Saturday, February 25, 2012

Best of 2011

Hello, all. Mike here with my list of Best films of 2011. Yeah, most people cough these things up back in December. Those people are paid to watch these movies, I'm not, so here we are. A lot less studio fare on my list than usual. I found that to get watch a quality film this year, the studio system wasn't succeeding as well as previous years. Lots more mining through indie and foreign fare for me than usual.

When it came time to put this list together, films 1-4 came very easily. The complications came from the order of 5-9, and what would be number 10. Now in the past, I've written that these lists are subject to change. I've made one such change with last year's list, placing Dogtooth #9 in my Top 10 of 2010, dropping Gas Land. Something tells me it might happen again with this list, but here's my top 10. But before we get to the list, here's what just missed the cut:

11) The Artist- I liked it and enjoyed it. But the best of 2011? Instant classic? C'mon people, see more silent films. Hell, see more films. Oh, and how do you like the picture of Jean Dujardin sleeping on Ryan Gosling? There's a whole website devoted to Photoshoped pix of Dujardin in all the strangest pop culture places. Here's the link:

12) Incendies- One of last year's Oscar nominees for Foreign Language film. Good drama, but some unconvincing old age make-up (though not on the horrible level of J. Edgar), and too much Greek tragedy aspects keep out of the Top 10 for me.

13) Tintin- Boy was this fun. Nice throwback to some Raiders of the Lost Ark-style action, but a little too lightweight to get on the list.

14) The Descendants- Other years, all this nice underplaying would make a top 10 easily. This is a film I might better appreciate once I'm in my 50s. But I'm not, and I wouldn't put above Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, Sideways or Election, so it's not making it on this list.

In terms of what I missed, I only feel bad about not getting to The Help, Warrior (had the chance but it felt like work, which is unfair to the film), A Better Life, Margaret (thanks for nothing Fox Searchlight for holding such a grudge against Kenneth Lonergan most of us may never see the film) and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact I wish I saw that recently, as opposed to We Need To Talk About Kevin. Not that, I'm trashing Talk About Kevin, it has two great performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. But when you watch a film like this and think "I wish I saw lighter instead, like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.", you know you're watching something tough.

I didn't get to Melancholia and Extremely Close either, but I don't feel bad about that. I've written before that I'm done with von Triers, and as for Extremely Close, you have to pay me to see it, not vice versa. Now here we go with the list:

10) HUGO- Second best film I've seen in 3-D in 2011. Great looking ,semi-idealized vision of Paris. Ok, that's not entirely accurate. Great looking vision of a child's view of a Paris. Semi-idealized, occasionally scarier looking than it would to an adult. Not sure what was physically built and what CGI at all times, and I don't care, I bought the entire look. Not really a children's film per se. But for mature kids 10 and up, not every film has to be a Transformers or Harry Potter or Star Wars pic. Mix it up a little. One part call for film preservation as well. The recreation of the making of Georges Melies films was one of the highlights; Martin Scorsese wants us both informed and in awe of the handmade process and we are.

This film would be higher but for two beefs on my part. One, the narrative moves a little glacially at times. At times, slower than the film at my number nine slot on the list, and that's slow. Yes, the idea in the film of it's not just the family you come from it's the family you form with your friends is familiar but well executed, but did it have to take forever to get there. A bigger problem was newcomer Asa Butterfield's performance in the title role. His scenes with fellow child actor Chloe Grace Moretz are all good. But scenes with him scared, and most of his close-ups.: not so good. Looking a little lost there a lot of the time. But wait, shouldn't he look that way based on his perils, and in what scenes? Sorry, go to a profession acting teacher for that. I'm not saying the kid is untalented or incapable of getting better. But I will say the kid is raw, unpolished, lost too many times in close-up from this perspective, and it's to this film's detriment. Moving on.

9) PINA- Finally, a Wim Wenders film I was looking forward to that didn't disappoint. Sorry Wings of Desire, I didn't mean you. Sorry The End of Violence, I meant your incoherent dumb ass. Anyway, this documentary on the work of the late choreographer Pina Bausch won't tell you anything about her life, except hint that maybe her work was her life and that her life didn't happen away from the stage and the rehearsal rooms. Maybe not, but like I said, this documentary isn't going there. But it will show what got Pina excited: dance and the stories you can tell. Love stories, despair, aging, that just scratches the surface.

Some of the dances are performed mostly by her former dancers and collaborators. They went into the project when she was alive. Pina died just before filming began, so the film changed from a bit of a wake, based on some of the dancers interviewed still in morning, into a celebration, mixing Super 8, 35mm film and 3/4" video footage of Pina rehearsing or performing, with her dancers performing her work in front of Wender's cameras. And not just performing on a bare stage, but stages with dirt, or chairs, or rock with water coming down, or thrown around by other dancers. And the dancing doesn't go on just on a stage or performance space. The cameras and the dancers go outside, onto an elevated train, above and below said train, in an industrial park, by a mine. All with stories told through dance that would fit in with say, a Brecht piece, Or Beckett, or in the world of The Artist.

