This year was, even more so than last year, a seriously divided and “nichey” year. Not one film dropped with the kind of unanimous rabble-rousing that films like Avatar, The Dark Knight, or even Inception inspired in the past few years. The films that critics liked (see: Tree of Life) and fanboys threw themselves at the altar of (see: Attack The Block) were, generally, moderately received by nationwide audiences. The top 10 biggest hits of the year were all sequels or adaptations, and many of those received wildly strong grosses that directly contradicted their dismal critical acceptance (see: Cars 2, Pirates 4, Transformers 3). However, I found more gems that could, perhaps, stand the test of time than I could in 2010, some of them in line with the broader spectrum of criticism, some somewhat unexpected, but all absolutely dynamite and worth the investment of your time.
After Grindhouse, Machete, and Hobo With A Shotgun (all of which are, admittedly hilarious and fun), this is the film that actually does feel like a road flick straight out of the occult-fearing ’70s. The plot is juuuuust sturdy enough to wrap the whole picture around (cult killed Nic Cage’s daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter, who must be saved), leaving the bulk of the work to be done by the zany dialogue, the outlandish action, and some bonkers character acting. Cage, contrary to many opinions, actually did himself a favor by refusing to play into his typical, loud shouting Cage-isms, maintaining a hilarious deadpan for much of the picture. Amber Heard, once again, proves herself to be one of the toughest, sexiest young starlets working right now, breathing life into what is easily the most extraneous character in the plot (she’s literally just “The Girl”). But it’s William Fichtner, at his absolute best as the pragmatic, satanic “Accountant” that makes the movie an absolute must-see; completely in tune with the vibe of the picture, he guns down innocents, charms FBI agents, and yes, drives angry, all without rumpling his funeral-man suit. While I was a fan of director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer’s previous collaboration, the rock-solid slasher My Bloody Valentine, it did not hint at just how far (and loony) the two were willing to go to push their clear love of vintage cinema into the 21st century.
With the dust settled, and with the memories of Horrible Bosses, Hangover Part II, The Change-Up, and even Bridesmaids already fading away, the funniest, most signature comedy of the year turned out to be this quick little dittie about a pair of idiots forcing a pair of slackers to rob a local bank. The pace of this thing is so fast, so relentless, and so generous (hilarious lines frequently overlap each other, making it prime for repeat viewings), that it is very easy to overlook the absurd amount of talent on display and just go along for the ride. Taking a closer look, you’ll see that Jesse Eisenberg, once again working with his Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, has added yet another flavor to his pantheon of characters with his underachieving, lovelorn stoner, as well as Danny McBride finding a character that doesn’t completely seem like a variation on Kenny Powers. Backing them up are a hilarious Aziz Ansari, contradicting Hollywood norms with his racially-nondescript Indian character, and Nick Swardson, setting aside the hammy, gay-tinged wisecracks for genuine character work, as well as Fred Ward and Michael Pena in hilarious smaller roles. There are no bare breasts, no elongated romantic subplots, and only one, pitch-perfect “bro” moment (“Yes, that is what she said!”), just an inspired plot, A+ jokes, and the cast (and director) to make it sing.
At last, a flick that you’ll actually see on other people’s “Best Of 2011″ lists, and deservedly so; this Iranian domestic drama is a top-notch, subdued portrayal of family life in modern day Tehran, and of the religious and socio-economic politics that cloud people’s ethics. With the full title “A Separation of Nader from Simin,” the film revolves around a married couple and their daughter as the parents attempt to separate due to Simin’s (the wife) desire to move out of Iran, while Nader refuses to abandon his ailing father. Once Simin moves out, a series of events transpires that threaten the couple’s integrity, freedom, and even their lives, which could potentially be blamed on the separation. The film is decidedly low-key, with very little in terms of visual flourishes, let alone pretentious heavy-handedness or in-your-face spectacle, but the bare-bones style lends itself to the humdrum, naturalistic feeling of living in these characters’ shoes. The acting is excellent across the board, with the performances of two young girls, the Alzheimer-ridden grandfather, and his new maid standing out as particularly impressive. It is just such a treat to see a genuine, 100% Iranian film that does not succumb to religious or metaphorical fervor to get its drama across, as well as one that seems to acknowledge, and comment on, the personal and societal implications of living in such a specific, religious society. The fact that our tensions with Iran remain so high provides an added impact to the scenes that depict the everyday life of several characters that does not seem far removed from our own, here in America, AT ALL. This deconstructive element is what makes the film truly haunting, and gives it far more poignancy than any potential American remake or adaptation.
