Monday, January 23, 2012
The Movie Blog Saga: Best of 2011 - Part 1
Here it is. My top 15 films of the year, pure and true. Let's not waste too much time in preamble. We have much to cover. On we go.
15. WIN WIN
Directed By Thomas McCarthy
This is the story of how a depressed Attorney through shady deals meets a lonely and troubled kid who’s shaky past surprisingly helps him well in the violent art of wrestling. Paul Giamatti is the attorney who also moonlights as a coach for the local high school’s loser wrestling team. Newcomer Alex Shaffer is the boy whom, despite all the hurt that has come from his mother, can’t help but dream of what a normal life with her would be like. Amy Ryan is Giamatti’s perpetually inconvenienced wife who doesn’t want to get in the middle of all this trouble, but refuses to ignore the needs of a helpless kid. Indie film gets a lot of flack for its pretentious views and holier than thou attitude. But I feel it’s when filmmakers like Thomas McCarthy take on the most common themes that we can relate to the most in a real and honest way that Indie is at it’s best. It’s allowed to breathe and move at it’s own pace. Avoiding the studio logic that would dull the finer points that a story like this is trying to make. These kinds of movies didn’t stop getting made, like some cinematic chicken littles would have you believe. It’s just become a bit harder to find them. If anything, the acting ensemble at work here is one of the best of the year and should be recognized as such. While I liked THE HELP a great deal, I feel that WIN WIN should be sweeping up the acting categories as well. But award glory rarely favors the subtler performances.
Directed By Martin Scorsese
Kevin Smith’s RED STATE has been getting a lot of attention for being such a 180 degree change from his usual fare. But I think the biggest and most emotionally overwhelming turn comes in Martin Scorsese’s HUGO. There’s no question that Scorsese has mastered storytelling and visual panache. But here he’s taken the tired and often reviled gimmick of 3D and mastered that as well. Better than Cameron or Zemeckis or any of those tech mongers could hope to do. The first shot of the movie had me going “Oh, God” as I was swept into a nearly dialogue free sequence that introduces the characters and settings and themes in a breathtaking and exciting way. It doesn’t stop there. The entire movie was expertly crafted for the format. Add that to great performances by Hit Girl and new kid legend Asa Butterfield. A brand new Sacha Baron Coen, providing a comic character unlike anything he’s done with surprisingly little “derp” humor. And the personal touch of Scorsese that ties it all together with a staging of the earliest of cinema. A personal story for all ages with amazing imagery and great performances, all done in a way a director of nearly 40 years has never shown us before. How the hell are you supposed to market that? With a big clock of course.
Directed By Steve McQueen
One of the opening shots of this movie is of Michael Fassbender’s swinging cock as he goes to the bathroom to take a piss. This ain’t your grandpa’s sex addiction drama, kids. Yes, that is Magneto and yes before the movie is over, someone may get a shot in the mouth. Right away, this movie shows you a slow burn montage of hardcore sex acts. Some with hookers, some with strangers, some with himself, sometimes in his house, sometimes in an alley and sometimes at work. Who wouldn’t be content with such a routine? Well, his sister played by Carey Mulligan (who is introduced via bush) who shares the same kind of easy virtue but a different kind of emotional carelessness as he, enters the fray. She shows up out of nowhere to stay with him for a few days. He’s exposed to a few intimate moments, which includes sexual and emotional. One of which being a very heart wrenching and extended version of New York, New York which she sings in a local nightspot in the city in question. Her presence causes a shift in his ways and he struggles to discover what intimacy really entails. It’s a really rough journey that gets pretty god damn seedy at times. But that’s part of the charm of a movie like this. It gets rough when it gets rough. It doesn’t hold back like any other movie of its kind would, be it studio or indie. It has an NC-17 for the endless gyrations but the movie also has such an emotional stranglehold on the conceptions of one of the most complicated subjects I can think of. The truth of human connection. It’s painful and harsh and I would stress the concept of “Adult Themes” if it didn’t lump people like my mother and uncles into it. On an unrelated note, it’s movies like this that really make me scratch my head when I think “Is there any way that a modern average adult can watch this movie and not completely vomit over it?”. The answer would probably depress me, and I’m guessing the audience for such a film is slim. But hey, it works for me.
12. THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER
Directed By David Robert Mitchell
The Richard Linklater style is alive and well in this film, in many ways. At the same time, this movie feels like SLACKER, DAZED & CONFUSED, BEFORE SUNRISE and SUBURBIA. Shockingly enough, the filmmaker probably doesn’t even realize it. He’s not aping the styles or the dialogue but the aimless drifting between characters and subjects and themes with the same sense of humor. It falls within one of my favorite genres of movie, the “One Night Only”. A film that takes place over a single night where the rules of the characters lives are suspended and life altering epiphanies occur. It’s the last weekend of summer in an everytown in a year that could be any year. Hormones are raging and everybody wants to get laid. This isn’t the high- energy kind of American Pie adventure, though. Everybody is muted and scared shitless, just like in real life. Hearts are put on the line and little adults are forged in the ancient art of trial by fire. I guess this movie could be defined under that made up class of “mumblecore”. It’s almost a documentary in how fluid and genuine the characters deal with the situations and everything they say and all. The teen “One Night Only” movie will always have a special place in my heart and this one comes in a unique little package of subdued hopeless romance. A review on IndieWire made some comparisons with last year’s “EASY A”. That movie feels like it was written by someone that wanted to capture literal EXACT moments in their favorite 80’s movies. This movie feels like it captured the spirit, and feels all the more genuine for it. There’s a lot of good acting talent to pool from in this movie. Why doesn’t Sony cast everyone in this as “Spider-Man”? I would totally see that.
Directed By David Schwimmer
Here’s another surprising movie that takes a scenario better suited for Lifetime movies and really makes some bold moves with it. And all from the mind of David Schwimmer! It’s about a young girl who falls for a guy through online chats. At first he presents himself as a similar age as her. The responsible dad played by Clive “I will NOT be James Bond” Owen is keeping vigilant. But the truth starts breaking down and eventually she meets up with a man in his 30’s that manipulates her into sex and then takes off forever. On the surface is a story that you would have seen on any news magazine like program. Teen girl lured by online predator. But the movie decides to explore other parts of the story. The girl is still hung up on her attacker who has cut all contact with her now that the police are looking for him. Her father throws himself into the search and tries to fill in the cracks that someone used to enter his daughter’s life. But she doesn’t understand what happened to her and continues to be infatuated while growing a consistent resentment for her father. It’s a can of worms that is gut wrenching and hard to watch but the cast is stellar and Ross from FRIENDS is proving to be a really decent talent behind the camera. He directed a comedy with Simon Pegg a few years ago, but he seems to nail drama much better. This pearl clutching salacious tale quickly transcends its pulpy wrapper and becomes a story about a family going through a horrible moral dilemma. The final scene is altogether truthful and satisfying and cements the characters as being living, breathing human beings. Again, another movie that will probably be an uncomfortable watch to screen at family Christmas dinner, but really well done.
Directed By Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh is one of those indie talents that can ride the wave between small budget experimental film to big budget studio movie. He’s even become popular enough to attract big names and big talents to star in both kinds. In this one, he takes the disaster movie model from the 70’s and plugs it into his own style. CONTAGION is about a super virus that is spreading quickly from many points of the globe. We follow the stories of the government agencies trying to find a cure while stopping the spread, to the families that are affected by widespread death, to the media’s part in hurting or helping the people of the world’s preparedness. The movie itself is constructed in a very panic inducing way. A way that makes you think twice about how you interact with the world and how vulnerable you can be in your everyday routine. It’s true horror. At least the closest thing to horror that Soderbergh will ever attempt. The virus doesn’t turn you into a zombie. There are no aliens invading. You just get it and you die. Confusion turns into hopelessness which turns into desperation in a very convincing manner in this movie. And the scariest way you can present a horror story is by displaying just how easily it can happen to you. In fact, a lot of people were afraid to see it because of how germ phobic they are. That’s kind of cooler than being afraid to see a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or exorcism movie. Not everyone believes in a ghost but everyone does believe in a cold.
9. BEING ELMO
Directed By Constance Marks & Philip Shane
The true spirit of the Muppets and the real passing of the torch occurs in this movie. A rather touching documentary chronicling the life of Kevin Clash, voice and puppeteer of mega Sesame Street star, Elmo. What I was expecting was a story about how someone deals with being the man behind such a popular children’s character but what I got was much more. That story is there, but his humble origins are what were truly fascinating. Clash grew up idolizing Jim Henson and his Muppets and starting from a very young age, started building his own puppets and performing his own characters. We get to see how a truly nerdy hobby and passion got him to where he felt he belonged, rubbing elbows with the original Muppet crews and designers and eventually meeting his hero, Jim Henson. And not just meeting with him, but working and collaborating with him at the height of his creative output. We then get into the huge phenomenon that was Elmo and what it’s like now to be one of the head Muppet guys in charge of Sesame and one of the last remaining bits of the Henson crew. I liked Jason Segel’s THE MUPPETS just fine, and this movie kind of mirrors that story in reality. I wish this kind of movie could get a normal theatrical run because there’s no reason why the people that enjoyed THE MUPPETS wouldn’t enjoy this even more.
Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn
Every year a movie comes out that becomes the “You either loved it or hated it” point of contention at parties and drink shin digs and hug fests. This year, that movie was DRIVE. Marketed as a FAST AND THE FURIOUS type of heist thriller, most audiences were disappointed when that sat back and were instead subjected to ONE OF THE COOLEST MOVIES EVER MADE. Right away the sweeping shots of a lit up Los Angeles lure you in and the heart pounding opening scene draws you further. Just when you least suspect it, right when you’re trying to catch your breath, Ryan Gosling looks directly into the camera and says, “Derick, this one is for you.” And one of the best opening credit sequences anyone would ever hope to make finally hooks your stupid drooling mouth and pulls you up to the surface for scaling. That music. Those visuals. That font. Mwah! We have successfully harnessed the power of 80’s cool and plugged it into our world. And we didn’t need to make one Super Mario reference to do it. The character earns his theme in mere minutes and the movie already takes a victory lap. Now, this was one of the most annoying movies to watch in theaters and I did it several times. There was always some impatient Hamburger Jones that tried to scream at the movie and make everyone laugh. I think it’s all the sugar and calories in that movie theater food that makes people so hyped up at the movies. Just shut up and listen. But that’s a big criticism I heard of the movie, that it was slow and blank. I have to agree that the story is fairly basic and the kind of pace the movie takes is highly irregular for it’s genre. But the style had me riveted the entire time. It blended wonderfully with this new wave 80’s synth pop rock soundtrack, which I’ve listened to endlessly. And then there’s Ryan Gosling knocking it out of the park by creating a new cool pop culture icon. Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks are great in it. And my stars, this is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. After the first few viewings, you get rewarded with hidden stuff and I’ve read things like every time the shot gets super saturated and bright, we’re seeing what the Driver is seeing in his mind and not necessarily what’s actually happening in reality. Even down to it’s core, it’s appealing in that it’s every modern day superhero story of the brooding loner putting his neck in harm’s way to protect his beautiful love interest. The soundtrack seems to be cheering Goslingon as he gets into his scrimps and scrapes and even often providing commentary on his fate as he drives the lonely streets of the vast expansive valleys of Los Angeles. I don’t understand why anyone would deny themselves the wonder and beauty of this movie. In the immortal words of George Carlin, “These motherfuckers ain’t cool, they’re just fuckin’ chilly”.
Directed By Kenneth Branagh
Speaking of superheroes, I hear tell that our friend Thor started out as one in the pages of silver age Marvel comics. Thor is nobody’s favorite superhero. We know of him because they vaguely based the character on Nordic legend and because sometimes he is in the background when Spider-Man and Wolverine kill people. He talks funny and he has long hair like a girl. He lives in the sky. No one is responding to this. But Marvel Studios wanted to release several stand alone films to introduce the characters that would make up their big 2012 blockbuster, THE AVENGERS. Marvel Studios has done a great job at hiring excellent creative yet not entirely A-list talent. They got Jon Favareu for IRON MAN. Joe Johnston, the director of THE ROCKETEER for their similarly patriotic 1940’s hero, CAPTAIN AMERICA. Joss Whedon directed THE AVENGERS and the one and only Shane Black is making IRON MAN 3. For this, they got the veteran Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh to show us all what kind of a namby Thor was. But Namby he is not. Chris Hemsworth plays the God of Thunder through a classic dramatic arc like a pro. He broke our hearts in the first five minutes of 2009’s STAR TREK playing the ill fated captain of the SS Kelvin and father to James T. Kirk, but you can’t predict someone can carry a movie based on that, can you? Well, carry he does. In Thor’s magical realm of Asgard, he is to be named king by his retiring father, Odin. But trouble causes everyone’s plans to halt. We meet Thor as a big and boisterous asshole who’s pride and boner for horrific violence causes him to break a treaty with the frost giants and inadvertently start a war between the realms. For his childish actions, Odin banishes him to Midgard (Earth), stripped of his powers but also sent his mighty hammer, Mjolnir, with the caveat that only who is truly worthy can pick up the hammer and possess the power of Thor. So Thor arrives on Earth confused and ready to fight. He takes to our humanly ways with a precocious yet charming condescension. Meanwhile, his brother, Loki the God of Mischief is making strides to take over the throne of Asgard for himself. There is tons of dramatic dialogue and imagery that in the wrong hands can come off horribly, like that Baz Luhrman Romeo + Juliet movie. But Branagh’s direction adds a subtle gravitas that blends the movie’s tone with the actor’s performances to a pitch perfect degree. Add that Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleson (Loki) are pretty f’in amazing. There are two scenes in particular where their chemistry is dazzling as the effects are. When Loki briefly visits Earth and lies to Thor about their father dying and having to enforce that Thor can never ever return, you can see in Hemsworth’s face the tremendous guilt and disappointment in himself at his fate and then you want to marry him when he humbly accepts it. The second is towards the end where the two brothers face each other with their agendas out on front street. The dialogue is very heavy and Shakespearean but they carry it pretty well. Hemsworth takes Thor from being a horse’s ass to being a funny horse’s ass to losing everything he’s ever known to heroic sacrifice all the way to epic hero. A lot of wacky crap is thrown at him. He has to handle such a grand fantasy and then being a product of such in a real modern world. Even those settings by themselves weren’t as shocking a shift as I thought it would be. The filmmakers ease you into the fantastic and you are comforted to a point where you can just enjoy the ride. I didn’t expect to love another Marvel movie as much as IRON MAN but this comes very close. I really can’t wait to see how it comes together next summer.
6. THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM
Directed By Todd Rohal
You have never seen or heard of this film as it grossed a total of just over a thousand dollars in its theatrical release. A few years ago, Jody Hill’s OBSERVE & REPORT made my best list and if that movie were the hit it deserved to be, then THE CATECHISM CATACLYSM, which he produced, would be a huge holiday release. Part of the fun of this movie is that there is no way of telling what is going to happen next. I saw it as a double feature with PUNISHER: WAR ZONE at the New Beverly and had zero idea what this movie was. So I will be brief in explaining the plot. A priest who has idolized one of his sister’s old boyfriends for years, finally gets together with him for a special canoe trip. While getting the shits from too much appetizers he accidentally drops his bible in the toilet and fails to retrieve it. What happens after that is a series of bizarre and hellish situations that test the sanity of our poor hero. This movie is painfully funny and surprising with fair amounts of disturbing. It is unleashed comedy without mainstream rules to tame it that actually becomes an artistic oddity instead of a miserable failure. You need to just trust me on this and find it and then thank me for being your Sheppard.
5. LIKE CRAZY
Directed By Drake Doremus
One of the hardest things about growing up besides being ashamed to drink orange soda in public is realizing that just because you have found somebody you connect with and have much love for, that sometimes you aren’t meant to be together. In the unfortunately titled, LIKE CRAZY, director Drake Doremus gives us the love story of our time. Little Anton Yelchin meets little Felicity Jones and an instant attraction turns into whirlwind romance that results in the main characters saying “Fuck a visa” and spending an amazing summer in Los Angeles together. When British Felicity Jones goes back to her home country for a brief holiday, she’s flummoxed to learn that she can’t go back to America for breaking her Visa limits. What follows is a years long affair trying stay together despite their lives drifting them further apart. This among most movies on this list made me look forward to acting performances again in movies. The creative talent behind the film is what makes me look forward to things, but Felicity Jones broke my soul about five times during this movie and she has a new fan for life in this dude. The ending of the film may be one thing, but everyone I know that has seen the movie has a different take on it and that leads to exciting conversation where I yell and scream about how wrong they are. I feel like I’ve been through several relationships while watching this movie and since I feel like I have dated Felicity Jones through this movie I’m just going to say that I did.
4. THE DESCENDANTS
Directed By Alexander Payne
The director of ELECTION and SIDEWAYS is a genius. He surrounds his films with a melancholy realism in the midst of hyper kinetic situations. George Clooney plays a father that is absolutely fine with his stagnant relationships in his life. His wife suffers an accident that leaves her dangling by life’s fragile thread, and an ugly secret comes to light in the wake of her potential loss of life. He is now put in the position of telling everyone she loves of her situation while bitterly trudging through her sins, which he is unable to confront her about. Meanwhile, his family is about to sell one of the biggest pieces of undeveloped land in Hawaiian history for a potential fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Along with his practically estranged daughters, he does what is asked of him while finally facing who is family really is. It’s a touching story with career performances and a lot of great surprises set in a realistic vision of a perceived paradise. Payne pulls off tons of great characters by actors you never saw coming. His relaxed approach leaves breathing room to let the story and the feelings unfold at a perfect pace. I just wish he didn’t wait 7 years to do this.
