2011--THAT'S A WRAP!
Well that was a year! Not too bad either. Made a lot of headway at my day job, did some amazing exploring in Nevada and Washington state, made some great new friends, did more decent than usual in the female department, and finally started getting back into the swing of things actually finishing some of my own creative work. Student loans are going to be paid off any day now, which will leave things open for even more amazing adventures!
Movie-wise I felt like it was a sub-par year, but at the same time when I went to make the Top Ten List I found myself leaving off several movies that I actually really liked. I guess while there weren't any huge hype-worthy blockbusters like in previous years (i.e. "The Dark Knight"), there were still a lot of creative surprises to be had. A dud of a year animation-wise which is a bummer, but otherwise there were still a lot of solid films even if there weren't that many GREAT ones.
And entertainment in other media flourished--this year brought us "Game of Thrones" and "American Horror Story" on TV, and finally got me into gaming with the superb "Portal 2" and "Arkham City."
Anyway, I've done my best to do my homework and see as many end-of-the-year films as possible. So on to the reviews!
"The Descendants" I got to see this for free at a special screening with Alexander Payne! Yay editors guild!
Like all Alexander Payne movies (that I've seen anyway) it's a solid film about aging males having a crisis of sorts, which somehow I always find incredibly fascinating and relatable despite being in my 20s. The cast is excellent, right down to the supporting roles (even Matthew Lillard). The central twist--that George Clooney's dying wife (on life support) had an affair--is one that agonizingly twists him into several situations at once that no man should ever have to go through. Yet Payne finds a way as always to make it almost charming and light in the midst of such frustration and sadness. I do think the sister's dumb boyfriend turning out to be "wise" was an unnecessary trope used far too often in movie after movie, but otherwise it was great. One of the best things about the movie is that it does such a fantastic job of portraying Hawaii as it actually is. When I visited Hawaii I was still competitively swimming, so instead of doing JUST touristy stuff I hung out with a number of kids on the island and swam with their club teams. Payne perfectly catches the everyday sense of the people who live in Hawaii, where it's not all fun-and-games and paradise as Clooney points out in the opening narration. I WILL say that Clooney has basically become the "narrator guy" in these types of movies ("Up In the Air" for example), and it was a little off-putting in this film since the narration never picks up again or bookends the film after the opening. All in all though, a very solid piece of work.
"The Muppets" If you outright HATE this movie, you have no soul. It's not as good as some of the other muppet films ("The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper," "A Muppet Christmas Carol," or my personal favorite, "Muppet Treasure Island") but it's heart is solidly in the right place. In today's somewhat bitter economic crisis age, it's so full of unbridled joy and happiness it's exactly what we need. The music is great, the characters are all wonderful, and the story is bright and uplifting, though it is funny how much it touches upon ideas that were probably spoken at a studio exec meeting ("the muppets are no longer relevant!"). These movies always were self-aware to a point, I guess. On the human side of things, Chris Cooper steals the show as a greedy oil tycoon ("Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh!").
One gripe I have is that my favorite muppet characters were underused (Gonzo and Rizzo's interplay…Rizzo is practically ABSENT from the film), but even so it's a lot of fun.
"Hugo" People have been split on this one, and I can see why to a point, but I thought this was overall a delightful childhood film (even if lots of antsy little annoying kids I know would probably find it boring and slow). Scorsese has never been my favorite director, but I thought he did a good job here creating a wonderful tribute to Georges Melies, probably my favorite early filmmaker. Granted I didn't know it would be ABOUT Melies when I went into the theater, so discovering this halfway through the movie turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Visually, there's no denying the movie looks fantastic. The 3-D photography breaks every rule in the (relatively new) book, yet it's some of the best work I've seen. Paris itself has never looked more fantastical, filled with dust motes, snow, and gears that drift in front of the camera, filling every shot with beauty.
Most of the actors are great too. I'm not sure if I actually LIKE Sacha Baron Cohen, but he's always INTERESTING at least. It's a joy to see Ben Kingsley actually ACTING again, and the lead actor Asa Butterfield is great as well (I'm not convinced the "Ender's Game" movie will be any good, but at least they've cast it right). My favorite female child actress Chloe Moretz is strong as well, though her accent isn't always flawless.
