I'm glad that Danny already cleared the air about our respective agreements and disagreements about what was good and bad in 2011. Because I am speaking from the position of the critic who saw and enjoyed Zookeeper and was pulverized into apathy by the monotonous consistency of The Tree of Life (Pretentious? No. Boring? Oh yes.)
At the same time, this is the year I further cemented myself into the position of "talking animal and television adaptation" critic, so perhaps I've developed a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in the last 365 (give or take) days. But all I can do is watch the film, report how I felt and then analyze with whatever meager tools this life has provided me.
Which, considering I like a good Marxist / feminist reading, really should fly in the face of my liking of Zookeeper. But hey, you just can't keep that jolly ol' Kevin James down.
Onto the list, which I've organized like a fight a la WWE. Why? Because on my card one film is most definitely the "face" (or, for those not familiar with wrestling lingo, the good character) and the other the heel (read: bad character). I found films mining the same territory that did so in such a polarizing difference in quality that I had to match them up. Plus, we all know that wrestling is "fake" but the pain is very real.
So this list may mean about as much to you reading it as the average person feels about wrestling. But if you, like me, love a good inconsequential emotionally charged battle then it's time to relive the ladder matches of yore.
For those of you who would just like a quick and dirty numerical value for every movie I've seen for 2011, click here (because I'll be damned if I have to brink up anything about The Beaver amongst many other films that I actually remember). For the rest this is my Best and Worst of 2011 card and -just to get this out of the way- the best film of 2011 is Cold Weather. This is an objective fact, tested by scientists and confirmed via a DNA splice with Citizen Kane, the other objectively based best movie of all time.
Disagree? Then fists up ladies and gentlemen, time to rumble.
Both films are clearly important expressions about how each director views the world. The issue I have is that The Turin Horse is the artistic culmination of director Bela Tarr's work, and The Tree of Life feels like Terrence Malick finally got around to addressing his daddy issues.
I'm simplifying a bit for space, because the first forty minutes of The Tree of Life is spectacular, showing simultaneously how much and little personal issues matter in the long run, but then the film runs for another hour and a half hammering the same point home in the same hushed voiceovers. If you've seen Malick's other films (especially The Thin Red Line) then the style really isn't that experimental or boundary-pushing, just another logical extension of what he's done before and in a quickly grating fashion.
The Turin Horse, by that means, is brilliantly punishing. A continued denouncement of Hungarian treatment of government, the sanctity of life and now the simple drive to live. A full write-up is forthcoming as it appears The Turin Horse is likely to be Tarr's last film, but the unique subject matter and brutally beautiful presentation push it far beyond the coddling if still pleasant camerawork of The Tree of Life.
Any cineaste would do well to search out both films, but I much prefer the brutal reality of Turin to the visualized armchair psychology, science and religion of The Tree of Life.
Outside of the Spider-Man series, the Marvel assembly line has produced some disgustingly dull films. Thor, which Ryan enjoyed but I am perplexed about, and my own Like of Iron Man 2 where I still agree with what I wrote but feel much differently about. By comparison the DC Universe films have been getting stronger, from an underrated Superman Returns to the Batman Begins world to the also underrated Jonah Hex.
This is the first year Marvel has produced a winner heads over tails better than the DC counterpart. The Marvel films have been left without a clear director stamp of style, and Captain America is the first to bear the style of director Joe Johnston. It has the washed out look of old serials and a shiny eyed hero that makes me believe in the myth of the World War II hero all over again. It's not surprising given Johnston's past with the great The Rocketeer but it's eventual tie into the rest of the Avengers is disappointing because I want more films in this optimistic universe, not the crass commercialization of the other films.
By contrast, Green Lantern is unusually bad because of it's total lack of personality. Ryan Reynolds seemed restrained and while his charm should have carried Hal Jordan to grinning heights he instead is playing a watered-down version of yet another hero with daddy issues (what is it with all these films with daddy issues this year?) Peter Sarsgaard is wonderfully slimy but even the usually dark evocation that director Martin Campbell can bring out is muted and absent. Green Lantern very nearly stole the crown of worst of 2011 because of it's cynical market focus, but I'm glad a typically American hero could arrive and lead us into higher cinematic ground.
