Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 In Review

I had a good year at the movies. Not as good as last year perhaps, but we can't really blame that on 2011. After all, I spent most of 2010 in Washington DC which thanks to various moviegoing venues including the AFI Silver in Silver Spring and the E Street Cinema downtown is a great movie town. In 2010, I went to the movies 53 times. That year was also notable because a) I got to go to an Orson Welles retrospective, and b) I fell in love with the Natalie Portman flick BLACK SWAN so hard I saw it three times.

So, okay, 2011 can't live up to all that. I 'only' went to the movies 29 times (or 2.4 times a month). I did not have a breakout movie experience like BLACK SWAN nor a once-in-a-lifetime experience like the Welles revue.

But 2011 was still a pretty good year. Herewith I present a brief overview of what I saw and what I thought, with links to longer pieces on selected films. One note before we start: since no one is paying me to see movies I am fairly certain not to like (TRANSFORMERS, et al) I don't see many movies I totally hate. I see lots of movies that disappoint me in one way or another, but this list is largely positive in large part because I only go see the movies I want to see.


1. PHIL OCHS: THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE: Documentary on the ill-fated folk singer. An interesting look at a brave, talented man tormented by the consequences of his convictions and the limits of his own gift. He wanted to be Bob Dylan, but lacked Dylan's ruthless careerism. He also lacked Dylan's genius.

2. BLUE VALENTINE: Came out in late 2010 but I didn't see it until January. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams might be our two best actors and here they perform a heartbreaking duet about falling out of love. Odd that movies so rarely tackle one of the most profound/common human experiences: meeting someone, realizing you are in love with them, and then waking up years later to find that the love slipped away somewhere in the past. A triumph for writer/director Derek Cianfrance.

3. THE KING'S SPEECH: Another 2010 holdover. You know what it's about already, an English guy with a stutter. Everyone is good here, but really, honestly, who cares? I suspect this is the kind of prestige drama that will be largely forgotten in ten years.

4. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU: Not much to say here either. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt chased by angels with hats. It's entertaining in its set-up and then quickly loses momentum and guts. The ending is so watered down it's spongy. One bright spot: Damon and Blunt have real chemistry. Look at the scene of them meeting for the first time. Someone should put these two in a real movie.

5. DOLLY PARTON, MA MERE, ET MOI-Saw this movie in Montreal in a theater that showed everything in French without English subtitles. I don't speak French. The movie is about a girl who thinks Dolly Parton might be her mom. Did I mention I don't speak French? Still, this movie experience made for an interesting point of comparison with the new silent film THE ARTIST. While I undoubtedly missed certain nuances conveyed in the French dialog, I still followed this film remarkably well and found it moving and funny. A fun experiment in filmgoing.

6. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert fight and flirt and fall in love and talk really, really fast. In some ways, this is the romantic comedy by which all others are judged. Seeing it on the big screen, it's clear why. With this film Capra basically created the cinematic template that people are still ripping off. Plus, it holds up obscenely well.

7. JANE EYRE: I loved Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of the overdone Bronte novel. The whole thing is a joy but the secret weapons are the fine performances by Michael Fassbender and, especially, the luminous, fragile, powerful Mia Wasikowska.

8. and 9. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: Saw this one twice. And why not? After last year's soul-deadening YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, Woody Allen came waltzing back with this paper-light confection of joy. Owen Wilson stumbles into a portal in time that sends him back to Paris in the twenties to hang out with the Lost Generation. Plays like one of Allen's short New Yorker pieces. How can you not love that? Also has Rachel McAdams being mean, which is topped in sexiness only by Marion Cotillard being sad and sweet. If you like Woody Allen, then this is hard to resist.

10. THE TREE OF LIFE: Poetry in motion. Read my full review.

11. and 12. GREEN LANTERN and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Comic book adaptations of two comic books I loved as a kid. The first is okay, the second is very good. Read my full review.

13. BRIDESMAIDS: Kristen Wiig cowrote and stars in this comedy, so it's interesting to notice how screwed up, lonely, almost pathetic her character is in it. The genius of the film--besides just being hilarious at an impressively constant clip--is that it locates its comedy in the tension between good emotions (friendship, love, devotion) and bad emotions (self-pity, resentment, anger) without shortchanging either.

