Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Best and Worst of 2011

I realize I'm considerably late in putting this together.  It's been a busy month.  But I hope it still feels vaguely relevant as we are headlong into awards season.  In compensation (mostly to myself) for not doing one last year, I included several mediums.  So, in no order:



Certainly the biggest surprise of the year came not from a quiet independent film, but a big budget reboot of a long-dead series.  Part prison break-film, part origin story, Apes is nothing but pure blockbuster entertainment, hitting every note necessary for the genre, but hitting it so well there's never a dull moment.


A haunting look at how youthful impressions can effect us even years later with great performances - particularly John Hawkes as the terrifying yet subtle cult leader.  Rather than lay out any of said cult's tenets, the film subtly injects them into the lead's behaviour as she tries to recover after (maybe) escaping its grasp.


A fictional, harrowing look into a company right before Wall Street collapses, as well as a bit of a return to form for Kevin Spacey.  


Director Paddy Considine makes quite a debut here.  After nearly stealing Hot Fuzz, he's come to direct a heartbreaking film starring Peter Mullan, who is exquisite, as a self-destructive, physically abusive old man.  It's may be difficult to watch (particularly for dog-lovers), but raises some interesting ideas about where, when and if rage should be a part of us all.


Jonathan Levine's film could have been entirely average, but the warmth between leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen as well as always being lighthearted (about cancer) elevates it to something special.


When the franchise was considered dead to fanboys after X-Men 3 and Wolverine: Origins, no one was expecting much from a prequel.  But Matthew Vaughn and Brian Singer arguably brought about something new and far more interesting than the earlier films.  Also, the first film I've seen in ages with montage scenes I actually enjoyed.


The most fun you'll have in a theatre if you grew up in the '80s, but it doesn't just make lazy references.  First time director Joe Cornish (in an astonishing debut) may have an affinity for the films of his childhood, but he's not beholden to them.  For an homage, it's also completely original.


Alexander Payne's style may be a little uneven at times, but largely because it often feels he's capturing something real. The Descendants is equally quirky, but solidified by a very strong George Clooney performance.


Woody Allen wisely never explains exactly why Owen Wilson travels through time at night.  We're left not to question it, just to be as dazzled as Allen is by glory days of writers and artists.  Once again, he's written a love letter to a city.  Wilson serves as a pretty good Allen Surrogate


Errol Morris' unblinking-yet-quirky eye covers the Joyce McKinney case, who was accused of raping a Mormon missionary and the ensuing battle between two British scandal rags about the truth.  Fascinating as always, Morris ties together in an effectively dizzying way how we're effected by journalism, religion and...well, just about everything else.



Drive is a gritty, often exciting heist picture ripped right out of the pages of old-fashioned crime fiction.  It's skillfully directed by an ambitious Dutch filmmaker who owes more than a debt to Michael Mann and William Friedkin and anyone else who pulled off a good action film in a decade for which I've never understood the nostalgia.  But he doesn't bring anything new to the table beyond graphic violence and a great Albert Brooks performance.  I would have preferred to just watch To Live and Die in L.A. again.


How did this fetishistic, airport novel bullshit ever become so internationally popular that it demanded an American remake by one of the finest directors around?  As I've come to understand, Steve Zallian's screenplay is nearly unwaiveringly faithful to the source material, which feels like a fatal flaw, as much of the film is spent learning the backstory of a wealthy Swedish industrial family we barely get to see. The film's first hour could have been easily truncated.

David Fincher's earlier film Zodiac was a detail-oriented film about a cold case, but one so deeply ingrained in its three leads you are dragged along for an epically obsessive and suspenseful ride.  This is just empty.

The original film and novel's fanbase appears to revolve entirely around the character of Lisbeth Salander, a gothic, emotionally-detached yet brilliant computer hacker with a tragic past.  The character is fine, and fitfully played here by Rooney Mara.  But her history as well as that of other main characters is so tangentially-related thematically to anything else happening in the film's runtime that it's hard to care.  She also serves as a masturbatory fantasy for creepy middle-aged Swedes like author Larssen himself.  It's an obscenely elongated episode of Cold Case.



John Carpenter's past 15 years have given even his most die hard fans abrupt pause; not just about whether or not he'd lost his touch, but some even have gone as far as wonder if he ever had it to begin with.  No one was expecting much from anything with a title beginning with "John Carpenter's..." anymore, though early trailers for The Ward suggested a more polished, traditional horror film.  That was enough to spark excitement amongst the hopefuls.  It clearly wasn't another variation on Rio Bravo, as Carpenter even made a movie called Ghosts of Mars resemble.