Now you may be wondering "Just what could have been worse than Green Lantern?" If you asked that question of yourself, the answer is now ready for you to listen to. The Undefeated is about Sarah Palin in the sense that it is a blisteringly paced, incomprehensibly put together nightmare of a documentary. I'm not proud that The Undefeated made me so angry, because "angry critic" dominates the internet field just as much as the "sarcastic critic" does (I'm looking at you, reviewers of TGWTG) and I should have been better than that.
But you probably didn't watch the movie and do not understand my pain. I know little more about Palin going in than I did before the film started, completely destroying the idea of the documentary to begin with. The ideas are muddled and confused, the images mixed together with what (at times) seems to be the wrong dialogue. The woman herself didn't even appear in the film as herself, just a digital idea of what she could represent.
Tabloid, by proxy, is about a similarly attention grabbing woman who is infinitely more interesting than Palin. Joyce McKinney is absolutely fascinating as a subject and her chronicler, Errol Morris, is the best working in the business. That's why this comparison may not be entirely fair as it's one of the most interesting people alive documented by the best documentarian working today. But Tabloid manages to ask complicated questions about media consumption and identity while wondering still who is the "winner" in ambiguous moral situations. I'm not sure the makers of The Undefeated even know how Palin takes her coffee.
I remember hunkering down in the corner with my red jacket, oblivious to the idea of deodorant, just wanting to read my Arthur C. Clarke books in peace and being taunted all the same. By that token, I cannot remember a time in my life that a mythical hippie aunt interrupted my summer of log rolling to smash a car into statues. What we have here are two very different examples of a childhood and adolescence that are reconciled in far different ways.
Terri is one of the best movies of the year. It taps into a unique pain that we've all felt growing up, knowing just how to connect with people but not being able to do so all the same. Terri was made with intelligence, care, and a specific understanding of what it's like to grow up feeling underappreciated and alone. The beauty of Terri is that it knows the pain can end, even if the steps getting there are awkward and your allies aren't quite who you would expect.
Judy Moody is it's opposite, but I'd like to stress not it's evil opposite or even bad opposite. It details a childhood I think some people like to think they remember but no one has actually experienced. As a fantasy it works, surprisingly well, at times but is still a fantasy all the same. Sometimes that's a good thing because we need fantasies in order to live, but there aren't any fantasies in Judy Moody that teach us how to be better people - just "wacky" adventures.
Sometimes good films are stopped at the idea stage. I like the central premise behind the Hoodwinked films, the idea that fantastical character have their own ideas and views about how the world works. But the execution has been sloppy each time and the animation done in a style that makes the world look like a sub-Crash Bandicoot Playstation 1-era game. Basically, the ideas are good but the world is ugly and the writing is too poor to back up the premise.
This probably won't mean much to the creators of Hoodwinked Too! since they decide to begin their film with a preemptive attack against critics. But what the hell, this is worth repeating.
-ahem- If you are involved in the creation of any Hoodwinked film from this point onward in your life you are squandering what precious time you have left on this earth. Animate your own desires instead of the ideas of a "clever" company. Don't waste your time doing something that will only make the majority of people on this planet unhappy.
Rango is, aside from my favorite of 2011, still the most pleasant surprise I've encountered all year. Every idea that went into it's creation is carried out to the most wonderful conclusion, culminating in a wonderful old west chase scene with naked mole rats and Ride of the Valkyries enveloping the soundtrack. Everything about Rango invokes the care and intelligence of the old Looney Tunes cartoons, right down to the surprise caricature that rounds out the film.
For some reason, I've encountered people who claim themselves film buffs without having a firm grasp of what makes visual style so important to the quality of a film. Sometimes you'll have a movie that just exists as a conduit of cool and precision, or a movie that embraces it's chaotic inspiration point and runs with it. In the case of Drive, the cool is executed correctly. In the case of Drive Angry, the chaos is withheld.
