Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best Films of 2011

I now present my annual best films list for the previous year. It took this long because I didn't want to compile a list until I had seen more of the movies. Again, this only covers movies I actually saw, so there could be great movies out there that I missed. Other good but flawed movies nearly made this list, but I wanted to keep it to ten. Sorry Martha Marcy May Marlene.

10. Drive -- There are certain movies that go on to define a season or a year regardless of their quality. Both Bridesmaids and The Help fit into this category. And even though it almost made this list, Bridesmaids had a fatal flaw that made me exclude it: the movie hates its protagonist. For some reason, the message seems to be that everything is her fault, though it clearly is not, and that she just has to get over herself. That, and the fact that the movie really didn't need it's much-talked-about bathroom gross-out scene. But the other movie that got everyone talking this summer was Drive, with Ryan Gosling. It's a strange movie with an odd energy to it that is both engrossing and off-putting. Gosling is good in it, but he's been good in a lot of films over the past ten years. In some ways, this movies a kind of modern Taxi Driver. The premise is that Gosling is a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights driving get-away for criminals. Like certain other films, the movie is schizophrenic; the second half becomes a very violent maelstrom, while the first half is more slow and brooding. If you're put off by gore, do not be fooled by the first half! This movie gets bloody really fast, and doesn't let up. But I was still taken with some of the performances. It was great seeing Bryan Cranston in a supporting role, playing someone both different form and similar to his Breaking Bad persona Walter White. But the real stand-out here is Albert Brooks who gets to put aside comedy to play a very menacing character. The fact that he was denied a supporting actor nomination is shameful. Drive is not as good as many people extolled it to be, but it's engaging for what it is and impossible to ignore.

9. The Muppets -- We have to appreciate that Jason Segal was able to bring the Muppets back to the big screen. But let's be clear, this is not as good as the best of the classic Muppet films. Nothing can replace the work of Jim Henson and Frank Oz on films like The Great Muppet Caper. But it's a lot of fun, and helps wash away the taste of disappointment left by Muppets From Space. There are some very funny moments and some great references to previous Muppet stuff. This is the only Muppet movie to really reference the Muppet Show, and makes it the center of the plot. Unfortunately, the references sometimes hurt the movie, and it sometimes starts feeling less like a great Muppet movie and more like very good fan fiction. The story of Segal and Amy Adams' characters is sidelined midway for the "let's reunite the gang" story. The movie isn't always sure what plot to follow. But Adams is charming as she always is and has a lovely solo moment in a restaurant (there are so many good musical moments its a shame the Academy only recognized one song). She even pays homage to Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Since Frank Oz has retired, it takes a little getting used to the new voicing for Piggy and Fozzie (though it's a little better than it has been in recent specials and appearances). I came out of the movie charmed, but missing just a little something, which is why it's so low on the list. And yet, the sheer energy of the movie, the love for what the characters used to be, the cameos from Mickey Rooney and others I won't spoil, make it a movie well worth seeing, hopefully signaling even better things to come from the Muppets now that they are back.

8. The Descendants -- George Clooney puts in another great performance in this movie, playing one of the remaining descendants of Hawaiian royalty who are trying to decide whether or not to sell their remaining plot of untouched Hawaiian real estate. Meanwhile, his wife is in the hospital following a water skiing accident, and he's just now learning she had an affair. He's torn between taking care of his daughters and his love for his dying wife, and facing this revelation of her infidelity. He's in an emotionally impossible situation. In moments like this, the film really works. Both his daughters are good characters, and ably played. Unfortunately, the movie pays attention to the younger one at the start of the movie, but then she drifts into the background for precocious moments of comic relief once her older sister returns. It bothers me that the movie is unable to really deal with both girls at once. This could have been handled had it been pointed out that Clooney's character can't handle both at once, making this deliberate. But it doesn't feel that way. Also, there's a little too much voice over, and the ultimate resolution of the Hawaiian land plot could be seen a mile away. These facts keep me from thinking of it as a truly great movie, but it is a very good one. I don't want to make it sound like it's a bad movie. It's not.

7. War Horse -- Here's one that many critics wrote off as being too old-fashioned, and I don't understand why that is a bad thing. It's a classic Hollywood Technicolor epic. It's shot to have that feel of older movies, and I love it for that. People always complain that "they don't make movies like this anymore", but when movies like that get made, they are written off. While this movie lacks the novelty of the stage play with it's puppet horse, it does a lot with the actual horse, really following him as a character. It's a great "boy and his horse" movie, like The Black Stallion. Yes, it gets a little bit long as it heads into the war sequences, but it's just a solid feel-good movie. If you love horses, I highly recommend it. There's no profanity (save one "bastard" in the first scene), and only a fair amount of war violence no worse than Gone With the Wind.