All enhanced with the use of 3-D. Shapes, the use of perspective, all a visual treat. Since most of you reading this isn't likely to get the chance to see it in 3-D, an appreciation for dance will be needed, even in 2-D. But a love of Fantasia will help even more. Seriously, since this isn't a straightforward documentary, Disney's Fantasia is the closest comparison I give as to what you can expect from Pina.

8) TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY- This might be a Cliff Notes version of the John le Carré novel, especially when compared to the 1970's Alec Guinness version. But it's so damn hard to pull a spy thriller; think of all the spy films you really like that don't have James Bond in them. Small list, isn't it. Well this Tinker Tailor joins them. Yes, this film actually thinks the audience is filled with adults and treats them as such. All those with emotional ADD or need things dumbed down for them need not apply.

All praise to director Tomas Alfredson, screenwriters Steven Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor, and that cast, oh that cast. Too bad we'll never know what John Hurt would be like in the role of George Smiley. But considering we get a great one in Gary Oldman, as well as Hurt as Control who almost reeks of tobacco, even if this film wasn't shot in Smell-O-Rama. There were some actual Oscar Prognosticators who felt Oldman would lose out on a Best Actor nomination to Leonardo DiCaprio for the disappointing J. Edgar. Yes, Leo put an almost unrelenting amount of energy and effort into his work, but anyone with more than a little knowledge of acting and with over a 100 IQ could see the seemingly minimal effort done by Oldman here. And I say seemingly; Smiley the great poker player who keeps almost everything in check. The picture of restraint when just a little loss of control could have catastrophic results. Bring on the two potential sequels if Oldman returns as Smiley and if the quality standards remain high.

7) DRIVE- A cool modern noir, that combines the best of Michael Mann's Thief, Walter Hill's The Driver, the Steve McQueen persona, stirs with a generous amount of sharp dialogue and a good cast, and lets the tension and blood flow nicely. Ok, so Ron Pearlman makes a lot out of his seemingly underwritten role, as does Carey Mulligan, who appeared to be lit in a constant halo and dressed in colors to highlight this. The connection between Gosling and Mulligan is nice, the overly chaste love story, not great. And if it is true that Drive is actually an allegory for the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood executives, sorry, fail. It doesn't play well; my allegory stuff regarding Meek's Cutoff holds up more.

Not the first film to show "the dark underbelly of Los Angeles", but it's about the execution of the familiar. Director Nicolas Winding Refn executes well, a major improvement over his last film, Valhalla Rising. And as for this Ryan Gosling guy? I don't think there's a role who couldn't pull off out there? Could he pull off Voldermort without make-up? Probably. Could he play say, Jane Fonda's role in a remake of 9 to 5, complete with wig and vintage wardrobe? Easily, I say. Very good indeed in Drive.

6) MEEK'S CUTOFF- The Western's not dead, folks. It can still be used effectively. It was effective earlier in 2011 with the fun and decent Rango, and the same goes for Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. Also the best of Michelle Williams' two 2011 releases. I enjoyed My Week with Marilyn, and I understand going for Oscar gold with Marilyn as opposed to Meek's. Marilyn is good, but it's an above average episode of Masterpiece Contemporary. The depiction of the young man near the center of the story, as a naive but darling young angel, reeks of bullshit to me, but I'm digressing . . .

Set in 1845, a group of family settlers are lost while being lead by a loud guide who may or may not where he's going. The first ten or so minutes may be slow for many, and I wouldn't attack someone who feels that way, especially if they see the film on a typical TV screen or smaller. But it's important to set up the initial difficulties, the difficulty of the terrain, and how easy lives, possessions and equipment can be lost. After weeks of being lost, with the men unsure of whether to keep following the guide or not and the women's opinions going ignored, a new potentially dangerous element comes into their lives: a lone Indian. A non-white man who may or may not know the terrain, who may or may not help them. Do they follow this non-white man over their loudmouth guide? Do the settlers kill one of them? Do they kill them both?

All that may not be enough, but when you put what's going on in the film in the context of political America of the past ten or so years, then Meek's Cutoff takes on new dimensions. Imagine America, in the form of three families, being led by a likable Texan, played by Bruce Greenwood in pleasant scenery chewing mode. The journey is far more difficult than the Texan has led the party to believe. The Texan, who we'll make George W. here, appears far better at making himself sound good than in leading the party to the Promised Land. All of a sudden, they run into an Indian, and let's make Obama the Indian here. Eventually, the Indian sees symbols, and starts travelling in a direction different than what the Texan has been advocating. The Texan wants his polar opposite dead. Two of the couples represent opposite extremes; their fears and/or hysteria and/or anger toward the unknown, their own perilous situation, and toward the Indian who is a different skin color, not of the same religion and doesn't speak English. Now where is the Indian going? Is he leading himself to a better place and encouraging the others to follow? Is he even interpreting the symbols or directions properly? Is he even going somewhere at all, or is the Indian merely on some sort of walkabout? It's up to the third couple, the Center of the party or country if you will, that Williams' character is a part of, to try to figure out and try to force the rest of the party to follow. Whether they like it or not.