Both films don't have much to say about their respective genres but, like all movies, how what little is said is of some importance. Drive's execution is pure sex on celluloid. Ryan Gosling is all intense and dark smolder without making the important mistake of brooding. The great director, Nicolan Winding Refn, has already made a plethora of challenging films and like any good director is sometimes successful and sometimes not. But he adopts the icy cool of such films as Le Samourai while still infusing them with a pulsing vitality. Drive is home to, far and away, the sexiest scene of 2011 and with good reason - it suggests so much and shows so little.
By contrast, Drive Angry would like to be the exploitation hell-fest it sets out to be but keeps itself from going over the edge. There are moments about it I liked, especially William Fichtner's performance, but it didn't want to push itself into the gory pleasures it really wanted to. That said, could the film really be any good if it did? Few films this year made me as angry as Hobo With A Shotgun, but Drive Angry didn't have as many post-Tarantino/Rodriguez exploitation touches as that piece of trash did.
As it is we have one accomplished bit of style, and one sadly lacking. I'm still grateful to have the option of one even if the other still exists.
The portrayal of gender in film is something of a sensitive issue for myself. It seems like too many films are willing to go to the maternal/familial well for women in revenge thrillers without really asking the tough questions of what made them this way. Here is where we get the brilliance of Hanna and the broad disgrace of Colombiana.
Hanna actually acknowledges the way women are treated in fantasy stories and revenge thrillers, bending the two together in a dizzying tale of revenge and execution. It highlights the unfair perception women in power must bear in order to stay in control (Cate Blanchett's take on a White Queen) or the degree of manipulation it takes to bring young girls to do the whims of men (Saoirse Ronan's exquisite performance as Hanna). Joe Wright is clearly sensitive to these issues (his two previous films were Pride and Prejudice and Atonement) and treated them with the respect they deserved.
Colombiana is just another incomprehensibly put-together revenge film with a woman who just wants to avenge her family. I'm tired of seeing otherwise great actresses throw themselves onto roles that don't question the ridiculously sexist nature of the film that they are asked to partake in. Colombiana features a number of idiotic sex scenes just so we can see the heroine unclothed and still doesn't bother to ask why this is necessary. This is one of the few films released this year that I feel horrible for those that enjoyed it. I don't like people throwing up in my mouth, and no one should enjoy the regurgitate garbage Colombiana spits out.
Win Win made about ten million dollars in it's theatrical run. Mr. Popper's Penguins made almost one hundred ninety million dollars while it was infecting theaters. Both films were geared toward families, whether the obvious case of Popper or the slightly concealed case of Win Win.
In the interest of broad generalization, if you hate your family and you want at least one of your children to become insane animal-tortureres, subject them to Mr. Popper's Penguins. It has little regard to the sanctity of animal life and teaches the lesson that it's ok if baby penguins die so long as it has the side effect of making your family like you. In one sense, I hope that's a trend that continues on so that I see children wearing the skins of their fallen pets. In another sense, that's absolutely horrible and everyone involved in the creation of Mr. Popper should feel ashamed at what they've inflicted on the world.
Going back to my Tabloid/The Undefeated matchup, this pairing isn't exactly fair since I'm putting a blandly put-together film against one of the best writer/directors working today. But, please, families deserve better. Win Win shows another side of growing up that Terri couldn't ("popular" never means what you think it means when you're young), and is an infectiously happy story in the meantime. Then writer/director Tom McCarthy tosses in some great analysis of our current economic system and the whole thing fuses together in this beautiful blend of family, politics and economy.
This is why we feel like we're getting dumber. We take our entertainment to mean that kids should abuse their pets wholesale, not that you should try and be a better person.
I'm not a fan of traditional horror films, experimental or otherwise. The slashers of Friday the 13th and their ilk leaves me uninterested while the body-horror of Cronenberg leaves me cold. Aside from Frailty, there are very few horror movies released in the last ten years that have either scared me or titillated my intelligence.
2011 saw the release of two films whose reception caused me to question my faith in both audiences and critics alike. While Insidious was still a smash success given it's low budget, it still failed to penetrate the cultural and critical consciousness the same way the Paranormal Activity series has. This is a profound shame.
