Thursday, December 29, 2011

Film Shuffle's Top 20 of 2011

It's that time of year again! Time for me to play make-believe movie critic and do my "best of" list. I made it 20 this year instead of 10, because ... well, I just felt like it. Everybody who does a list like this has their own rules, and I have mine. Most notably I try to only count movies officially released in 2011, which excludes films from 2010 that I didn't get around to seeing until early 2011. There are a few big releases I've yet to see - namely War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Pariah and We Bought a Zoo. I may end up seeing one or more of those before the year is out, but I don't trust my opinion on any movie for a list like this when I've had less than a week to marinate my thoughts.

ANYWAY, here goes. Several of these are favorites on other lists, but hopefully there will be some surprises.

"My boy Treelore always said we gonna have a writer in the family one day. I guess it's gonna be me."

20. The Help (Dir. Tate Taylor)
There are two ways to misread this movie, in my opinion. One is to treat it like it's trying to be the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and by extension finding it offensively wanting in that goal. The second is to treat it like it *is* the definitive work on racism and the true experience of black maids in white households, and to love it for being a great success at that. It's a movie, y'all. An entertaining, often moving flick about women, friendship, and taking a stand. And no matter what you think of the material, it's hard to argue that the cast - especially Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain - make it sing despite its weaknesses. (Original review)

"I'll be the candle."

19. Arthur Christmas (Dir. Sarah Smith, Barry Cook)
This is a new Christmas classic, as far as I'm concerned. Right up there with Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, and Black Christmas. (Okay, your mileage may vary on the classic-ness of that last one, but probably because you haven't yet discovered it.) It may be the time of year in which I'm writing this prejudicing me in this film's favor, but then again maybe not. Because it's not just that it's thoroughly drenched in the Christmas spirit or that it makes me want to believe in Santa again that makes it special to me. It's clever and witty in a way that reminds me of Aardman's other brilliant movies. (Original review)

"Elizabeth is dying. Wait ... f*** you! And she's dying."

18. The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne)
I'm probably kinder to and fonder of this film than I ought to be, but I think it's quite a good picture of the complexity of grief and family. Better certainly than most death-in-the-family melodramas that we've all seen and which tend to elicit a sort of Pavlovian response of emotion. This boasts at least two of the best performances of the year, by George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, and for Clooney's part it's a career best. (Original review)

"No man can walk out of his own story."

17. Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski)
The animated western is a seriously underexplored genre. This is some of the most original and beautiful animation i've ever seen and a love song to both "spaghetti westerns" and their more romantic John-Ford-y predecessors. As much as I love Pixar, I'm glad to see other studios get a chance to shine in this medium. This is not a cute and fluffy animated film for kids. There's a sass to this movie that's irresistible and very entertaining to watch. (Original review)

"I don't know anything. I'm just a rock in the sky"

16. The Future (Dir. Miranda July)
Miranda July sees the world in a very unique way, and I envy her for it. I'm also grateful that she sometimes lets me see the world through her filter by way of her filmmaking. A couple adopting a cat might seem like a simple thing that could not sustain a movie, but July turns it into a Great Life Crisis for her characters as this commitment forces them to realize the limits of their own lives. Yet these limits are as nothing compared with those of the cat they hope to adopt, and one of the (many) strokes of genius in this movie is that the cat itself is given a voice to tell us about its anxieties, making it as complex and neurotic a character as any human in the film. (Original review)

"With pleasure."

15. The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
I find it hilarious that people are so surprised that a black and white silent movie can be engaging and entertaining. Of course you can tell a great story with no dialogue! Hollywood was doing it for years before Al Jolson turned the sound on. What I find more impressive about the movie is the modern sensibilities it brings to it. The dream sequence - one of the only scenes in the movie that has sound - is one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year. This is an old story, using old tools, but made with modern eyes and hands. And the modern is what makes it remarkable. (Original review)

"That's what everybody's been saying: You'll feel better and don't worry and this is all fine and it's not."

14. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine)
This movie is a rare tear-jerker that earns its tears. It's not precious about the main character's cancer, nor does it trick you into feeling something because you think you're supposed to. We've seen loads of people in movies fighting cancer, but this movie makes the bold decision (though calling it bold is sad, however true it is) to show real people dealing with it. Not just the patients themselves but the people around them. Some handle it well, others spectacularly not, but that's life. And it's refreshing to see those rare occasions when actors and storytellers manage to conjure that elusive life and capture it on film. (Original review)

"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around - this is where they are made."

13. Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
I've said a lot about the first hour of this film, which I still find incredibly flat, especially when it's in the same movie as the amazing second half. But that second half can't be ignored. As much a tribute to film preservation as to film history, Hugo is something I love more than pretty much anything else - a surprise. Once Hugo and Isabelle finally uncover the mystery of the automaton, the movie (like many of the characters in it) finally finds its purpose. And it's a beauty to behold. The recreation of iconic images of early cinema are less realistic and more evocative of the dreams that must have inspired them. As Norma Desmond would sing in the Sunset Boulevard musical, "we taught the world new ways to dream." And nowhere is that clearer or more beautifully portrayed than in the last act of this movie. (Original review)

"Stop talking about production value, the Air Force is going to kill us!"

12. Super 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams)
With all the attention Hugo has gotten for its moviemaking nostalgia, I'm surprised a lot of people seem to have forgotten this gem from J.J. Abrams which riffs most obviously on Spielberg's E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind but also Alien and The Thing. A group of kids are making a monster movie and a real monster movie basically shows up and starts happening to them. Great, natural performances from the young actors, which is rare. Also rare - a Fanning that doesn't make me roll my eyes. (Original review)

"You are a piece of work."

11. Young Adult (Dir. Jason Reitman)
As prickly and unpleasant as Juno was cuddly and offbeat, this was a bold move for director Jason Reitman's and screenwriter Diablo Cody's reunion. This movie is more a character sketch than a story, and the journey of the main character is an unusual one, leaving her worse off in the end than she was in the beginning (despite passing through a clear "epiphany" moment, which is turned completely inside out). This is a bitch of a movie. Uncomfortable, but undeniably brilliant.

"I've always wanted to do that spell!"

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Dir. David Yates)
More than providing a fitting conclusion to a series of films that - along with the books that inspired them - have consumed the last decade of my life. More than the thrill of seeing people I'd watched since they were practically babies grow into actual actors. The accomplishment that means the most to me is that when it was all over I wasn't sad. I wasn't thinking about the end of an era and what on earth I'd do with my life now. I was thinking about how proud I was. Proud that these films were passing into the halls of cinema history alongside other beloved epic fantasy adventures, in whose company (to paraphrase Theoden in Return of the King) it need not be ashamed. (Original review)

"At first, I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad handwritten book."

9. Bridesmaids (Dir. Paul Feig)
Just like it's a mistake to expect The Help to be the kitchen sink of movies about racism, it's a mistake to expect Bridesmaids to be the definitive work on women. What this movie is is a refreshing kick in the panties to the traditional "chick flick" and (in a smaller way) a portrait of how intimidating and soul-crushing a wedding can be when you're not the one getting married (and ESPECIALLY if you've NEVER been the one getting married). I found this movie surprisingly relatable, and I hope it's the beginning of more good and entertaining stories about us wimmins. Not holding my breath, but it's certainly a start. (Original review)

"I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead."

8. Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Dir. Eli Craig)
On the surface, this is a spoof, plain and simple. But a closer look shows a surprisingly clever script with more genre subversions than seems possible in one movie. The idea of plopping kids in the woods and using their prejudices about rural people against them is a genius one, and the fact that the movie is able to sustain the joke for as long as it does is rather amazing. Honestly one of the best times I had in a movie theater this year. (Original review)

"There's worse things out there to be scared of than us tonight. Trust it."

7. Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
I can't remember the last time I was as scared by a movie monster as I was by the creatures in this movie. GAH! But this is not just a monster movie. This movie is like if Aliens married the fourth season of The Wire. There's some great characterization and social commentary here, but not so much of the latter that the movie drowns in its own self-importance. The wonderful cast of kids is led by the amazing John Boyega, who I'm certain we'll see much more of in the future. And boo to the AMPAS for passing over the awesome score, which gives the film its urban pulse. Awesome, awesome movie. (Original review)

"I shall accomplish your task with magnificence."

6. 13 Assassins (Dir. Takashi Miike)
Samurai stories hold a real fascination for me. The idea that men train for years and years in preparation for battles that will almost surely end their lives. The idea that in so many of these stories, these warriors volunteer for causes that have little to do with them personally but are a stand against a dishonor that is too great to be borne. That this was made by Takashi Miike, who has given us some of the most twisted films to come out of Japan (Fudoh, I'm looking at you), is kind of flabbergasting to me. But, as I said above, I do so love a surprise. The final battle is one of the most breathtaking action sequences in any movie this year. In any year, really.

"Your hard drive is filthy."

5. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen)
We have such a tendency as human beings to judge people who are different from us, who are dealing with demons that we will hopefully never have to face. What makes Shame such an incredible film is not its bold, unflinching portrayal of its protagonist's depravity, but its sympathy for his suffering (even if it's suffering that we can't quite understand). Michael Fassbender gives easily the most astonishing and painful - not to mention far and away the best, male or female - performance this year. An excellent, excruciating movie that I'm not sure I could watch a second time. (Original review)

"Why would I not understand the context? I am the context."

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
A horror movie along the lines of The Bad Seed or The Good Son, this movie presents a fascinating relationship between a bad kid and a bad parent. This inevitably reminds many viewers of the events at Columbine in 1999, but what's at play here is more than a reference. Tilda Swinton plays a mother at three different stages - in the beginning and formative years of her son's life, in the weeks/months leading up to the horrible crime he commits, and some time after his crime as she deals with the aftermath, at least some of which is almost certainly in her own mind. I went in thinking this would be an "eat your spinach, it's good for you" indie film, but I was gobsmacked at how compelling it is, especially the astonishing performance of Tilda Swinton.

"It was a good time back then."
"It was a war, Connie."

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
Chilly, methodical, and precise. That describes most of the characters in this film, but it describes the film itself as well. The plot is so tightly wound that you're afraid to blink in case you miss something, and the cast is a who's who of Britain's greatest (male) acting talent. On top of that, the nostalgia of the period setting lends itself uncommonly well to the pervasive sense of an era coming to an end. A near perfect suspense thriller.

"I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night."

2. Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
This movie contains my absolute favorite moment in any film this year, and I think it's at least partially responsible for a film project I'm undertaking in the coming year. I've admired Woody Allen's films for many years, but this is the first film of his I've loved. It's pure magic, and a dream - everything I ask from a movie. C'est magnifique. (Original review)

"And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero."

1. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
I wish I'd posted this list sooner, because this film has cropped up at the top of a lot of lists lately, and now I look like a bandwagoneer. But in all honesty, this was my number one as soon as I saw it in September. This is a movie that seems to be directly lifted from my subconscious - like the team from Inception went into my brain and downloaded everything I thought was awesome and made a movie about it. Every single thing about this movie - the music (THE MUSIC!), the meticulously framed shots, the badass yet surprisingly likable villain, the Gosling, the Gosling's satin jacket - seems like it is just for me. Like Midnight in Paris, this movie shaped my movie watching in general. And I can't remember the last time (maybe never) that I thought of Los Angeles as a cool and romantic place. Guys, this movie. THIS MOVIE. *swoons* (Original review)

Alright, 2012 - whatcha got?

Saturday, December 3, 2011


First things first - this movie is most certainly not for everybody. The litmus test comes in the first few minutes of the film, when a naked Michael Fassbender gets out of bed and walks alarmingly close to the camera. If this is going to make you giggle or storm out of the theater in outrage, you're probably not going to get anything out of the rest of the movie. For the rest of you, if you see this in a theater, I have one bit of advice - don't sit too close. Just saying.

If you know anything about this movie, you probably know that it's rated NC-17 - a rating that has sadly become synonymous with "porn" for a lot of movie theaters and the fear of which has led a lot of quality storytelling for adults get chopped up and artistically compromised. (I use the word "adult" here in the literal sense, not in the "adult entertainment" sense.) Kudos to Fox Searchlight for putting it out there as an NC-17. Not that they really had a choice once they decided to distribute it, because director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with that other Steve McQueen) was adamant about not cutting one frame.

I have a fairly particular stance on sex in movies. While exploitation has its place, sex scenes in mainstream movies have to have a purpose other than telling the audience "these characters are having sex." There are too many other ways to meaningfully convey that to relegate onscreen lovemaking to a mere story beat. (See the beginning of Barefoot in the Park, for an example of the right way to do it.) Screen sex, in my opinion, should always be about revealing something about the characters involved. It's the most intimate and revealing situation that characters can be in, and can be a brilliant way to unveil or underline something about someone. There is a great deal of sex going on in Shame, but none of it is expository.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a New Yorker who works in an office doing we-don't-know-or-care-what. Things come easy to Brandon and he doesn't have to try very hard, either in his job or with women. He's single, good looking, financially well off, and living in both an era and a city where everything is available to him whenever he wants it. This might sound like paradise, but we quickly see that for Brandon it's a punishment. He is a sex addict, if such a thing does exist (psychiatrists are divided on it). Sex is not fun for Brandon; it is a compulsion that is slowly consuming his life. If that sounds ridiculous, it wouldn't after you'd seen Michael Fassbender in this film. There's a moment near the end, when his character is climaxing, that is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen happen on an actor's face. The camera closes in on his face, and he looks for all the world like he is dying in the utmost agony. I've never seen anything like that.

Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to his apartment to crash for a few days that turns into an indefinite amount of time. There is something in both hers and Brandon's past that haunts them, but the movie doesn't clarify it beyond a few subtle hints. But her visit brings the burden of his addiction into sharp relief. He can't bring a woman home while she's there and there are certain things he doesn't like having in the apartment in case she snoops around and finds them. After spending so much time immersed his own needs, it's suddenly quite inconvenient to have someone else to look out for and he can't really take it. Add to that the fact that his addiction is starting to affect his professional life as well, and Brandon is very near a breaking point.

The women (and in one case, man) Brandon screws are nameless (well, one of them has a name, but you've forgotten it as soon as she says it). They're things, just as Brandon's own body is a thing, that he uses and (more accurately) abuses. The one woman he tries to have a normal relationship with he can't bring himself to have sex with, and when I say "normal relationship" I'm being charitable, because they go on exactly one dinner date before he tries to seduce her the next day. When Brandon finally breaks, it's quite hard to watch, but the rather perfect end of the film gives you the hope that he's turned a corner and is on his way to getting better.

Challenging subject matter aside, this is a FANTASTICALLY made film - beautifully shot, with lots of great little touches, particularly in the sound mixing. Performances are phenomenal, especially Michael Fassbender, and I'm so glad that he's being seriously talked about (and promoted by the studio) as a player in the Best Actor race (which seemed impossible a couple of months ago, given how explicit the films is). Carey Mulligan is at her best here, as far as I'm concerned, and those of you who were wondering if she could sing well enough to pull off the still-in-development My Fair Lady remake - yes, yes she can. I want a recording of her rendition of "Start Spreadin' the News" right the heck now.

I still have yet to see the other McQueen-Fassbender collaboration, Hunger, but have new incentive to do so. Again, this film is not for everyone, but it is an astounding piece of work.

The Artist

I think movie nostalgia must be the unofficial theme of the fall movie season. There are more than a few movies that pay homage to different classic eras of filmmaking, but two of them are among the critical darlings and the frontrunners of the Oscar race. One I've already written about is Hugo, which is a love letter to very early (turn-of-the-century) films. The other is The Artist, which deals with the time when silent films were being phased out and "talkies" were taking over.

The Artist reminds me a great deal of Singin' In the Rain, though it is fundamentally a very different film. The main character is George Valentin, a silent film superstar. An innocent chance encounter between George and an ambitious ingenue, Peppy Miller, is captured by photographers and the girl gets a sudden leg up in the acting world. The film charts a very basic rise-and-fall story. As George fades into obscurity along with the art form that made him famous, Peppy rises to great heights as a talking film star. The story itself is nothing earth-shattering; what makes this film sing (there's a joke there, and if you don't get it, you will in a second) is the way it's told.

It's a silent movie.

Not only is it silent (well, mostly silent), it's black and white and it's French-made, with a French actor you've probably never heard of in the lead and only a handful of actors you might know (all of whom are in small roles). And it's wonderful.

It's a bit frothy, which has made some critics look down their noses at it, but it's a brilliant piece of storytelling and manages to do it with virtually no sound. It might look on the surface like an imitation of a silent movie - just going through the motions and lazily employing the old techniques - but that's a short-sighted criticism, in my opinion. The cinematography is quite obviously not an imitation of the silent style, nor is the music or (again, despite surface appearances) the acting. The movie actually looks, photography wise, like a Fred & Ginger musical. The sets and costumes are all Old Hollywood glamour. And, in the same way that Tropic Thunder is a riff on war movies and Young Frankenstein is a riff on classic monster movies, The Artist is a riff on silent movies that actually makes genuine and serious use of the conventions of those movies, while giving the current film its own unique twist.

George lives in a world that is dying and making way for a new world, and with that comes a certain anxiety. Nowhere is that fear more vividly or brilliantly expressed than in an exceedingly clever dream sequence that I don't dare spoil here, mostly because I can't possibly convey it properly, which is one of only a couple of instances where the film breaks its own sound rule. It's genius. One of my favorite scenes in a movie this year.

Berenice Bejo is very charming as the up-and-coming actress Peppy, and the character has some unexpected layers that make her both endearing and almost a villain at times. The real star of the show here, though, is Jean Dujardin, who plays George. There's something very Chaplin-esque about how he plays this character. There's a moment in the film where he's at the breakfast table and I almost expected him to break into Dance of the Dinner Rolls. There's such a profound sadness to his character, too - again, like Chaplin's tramp character - that's heartbreaking to watch, even while you're laughing.