Paul Rudd can carry a movie.  This has been proven in dramatic roles such as The Shape of Things.  However, he's always played a supporting comedic character in Judd Apatow films.  In Our Idiot Brother, Rudd plays a comedic protagonist; a good-natured parolee (sent to prison for selling weed to a uniformed cop), and he's funny.  And I'll be damned if he couldn't have carried this to it's end if it had a better script.  His character is not exactly an idiot, he's charmingly guileless and only wants the best for everyone.  For that performance, it's well worth seeing.  Unfortunately, the script meanders to find a means to an end which, while vaguely satisfactory, feels pretty weak.



Say what you will about Sam Peckinpah's notoriously graphic, grueling original...seriously, say what you will because -rest assured - you have something to say about it.  You know who didn't?  Film critic-turned-writer-director Rod Lurie, whose only original contribution was transplanting the setting to the American South.  Beyond that, Lurie pieced together a once-poignant and truly horrifying tale into a miscast bore.


The prequel that contains the questions no one wanted to know, and answers them poorly.  It comes off as bad fan-fiction.


How do you screw up a funny, surprisingly ambitious comedy that turned into the highest grossing film of 2010?  Change the setting and make the same movie.  It's not just that The Hangover II feels like the worst kind of cash-in, but it also squanders the talent of some wonderful comic actors. Everything about it left you to wonder why you didn't stay home and rent the original.


Much like his characters, Kevin Smith doesn't know what he wants to say.  This awful endurance-exercise of a film makes that entirely clear, with Smith thinking he's clever while really he's just an idiot, handpicking various ideas that don't particularly cohere.  I'm sure I'm as much against Fred Phelps and his brigade of "God Hates Fags" family or anyone who tries to emulate it as Smith.  It's certainly a departure from his earlier films, but that also seems to be the point.  A departure, but so was Jersey Girl.


There's merit in exploring the failings middle-aged men experience.  This is not the way to do it.  Director Mark Pellington's absurd terrorist-next-door thriller Arlington Road was somehow more successful at portraying mid-life angst.  Also serves as an ignoble failing at releasing films direct to OnDemand television.  If this is the way films are headed, this certainly isn't one you want aboard your flagship.  In fact, I Melt With You is enough to make a man mutiny.


Nicolas Cage seems to pick his roles from whatever spinning wheel of crazy is in his mind.  It's too bad that wheel landed here, otherwise Season of the Witch would have otherwise been easily ignored as yet another Direct-to-DVD release.  Alas, with crazy starpower, comes awful theatrical release.



I'd go as far as to call Breaking Bad the first television show entirely representative of the new millennium.  This is an age where middle-class families struggle to make ends meet and fear vanishing as banks have entered some kind of inverted Occam's Razor explanation as to why.  Politicians' lies and denials, no matter how outlandish or contradictory, are no longer met with skepticism or even scoffing but serious, unwavering public debate.  International decisions made years ago by America turned out to be an Ouroborous. The crazies have turned their focus on endtimes on three occasions in one year. And the epic hero is now understood and accepted as horrifically flawed, no other show in just a four-year-run has taken this era to the extremes necessary.  By the show's fourth season, characters once painfully human and uncompromising have flip-flopped to cartoonish opposites.  And as we head into the final stretch, meth-cooker Walter White now stands as America, atop a parking garage looking out over a barren landscape, foolishly believing, "I won."


TOO BIG TO FAIL - Between this Curtis Hanson-helmed HBO film, Margin Call and the Occupy movement, it's been a really great year for hating banks.



Rarely is another person's nostalgia interesting to someone else.  But Oswalt has peppered it with charming anecdotes, animations and rueful notations on the Hollywood scene that somehow all encompasses who he is as a person as well as a stand up.  He intertwines the hells and joys of suburbia with a pop culture-minded slant any nerd will love.



Not since that Chuck Norris meme stopped being funny four years ago has something gotten so annoying so quickly.  And, like Chuck Norris, Sheen is still trying to capitalize on his brief brush with fame; real fame, not '80s fame.

There were plenty of deaths we were all waiting for this year, most of them despots or terrorists, but none were we actively rooting for as hard or as long.  That's how much fuck Charlie Sheen.

But it also brings about a larger problem in North America: we love meltdowns.  And meltdowns are only satisfying to the public if the person dies.  No one seems to care about Lindsey Lohan anymore.  She's still alive.  There's a dark, disturbing surge of rubbernecking running through the mass population when we watch someone like Charlie Sheen rant nonsensically.  We're waiting for the Hindenberg.  And we may say "Oh, the humanity!" but that's sort of what we wanted to do in the first place.  


Like the Leno/Conan debacle pointed out a splinter in cultural society, the Paterno scandal had similar but much darker implications: that there are two kinds of people in America, those that will defend at all costs their precious, beloved sport as though a good coach was their own personal leader and the kind that can defect just long enough to be vocally outraged.  It isn't even Paterno's actions that deeply upset me, though they are heinous, but that overly large public outcry at his firing.  Now Paterno has passed away.  Sadly, he didn't die of shame.  Bring it, college football nerds.


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