I have a theory I've possibly mentioned before on this blog, but it's that all great filmmakers have a through-line to all their stories, in that they keep telling the same story over and over. Finding that through-line for yourself will make YOU a better artist, so it's something to be aware of. I think Scorses's through-line in all his work is that he is good at creating a person trapped in their own personal hell. "Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver," and "The Aviator" all have this in common, and when i was watching this movie I kept wondering if he would have it, seeing as it's about a kid. Sure enough though, in a fun nightmare sequence (even a nightmare within a nightmare…BWAAAAM!) Hugo gets trapped in his own personal terrified world. Gotcha, Scorsese!
So all in all, I liked "Hugo." It wasn't perfect and a lot of the sub-plots could have been trimmed (Baron Cohen's love story, the wiener dog couple), but as an ode to the beauty and preservation of early cinema, it was a lot of fun, and the perfect thing to see with my family over Thanksgiving.
"The Artist" - Speaking of odes to early cinema, "The Artist" is without question one of my favorite movies of the year. It's made by the same actor/director team behind "OSS 117," which is a fun French film that feels like a 60s James Bond movie actually unearthed from the period--albeit with an idiot French agent instead (imagine the lovechild of Inspector Closeau and young Connery). It did take me a while to get the character of OSS 117 out of my head while watching the lead actor, but the characters are similar and I got there eventually. Like that film, the filmmakers here perfectly manage to recreate something that feels born out of the silent era, telling it's own story while paying homage to countless classics you may have seen if you're a film buff (lots of echoes of "A Star Is Born," "Sunset Blvd," and "Singing in the Rain"). The movie is essentially about a silent film actor threatened with the birth of the talking picture (a la "Singing in the Rain"), but what it manages to do so deftly well is make you really FEEL what the main character is going through by reminding you how amazing and different those silent films were. It truly is a lost art form, very different from the movies we have today. At one point the movie even teases us with a moment when everyone ELSE in the film starts talking and things start making noise, but the main character is unable to. I was worried they would turn this into the story for the rest of the movie, becoming way to gimmicky, but luckily it's all a dream and played for eerie laughs.
Anyway, it's a great piece of cinema, and my hopeful choice for best picture this year. Check it out!
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" - I didn't LOVE Guy Ritchie's version of "Holmes" that came out last year, but it was a lot better than I expected. They managed to respect the era while still making it hip and cool, his formalistic approaches to filmmaking were different and new, and the cast was mostly pretty good. Making Holmes a bit more action-oriented was a little strange, but there still was enough mystery and puzzle-solving to let it not feel like a betrayal to the source material.
In the new film, unfortunately, they got rid of more of the stuff that made it Holmes-y. The mystery and detective-work stuff is practically gone, and we're unfortunately left with another bland quippy action hero, and Guy Ritchie's bag-of-tricks at this point feels old hat. Forget the Robert Downey Holmes and go watch the excellent BBC "Sherlock" instead.
"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" - One of the best summer action movies didn't come in the summer at all--it came in December!!! All in all it's a solid outing in the franchise, possibly the best (I still like the first one more, I think…the action wasn't as heavy but the plot twists were a little smarter). Brad Bird proves to be just as adept directing live-action scenes as animation, and his use of continuous flowing choreographed shots works great here. The opening Kremlin scenes are very creative, but it's the film's second set piece that contains some of the greatest action I've ever seen. Tom Cruise scales the Dubai tower, there is some incredibly fun spy intrigue and fistfights within the hotel (including a favorite moment when somebody forgot they removed a pane of glass), and it culminates in an exciting sandstorm. Bad. Ass.
Unfortunately the set piece after this lively section can't quite live up to the earlier moments, but at least the car park section is pretty nifty (though what was that suitcase covered in…vaseline?!). Having all the suspense ride on whether or not smoking hot Paula Patton can convince the host from "Slumdog Millionaire" that she's sexy seemed pretty off; when you look like she does you should have no problem.
I was a little bummed that Josh Holloway (aka Sawyer from "Lost") was underused, because for some reason I thought he was going to play the villain, but he's only in the opening sequences (it's a FUN opening scene though). The REAL villain is also incredibly cookie-cutter, which can be OK I guess, but there isn't much emotional motivation behind Tom Cruise trying to once again stop the bomb and save the world. In the last outing Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as he threatened Cruise's wife, and though the movie as a whole was uneven, at least the emotional motivation rode through. I'm rewriting here, but I say make this villain someone who KILLED Tom Cruise's wife or something.