Now when you place all this allegory in, or rather when writer/director Reichardt places all this allegory in, then Meek's Cutoff really makes an impact. Throw in the idea that it may fall on Ms. Williams' character to decide the group's fate; someone without the right to vote in an era when socially she should barely be seen and not heard from. Throw that into the mix, and Meek's Cutoff becomes one seriously impressive little film.

P.S. The photo of the settler costumes from Meek's Cutoff here is mine. Taken in the Film Forum. The costume on the left is Zoe Kazan's, the one on the right is Michelle Williams's.

5) SHAME- This very adult film is a rough ride. It doesn't appear that the terrific Michael Fassbender's character is just a mere sex addict. There appear to be flashes of OCD to him in terms of hoarding all manners of porn in his work drive and in his apartment, body issues, and the need to have things just so, and more than a few hints of being abused by at least one parent. In the film's early section, as we get to know the character (sex with hookers, 1 night stands, the need to masturbate at work at about the same time each day), I was beginning to dread sitting through Shame. "Oh great, several long days and nights of a man who constantly needs the sexual release but can't feel any emotion or intimacy in any of the acts, what did I get myself into?" is what I felt.

It all changed once Carey Mulligan comes into the film. A game changer, both in terms of Mulligan's career and for Shame itself. Now we meet his sister, who's the polar opposite of the brother with whom she might have had some sort of incestuous relationship with. She's walking around ready to give affection and intimacy to anyone who glances her way. As long as you don't mind the mood swings that come along with it. Never knew Mulligan could sing, and I never imagined the song New York New York" could be performed as a borderline suicide note, but damn she pulls it off.

Don't look for deep interpretations or self-anaylisis of the onscreen behaviors. Also don't expect to have every answer of both characters' past filled in nice and neat. You get the bear bones of what you need so that the film maintains forward momentum. Not a pleasant trip and not one I necessarily want to repeat, but an interesting one.

4) MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE- I'm a sucker for the kind of suspense film that Hitchcock made. I'm also a sucker for the kind of suspense thriller Hitch might have at least considered making if he was alive today. That's why in 2003 I rated Swimming Pool higher than others I know, and I wrote this when I put Tell No One on my Best of 2008 list. I'm glad I got to see an American film join these similarly-veined French films in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Though I feel this is more akin to a Christopher Nolan type re-interpreting a Hitchcock-style script. That's how good I thought Sean Durkin's feature length directing/ writing debut is. The Manson-like cult that Elizabeth Olsen's character escapes from, feels familiar in terms of charismatic leader (wonderfully creepy John Hawkes), sway and sexual manipulation of his group. What felt unfamiliar in a fascinating way, was how easy it was to take innocent cult members and make them co-conspirators in recruitment, theft and possibly murder. Escaping brings her back to what's left of her family: a sister who seemed to get out of a seemingly hellish family life, and left her younger sibling to cope alone. A sister who, alongside her husband, doesn't understand who this damaged creature, is not equipped to stem the damage, and might have reason to be afraid. I'm sorry more people weren't willing to give this a chance, and I really look forward to Elizabeth Olsen's performances, to see where she goes from here. Maybe not the upcoming Silent House, but other projects.

3) PROJECT NIM- As much as I've liked documentaries such as Bill Cunningham: New York, The Interrupters, and Herzog's two 2011 documentaries, I recommend Pina over all of them. But the 2011 documentary I like most however is Project Nim, from the director of Man On Wire. Would make an interesting double feature with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Now the makers of Rise didn't base their story on Nim, though the confusion would be understandable, since the story is similar to poor Nim's. Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia University sets about with a study to raise a chimpanzee as a human and teach him to communicate in complete sentences, back in 1973. So you rip Nim away from his mother when he's a baby, and place him with a human family, a wife, husband and some little kids. The only qualification the family seems to have is that the wife used to sleep with Professor Terrace, which in the early 70s seems to be qualifications enough. Never mind that there are little kids around a growing ever strong chimp, and no one involved has any experience with chimps, let the study begin! After awhile, to "help" speed up Nim's development, Nim is moved to a new home, where a different assistant Professor Terrace is sleeping with, and caretakers that have trouble handling the adult Nim.

