January 8, 2012

My 10 favorite movies of 2011.

A time-honored tradition on King Myno's Court, and one of my favorite posts to write, is this list of the year's top 10 movies. Keep in mind that these aren't the ten best; that word implies some level of objectivity, which I'm not offering here. These are just the ten movies that I enjoyed the most in 2011, for reasons that I'll try to explain in conjunction with each choice.

(Editor's note: I haven't yet seen Carnage, We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Separation, Certified Copy, Attack the Block, Tabloid or Project Nim. And probably a few others. I hear they're all varying levels of good. Please don't verbally bludgeon me for missing them.)

The Artist - I don't quite understand why this movie, so anticipated in the build-up to its release, is now being bombarded by heaping amounts of scorn. Is it just the inevitable post-hype resentment, the "ov-er-rated" chant that follows a lengthy period of being underrated? I sure hope so, because I'm not sure what else is wrong with this charming little callback to the days of the silent era. Especially when you factor in the virtuoso starring performance from Jean Dujardin (my pick for Best Actor) and a few other big Hollywood names (John Goodman! James Cromwell! The coach from Not Another Teen Movie!).

It's funny, it's sweet, it's extremely well-made. It's also the work of a European director and two foreign stars, lending an air of authenticity to what would probably be a clunky mess had it been produced through the Hollywood system. Because of that, and because everyone involved seemed to be having a whole lot of fun while making it, I never took The Artist as anything but an homage, a loving tribute to a genre that only old-time cinema fans and film students appreciate these days.

To me, it's nostalgia done perfectly right -- a simple story that purposely forgoes nuance -- and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and Dujardin, who I can't praise enough, make it all shine. I have a feeling that when the backlash subsides, critics (professional and otherwise) will see The Artist for what it truly is: a captivating picture that's deserves all this praise. People are really fucking nitpicky sometimes.

Drive - If Drive was a high school student, it would easily win "Most likely to be a cult hit." The funny thing is, this is a movie that shouldn't appeal only to a cult audience. It stars Ryan Gosling, one of America's sexiest stars, and Albert Brooks, one of cinema's most beloved neurotic Jews. It also features Walter White, Hellboy, Joan Holloway and that sexy British girl from Never Let Me Go. What's not to like?

Something, apparently, because Drive only made $35 million at the American box office. But when it comes to movies like this, box office totals aren't everything. I imagine that the dark, drawn-out style of director Nicolas Winding Refn turned a few people off along the way, not to mention the David Cronenberg-esque violence that seems to pop out of nowhere every 20 minutes to shock everyone's pants off. It's a movie that can be remarkably blunt at times, maybe a little too aggressive and realistic for even the staunchest lovers of smashing and crushing of heads and other body parts.

But I haven't been more captivated by a film all year. From the heart-pounding introduction to the pitch-perfect score to the sparse, understated dialogue that adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings, it's shocking, satisfying cinema with real thrills and a smooth twist of art-house sensibility.

Hugo - When I first heard that Martin Scorsese was directing an movie based on a children's novel about movies and robots and train stations, my first thought was "Huh?" I instantly disregarded it as a sort of director-for-hire decision, maybe in order to make Kundun 2 in 2012. Luckily, however, a series of good reviews raised my interest back up to optimal levels. There's already a great Hugo debate up on the hit website The A.V. Club; suffice it to say that I agree with Scott Tobias, who found Hugo to be "enchanting" and a "whimsical vehicle through which [Scorsese] expresses a serious love of the movies."

It's been said a bunch of times already, but Scorsese's use of 3D is nothing short of marvelous. It's immersive without being intrusive; the best thing a good 3D movie can do is make you forget you're wearing the stupid glasses. James Cameron used Avatar to bring a magical world of giant blue creatures to life, and Scorsese uses it to slowly draw you into his fantastical, alternate-universe version of Paris.

