SUPERLATIVES

SURPRISINGLY DECENT ENTRIES IN TIRED ACTION FRANCHISES

Fast Five, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

SURPRISINGLY TOLERABLE REMAKES

The Mechanic, Straw Dogs

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE FOR PEOPLE SICK OF SUPERHERO MOVIES

Super

MOST JUSTIFIED USE OF 3-D TECHNOLOGY

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Hugo

BEST SEX SCENE AS PARTICLE PHYSICS DISCUSSION

The Big Bang

LEAST TITILLATING SEX ADDICTS

"Brandon" in Shame, "Laura" in Leap Year

BEST DYSFUNCTIONAL MALES

The family of brothers in Septien, Woodrow and Aiden in Bellflower

BEST DYSFUNCTIONAL FEMALES

Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Charlize Theron in Young Adult

BEST HIGHLY-FUNCTIONAL DIGITAL SIMIANS

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

BEST BLUDGEONING BY HAMMER

I Saw the Devil

BEST BEHEADING BY SWORD

13 Assassins

BEST YOUTUBE GIMMICK AS FEATURE LENGTH FILM

The Artist

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON LEAST DESERVING PERSON

The Arbor

MOST BEAUTIFULLY PHOTOGRAPHED APOCALYPSE

Melancholia

BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR

The radial tire in Rubber

MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2012

A two-way tie: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie and Django Unchained

HAPPY 2012!!!!!!!!!!

1 comment:

Alex Jowski said...

Very nice and detailed list. Great picks!