The rare case of “style-over-substance” where the style actually works. The attitude contained within this gangbusters popcorn flick is so potent, so unrelentingly confident, that any desire for pathos, intimacy, or genuine human content is put on hold for the duration of the flick; the laughs, the thrills, and the straight-up gasps of disbelief permeate the picture like the sweat that covers every characters’ face (and several key characters shiny bald heads). I have been asking basically anyone within earshot to name me another franchise’s fifth entry that is the highlight of the series, and I’ve come up with nothing; this is the lone case in, as far as I can tell, the history of cinema where the filmmakers behind the FIFTH go around finally figured out how to make the best movie out of their material. The last one took care of bringing Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Jordana Brewster back together, but this one joins them up with the most memorable characters from each film for a crazy heist film that demolishes the street racing-centric content of the first four (shall we call them the Slow Four). The Rio De Janeiro location is the best of the series, beating out L.A., Miami, and Tokyo with the extreme heat, unpredictable locals, and abundant, easily-demolished favelas. And, as every positive review of this film has mentioned, The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson, whom I pray one day buys his moniker away from Vince McMahon) is the best icing on the cake a cake ever had; miles away from slumming it, he, as well as his chemistry with Vin Diesel, injects the film with an unchartable level of machismo and energy that Rob Cohen probably never imagined possible 10 years ago while directing the first Fast and Furious. Maybe the best film to see with an audience this year.
The ultimate metaphor for the United States; the most patriotic, old-fashioned “America, Fuck Yeah!”-type flick to come out since 9/11 grossed about $15 million more in foreign markets than it did in the very country MENTIONED IN THE TITLE. My guess is that this film, with its WWII setting (complete with Nazi vllains), its “aw, shucks” lead character, and its geographically clear action scenes, was just too old-fashioned for many contemporary American audiences. This does not change the fact that the film may, very well, usurp Iron Man as my favorite Marvel Studios film to date. The pace is unbelievable for a film like this; with no shortage of supporting characters, a massive globe-hopping scope, and a half century-spanning plotline, the film rarely slows down for a breath, and when it does, the script (cowritten by an uncredited Joss Whedon), actors, and direction are more than up to the challenge. Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, and Stanley Tucci add a distinct level of professionalism to the cast, while Haley Atwell is a shockingly good (and capable) romantic interest. But it’s Chris Evans, finally cementing himself as an A-list star, who walks away with the film in his pocket; the fact that his melodramatic final scenes work at all is a testament to how relatable his portrayal of such a old-fashioned, idealized American character ended up being. Better than director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, which certainly ain’t no lemon.
The fact that no one has mentioned Demian Bichir for a serious awards push for a Best Actor oscar is an absolute crime. His portrayal of a Mexican immigrant struggling to provide for his teenage son is so hauntingly human and cliche-free that it hurts to see him go so completely unrecognized for his efforts. His son, as well as the rest of the cast, is no slouch, creating a portrait of Los Angeles and its Mexican community that is far removed from similar portrayals on film. Director Chris Weitz does not shy away from the ugliness of such poverty-stricken, illegal communities; we see rooms stuffed to the gills with illegals in bunkbeds, tatted-up gang members, and the most petty, unwarranted theft imaginable. But what he should be commended for is also highlighting the love, between families, friends, and loved ones, that is just as prominent and true as the more depressing elements in this society. While the film is similar to, and follows several beats of, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, no scene is obvious; the oncoming tragedies somehow become quiet successes, and the moments of tranquility are often interrupted by unexpected (yet thoroughly realistic) drama. The subject of Mexican immigration into the U.S. has become such a hot topic for politicians and rabble-rousers that it is easy to forget the human heart(s) beating at its center; this film is a phenomenal attempt to shed light on the massive, strained, and very real efforts of those who are willing to sacrifice everything, dignity included, to provide for the people they love.
