March 16, 2012

A Belated Look at the Year in Movies: 2011

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:56 pm
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As I’ve noted in some of my Oscar season write-ups, 2011 was not such a memorable year for movies. Most film critics and journalists agreed. Personally, there wasn’t anything in 2011 that I loved as much as I love my favorite movies from the past few years. Nothing hit the same heights as the likes of Inception, Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, The Fighter, The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, Toy Story 3, Atonement, The Departed or The Social Network. There were plenty of movies that I liked, and a few that I can even say I loved….but whatever magical alchemy elevated titles like the ones listed above, nothing in 2011 quite got there.

Normally I reject a traditional top ten list in favor of just a straightforward rundown of the movies that impacted me most during the year, ranking only the cream of the crop and then listing the rest alphabetically. This year there’s nothing I can claim as a single favorite, so it’s right to the alphabetical listing we go. And as you’ll see, there are still plenty of movies worth mentioning.

A note on the late arrival of this list: usually I’m able to catch up with the end-of-year releases by late January or early February, allowing me to get this out there during Oscar season while the previous year’s movies are still top of everyone’s mind. This year, a couple of contenders that I was determined to see before finalizing my list didn’t open in the Bay Area until late February/early March. So I waited. But hell, nobody I know sees as many current movies as I do anyway, so if this list is offering suggestions for you, you’d probably be looking for titles to rent or stream anyway. I could put this list out in August and it would come in handy for some of you. I’m still trying to get my parents to rent movies from 2007.

Anyway, let’s get to it. The best movies I saw in 2011 are….

I’ve always found that on Saturday Night Live, a little bit of Kristen Wiig goes a long way. Her gallery of over-the-top characters tend to wear thin quickly. I enjoy her most when she plays normal people with a comic twist: Jason Bateman’s philandering wife in Extract, co-manager of the amusement park in Adventureland or the catty TV exec in Knocked Up. It was her small role in that film that prompted its director Judd Apatow to ask her if she had any ideas to pitch for a film of her own. Writing for herself (co-writing, actually, with her friend Annie Mumalo), Wiig smartly opts for a grounded character rather than a heightened one, and gives a great performance that goes beyond just comedy. She plays Annie – thirtysomething, single, deep in debt and generally not in the best place emotionally. When her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged and asks Annie to be her maid of honor, Annie’s personal life begins tumbling to new lows. The movie is full of the kind of awkward comedy that is painful to watch even while eliciting uncontrollable laughter, and Wiig is unafraid to look foolish. The worse things get for Annie, the funnier the movie becomes, yet we feel for her completely. Her explosive moment of catharsis at the bridal shower makes you want to cheer even as she humiliates herself in front of a mass of guests. The entire ensemble is terrific, but the standout supporting performance comes from Melissa McCarthy as the groom’s sister Megan. Like Wiig, McCarthy is an up-for-anything performer who plays beyond the comedy of a scene. She buries Megan’s social awkwardness under brazen confidence, creating a unique character and stealing the movie.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this movie. It showcases a different side of Hawaii than the paradise getaway we usually see on film. It tells an engaging story in which a family’s tragedy dovetails with the stakes of a real estate deal that will affect the lives of a vast number of people in vastly different ways. (That might sound boring. It’s not.) It offers George Clooney the chance to explore the uncharted territory of playing a flawed everyman. But where I found it most interesting – and most relatable – was in its exploration of the small choices people face from day to day, and the effort to reconcile conflicting emotions and desires. When do we put our own credibility or ego first, and when do we keep it in check for the sake of someone else?  When do we speak up in our defense and when do we hold our tongue? When do we correct someone’s mistaken notion and when do we let them keep believing a lie that offers them peace of mind? More specifically, how does a rebellious teen deal with resenting her father while feeling protective and defensive on his behalf because her mother is cheating on him? How does that father establish parent-child boundaries with a maturing daughter whose moral support he needs in confronting the infidelity? The answers aren’t always easy, but the characters in The Descendants try their best to navigate these choppy waters of everyday life. As usual, director Alexander Payne guides the movie with a sure, unassuming hand, and he casts to near perfection. Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges are all great in small roles, and Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley are terrific as Clooney’s daughters – one too young to quite grasp everything that’s going on, the other able to grasp it all too well.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn draws inspiration from many sources to create one of the year’s most original movies. It’s a stylistic marriage of Michael Mann and David Lynch, with one eye and ear tuned to retro 80’s cool while the other eye and ear are cast toward creating something along the lines of a superhero origin story. This is no comic book movie, but Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character – referred to in the credits as merely Driver, and frequently clad in a signature scorpion-emblazoned white jacket – is, as the film’s evocative theme song proclaims, a real human being and a real hero. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic by day, an occasional getaway car driver by night, and generally a man of few words and few friends who keeps to himself…until he becomes acquainted with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and soon enough her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), just released from prison. When he steps outside of his usual boundaries, his life gets quickly complicated. Drive subverts expectations at every turn, from the inspired casting of Albert Brooks as a genial but calculating mobster to the progression of Driver’s relationships with both Irene and Standard. Even the title of the movie suggests speed and propulsion, when in fact it’s remarkably still, quiet and deliberately paced. The expertly executed opening sequence illustrates this quality, showing that a car chase doesn’t have to involve crashes and chaos to be thrilling and involving. (Take some notes, Michael Bay.) Refn never loses the sweetness and romance of the movie even when it takes a dark turn and becomes increasingly (at times shockingly) violent. Enhanced by a dreamy pop-synth soundtrack and beautifully lit camerawork, it’s the moodiest, most atmospheric movie of the year…and probably the closest to a single favorite I could name.

