Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best Films of 2011 (and 5 Worst)


Was 2011 the year 'movies' broke... in half? And hydra-like those halves doubled back to wormy life? More and more media downloading and portable small screens means more viewing options and reasons to 'wait for the video' and--with their bedbugs, $$$ ticket prices, contagion-level coughing, popcorn that leaves you nauseous for days, uneven heating and cooling systems, out-of-focus projection, flashing peripheral blue texting lights all around you, and uncouth nostril breathers / talkers--theater experiences are no longer as peerless as far as 'the best way' to see a film, especially with anamorphic blu-ray and giant TVs so beautiful and rich with deep blacks you can't even see where the screen begins if you're watching it in the dark. American Horror Story is the best thing out there but does it really count on a movie blog? I've been covering the show the last few weeks because, simply put, it makes me tremble with excitement the way few other movies did this year. Where was the 2011 BLACK SWAN, ENTER THE VOID or THERE WILL BE BLOOD?

I am nonplussed by the sight of bourgeois darlings like THE ARTIST and HUGO which might be well made and 'adorable' but are so enraptured by the magic of the movies they're like narcissists staring at their celluloid profile in the mirror for anywhere between ninety minutes to three hours. Personally, when I see an image of some kid in a theater, the light from the projector reflecting on his or her rapt face, I wince. Of course we believe the filmmaker is in love with the movies, we don't need to see him depict himself seeing us seeing him through the eyes of a child. It's the most un-ironic of self-congratulating self-reflexivity to see 'us' through a filmmaker's eyes (unless we're crying like Anna Karina in MY LIFE TO LIVE or about to be killed like that cute chick in MESSIAH OF EVIL). A true movie fan doesn't even like to exist at the movies, we go to escape the mundane image of ourselves. We want to just vanish into the screen, leaving only a popcorn bag and a scarf behind.


Now that 2012 is on us, and the cinema is attended only by people hoping to encourage us to keep going back by their example, our cinema's great depressives turn to issues of endurance and deliverance, the approach of Planet X and alien invasions, and/or presenting clear examples of why humanity deserves what's coming, with not one but four films dealing with the apocalypse of human memory - CONTAGION, ANOTHER EARTH, MELANCHOLIA, TREE OF LIFE, and five cathartic uprisings or eve-of-destruction skaters: SUPER 8, X-MEN FIRST CLASS, BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In the latter, my #1 favorite of the year, Andy Serkis establishes himself as the premiere Spartacus for our rat-in-a-cage era. Meanwhile footage of the great Angela Davis rises from the basements of Swedish TV studio's to show how no amount of brutal miscarriage of justice and imprisonment can keep a noble spirit down, while MELANCHOLIA's Justine (Kirsten Dunst) shows how even a beyond-expensive wedding can be the most brutalizing of incarcerations.

Many films I've written about or seen in 2011 deal with a new idea of the father, replacing the mom as the go-to single parent: the sheriff single dads in TWILIGHT and SUPER 8, the scientist single dads in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and X-MEN FIRST CLASS, and don't forget Odin, Nick Fury, Nick Ray, the fathers of modern psychology Jung and Freud. 2011 was the year we said goodbye to all of them, and I said good-bye to mine as well. RIP, James Kuersten --you were some kind of a man, and a great 70s dad...

BEST

1. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
dir. Rupert Wyatt

He moved us as Gollum, carried us as Kong, and now as Caesar, the super-intelligent ape survivor of inhuman experiments and concentration camp conditions, Andy Serkis blows our minds right out of the movies.  Serkis is the true Peter Lorre of his time, maybe even the James Dean, certainly with his level of sensitivity and Brando's savagery. Moving from the loving care of scientist Franco to the harsh ape penitentiary run by Brian Cox, Serkis' Caesar expresses all the silent screams, the terror and abandonment of the first day of school, that scar even the oldest and freest of adults. In short, RISE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES is the best movie about man's horrific inhumanity to the creatures in his care since OVER THE EDGE! It's a film I feel will resonate one day as the turning point-- not just for ape evolution but for CGI 'humanity.'

Also, from a fringe science standpoint, this movie explains human evolution and its little alien-enhanced 'spark' of language/intellect better than any bible or textbook. It's no accident 2011 was also the year ISLAND OF LOST SOULS finally came out on DVD. We're meant to cheer our own demise in RISE, the way we cheered the demise of Dr. Moreau in SOULS, and I say that's fine. Let it go, man, let it go like Justine lets it go in MELANCHOLIA. The apes know what their doin'. We'll get it right next time! Some day, yeah, when the world is much solar flare brighter and we learn that no amount of scientific progress justifies torturing even the smallest of creatures.