The geek flick of the year. This snarky, film-savvy update of E.T./Close Encounters of the Third Kind completely kicks Super-8′s ass in terms of its reverence of Spielberg (I do not recall any appearance, audio or visual, from the bearded one in J.J.’s flick, do you?), but also gives tribute to the various sci-fi enterprises that fuel geekdom in the U.S. and abroad. The simple gimmick (an alien seeks protection from two Englishmen who are just as alien as he is) is given life by the chemistry of one of the best duos in film right now, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, along with the excellent addition of Seth Rogen’s voice as the titular alien. The rest of the supporting cast is incredible: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, John Caroll Lynch, and especially Jason Bateman are absolutely hilarious without being too showy or distracting. The ending, which, much like Super-8, settles for merely aping one of the films its referencing, actually made me more emotional than the films it pays homage to. This is the Land of the Lost of this year, meaning it could totally get away with using the old-time Universal Pictures logo at the header.
Epic Japanese cinema to put Kurosawa to shame. This update of Seven Samurai is more focused, personal, and viscerally powerful than the alleged classic that inspired it. Director Takashi Miike achieves a level of professionalism and classic storytelling that was previously unseen in the admittedly-still awesome Ichi The Killer, Audition, or Sukiyaki Western Django. The depiction of the weary, unused, dying-off samurai is more potent than many westerns that have gone for the same idea, and the notion of undying loyalty even in the defense of true evil has rarely been as affecting and tragic as it is here. The final battle, almost (but not quite) comical in the amount of blood drawn and bodies amassed, contains several of the most nail-biting, intense action beats of the year, with one particular rampage inspiring nearly the same level of glee that Hit Girl’s hallway shootout caused last year. I still cannot really believe how much more I enjoyed this film than Seven Samurai, or its American remake, The Magnificent Seven; for a more detailed breakdown on how Miike managed to improve on two cinematic classics, read my full comparison here.
The most watchable film of 2011. This intense slow-burn of a love story has attitude, violence, and pathos to spare, and makes a genuine icon out of Ryan Gosling. I cannot really talk about this like a real movie; despite stellar performances (ALBERT BROOKS?!!!), excellently expressive visuals, and a crazy-sexy-cool soundtrack, you will not know until you are watching the film whether it will work for you or it won’t. If it doesn’t, here’s what happens: you spend a lot of time waiting for stuff to happen, you laugh at the silly, mostly-silent love story between Gosling and Carey Mulligan, and you forget about the film shortly after seeing it while beating your head trying to figure out what people liked about it. When it works for you, it does something like no other film this year: it puts you in a trance-like state, where you are forced to accept the film on its own terms by absorbing every nuance, every gesture, and every moment like a neon-soaked street. Many people have decried this film as a superficial case of “style-over-substance,” while others have proclaimed its romantic elements as a fairy tale-esque reimagining of a straightforward love story; somewhere in between is the truth, with the lush visual landscape providing a stark contrast against the intimate, sparse romance. I could go on and on about what works in this film and what doesn’t, but in the end, as I’ve learned, this is truly a case of “you either like it, or you don’t,” and I fucking LOVE it.