Also, the Mission Impossible series has always had lots of fun with those nifty masks, and they are usually used to reveal a twist, where we find out one character is actually a double agent or something. Here there's a great moment where Tom Cruise rips off part of the villains "face" in a sandstorm, and I was eagerly anticipating who it was actually going to be. The boss Tom Wilkinson? Jeremy Renner (which wouldn't really make any sense, but whatever)? Ving Rhames, bummed that nobody seemed to care about him anymore? Uh, no…it's just…the other bad guy. So…oh my gosh…it looks like the bad guys are certainly trading places being bad guys! What?
The ending is also rather pathetic…we don't care about Tom Cruise's wife, so there's no reason to have the weird ambiguous diner scene wrapping everything up. But on a surface-level action basis, this movie's got some of the best stuff in years.
"We Bought a Zoo" - A perfectly acceptable family movie that won't offend anyone. Matt Damon is good. Not really much else worth saying about it. Nice, but predictable and unspectacular. Take your parents if they're too sheltered to see anything "twisted" like "Dragon Tattoo."
"The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" - I really really wanted to like this film. It's made by several of my favorite heavyweight filmmakers, and I'm one of the few Americans who actually read the comics. While I'm not too keen on specifics, I remember them with fondness.
Unfortunately Tintin fails on far too many levels for me to recommend it. Given the pedigree, it's one of the sloppiest first acts I've seen in ages. We suddenly see Tintin buying a model boat for no reason, and people are fighting over it also, offering to buy it for lots of money. We don't know WHO Tintin is, we don't know who the villains are, we don't know ANYTHING (seriously, Tintin, go get another boat…that guy just handed you a wad of cash!). Later we finally discover that Tintin's a reporter, but it takes far too long to get there. I was confused, and I'm a guy who KNOWS Tintin! And it's not the same as the classic "Speilberg open" that so often starts out one of these films--a fun, often self-contained scene usually removed from the rest of the narrative before the plot gets explained. Examples are the boulder chase in "Raiders," the dark scary raptor cage in "Jurassic Park," and the opening shark attack in "Jaws." With "Tintin" it's just a big confusing sloppy early mess.
And Tintin himself is a bland and boring character--ever the goody-two-shoes, nothing about him changes and there are no stakes for his character. This works OK in a fun children's adventure comic, but in a film we need more. Indiana Jones, for example, isn't too complicated, but at least he usually has some sort of self-discovery, gaining respect for the artifacts he uncovers (i.e. "Holy shit, the ark's powers are real!"). And even on the surface, Indy's cool: he's a professor action hero, a neat contradiction that instantly screams "fun!" Tintin's a little asswipe with a clever dog.
Tonally, the movie is all over the place too. I'm still on the fence about motion-capture, but it at least looks GOOD here. But is it appropriate for a movie based on comics dating back to the 30s and 40s? Tintin is also pretty young (arguably even a teenager), which screams "children's film." Semi-animation screams "children's film." Thompson and Thompson, the bumbling cops, scream "children's film." And yet there are countless baddies constantly shooting at Tintin and his dog with GUNS. Indy was a full-grown man fighting evil Nazis…Tintin's a damn KID fighting guys who, while thugs, don't come across as faceless evil stormtroopers.
The movie finally gets interesting with Captain Haddock, an alcoholic sea captain who may hold the secret to a miraculous treasure, but his backstory (which IS admittedly pretty cool) doesn't start unfolding until about halfway through the film and by then it's too little, too late. Also, making jokes about alcoholism may have been OK back-in-the-day, but I couldn't help thinking, "Man, get this guy some help!"
There is some good stuff, though. Snowy the dog is super cute (though he has no hilarious thought bubbles like in the comics), and the motorcycle one-shot chase sequence showcases some incredible choreography and could almost be worth the price of admission on it's own. Even this, though, feels like an etude--an exercise rather than something integrated INTO a grander story. And since it's animated, while it's technically impressive, there's still no awesome sense that it's ACTUALLY happening like some of Cuaron's jaw-dropping long takes in "Children of Men."
It's not awful, but it's not the movie I was hoping for either. I expect more from Spielberg, Jackson, and the others involved.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" On a technical level, this movie is superb. Sharp editing, fantastic cinematography, riveting score, and all the heavyweight British (and some American) actors are amazing, top to bottom. On a story level though, it's rather confusing. I don't like to be spoon-fed my movies, but there were many times throughout watching this film that I thought, "Wait…hmm. I hope they explain that" and a few scenes later I quickly realized they weren't going to explain ANYTHING. I think I understood the movie for the most part, but it wasn't easy. The first half hour of the film, for example, is practically impossible to follow until Tom Hardy (excellent, by the way) shows up and starts talking to Gary Oldman (also excellent…again, the acting is stellar), at which point the film picks up steam. Worth watching for film fans, but don't ask me to clarify any details for you.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" - First off, please be aware I haven't seen the Swedish film, nor read the book, so I am basing this only only my enjoyment of the American film.
And, frankly, I loved it. It's probably Fincher's third-best film after "Fight Club" and "Zodiac." Remember how I said earlier how great directors center their movies around the same theme or story? I think I've got Fincher figured out…his films are all about obsession (often, but not always, over a crime). "Dragon Tattoo" is perfectly tense as Daniel Craig's character zeroes in on an age-old murder/mystery, drawing deeper and deeper into weirdness and danger. And Rooney Mara as the titular character is fantastic, though I'm not sure she's as good as everyone thinks she is, since she I'm not sure how different she is from Noomi Rapace, who has been terrific in several other films I've seen her in. The opening title sequence, set to a rework of "Immigrant Song" by Trent Reznor, is also one of the coolest things I've seen on-screen in ages (did anyone else catch the Nine Inch Nails t-shirt, by the way?).
I was a little disappointed in that I figured out the killer before I was supposed to (drat my ability to recognize well-known actors!), and the entire ending sequence that goes on for 20 minutes after the mystery gets solved was unnecessary (and it's not like the movie wasn't already long enough). I don't really care about bank accounts in the Cayman Islands or the fact that she buys Daniel Craig a really nice leather jacket. If anything, I thought it sort of stripped Lisbeth Salander (the girl) of her strong independence by showing her to be just another wounded lovesick waif in the final shot. For a movie that grabbed me so hard by the balls during most of it's runtime, it was disappointing to end on such a whimper, but everything up to that point was a gas.
Overall the characters are dynamic and interesting, leaping off the screen and burrowing into my mind and libido. "Realistic" probably isn't the term best-used to describe them, but they were certainly great CHARACTERS in the best way possible. I hated "The Social Network" because, for all the hype about the rapid-fire script, the characters were mostly greedy and all kind of felt like all the same snotty yammermouths to me, but in "Dragon Tattoo" they're all varied and fascinating, each with a different set of values and goals drawn by their own individual experiences. Fincher's delivered a great ride, and I hope you take it.
"Take Shelter" - Sometimes art films can be just as full of disappointment as the big blockbusters. "Take Shelter" does a fantastic job creating a horrifying sense of dread, as Michael Shannon has continuous nightmares of the apocalypse. Convinced it's actually going to happen, he builds a tornado shelter in his backyard while his family, friends, and co-workers worry he's going crazy. Shannon could well get an Oscar for his performance, and Jessica Chastain (who seriously showed up in every movie this year for some reason) does a delicately beautiful job as the wife who both fears and cares for him and her family's safety. And the nightmare visions hit hard with deep fear harder than any jump-scare horror flick (I almost wanted to leave the theater before each dream sequence, they started getting so unsettling).
But if your movie is all ABOUT the lead-up to one climactic event, you've got to really decide what that event is going to BE. Here be spoilers, you have been warned…
Eventually a storm DOES come, and Shannon takes his family into the bunker he's created. We get the feeling that perhaps he was RIGHT, and the storm has actually happened. Eventually the sounds outside die down, and Chastain decides it's safe to go out. Shannon refuses, and finally asks that SHE be the one to open the door. She gently demands that he do it, as stepping out of the shelter into the world is something he must face himself. Shannon finally does so, putting his visions of doom behind him and stepping into the light.
If you want, you can end the film right there and you'd be OK. The movie's not about whether Shannon's crazy or not and the apocalypse is real, it's about the choice he makes to get over his visions. But they don't end there, of course. Instead, Shannon steps out and realizes it was just a regular storm, not the End of Days. A few trees are knocked down, but it's no big deal. Looks like he WAS crazy after all. I don't like this ending as much, but I'd be willing to live with it.
But instead of THAT the movie tries to have it's cake and eat it too. Later when on vacation, Shannon sees a REAL storm brewing on the horizon, and for all intents and purposes his family sees it too. Looks like he was right after all!