14. BEGINNERS: This might have been my favorite movie of the year. It's certainly one of the most delightful. Odd then that it's about both death and the feeling of parental abandonment. Christopher Plummer plays an elderly widower who makes the self-realization late in life that he is gay. Ewan McGregor plays his son, a man who loves his father but is resentful that he grew up in a sterile home, a home where he had to watch his mother spend her life in a passionless marriage. Witty and tragic, this is the kind of movie that stuns you with how smartly it handles the tricky subject of the various kinds of pain caused by love.

15. THE FUTURE: I said I don't go see many movies that I hate, but here's the closest I came this year. After making a stunningly good first film with YOU ME AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, writer/director/star Miranda July makes a stunningly bad second film. Forced whimsy in an arranged marriage with grating melancholia. Blah.

16. DRIVE: The year of Gosling continues with this postmodern crime gem. See my full review.

17. HIGHER GROUND: Flawed but heartfelt look at the "Jesus Freak" movement in the 1970s. See my full review.

18. MONEYBALL: Brad Pitt spends millions of dollars to hire guys to hit and catch and throw baseballs. But not as many millions as other guys do. Not too sure what the message is here, or why we should really care, but this is a pretty entertaining movie nevertheless. Snappy script by Aaron Sorkin helps.

19. THE IDES OF MARCH: Gosling again, this time with George Clooney in a backroom political drama. Not a great film despite the presence of a lot of great talent, due in part to the script's predicable twists and rather pedestrian revelations about the corrupting power of politics.

20. WEEKEND: Two guys meet, hook up, spend a couple days hanging out and having sex and maybe sorta falling in love before they part ways. Sweet, sexy, observant take on the ways we drift briefly through the lives of other people via romance.

21. TAKE SHELTER: Of any movie on this list, I think this is the one I'm most eager to see again. Michael Shannon gives what might be my favorite performance of the year as a man haunted by dreams of a coming storm. Writer/director Jeff Nichols puts his finger on a certain strain of religiously-suffused American paranoia. This one stays with you.

22. J. EDGAR: Clint and Leo take on the most famous bureaucrat in history. See my full review.

23. MARGIN CALL: A big cast take on the financial crisis in this drama from J.C. Chandor. Despite good performances and tight direction, this has Stanley Kramer's Disease--that built-in "topical movie" feel that you sometimes get from films that want to make statements about big issues of the day.

24. THE DESCENDANTS: George Clooney navigates family life in this Alexander Payne drama. Read my full review.

25. MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN: I said earlier that Michelle Williams is one of our best actors. She proves it again with her sad and sweet performance as Marilyn Monroe, everyone's favorite doomed beauty. The movie itself is lightweight, reminding me a little of those old Movie Of Week flicks about the private sufferings of rich, famous people. But something in Williams' performance sticks around and, perhaps more importantly, makes you want to revisit the real Monroe.

26. YOUNG ADULT: Gotta love a romantic comedy about love turning to shit and life falling apart. Actually, this movie isn't a romantic comedy at all, but it works like an acid-spewing critique of those movies. (I like those movies, btw, but I also like acid-spewing critiques.) Luckily, everyone here gets what kind of movie they're making, from the biting script of Diablo Cody and synced-up direction of Jason Reitman, to the fearless performances of Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.

27. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE--GHOST PROTOCOL: Lots of fights and shit blowing up. Which is what I wanted. Saw this one at the IMAX where Tom Cruise's now legendary real life scaling of the tallest building in the world pretty much stopped the show. The show keeps going after that scene, though, which makes the last half of the movie a little tedious.

28. SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS: If you liked the first movie, which I did, you will probably like this movie. It is more of the same, which is both its virtue and chief flaw. The first film reinvented Holmes as a big budget superhero. This one recycles that invention for a sequel.

29. THE ARTIST: This is a silent film from the French director Michel Hazanavicius and it is a full-on triumph of black and white cinematography, choreography, acting, and directing. It tells the story of a big silent film star (played with dash and dazzle by the charismatic Jean Dujardin) who is waylaid by the invention of movie sound right about the time that his beautiful discovery (the effervescent Berenice Bejo) shoots to stardom in talkies. What a mad invention this movie is, a silent film that is both a tribute to a now archaic art and a vivid, hilarious, swooning reminder that silent moving images are still the foundation of the art form known as cinema. An excellent way to round out my year at the movies.

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