2.  MELANCHOLIA
dir. Lars Von Trier

"Von Trier dives into the abyss that Terence Malick only wades in to his knees in, drops a dress and calls it art in the other 'big' film of 2011, TREE OF LIFE.  Both link 2001-style classical music-scored space visions with inter-personal relationships and the forthcoming apocalypse but MELANCHOLIA's tale of a woman's depression coming to life in the form of first a wedding and then a world-destroying planet is the suicide note to TREE OF LIFE's faded funeral notice. TREE mourns my dead father but MELANCHOLIA comes for me, and the son of my unborn son, and the ground beneath our unborn feet..." (more)

3. TREE OF LIFE
dir. Terence Malick

My friend Max tried watching this and turned it off after 45 minutes, "life's too short," he said. And that kind of sums up the film's message, appeal and problems. How you react will depend a lot on your mindset and maybe the size of your TV. I saw it in 'enhanced' in the theater, after having just heard about my father's being at death's door, and so I cried a lot throughout and took comfort in its sense of eternity and fleeting memories and great 50s dad style patchwork stream of consciousness (my childhood occurred in the 70s, but close enough).

But when I wasn't crying, I was also smirking at the epiphany-ridden classical music score and the typically Malick use of poetic, whispered inner voiceovers that read like a mash-up of your grandma's poetry collection... (more)

4. THE BLACK POWER MIX-TAPE (1967-1975)
Music by Questlove

In the basement of a Swedish TV station it waited, until now... when America has enough distance to perhaps confront it all as almost as objectively as the Swedes could. The black leaders interviewed tell a rational, sane story and it's all scored by Questlove effortlessly evoking the soul and funk of the era and moving slowly into the alienation of crack and the urban drum and bass of the 90s. There's a lot of time spent with titans like Angela Davis, whose towering intellect and 'fro beg the question - when? When will they do an Angela Davis biopic? (And if they do it better star Angela Bassett and not frickin' Halle Berry).  More than anything, MIX-TAPE makes a fine addition to many of the other films on this list in exposing America's tendency to boast of its freedom even as it orders six new cages off Amazon. America, conscious of its freedom but unconsciously a callous self-righteous oppressor of African Americans, women animals, trees, sex, smokers, dancing, oceans, drug users, women, scientific facts, and the romantic yearnings of its own children.

5. SUPER 8 
dir. J.J. Abrams

I was expecting a STAND BY ME-meets-IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE style swamp of triteness and overbearing John Williams strings but the Spielberg-produced, JJ Abrams-directed SUPER 8 is surprisingly effective, especially if you were a kid making Aurora monster models, HO scale B-17s, and your own super 8mm science fiction films in the 70s-early 80s. Abrams keeps Spielberg edgy and Spielberg keeps Abrams human and all the cliches are gone: the fat kid (Riley Griffiths) doesn't have chocolate all over his mouth and is actually smart, ambitious, even Carl Denham enough to incorporate all the disasters going on around them into his film's mise en scene. The lead (an impressive youngster named Joel Lamb) doesn't stutter around the hot girl or let his dad bully him and he makes having lost his mom in an accident seem believable instead of convenient.

The alien is a pleasing if unoriginal composite of all the aliens ever created by either director but it's the 'first love' story aspect that sends SUPER 8 over the top into greatness: Dakota Fanning's sister Elle, with her ironed flat long blonde hair and too much make-up, has the sad thousand yard stare vibe of Veronica Lake in THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Dragged semi-unwillingly into the super 8mm  production as the hero's concerned bride, her rehearsal of a tearful farewell at the train station is so moving and strange it marks her as a star like the audition scene in MULHOLLAND DR. marked Naomi Watts or THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN marked Meryl Streep. Somehow, seeing a great actress get into character and seem to change before our eyes lets us truly appreciate the artistry and intensity necessary and we swoon. With her Trans-Am driving, possibly abusive shithead father guarding her like a certain kind of a hawk, Elle reminds me of a doomed poetic girl I loved when I was her age, but she slept with my Carl Denham-esque super 8 filmmaking partner instead. Elle brought back those memories to the point I began to feel quite haunted (see: a Girl Must Have her Ghost).  The score gets a little too John Williams-ish at the big climax, all but doing your agape jaw wonderment for you, but it's by Michael Giacchino, not Williams and is thus not near as overbearing and feeling your every emotion for you, and that in itself is some kind of trans-dimensional miracle.