It's not a film without flaws: The subplots involving all the regular patrons of the train station are mildly entertaining but largely underwhelming, mostly serving to pass some time in between Hugo's adventures. But the movie looks marvelous and unexpectedly sucked me in; I cared about the relationship between Asa Butterfield's Hugo and Ben Kingsley's Georges Méliès, I loved the casting of Michael Stuhlbarg as the cinematic scholar (more Michael Stuhlbarg in everything, please) and I was impressed to see Christopher Lee still acting at the age of 89. 89! I don't expect to be alive at 89, let alone starring in a Martin Scorsese movie. Get that guy a Lifetime Achievement award.

Meek's Cutoff - It's easy to call Meek's Cutoff a Western -- the entire movie takes place during a quest to move out West -- but I don't think it's accurate at all. Westerns are traditionally about gunfights and blustery heroics, but Meek's Cutoff has no interest in those kind of pandering-to-the-audience moments. Big chunks of this movie are spent watching the party's wagon travel from one side of the screen to the other. Michelle Williams, who continues her quest to become the ultimate indie darling, pulls a gun once. That's it. My dad typically loves Westerns, but this is one I probably wouldn't recommend.

Meek's Cutoff is about what it must've really been like to travel across America in 1845: boring. Really, really boring. Several thousand miles across fields and desert and hills and waves of grain and other repetitive landscapes. Sure, there's the occasional threatening Indian, and sometimes your guide can be a charming rapscallion (in this case, Bruce Greenwood's Stephen Meek, and it's safe to say that Greenwood has never, ever been better), but for the most part, you're going to trudge slowly for months on end. Some of you will get lost. And many will die.

That's what lies under the surface throughout Meek's Cutoff, a contemplative look at the struggles of 19th-century Americans pursuing the unknown. No one in the traveling party really knows what awaits them in Oregon; they don't even know if there's a tribe of savages just over the next hill. It takes a lot of hope, faith and courage just to trek forward day after day, when even the best intentions and most rational bouts of courage don't mean shit and the bland, dry passage of time can end your life just as prematurely as a gun or a tomahawk. Not many films would attempt to convey a series of bleak ideas like that, and few could ever do it as well as Meek's Cutoff.

Moneyball - Bennett Miller and Brad Pitt took one of the world's biggest questions -- "How do you make a nonfiction book about a baseball team that never made it out of the first round into an entertaining movie?" -- and, pardon my shitty pun, knocked it out of the park. It was easy to make fun of Moneyball in the months leading up to its release, especially since it went through years and years of development hell, but the end result was a simple, smart movie that impressed some baseball people (if not Keith Law) and enjoyed a solid amount of mainstream appeal (broke $100 million at the worldwide box office).

Maybe it's Pitt's magnetism as Billy Beane; if Tyler Durden was the part that 35-year-old Pitt was born to play, Beane is picture-perfect for a mellowed Pitt who's now nearing 50. Maybe it was helped along by the unexpected calm, cool and collected work of then-fat Jonah Hill. Or maybe it's the clever, quick-talking Aaron Sorkin touch-up of the screenplay, which isn't as in-your-face as The Social Network but still gives Pitt and Hill some witty banter to work with. Plus, how can you not love a movie that boasts an intense scene where Billy Beane, after months of trying, finally acquires the great Ricardo Rincon?

To make a movie that's at least partly about an ALDS-losing team work, Miller, Pitt and the writers (Steven Zaillian and Sorkin) smartly tone down the baseball-oriented tension and crank up the character-based drama. It's not about whether the Oakland Athletics will win the World Series (which would be considered a pretty lame movie by everyone except Peter True) but whether the intensely competitive Beane will finally prove his doubters wrong. Sure, there are some inaccuracies, but the only people who seem to give a shit are the ones who were extremely biased against the movie version in the first place. As for me, I don't think it matters if you're a baseball fan or a cinema buff; if you go into Moneyball with an open mind, you'll find something to enjoy.

Submarine - I've seen this referred to in several places as "Wes Anderson lite," probably due to its off-beat humor and the Max Fischer-esque qualities of its protagonist, Craig Roberts' Oliver Tate. This isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's what convinced me to rent it in the first place. But Anderson's style is far quirkier, and his dialogue more dramatized and stilted, than writer/director Richard Ayoade's. Wes Anderson never lets you forget that you're watching a movie, but that's not the goal of Submarine, which makes Ayoade's insights into the slightly twisted universe of a 15-year-old boy a bit more poignant.