Insidious took a great risk with it's production, opening with a wordless ten minute act that sets the stage for the haunted house tale quite beautifully. Are we so jaded with our movies that we cannot accept supernatural horror unless it's presented as "real"? The found-footage genre has produced some of the laziest "I built the film on an idea" movies of the last few years (as any number of zombie movies and Troll Hunter can attest to).
Why can't we, as a society, at least agree that a film that takes the stylistic chances with silence, as Insidious does, is bare minimum superior to a movie that thinks putting the camera on an oscillating fan is a step forward?
Now for the special segments!
The following films will be giving promotional spots throughout the night to highlight their skills leading up to the pay per view match-up. Some have great skills or have built themselves up as underdogs. Others we just want to point and laugh at how pathetic their attempts are or just nod sadly as they babble on into the night, convinced of their own greatness.
Warrior (Jacob's Review)
I felt my patriotic fever stirring even when the pieces felt cliche'. Nick Nolte is sure to be overlooked, again, by the Academy and other award granting parties as well as the other members of this stellar cast. Embrace the myth, even if it feels familiar.
Few films try and use the possible existence of a human soul as a launching point into the exploration of parallel worlds. Fewer still wrap it into a "conventional" thriller package and acknowledge the horror of destroying someone else's existence. Source Code did both of these things and was still a commercial success. For all my sadness, maybe audiences are a lot smarter than I could have hoped.
My love of Kieslowski paid off in an amazing tribute to the idea of alternate "you's" he lovingly explored, but instead in a sci-fi setting. I felt longing and hope in a drifting atmosphere which sometimes left me feeling touched in a way few films do. It's nice to hear a film which understands that we wish things could be different. But even better, knowing you are still better off being yourself.
Life in a Day (full movie legal and free here)
I felt goosebumps so many times throughout this film. The breadth of emotion in the human experience is sometimes staggering, and this film captured it all in one brilliantly edited package. From dead of night to the morning and all throughout until the next day, Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott have brought together a gift made through the contribution of thousands. It's a more personality and society-oriented view of the world than presented in the equally enthralling Baraka.
Films which help us laugh at death are just as important as the ones which solemnly celebrate life. 50/50 contains the most complex performance of the year with Bryce Dallas Howard earning a lot of cred by simultaneously trying to do the right thing by standing by her cancer-ridden boyfriend (the great Joseph Gordon Levitt) and still realizing she doesn't really love him. It's funny, yes, but few films captured just how complicated the need to be thought of as "good" really is.
Michael Shannon has been stealing scenes for years. Now he's been asked to dial down just a tad and delivers the most apocalyptic performance of his career. This film accomplishes the difficult task of reaching toward the intellectual "elite" and the working class all in the same breath. But work it does, and produces nothing but empathy thanks to the steady decline of Shannon's character Curtis.
No film released in the last year has more humiliating portrayals of women than the ones in The Roommate. If you have a challenger, please keep it to yourself.
Or, how Nicolas Cage kept the banks from repossessing his castle for just another day.
Genre entertainment or a sadistic exercise in gender torture? I swing toward the latter and feel bad when folks gravitate to the former.
High concept mash-up dear God why are they singing again?
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (trailer)
Spurlock. Bubbula. We get it. You tell us incredibly obvious things ad nauseum with a smile that suggests we don't know any better. Your smarmy brand of documentary justice is a liberal's worst nightmare of proclaimed superiority and obvious conclusion. Thanks for alienating both sides by assuming no one else can make points as blatantly as you can.
Special Award for Acting in the Darth Vader Category of "Noooooooooooo!"
Thank you for inspiring a number of MST3K-styled drinking games to come.
Special Award for Excellence in the field of Matthew McConaughey
Stay sexy you talented bastard. But only as long as you keep making films as entertaining as The Lincoln Lawyer.
Special Award for You're Missing The Frikking Point It's Satire The Series Has Always Been Satire What Do I Have To Do To Get Through To You People
I'm getting tired of having the same conversation. The books are horrible but the movies have and always have been satiric representations of the books and their reception with a generous touch of melodramatic entertainment. Maybe this is why I'm one of three people who liked Abduction. I'm still open to other theories.