Okay, I lied. The REAL star of the show is Uggy the dog, George's canine sidekick. This dog is capable of skills and thought processes that aren't supposed to be in an animal's repertoire. I haven't seen Tintin yet, but I hear Snowy is a similar kind of character. Uggy does a trick where he sits up on his hind legs, George pretends to shoot him with an imaginary pistol, and he keels over like he's really been shot. And there's a scene with him and a policeman that you will not believe.

Stanley Kubrick once said that "silent films got a lot more right than talkies." The culture of filmmaking may have moved on, but there's still a lot to learn from those early days (or maybe we just need to be reminded once in a while). It's been said that you can tell if you're watching a great movie if you can turn the sound off and still be able to tell what's happening, and The Artist is a twenty-first century testament to that. If you've never been interested in silent movies before, I would highly recommend this film (and Hugo, for that matter) as an entry point.

My Week With Marilyn

Time to catch up with reviews again! Still writing about stuff I saw last week, but hopefully I'll get fully caught up tonight or tomorrow.

I've been a fan of Michelle Williams for a while now, going back to her Dawson's Creek days and even her role as a young Natasha Henstridge in Species (don't you dare laugh!). She seems to have been the one in the Dawson's crew to come out with the most significant career, not perhaps money wise but certainly in terms of artistic merit.

My Week With Marilyn is a fairly mediocre film - a pretty middle-of-the-road period piece about a classic Hollywood era, in a year with so many nostalgia-fest movies about classic Hollywood eras. What elevates it and makes it worth watching is Williams' performance as Marilyn Monroe. She doesn't look like Marilyn at all, but her embodiment of Marilyn as a character is so uncanny that it's almost like she's channeling.

The film takes place during the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl in England. Marilyn had just married Arthur Miller and was probably the most famous woman in the world. The film was being directed by Laurence Olivier, who was also co-starring. And a young man named Colin Clarke had moved to London to get a job in movies and found himself as Olivier's 3rd Assistant Director (a.k.a. gopher). Though the movie covers the length of the movie shoot, it centers on around nine days in which Colin is drawn close to Monroe (while her husband is away), only to be devoured and spit back out again. That sounds harsher than it is, but it's something Marilyn can't really help. Because Marilyn at this point in her life is much bigger than just a flesh-and-blood woman; she's a brand. I love the little moment where she's about to greet a crowd of fans and whispers to Colin "Shall I be her?" as if she's going to play a character, because in a lot of ways Marilyn was a character she was playing.

The thing that struck me most is how the mood of a room changed - helped along by cinematic elements, of course - whenever Marilyn entered the room. The first time she steps on the set in costume is just magic. Everyone, especially Olivier, is upset that she's two hours late, but in that moment no one seems to care. The entire shoot is fraught with drama, with Monroe frequently late, occasionally absent and, on most days when she showed up to work, difficult. But when Olivier and others watch the dailies, it's undeniable that she has a gift for acting for the camera that no one else has, even thespian icons like Olivier and Sybil Thorndike. You can see, and Williams conveys it perfectly, what a burden all that attention is, though. And having the particular kind of notoriety that she did was rather self-defeating. The moment in the film that I probably felt the most for her is when Olivier tells her to not think about the acting so much and simply do what she does ("Just be sexy!").

One of the elements that amused me was the obvious battle between the classic style of acting and method acting. Marilyn's acting teacher had to be on set with her every day and was with her most of the time off set, too. We're told that Olivier hates "method" and has hated it since his then wife, Vivien Leigh, worked with Elia Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire. That triggered something in my memory about some comments that Kazan apparently made at Leigh's expense during the making of that film, as if method was the only way to act and everything else was just silly. *rolls eyes*

The movie is fairly forgettable, but there are several good performances. Aside from Williams, Kenneth Branagh is quite good (and serendipitously cast) as Olivier. Julia Ormond was actually one of my favorites, playing the small role of Vivien Leigh. And I was pleasantly surprised by Emma Watson, who has another small role that is thankfully easily distinguishable from the brainy witch she is best known for playing.

One last thing. While the movie itself is not extraordinary, it is nonetheless a good example of How To Do a Biopic. The problem with most of these biographical movies is that they're kind of sampler platters of a person's life. This is the trap that J. Edgar and (as I understand, as I've yet to see it) The Iron Lady fall into. "Life stories" don't make good movies, because people's lives are not actually stories. They are a series of stories, many of which overlap one another. The best way to tell a story of someone's life is to not try and tell *the* story of their life. As lukewarm as I am on My Week With Marilyn in general, it at least gets that part right.

Bottom line: This is good, the performances are mostly great, but you can probably wait until DVD to see it. Unless, like me, you're obsessed with seeing all the Oscar contenders before nominations come around. :P