6. Red State -- This movie totally took me by surprise. When I first read that Kevin Smith was writing a horror movie with a religious subject, I wasn't sure what to think. But it ends up being a fascinating look at extremism. The movie is about a church like the Westboro Baptist Church only cranked up even crazier. These guys don't just show up at funerals with gay-bashing signs; they have an arsenal of guns in their church, and they lure perverts in with sting operations so they can execute them publicly in church for their sins. There's a real frightening charisma on display. There are echos of real-life cult incidents. The young leads in the movie start off like typical Kevin Smith stoner characters just looking to score. What happens to them is one of the most disturbing shifts since Janet Leigh was slashed in Psycho. In fact, the movie owes a lot structurally to Psycho, right up to the final expository wrap-up. It's Smith's most well-directed movie, as he's finally grasped the knack of the moving camera. He seems to have studied a lot of modern horror in the way he shoots it. Michael Parks is impossible to ignore (kind of like if Robert Duvall in The Apostle were a serial killer). It's certainly not a movie for all tastes, nor is it flawless. There's a moment or two that feel like characters say things just to be darkly humorous or satirical, but that feel out of place in context. At one point a character is told to behave "like a good Christian" and it just feels trite. But I was effected by the movie, and I have to commend Smith for that.

5. Moneyball -- A better movie than I expected, exploring the use of Bill James' ideas about statistics in baseball and their real-life application with the Oakland A's in the early 2000s. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, his best in awhile, and Jonah Hill is just as good, still managing to be funny without breaking character. Sometimes understanding the exact details of what's going on may be hard for people who don't follow baseball, but the movie succeeds in making the feeling of it all make sense despite this. I loved the use of actual game footage and the way the sound would sometimes drop out. I also thought it was a nice way to give a little of the other side of the Red Sox' eventual World Series win. It's weird to see this movie open with the A's losing Johnny Damon to Boston. The movie makes a good case that their win would never have happened without these events playing out first. A must-see for baseball fans and anyone who likes unconventional thinkers.

4. Midnight in Paris -- Woody Allen does it again! He shoots Paris the way he used to shoot New York, even opening the movie with a montage of still shots that echo the opening of Manhattan. The movie is a gentle fantasy following a modern writer who finds himself in 1920s Paris hobnobbing with famous writers and artists at midnight each night. It's a light-hearted meditation on the deceptiveness of nostalgia, and it's also quite funny at times. Many of the jokes will play better for hyper-literate people who will get all the references. I particularly like the scenes with the surrealists; Adrien Brody is a hoot as Salvador Dali. I love the moment when Gil tries to suggest to Luis Bunuel the plot for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

3. The Artist -- Oh look, a silent movie! I find it remarkable that the same critics who fault War Horse for being old-fashioned are praising this movie which does the same thing in a different era. The movie is set in the late 1920s and early 1930s at the end of the silent movie era, so the movie is (almost) entirely done as a silent film. It handles this quite accurately in the way it is scored, shot and edited. There's even a moment of surprise that derives solely from a title screen. The basic plot is of a great silent film star who doesn't want to go along with the sound revolution. It's sort of a mix of Singin' in the Rain and some of the reality of Charlie Chaplin, who continued making silent movies until 1940 (well, Modern Times had sync sound, but no dialogue). It's a very cute movie, but there's not a whole lot of story here or much that we haven't seen before. I liked it, though I found I didn't love it. May have worked better as a 40-minute short subject than a full feature, but the cast does a good job with the material and for the most part they remain true to the conceit which, though a little precious, does what it sets out to do. It's really a metaphor for George refusing to be heard in the movies. One of the first lines in the movie is "Speak!" This is of course the point of the whole concept and I at least can't fault the movie for committing to it.

2. Hugo -- Martin Scorsese's 3D family film is very well-made and a love letter to film preservation in some ways. It encompasses many aspects from a number of the Best Picture nominees: it has Paris in the '20s like Midnight in Paris, the making of silent film like The Artist, and a number of plot similarities to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If it get's the younger generations learning more about the early days of cinema, special effects, and the genius of George Melies, then I'm glad it was made. There is one seemingly giant plot hole regarding the automaton that leads Hugo to the revelations he seeks, and that does bother me. I don't know if these are flaws in the novel or unique to the movie. However, it remains a well-constructed ode to the silent era of film and to neglected artists just trying to get by in the world. The 3D is well-done. I only wish that Scorsese hadn't stereo-converted the old Melies footage at the end; I thought that was unnecessary and to me doesn't sit right with the movie's message of film preservation; that's alteration, and bothers me. Fun fact: the movie has the standard "the story and characters in this movie are fictitious" disclaimer at the end of the credits, despite the fact that George Melies was a real person and those were all real films of his!

1. Take Shelter -- Just like the past two years, the best movie of the year is the one that the Academy completely ignored. Take Shelter is a movie I wanted to see as soon as I saw the trailer, but wasn't sure what to expect. I have to say no movie has moved me more this year. It's got a little bit of Noah's ark, a little bit of Field of Dreams. The basic story is that Curtis, a working class guy in Ohio, starts having disturbing dreams of a coming catastrophic storm so he works hard to build out the tornado shelter in his yard. However, this action puts strains on his job, his relationships with friends and family, and may be due to mental illness; he has a family history of schizophrenia. I loved the detail of his having a deaf daughter. I think Jessica Chastain does great work here, and should have been nominated for this film and not The Help. But the real centerpiece here is Michael Shannon's amazing performance. The best actor category is weird this year, and Shannon's absence is both conspicuous and horrible. The movie maintains a reality, even amid it's more poetic, fanciful elements. It had only a very small theatrical release, but has just been issued on DVD. I encourage everyone to seek it out. I don't want to say much more about it for fear of spoiling it, but you have to see this movie.

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