Submarine takes place in Wales, which is a place I've actually visited while studying abroad in London. Now, I was climbing rocks and going on hikes, not living next to a spiky-haired Paddy Considine and pursuing an awkward childhood romance, but based on how people in London spoke of Wales (and vice versa) I can see its residents being as dreary and filled with yearning as the movie depicts. Young Oliver Tate copes by storing his successes away like completed film scenes, but the piled-up troubles of his immediate family and friends serve as a reminder that life can be more complicated than art.

A terrific score by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and a quietly adept performance from Noah Taylor (another Wes connection, I suppose) as Roberts' oft-depressed father give the film more depth than your typical "coming of age" story. And any movie that effectively uses the line "My mum gave a handjob to a mystic" in a key moment is alright by me. Shit, a handjob reference! Maybe Submarine is more Wes-like than I'm willing to admit. Or at least paying lots of homage to Rushmore. Either way, it's an unexpectedly refined and hilarious film debut from first-time director Ayoade.

Take Shelter - I covered my thoughts on Take Shelter in relatively comprehensive detail back in early December, but I'd like to take a moment to say that Michael Shannon really, really deserves an Oscar nomination for this movie. He probably won't get one, not after missing out on a Golden Globe nom (and going up against supremely handsome luminaries like Pitt and Michael Fassbender and George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio), but it's time to give him his due for being far more than just a supporting-cast star and one of Hollywood's premier crazy dudes.

Seeing Shannon put a genuinely human twist on the "devolved psychotic" character he's played over and over was truly a delight, one that raises this movie above being just the study of a delusional man. I don't know if Shannon is right about it taking "a bit of guts to go see our film," as the content isn't as shocking as Shame or as inaccessible as The Tree of Life, but it's certainly a small, haunting picture that I didn't fully appreciate until I started to further evaluate certain themes and scenes.

But, by virtue of being excellent and thought-provoking, the movie remains easy to revisit. It's unfortunate that it couldn't draw a larger audience (only $1,674,839 in domestic box office as of January 2), but it is one of those films that maintains a never-ending sense of dread throughout; I kept waiting for the shit to really hit the fan. That's not the stuff of mainstream film and mass appeal, but the ability to rise above that aura of reserved creepiness is an important part of what makes Take Shelter so special.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - A bit of a letdown, if only because I was hoping it would be the greatest spy movie of all time. Instead, I got a quiet, contemplative look at the harrowing but often nondescript life of a secret agent. Director Tomas Alfredson, who also helmed the tremendous Let the Right One In, paints a dreary picture of a world where treachery lurks around every corner, only the corners are dark and shabby, and your adversaries are often pudgy Brits.

I greatly appreciate a film that requires the audience to keep up, but Tinker Tailor, much like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, tries to pack too much into an already ample runtime. The pace is consistently brisk throughout, which is not something Dragon Tattoo can boast, but such continual progress makes it difficult to process everything that is happening, especially when it comes to eliciting an emotional response. The grand finale, in particular, came about while I was still piecing together just how Gary Oldman's George Smiley (who was terrific, by the way) had gotten from A to B to C and solved the whole damn mystery in the first place.

And then there's the ending itself. The trouble with this kind of movie -- and this applies to any film that relies on a big reveal -- is that audiences these days are very smart. So when Smiley is told that one of four men is the spy nestled high atop British intelligence, and only one of those characters has his backstory developed, it's not hard to guess which one is the culprit. This isn't a knock against the movie; I realized that this was how whodunits always worked around the time I saw The Recruit and fingered Pacino as the bad guy about an half-hour in. It just makes it tough to stick the landing, and Tinker Tailor was a movie that propelled you forward right from the start. Still, this kind of ambitious project, despite some rockiness, ended up being well worth the ride.