From Joe Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, comes an art-house action film starring the amazing young Irish actress Saorise Ronan. Seriously, this girl is already in Kate Winslet/Cate Blanchett territory. Just from a technical standpoint, look at the accents she’s done in a mere five years of work: British (Atonement), American (The Lovely Bones), Russian (The Way Back) and now German. Hanna casts her as the daughter of rogue CIA agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who has raised her in hiding and equipped her with a survival skill set that pretty much makes her a killing machine. When the time comes to make their presence known, Hanna ventures out on her own to incur the pursuit of Heller’s icy former handler, Marisa Viegler, played with relish by Blanchett. In the process, Hanna begins to understand where she came from and why she’s so special. It’s a showcase role for Ronan, who brings the same laser-like focus, intensity and intelligence that helped earn her an Oscar nomination for Atonement at age 13. And sweet Jesus, does she kick some ass! She’s like the lovechild of Jason Bourne and La Femme Nikita.

The supporting cast also includes standout work from Jessica Barden as a girl Hanna’s age who befriends her while traveling with her family. Blanchett and Ronan don’t get much screen time together, and I wish they’d had more – not just for the pleasure of seeing two such gifted actresses work opposite each other, but more importantly because the story would have benefitted from allowing their characters to learn a bit more about each other. Nevertheless, this is a stylish and intense fusion of drama, action and thriller built around a fascinating character and a gripping lead performance.

Just a few months shy of ten years from the first Harry Potter film’s release, the final film bowed and, just as J.K. Rowling’s final book did, ended the series on a high note. Strictly from a book-to-film standpoint, it might be the best adaptation of the series (oh yes, I still had issues with it, but they bothered me less this time around than they often do). Given how much material – much of it expository or going on in Harry’s head – had to be omitted, screenwriter Steve Kloves does a truly skillful job of constructing the narrative, finding clever and even daring ways around some of the missing material, as well as paying off some of the cuts from the last two movies which seemed harmful to the story at the time. As the films have progressed, many aspects have grown more impressive, so that here in the final film they appropriately reach their pinnacle. The visual effects are elegant and consistently strong, the music score by Alexandre Desplat is effectively deployed and draws nicely on John Williams’ original themes, and most importantly, Daniel Radcliffe does his best work to date. He was always fine, but he was also the weakest of the main three actors. Yet he improved as he grew, and really started to hit his stride in the fifth film (his scene with Gary Oldman in front of the Black family tree remains maybe his single best moment). This final installment demands a lot from Radcliffe, and he rises fully to the occasion, bringing Harry’s journey to a close with an emotionally rich and touching performance. I do wish some of the actors and characters had been given more to do in this swan song (Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid was especially shortchanged), but on the other hand Maggie Smith got more screentime than she has of late, and of course Alan Rickman did not disappoint as he finally got to play the scenes that every Potter fan has been waiting for. Much more could be said (and I’ll eventually unleash my Potter-nerd series of deep-dives into all the books and films), but for now it should suffice that after a decade of magic onscreen and off, producer David Heyman, director David Yates, Kloves and their talented cast and crew brought the Harry Potter films to a highly satisfying conclusion.