In the recent PBS documentary on Woody Allen, there’s a clip of Chris Rock saying, in reference to Woody Allen, “This guy’s been good for 40 years. Who out there is good for 20 years? Who’s good for 10 years? Or 5 years?” Even such a generous statement is modest praise; he may have been “good” for 40 years, but who would’ve ever thought he would’ve been making one of his all-time masterpieces after the age of 75? This one of my two favorite Allen flicks (and I’ve seen nearly all of them), and it exists as a counterpoint to my other favorite, Crimes and Misdemeanors; whereas that film examined the blind chance and amorality of an objectively cold universe, this film is steeped in romanticism, and is a meditation on the ability (and burden) of the imagination to lend life and love to an abstract, be it art, love, or, in this case, time. The main character, as played by Owen Wilson, reflects Woody’s internal idealization of Paris and the artists who treated it as a cultural Mecca without ever succumbing to merely imitating the mannered auteur. The supporting cast is filled with names, including Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen, and Adrian Brody in a 5-star cameo, but the one that sticks out the most is Corey Stoll, playing a certain boistrous literary legend; had the film revolved around his relationship with Wilson, it still would’ve remained a remarkable success, but the length at which Allen examines his vision of this era of art, literature, and music is breathtakingly personal and moving. There were a few films that feigned wide-eyed innocence this year (including The Muppets, Hugo, and Super-8), in an attempt to battle the increasing cynicism that Americans feel on a daily basis in today’s economic, political, and environmental climate; this was the one that worked, and it took a 75 year old neurotic who was around for Vietnam AND WWII to get it done.
A sweet, yet thoroughly realistic look at a family of three “normal” sisters and one thoroughly alienated brother. Paul Rudd’s titular character is his first since Anchorman that isn’t just another variation on his own tried-and-true persona, and it allows him to reach deeper into his bag of tricks, past his cynical brushoffs, into a more cuddly, yet destructively naiive territory. Many of us cannot, nor would we want to, have a character like him in our lives, but does that speak more to his childish, intellectually stagnant state or to our increasingly clutterred, self-important existences? Rudd’s also backed up by one of the best ensembles of the year, with Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, Zooey Deschanel, T.J. Miller, Kathryn Hahn, and Rashida Jones all creating memorable, relatable characters. A dramedy that actually brings the drama and comedy in ample portions.
People hate Tom Cruise. Like straight up HATE, and not even the religious crazies. People seem to hate him for being a cuckoo. But you got to have respect for being the cuckoo that will swing around on a wire off the world’s highest building simply for our amusement. Much has been written about the Burj Khalifa scene, in all of it’s 70mm IMAX glory, and the literal, physical feelings of vertigo it inspires, but it seriously cannot be complimented enough when looking at the various other set-pieces that dominated the 2011 blockbusters. The rest of the film is a rock-solid spy thriller, based around Cruise’s whole team this time, rather than just his Ethan Hunt character, with several other showstopping action scenes such as a Kremlin heist and a final, multi-level boss battle with the main villain. I had heard that this film was little more than excuse to shepherd Jeremy Renner’s character as Tom Cruise’s replacement for further Mission: Impossibles; by making this film the best of the series since the original, Cruise and director Brad Bird have cemented the eccentric star as the figurehead for this signature, continually evolving, and limiltlessly exciting franchise.
There’s no reason Asgard should’ve worked. None. Let alone become the best part of the film. Connecting the absurd, Norse mythology-based elements of Thor with the rest of the ongoing Marvel Studios saga still seems vaguely incongruous in a way that will, almost certainly, be addressed in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers this summer. But Thor’s home planet was so gloriously rendered, so camp-free, yet weighty in all the right ways, that it was the fish-out-of-water plotline of Thor on Earth that came off as the lesser element in the film. That being said Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings deserve credit for grounding the high-concept politics with good old fashioned human witticisms and pathos. But it’s a thankless task, as they could not compete with Tom Hiddleston’s nefarious Loki, Anthony Hopkins bellowing, powerful Odin, or, especially, Idris Elba’s golden-eyed gatekeeper, Heimdall. The action, particularly the opening fight against the Frost Giants, is well-rendered and interesting for Kenneth Branagh, a noob in the tentpole genre. It is Branagh’s Shakespeare-lite treatment of the familial and political struggles on Asgard that truly make the Viking world sing, and give the film its identity among the other Avengers prequels. And it made me like the idea of Chris Hemsworth as an action star (lotta women too).
Check in next year, where you’ll probably see flicks like The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, and Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie alongside already-seen masterworks like Cabin in the Woods and The Grey.