The Tree of Life - My long-time associate (and future comedy superstar) Rob Turbovsky and I had a discussion earlier this week about what the Oscars (and other year-end cinematic awards) really mean. I mentioned how I thought Avatar and The Social Network should've won Best Picture; despite what I think about them (loved the latter, was relatively entertained by the former) they were certainly the defining movies of their year. Even cinephiles who loathe big-budget Hollywood claptrap probably gave Avatar a chance in 2009, and I don't know anyone, even uppity jerks, who disliked Social Network. So when it comes to 2011, even though the actual Best Picture winner will be something solid like The Artist or The Descendants, the most memorable movie of the year is The Tree of Life.

It didn't make much money at all, but it got people talking. Even people who aren't bloggers or Internet-based film nerds; I think even my mom knew what it was. It was provocative, it blew minds, it spurred movie theaters to provide odd pre-film warnings for some of their stupider patrons.

I know that, not too long ago, I compared this movie to Thor. In retrospect, perhaps that was a little harsh (even though the goal wasn't to be harsh, just to point out how both movies had no real interest in being overly comprehensible or catering to an audience). I still think The Tree of Life keeps you at arm's length, but it dazzles in the process. It may be difficult to get inside Terrence Malick's films (or his head) but he's a master artist with a specific, precise way of telling his stories. Maybe his work is best examined months after being viewing, when it's had time to simmer in your brain. Either way, when you spend as much time as I did mulling over this movie, it's hard not to include it as one of your ten best.

Win Win - As evident by his Best Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild, writers enjoy and appreciate the work of Tom McCarthy. I fancy myself a writer as well, even though I think McCarthy's greatest contribution to the world of cinema is as Amanda Peet's smarmy boyfriend in 2012. Either way, I think McCarthy is a genius. The Station Agent and The Visitor were both gems, and he struck gold again in 2011 with the thoroughly enjoyable Win Win.

McCarthy makes character dramas about quietly tortured souls. He's not very flashy, which makes it very odd that HBO originally tapped him to direct the eventually scrapped Game of Thrones pilot. But his style is perfect in Win Win, a film about a struggling lawyer who comes to nurture the amateur wrestling career of a client's grandson. When casting a cinematic couple, you can't do much better than Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, two inherently likable actors who have an air of "meaning well" about them. This sort of instant credibility allows McCarthy to dig Giamatti's character into a bigger and bigger hole, knowing full well that we'll be rooting for him to come out whole at the end. Add in Jeffrey Tambor as Giamatti's assistant coach and the great Bobby Cannavale, who turns in his best performance since either The Ten or this Louis C.K. Internet video, and you've got it made. There's gotta be a meaty leading role (one that's not a shitty ABC sitcom) in Cannavale's future.

And all the rest: Three of my favorite lead performances of the year came from Brendan Gleeson, George Clooney and Michael Fassbender in The Guard, The Descendants and Shame, respectively, but the movies themselves were all a bit too flawed for the top ten. If you loved the witty banter between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story like I did, then you'll love The Trip. Our Idiot Brother was a wonderful little comedy, despite the fact that I didn't laugh outloud once. War Horse would be a much better movie without Steven Spielberg constantly implying that horses are people, too! Rooney Mara sure was weirdly sexy in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even if the movie's pacing wasn't. And Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was maybe the best action movie I've seen in years. My greatest regret is not getting it onto the top ten. It's tremendous, really. Stop reading this and go see it, preferably in IMAX.

Worst movie of the year: Midnight in Paris. God, this was awful. Woody Allen no longer has any idea how regular people talk, and I imagine he doesn't want to know. If he ever deigns to gaze upon normal folk, he will view us through a powerful telescope. And in between these very occasional viewings, he'll make dangerously terrible movies about rich people being pretentious and then suffering from the kind of lazy malaise that only rich and pretentious people will ever know. Plus, time travel! Just die already, Woody Allen. Your best days are long gone. Stop suckering in morons with your elitist bullshit.

1 comment:

Matt Steele said...

I'd say Tom McCarthy's greatest contribution lies in the smarmy plagiarist he played on Season 5 of The Wire. "It was in my notes, Gus!"