3. EXPORTING RAYMOND
Directed By Phillip Rosenthal
The creator of the hit show EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND decided to go to Russia when they were remaking his show for Russian audiences and he documented the entire thing. He didn’t have to go. He is a millionaire many times over and can just enjoy his success by the pool of his Bel Air mansion but he went anyway. He clashed with the Russian comedic schools of thought and the way their entertainment industry worked with one ace up his sleeve. He believed that his work and the comedy had universal themes and he wasn’t going to mold it into something it wasn’t to kowtow to the trends of the country. Well, his artistic integrity succeeds in a blinding ray of optimism and warmth. The world is threaded together just a little bit closer by the foibles of a bickering family. It really did my heart good to see someone stand up for his or her art because they believe it was the right thing to do. Also, Phil Rosenthal wins the George Hardy from BEST WORST MOVIE award for being the most likable person ever in a documentary feature.
2. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Directed By Rupert Wyatt
Fox ruins franchises and prequels suck. By this arithmetic, the second rebooting of a franchise created in the 1960’s seems like the potential for this to be pretty shitty is high. But RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES creates the best tension of the year with one of my favorite characters of the year. A medically enhanced ape baby named Ceaser is raised to be a super smart charm factory and proves that tests for a new drug to cure Alzheimer’s are positive. As Ceaser gets older, he realizes he does not fit into his world. He is not a pet. He is not a son. What is he? Well, Ceaser’s teen like frustrations lead to a violent outburst when one of his family is attacked on the street and he is sent to an Ape sanctuary that is pretty much Ape Jail complete with rape. At any moment, you think Ceaser is going to break under all the pressure surrounding him and his hyper awareness. But he only rises to each and every challenge with a sharp focus. Ceaser’s destiny unfolds with every riveting and nail-biting scene. Even after all that has come from liberating his fellow monkey, the more obvious outcome becomes a pessimistic afterthought. A lot of people feel that this was a great set up to a traditional PLANET OF THE APES story while ignoring that THIS was an amazing story in it’s own right. I think any building upon such an exciting tale would only disappoint. This was a fresh take on an old moldy series. I think Fox accidentally successfully rebooted something that they weren’t ready to continue.
1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Directed by Woody Allen
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS tackles the subject of nostalgia in a way that spoke to me unlike any of its kind before. It’s about a screenwriter played by Owen Wilson that tags along on his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her family on their trip to Paris. He winds up falling head over heels in love with the city. Most women might find this charming, but she finds it grating and immature. He’s working on a novel about a man that works in a Nostalgia Shoppee (two E’s!) and on a drunken walk through the streets manages to travel back in time to the roaring 1920’s. He meets his artistic heroes in F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Gertrude Stein. Ernest Hemingway. Salvador Dali. And a young female groupie that’s just along for the ride. They respond to him and his work in exactly the way he hoped they would. They accept him and understand him like no one from his time could. But he constantly gets spit back into the modern world. Eventually, Wilson learns that everyone has his or her own image of a glorified era. I too have rose-colored glasses that I look back onto the past on. And they are flip glasses like Dwayne Wayne in A DIFFERENT WORLD because that era for me is the 1980’s. It was greatest decade for entertainment in the history of anything. I only lived through a little over three years of it and even as a young boy, I would cling to my beloved 80’s icons for comfort. One image in particular is the Mann Huntington Oaks 6, my first movie theater. That’s where I have my first memories of life. Screaming in absolute terror, I ruined everyone’s matinee showing of the original Tim Burton BATMAN movie as the Batwing screamed through the Smylex poisoned sky in 70mm. Decked out in a little yellow fedora and electronic watch that could light up but not contact HQ, I watched Warren Beatty smash in so many heavily make up’d faces in DICK TRACY. From Gremlins to Ninja Turtles, my childhood solidified here as I developed artistic tastes that would forever stick with me. About a year ago, I visited the area where this theater was and it was now a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Standing there again brought upon intense feelings. I felt like I would do anything to see one last film in my own personal movie mecca. I was chasing that high I get when I remembered how amazing those movies were to me at first watch. But then I realized I was building on long faded memories. Glorifying what has been run through my mind over a million times and strengthened by years and years of believing in this idea that it would never be as good as those times and that I never fully appreciated what a dynamic streak of entertainment that was available to me in my youth. In reality, I barely remember those first moments and a lot of the love is fueled by continued years of enjoyment. It’s important to move forward to get the most out of life and much like last year’s #1 film, TOY STORY 3, it expounded the virtues of growing up. Bittersweet, but essential to a healthy existence.
Okay, that took a long time to get together. And there’s still some more attention I want to bring to some individual achievements from last year. But seeing as how the Oscar nominees are only a few hours away from being announced, I will touch upon them a little closer to that big night where we realize we’re letting dinosaurs tell us what to watch. To be concluded!