Uh, what? So what's the point? I get that this is open to interpretation…metaphorically, his insanity hasn't left. OR it is real, in which case, I guess it's just a big case of, "Whoops!"
There are lots of ways you could read it…all terrible. None of them make any sense and it's ultimately a letdown. Your entire movie hinges on whether this guy is crazy or not, and ultimately you end it with, "Yes, he is…or IS he?" It's such a cop-out to what for the most part is a pretty good build-up, but a build-up is only as good as it's payoff. Instead what we get is ultimately an overlong film-school project from the artsy kid who should have stayed at NYU with a stick up his ass.
Also, is "a storm is coming" not seriously the most overused trope of all time?
Also, very quickly wanted to review "Red Dragon," which is an older film that I finally got around too seeing. It's pretty good, if not rather by-the-book (especially in the rushed "monster-in-the-house" ending). It unfortunately suffers from the fact that you're only continuously reminded how much better "Silence of the Lambs" is, but for Brett Ratner, notorious for his hackery, it's quite decent. Ray Fiennes makes a great villain, and I really enjoyed his fascination with William Blake.
OK, now for the moment you've all been waiting for (and by "you" I mean "me")…my Top Ten and Bottom Five of 2011! As always, it's a "Dan's Favorites" list, not a "Best Of" list…
0. "The Lion King 3D" Gets diplomatic immunity "above" the list because it came out nearly 20 years ago (yeesh...), but it still was the most fun I had in theaters this year. Only movie I saw twice on the screen…long live The King!
1. "Cedar Rapids" For some reason this movie really spoke to me (hopefully not because I related TOO much to Ed Helms' character). It's not easy for a comedy to be both sweet and edgy but this one pulled it off, and John C. Reilly gives the performance of his career, which is saying something.
2. "The Artist" Fantastic celebration of the so-often forgotten silent era and the very different kind of magic they hold over the viewer.
3. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" They could have chopped off the last twenty minutes and I wouldn't have cared, but otherwise this rocked pretty hard.
4. "X-Men: First Class" Fassbender and McAvoy (with the help of my future wife Jennifer Lawrence) anchor this very fun adventure that reminded me of a 60s James Bond movie more than it did a superhero flick, and Matthew Vaughn continues to show he's one of today's strongest action directors. What can I say? I'm a sucker for vintage superheroes.
5. "Fright Night" Awesome (and much better!) remake of the 80s movie that was a wonderful blend of teen comedy and horror. I wish more people had gone and seen this one.
6. "Midnight in Paris" I'm not a big Woody Allen fan, but darned if this movie didn't sneak up and surprise me with how delightful it was.
7. "Attack the Block" The only alien movie of the year (and there were a LOT) that actually delivered on it's premise. Tense, frightening, and funny, with some very creative monsters to boot.
8. "The Descendants" Alexander Payne continues to make movies that I should find boring but instead find fascinating. Not as good as "Sideways," but close.
9. "Captain America" I already said I liked vintage superheroes didn't I? A good old-fashioned patriotic movie that reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the last Indiana Jones movie did (or "Tintin" for that matter).
10. "Drive" I had a lot of problems with this film, but at the same time I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I left the theater. The awesome soundtrack helps a LOT.
5. "Rango" Overrated garbage with shoddy storytelling, a meandering plot, and bland characters.
4. "Battle LA" You have a problem when I can't tell your characters apart from each other OR the uninspired aliens.
3. " Spy Kids 4" Did this REALLY need to happen, Rodriguez?
2. " The Big Year" This was a potentially great premise ruined by a director who apparently thinks movies shouldn't have conflict in them.
1. "The Adjustment Bureau" Worse than a dumb movie is a dumb movie that THINKS it's smart. A waste of talent and a cool sci-fi premise.
Movies I wanted to see but didn't get to (lots of docs and foreign films wind up here unfortunately)…
Arthur Christmas, Beginners, The Guard, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Pariah, Shame, The Tree of Life, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Winnie the Pooh
(docs) Corman's World, El Sicario: Room 164, Into the Abyss, Life in a Day, Louder Than a Bomb, Senna
(foreign) 13 Assassins, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Incendies, Scheherazade Tell Me a Story, A Separation, Tomboy
That's it for 2011. Let's make 2012 awesome!!!