6. THOR
dir. Kenneth Branagh

The older brother in cinema is a lost art as our boys are stuck at what Joe Campbell would call the beginning of the hero's journey - the process of moving from boys to men, seeking the wild man at the bottom of the soggy lake, etc. Never arriving at their goal, our heroes never reach the next phase, the next mythic journey, which is the older brother-- the third age of man, the lover, sighing like furnace, the rainbow bridge between childhood and adulthood, neither teen nor tween. In short, THOR's process is unique compared to the heroes journey as reflected in other Marvel comics in that he's a man - with a burly physique and regal walk and a self confidence many yards removed from the insecure Peter Parker or smug narcissist Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth resonates as a guy who looks like he might be fixing motorcycles while listening to Metallica one minute and ruling Asgard the next. And for that alone, the film is awesome. Kenneth Branagh, you are redeemed! Add Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings as two hot scientists (below) guarded only by the flimsiest of Wilkinsons, and lo! My heart is hammered!


7. SUBMARINE 
dir. Richard Ayoade

On one hand it's a little too self-aware and beholden to 60s New Wave as evinced in endless 'quote' shots referencing everything from Bergman's PERSONA to Truffaut, Rohmer, Godard, Mike Nichols, and modern classics like RUSHMORE --so much so that if you start checking off the references you quickly begin to wonder if any moment in the film is it's own. On the other hand, that's kind of what the film is about, that age where we try on personae one after the other, feeling our way into our adult via rummaging through the hand-me down shots and textures of older brother films, taking a smirk and a reaction shot here and a soundtrack cue there. It's like Warhol or SUPER 8 in that it becomes original through it's sheer unoriginality. An sooner or later some pisher's rummaging through your stuff. It's like spending the first half of your life trying to disappear in plain sight within layers of science fiction and cinema and longing for a girlfriend and the second half enduring the skeevy terror of actually getting a girlfriend, and watching her let her guard down and turn weak and emotional, which in turn becomes more terrifying than a dozen consecutive prison sentences, so the only thing to do is leave her... and then pine for her... like a dumbass.

8. IN THE CAVES OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS
dir. Werner Herzog

Mixing fourth wall breaking documentary analyses with his usual monologues about dreams, Herzog may be in danger of becoming his own cliche, but the key word is 'own.' If you didn't catch this in 3-D you can get the picture from the wide angle lenses that comb through the surrounding French countryside like it's the opening sequence of THE SHINING. The 30,000 year old cave art itself is mind-blowing: the animals are drawn so that they overlap and merge perfectly with the fissures and cracks of the cave walls and Herzog brings home the idea they were drawn to seem like the first movies, limbs and horns waving in the flickering shadows of primitive man's fires --and the result is a spookily contemporary. The first moving picture, recaptured in 3-D after a 30,000 year hiatus, this be the serious HUGO.

9. BRIDESMAIDS
dir. Paul Feig

"This earns huge props in its skewering of the rampant materialism and bourgeois oppression that's encouraged and indulged in the name of a 'magical wedding.' Props also come via the peerless improv naturalistic dialogue especially between SNL goddesses Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. It would make a great double bill with MELANCHOLIA! Even if her motives are self-centered and/or lifted from MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, it's damn heroic to see Wiig trash the bridal shower the way Anne Hathaway never could in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. "(more here)

10. RANGO
dir. Gore Verbinksi

Leonard Maltin gives this animated lizard tale a ** rating, citing the visuals as too dark and ugly. That's like bashing BLADERUNNER for being too rainy! (I think he gave it ** also). Apparently Lenny is prejudiced against reptiles like he is against women (BLACK SWAN also gets **) and moral ambiguity tied to shocking violence (TAXI DRIVER - **, the 1983 SCARFACE - *1/2), all of which is my way of saying RANGO is the s****t!  Like Gore Verbinksi's RING remake or his PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films, it's worth watching just for the art direction alone (the barroom with its deep black shadows and dusty card sharps particularly), and Depp's lead vocal characterization exposes the neurotic narcissist at his own inner mumbling monologue core, and that takes guts, as does the CHINATOWN framework. If this movie had a Pixar stamp on it, the critics like Lenny would all be gushing. 