The study becomes popular and we see coverage of it in magazines and on the Today show. Now if you've ever had a pet, then you know they can communicate with you. They may not talk to you or sign to you in complete sentences, but they find ways to communicate. Now thanks to photos and Super 8 movies of the study, we see Nim has learned to express him, alternating sign language with gestures, grunts and so forth. But the combination of not signing in complete sentences, difficulty in managing Nim's aggressiveness and increasingly more violent attacks, and a loss of funding, stripped Nim of yet another family. Nim would spend years as part of a subject of medical experiments and in a hellhole of a ranch in isolation, before other humans found another place to make Nim's last years peaceful. But most of the humans involved in Nim's life, most of whom are interviewed in the film, make one wish that scientist-types take an oath of some sort to do no harm, because Nim definitely suffered. Some of the people express guilt and regret in their interviews while others, especially Professor Terrace, not so much. Powerful film-making.

2) A SEPARATION- The best constructed screenplay in terms of story and dialogue combination, one that seems destined to lose unfortunately to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. When you're working on a low budget and living in a country where a government department can shut you down (like the Iranian Ministry of Culture did on this film's shoot), I guess extra emphasis needs to place on screenplay construction. And when I bring up the dialogue, I'm not talking about great poetry. Realistic dialogue from people in varying rapidly deteriorating situations.

Felt almost like a thriller, similar to Incendies. No bad guys here. One middle-class couple separates, but there's no divorce on the eve of their finally receiving an exit visa. The husband refuses to leave his Alzheimer's-riddled father behind. Their pre-teen daughter, who refuses to see her parent's break-up as inevitable, so she stays with her father. The wife won't leave her child behind, so she moves out and moves back home. The husband is forced to hire someone to take part time care of his dad; a devout woman with a husband threatened with jail over his debts, and a little daughter always in tow. She's more cunning than bright, though how cunning and bright is open to speculation. But she's not supposed to work in a single man's home, and we're not sure if she fears Judgement from the afterlife, her husband or her clerics. She's also pregnant and understandably stressed. When things go wrong, it puts them all in the hands of a government bureaucracy that leaves them all powerless, with narrow definitions of felonies and life-altering punishments.

I literally sat through the first half in knots, and stayed entranced throughout. Now if you're the type who hasn't gotten over the idea of subtitled films by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, well that's a shame but I probably don't give your idea of movies any credence. So I'll just say see this, and move on to the only film I liked more than A Separation . . .

1) THE TREE OF LIFE- Probably the most divisive film on this list. You're either into this or you're not, and you'd probably have to be a big fan of at least two of Terrence Malick's prior films to get into The Tree of Life. Not calling this flawless, mind you. So few films are. Malick's film is unforgiving for those with short attention spans or mental ADD. I didn't embrace the modern day scenes with Sean Penn, but was surprised about how much I embraced the desert and what it lead to. I was dreading some kind of Gerry redux (in reference to the Gus Van Sant film), but so glad it didn't go in that direction. If Malick chose to just keep the film in Texas circa 1950s and 60s, it would have been just fine. Even though he did good work in Moneyball, this here might be Brad Pitt's career performance to date. Changing his ways to give his sons tough love to survive in a world that is crushing his own dreams, only to wonder if this is the right thing to do at all. Heartbreaking, complex, and human. Matched by Jessica Chastain as almost the embodiment of unconditional love, who may not be strong enough to discipline her sons effectively or protect them from her husband's aggression; again complex and human. Good job from Malick with regards to working with the non-professional boys who comprise the rest of the family, especially Hunter McCracken as the son who may go one way or another.

But it was after the screening that the following thoughts came to mind: What if you had questions for God? What if the answer is silence? Is that silence because you are mortal, & you're asking your questions to a deity that doesn't exist? Or are you asking to a deity that focuses on large concepts, and doesn't deal with mortal concepts? A deitiy that doesn't and maybe won't conform to the varying mortal interpretations that surround us? But what if you had at least some of the answers already & you didn't realize it? Maybe you had them from the way you were raised, from the way you were spoken to by your parents, your loved ones, or the way you spoke to them? All that and you never knew . . . Maybe the needs, ideas, power of choice and/or simple inexperience interfere with the mortal from understanding? Is it possible to gain understanding later in life? And if what I just described doesn't match what you go through or went through, does that matter?

There are more questions, but I have no answers, & neither does The Tree of Life. But these questions and more come up, and I recommend that you see it & decide for yourself. I understand that it might be tough to sit through on the big screen or on a large HD screen, and much tougher if you see on a small non-HD screen or if you tend to avoid art house films like they have the plague. But this film will be brought up again over the next few months, & I suspect for far longer. Like many things, you have to decide for yourself.

With all that said, no, I'm not sure what dinosaur life (a technological improvement over Jurassic Park) has to do with Brad Pitt trying to raise a family in 1950s Texas. Like other parts of the film, you're on your own. But I hope you give this a chance, and have a lot patience going in.

No comments: