Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011: It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times...at the movies



At the end of the year, it can be a slog to compile a list of films. What will make the cut as the absolute tops? What will qualify as the worst of the turkeys? Well, 2011 was quite a challenge to narrow down the best because there was such a slew of pretty stellar films. Of the 155 films I saw from January 2011 to December 2011, 46 were graded B + and up (A being the highest). According to my own grading system, only one D - and one F were distributed. Now, let's count down the best of the best and the worst of the worst of 2011.

Top 10

1.) Drive - Smooth, alive, aurally and visually stylish, and cast to a fare-thee-well, "Drive" is only a genre piece on the surface. It's a lot more than that; a neo-noirish crime thriller, a character study, a love story, and a mood piece that completely envelops you in its atmosphere. It's a fantastic entertainment for the mainstream, ecstasy for movie lovers, and electrifying work of art that should make director Nicolas Winding Refn a household name.

2.) The Descendants - Alexander Payne's latest is so intimate and honest that it leaves even more of a catharsis. Wise, human, and moving, "The Descendants" stands perfectly strong next to Payne's body of work ("Citizen's Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt," and "Sideways"). Watching an actor in foreign terrain is exciting, and a dressed-down George Clooney turns in a subtle, seriocomic performance of sadness and complexity. Say "mahalo" to Mr. Payne.

3.) 50/50 - Who knew a movie about "the big C" could be funny? Not the disease itself, but one young man's response to cancer and the acceptance of his own mortality. Half-tragedy and half-comedy, "50/50" avoids the sudsy trappings of a disease-of-the-week telepic and treads a tricky tightrope, making it some kind of wonderful. Humorously prickly, profoundly moving, and emotionally true, "50/50" is quite the balanced package.

4.) Martha Marcy May Marlene - The title might slip your mind and twist your tongue, but "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is a low-key, haunting, and emotionally riveting piece of work. It's writer-director Sean Durkin's feature debut, winning him the Best Director prize at Sundance, and a coming-out showcase for the gifted young Elizabeth Olsen. She's mesmerizing to watch in this startling psychological drama.

5.) Beginners - "Beginners" might have seemed self-consciously cutesy in the wrong hands, but it has a sincerity and an optimism, tinged with moments of perceptive emotional truth grounded in loneliness, love, and the comfort of one's own skin. Writer-director Mike Mills based the story on his own life--his father coming out at an old age and just living his life--but "Beginners" feels both personal and universal. Sensitive, tender, and genuinely sweet, it's the kind of movie you want to hug.

6.) Super 8 - There's a new Steven Spielberg in town. If it weren't for Spielberg, "Super 8" would not exist. Not because he's the executive producer (which he is), but because the film is so Spielbergian in its spirit and technique. Loving, thrilling, and engaging, this homage melds coming-of-age nostalgia, family dynamics, movie-making, puppy love, and monster B-movies all into one "good-old-day" summer entertainment.

7.) Bridesmaids - "Bridesmaids" is comic bliss. This raunchy, rowdy, R-rated, and yet warmly felt, human, and always fun marriage of gross-out hijinks and female-centric charm is a testament to Kristen Wiig's brilliance as a comedy goddess. It's too smart to be called another "chick flick" (a sexist and condescending label anyway") and more than just "Bride of 'The Hangover.'"

8.) We Need to Talk About Kevin - Unlike the structurally straightforward but rawly affecting "Beautiful Boy" from earlier this year, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is not about the shocking event that a sociopathic son commits, but the aftermath. It might have been problematic as a glib exploitation pic, but really, it's a horror drama about grief and birth being the root of all evil that's as devastating and unsettling as parenting can be. Tilda Swinton also gives the performance of her life.

9.) Bellflower - For a dark, angsty-twentysomething indie, "Bellflower" is pretty much the coolest, most daring and arresting mumblecore/grindhouse pre-apocalypse film ever made. Evan Glodell, the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, not only wrote, directed, co-produced, co-edited, and stars in his audacious feature debut, but built the camera with his own hands. It's so alive and forceful to be capable of combustion, and Glodell is one to follow and see what he'll do next.

10.) Hugo & The Artist - Though marketed as Martin Scorsese's first family film, "Hugo" is about adventure as much as it is a love letter to film history, preservation and everything cinema, and therefore grows to be targeted more towards film historians and scholars. A rapturous, enchanting treasure, "Hugo" is a movie with a heart and a soul. Scorsese's paean to the dreams that inspire magic in the movies is something special. 


Tied for #10, "The Artist" makes a mouth-watering double bill for cinema lovers. And yes, it is a B&W silent film. It could have just stopped as a scholarly gimmick evoking the retro spirit of the Silent Film Era, but it's more of a loving, inspired love letter to film as a whole, whether it be "silents" or "talkies." Take a chance on this beguiling, irresistible delight.

Honorable Mention(in alphabetical order)
Arthur ChristmasAttack the Block, Contagion, Cedar Rapids, Crazy Stupid Love, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The HelpHesher, InsidiousMelancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolThe Muppets, The Myth of the American Sleepover, My Week with Marilyn, RangoRed State, Scream 4, Submarine, Terri, Winnie the Pooh, Win WinThe Woman

Now for the Worst of 2011. Cue the gobbles.

1.) The Human Centipede (Full Sequence) - Daringly grotesque and sickeningly wrong as it was, “The Human Centipede” was not gratuitous or easily lumped into today’s torture-porn subgenre. As for “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence),” it’s every bit gratutious and shock-for-shock’s-sake exploitation. Sick, disgusting, vile, artless, disturbing (insert more synonyms here), nothing short of a miserable experience.

2.) Jack and Jill - It takes a bad movie, like "Jack and Jill," to put into perspective just how precious a harmlessly mediocre movie, like "Just Go With It," really is, especially when your name is Adam Sandler. His production company, Happy Madison, routinely churns out flatulence-infested crap, but Jack and Jill is the final insult. A cynical, insultingly stupid, and odiously unfunny farce, it’s definite proof that these man-children haven’t learned any new jokes since they were eight years old.

3.) Creature - While it has the classic setup for a get-what-you-pay-for slasher pic with a swamp thing, "Creature" sells itself short. It's little more than straight-to-DVD fare and a depressing waste of budgetary resourcefulness, gory prosthetic body parts, and female nudity. Somehow this received a nationwide theatrical release, but makes other bad B-movies seem fun by comparison. Where's Swamp Thing when you need him?

4.) Super - An oddball, anarchic edge can always be appreciated, but this indie-hipster sibling to "Kick-Ass" has such a contempt for its characters and audiences. Intends to be a geeky, subversive goof that deconstructs superhero conventions, but "Super" is smug and off-putting. Ellen Page, bless her, turns in a gonzo performance, but there's no one to root for.

5.) Sleeping Beauty - Only associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale by its title, “Sleeping Beauty” attempts to pass itself off as an erotic art film. But really, it’s just masturbatory filmmaking and pretentious nonsense. Like an abstract piece of art you’d find in a museum, “Sleeping Beauty” will only be appreciated and understood by its artist. It’s icky when it should provoke something other than off-putting titilation.

6.) Salvation Boulevard - On paper, "Salvation Boulevard" has a tops ensemble and a potentially biting premise for a religious comedy-thriller. But the result is a muddled misfire. Misguided, irritating, and patronizing, it's a bust from shrill, cartoony performances, confused tones eating at each other, jokes being unable to write themselves, and a narrative that goes around in circles.

7.) Love, Wedding, Marriage - As a leading man of romantic comedies himself (let alone with "wedding" in the title), Dermot Mulroney should've known better than what he phones in as his directorial debut. That would be "Love, Wedding, Marriage," the ball-and-chain rom-com that's too sitcommy to be insightful and too unfunny to be a sitcom and ends up just being an insult to sitcoms.

8.) Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star - What would Adam Sandler's friends do without him? They'd probably all be busboys or cab drivers, or maybe be running for Congress! But it's worse: they're still getting star vehicles out of his production company Happy Madison. "Bucky Larson" may be eligible of a few more chuckles than "It's Pat: The Movie," but it's still insufferable.

9.) Your Highness - In a nutshell, "Your Highness" is "The Princess Bride" with cock jokes. Never amusing as you want it to be, this medieval stoner-comedy feels like the work of 15-year-old boys, old enough to see an R-rated goof like this and immature enough to find four-letter-words hilarious. It's a lazy, lame, lowbrow mess of missed opportunities.

10.) Abduction - Taylor Lautner may be able to carry a cover of “Tiger Beat,” but an entire movie is a different story. Down the road, Lautner could be an action hero, but “Abduction” is the wrong vehicle to promise that. There’s plenty to laugh at, not with, in a vapid, underthought potboiler, also one of the more sloppily edited movies in recent memory.

Dishonorable Mention: Beastly, Hall Pass, Hobo with a Shotgun, Passion Play, Priest, The Roommate, Rubber, Sanctum, 30 Minutes or Less, Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Favorite Performances
Actresses

1) Charlize Theron in "Young Adult"
2) Elizabeth Olsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
3) Kristen Wiig in "Bridesmaids"
4) Tilda Swinton in "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
5) Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn"
6) Octavia Spencer in "The Help"
7) Rooney Mara in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
8) Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs"
9) Janet McTeer in "Albert Nobbs" 
10) Kirsten Dunst in "Melancholia"
11) Jessica Chastain in "The Help" 
12) Felicity Jones in "Like Crazy"
13) Shailene Woodley in "The Descendants"
14) Pollyanna McIntosh in "The Woman"
15) Brit Marling in "Another Earth"
16) Anne Heche in "Cedar Rapids"
17) Kate Winslet in "Carnage"
18) Judy Greer in "The Descendants"
19) Berenice Bejo in "The Artist"
20) Anjelica Huston in "50/50"

Actors
(that excludes Ryan Seacrest in "New Year's Eve")

1) Ryan Gosling in "Drive"
2) Patton Oswalt in "Young Adult"
3) Albert Brooks in "Drive"
4) Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50"
5) Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
6) Ben Kingsley in "Hugo"
7) Matt Damon in "We Bought a Zoo"
8) Brad Pitt in "Moneyball"
9) Christoph Waltz in "Carnage"
10) Jeremy Irons in "Margin Call"
11) George Clooney in "The Descendants"
12) Ezra Miller in "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
13) Leonardo DiCaprio in "J. Edgar"
14) Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn"
15) Ed Helms in "Cedar Rapids"
16) Paul Giamatti in "Win Win"
17) John Goodman in "Red State"
18) Armie Hammer in "J. Edgar"
19) Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
20) Steve Carell in "Crazy, Stupid Love"

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