WORST:

1. Worst example of doing too much with too little and simultaneously vice versa:
SUCKER PUNCH - the only redeeming feature of this film is that it makes the equally underfed 'hottie abuse victim hallucinating at understaffed mental hospital' John Carpenter film of the same themes, THE WARD, look awesome by comparison.

2. Worst film to see in a theater during flu season:
CONTAGION - As pleased as the film is with its all-star casualty list and clever 'the virus is the star' framing, it's still much ado about nothing - never bothering to answer the big question - is it really such a loss to lose 90 million people? Shouldn't our reckless population growth be allowed its own herd thinning almost as a built-in protector for humanity's ultimate survival on this over-crowded planet? Since the disease is the star, we really don't 'feel' these deaths, so there's a strange moral neutrality at work here; all Soderbergh is doing here besides showing off how clever he frames disparate threads is making you never want to spend two hours breathing the same air of a sniffling multiplex audience ever again. (more)

3. Most glaringly artsy mix of pretentiousness and naïveté:
TREE OF LIFE - Sure, it's also one of the best films of the year, but on a basic level it's still self-important pseudo-religious wankery and Terence Malick is still just a great cinematographer desperate to convince us that's enough to justify his godlike reputation but just can't stop with those damned shots of hands waving over rippling fields of wheat.

4. Most glaring example that Kevin Smith is not the Terry Southern of our time:
RED STATE.  
 
5. The film that killed my love for the 'Cute globe-hopping super assassin goes off grid' genre  - HANNAH
 After SALT and all the other poptop Bournes of late, one would expect the fairy tale symbol-drenched HANNAH to bring something new to the table, anything to warrant its existence, and aside from some odd casting choices--Cate Blanchett with an unconvincing southern twang, Erik Bana channeling Jason Patric, some good wintry atmosphere and a winning performance by Soairse Ronan--there's nothing but ultra cliche'd chases and battles, cross-Europe flight or fight to keep your 'riveted.' Some really lame plotting and strange rationale makes the whole film seem to evaporate only a few paces behind itself, so by the time you reach the end, there's nothing but the white snow of the opening credits to remember, and the distinct feeling someone just sold you an empty box.


8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this!

    I STILL have only seen "Melancholia" of the ones you mention.

    Might see "Tree of Life" though.

    The "Planet of the Apes" movie... Hmm. I don't know. I still need some kind of extra push.

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  2. Sorry about your father man, TREE OF LIFE was probably the best movie to see after receiving news like that.

    I agree with many of your choices for best 2011, I've yet to see Rango, Melancholia and Herzog's new documentaries.

    But I absolutely loved TREE OF LIFE, it was a film that spoke to me without many words...the images were truly something. And HANNAH I liked for its style, not the most original film ever, true, but it had style and The Chemical Bros. two pluses in my book.

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  3. I remember when THE THIN RED LINE came out and my grandfather just died and going to see that film multiple times in theaters in a strange way helped me get through that dark period of my life. Maybe Malick missed his calling as a councelor?

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  5. Hanna and Contagion are in your bottom 5?! You gotta be kidding me...

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  6. tHANKS Katy -- push yourself on the apes, though a nice buzz and low expectations always helps.

    And JD and FC - yes, Malick is there when you really need him, when you're soul is ripped open and all snide defences down, but once they're built back up, man is he corny!

    I sure wish I was kidding, Nebular - the thing is, in the world of instant film access, I've finished watching very few bad films this year... just hit stop and moved on. Contagion I saw in the theater and it's the theatrical experience with all the coughing and paranoia, as well as the total unconsciousnessness of the subtext, I hated - the film was of course well made, as was HANNAH, with its bright cast and Chemical Brothers (as Film Con. points out), but that too had no subtext and wound up less than the sum of its parts. I'm sure my list would have that Adam Sandler in drag movie instead, had I deigned to see it. No longer being a paid second stringer film critic has its perks!

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  7. All pics are really awesome and also clarity of them are really good.

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  8. Very interesting list! Glad to see Rango and ROTPOTA on your lsit, but Hugo and The Artist were 2 great films.
    I am not a big fan of Tree of Life, But I gave it 7.5/10 for being a good film with great cinematography. It just seemed inchoerent and messy.

    Also, I really like you blog here! Very nice theme, may I ask were you got it?

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