J.C. Chandor becomes a writer/director to watch on the strength of this debut film about a Lehman Brothers-like investment firm during the roughly 24 hours in which they realize they’re about to implode. The film is absorbing from the start, when young analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) follows up on a request from his boss (Stanley Tucci) – who’s just been laid off – to investigate a possible problem. What Sullivan discovers turns out to be disastrous, and is soon making its way up a chain of command whose players scramble to grasp what’s about to happen and what consequences will result. There’s a fascination in watching the people at each level relate to their superiors and subordinates, especially since half of them seem to have only a partial understanding of what the crunched numbers represent. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons, but this is not just a collection of name actors brought in to gussy up a flat story. The plot crackles with tension, and the characters are as sharply drawn as the Wall Street culture is observed, with each actor getting a chance to shine as they play out the anxiety that grips them deep into the night. And Chandor evocatively captures the feeling of such a long and tumultuous night, where the characters experience both urgency and fatigue amidst the eerie quiet and stillness of a normally bustling office now mostly deserted. Chandor’s movie is not a morality play, and he’s not interested in passing judgement on the characters for what they do. He is an observer, showing us objectively what happens at this company on this day, and how the people involved deal with it. There are no caricatures of evil bankers here, but three-dimensional individuals who embody complicated and varied attitudes. The movie works even if you don’t fully understand the financial machinations that drive the plot (and I admit that I didn’t). It’s still a compelling drama and character piece, as well as a race-against-the-clock thriller devoid of Hollywood artificiality. An impressive piece of work all around.

Woody Allen doesn’t doesn’t do “fanciful” too often, but when he does, he usually does it well (one of my favorite Allen movies is The Purple Rose of Cairo)Midnight in Paris is no exception, and something about it struck a chord with audiences; it’s his biggest hit ever. Part of the appeal surely lies with Owen Wilson, who brings his usual off-kilter charm and doesn’t lose his way trying to do the neurotic Woody impersonation that can sometimes trip up the filmmaker’s surrogates. But it’s the affectionate magic of the story that really sells it, as Wilson’s Gil – a writer who pines for the artistic nirvana of Paris in the 1920’s – finds himself somehow transported to that beloved era each evening when the clock strikes twelve, bringing him into the company of such luminaries as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway (a great performance by Corey Stoll). He also finds unexpected romance with a lesser known artist played by Marion Cotillard. This journey into a Paris past transfixed me as much as it does Gil, and I loved the romance of the movie – not romance in a “love story” sense, but romance toward painting, literature, music and all the art that inspires us.

This one’s not going to shatter anyone’s world, but I was completely taken with it, thanks largely to the open-hearted performance of Paul Rudd as the title character, Ned – not really an idiot at all, but rather a guileless, naive hippie whose lifestyle is a far cry from that of his three urbanite sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel). When he shows up for an extended visit, he bounces between living with the three of them, inadvertently complicating their already  dysfunctional lives. It’s as simple as that, but the movie is pure sweet entertainment and often laugh-out-loud funny. As if Rudd, Banks, Mortimer and Deschanel weren’t enough, the impressive comedic ensemble also boasts Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and T.J. Miller, the latter two especially noteworthy as Ned’s ex-girlfriend and her affable new beau. What can I say? I was smiling from start to finish.

After sitting through trailer after trailer for silly looking animated movies with the same types of goofy sidekicks and proclamations of 3D, it was a real pleasure to get to the feature presentation – a unique, smart, funny and beautifully animated movie in glorious, perfectly eye-popping 2D! Johhny Depp enthusiastically voices the title character, a domesticated lizard with a flair for the theatrical, who finds himself stranded in a desert town that’s experiencing a ruinous drought. The movie comes from Pirates of the Carribean director Gore Verbinski, who has created something special here that stands out in an already impressive and packed landscape of contemporary animation. While Pixar’s movies have a polished sheen, and Dreamworks often melds a cartoony look with stylized design, the animation in Rango has a gritty, organic feel that makes it stand apart from the crowd. It’s as stunning and gorgeous as anything out there, and demonstrates that Industrial Light & Magic – the visual effects titan behind Verbinski’s Pirates movies and countless others from Star Wars to Transformers – could carve its own place in the animation game if it continues down the road of producing features. Of course, to match the substance of Rango would require directors as inventive as Verbinski and screenplays as witty as the one here from the prolific John Logan. It’s packed with references to movies that will keep adults smiling (Chinatown is a particularly notable influence), not that they need any reason to smile beyond the clever setpieces, sumptuous visuals and amusing gallery of characters supporting Depp’s charming lead lizard.

This Iranian film from writer/director Asghar Farhadi, newly minted with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a knockout drama that addresses universal experiences occurring in a culture we in the west know little about and are too quick to judge. The story begins with a husband and wife appearing in court because the wife has requested a divorce. She wants to raise their 11-year old daughter outside Iran, but her husband is bound to stay and care for his Alzheimer-stricken father. When the divorce is refused, the wife moves out, setting into motion a series of events that have heartbreaking consequences for two families. To say any more would be a disservice to how it all unfolds, but trust me when I say that this is an engrossing and immaculately constructed story, and an ingenious one for the way it takes such a simple domestic situation and lifts it to such devastating heights. The characters are decent people facing ordinary yet daunting problems, resulting in every nuance of every behavior feeling understandable at every turn. Nobody is completely right or completely wrong or free of guilt, and the tragic clash of pride and honor against self-preservation is riveting to behold. It’s a wonderfully acted and thoroughly explored story of people under pressure.

This is a movie that one might list among their favorites of the year the way they might call Schindler’s List a favorite. It’s not exactly something you look to for entertainment, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t engrossed watching it. Michael Fassbender is magnetic as Brandon – handsome, successful, disconnected from his feelings and feeding his insatiable sexual needs however he can. His neat and ordered existence is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, equally impressive), whose emotional baggage spills everywhere while Brandon keeps his tightly contained. Much is left deliberately unsaid about Brandon and Sissy, both as individuals and as siblings, so it falls to Fassbender and Mulligan to fill in the blanks with intimation and suggestion. Sissy is all exposed nerves, but tries to mask her neediness by appearing flirty and vivacious. In a way, she functions for Brandon as a femme fatale…not in the usual sense (as a lover), but as a force of danger. Mulligan acutely captures these conflicting traits and creates a powerful bond with Fassbender. He, of course, is fully committed to the role, baring as much emotionally as he does physically. His stare is as penetrating as his well-utilized appendage, but for everything his gaze suggests outwardly, it also reveals what’s going on inside. Brandon is closely guarded, but we see him reaching for something deeper, pushing himself for more and then succumbing to his demons when he can’t get there. In addition to the excellent performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie are spot-on as Brandon’s boss and an attractive co-worker, respectively.

This is the second feature from director Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Abi Morgan, and he draws on his art school background to tell the story with a simple but stark visual style. The crisp cinematography consists of some striking long takes that allow the actors to interact with a purity that serves the story well, and the antiseptic production design carries much of the load in drawing us into Brandon’s world. McQueen’s movie is an intelligent, provocative meditation on loneliness and addiction.

A morning commuter train heading toward Chicago explodes. The event precedes a larger attack planned for the city itself that will claim thousands of lives. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an Air Force pilot involved in a groundbreaking project that allows his consciousness to be placed in the body of one of the train’s passengers during the eight minutes leading up to the explosion. His mission is to identify the bomber so that the bigger, impending attack might be prevented. Over and over, he is sent in for eight minute increments until he can gather the necessary information, and as complex as the mission sounds, it proves even more so for Stevens as the reality of his situation becomes clearer.

Ben Ripley’s clever script is Groundhog Day meets Twelve Monkeys, with dashes of Avatar and Total Recall thrown in. But though the plot drives the movie, there is a strong and moving through-line for Stevens, and Gyllenhaal gives one of the best performances of his career, taking in the many confusions and the disorientation of Stevens’ situation and displaying the subtle shifts he goes through as he tries to reconcile his personal circumstances with the intricacies of his assignment. Gyllenhaal shows us physically what a man is experiencing mentally. The more information revealed about the character as the movie goes on, the wider the range of emotions the actor has to juggle while still serving the tense, forward-momentum of the plot. Michelle Monaghan pairs nicely with Gyllenhaal as a fellow passenger, while Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are both quite good in the tricky roles of the project’s administrators. Both exist for Stevens only as faces on the monitor of his capsule between trips back into the train, but they each find ways to enrich characters that might have functioned merely to serve the plot. Director Duncan Jones keeps it all moving fast, bringing the movie in at a tight 90 minutes. There’s no fat to be found, but it never skimps on the details, the character development or the emotional elements of the story. Don’t mistake this for a run-of-the-mill, tepid thriller. It’s an intimate sci-fi action movie that delivers on all fronts and invites both moral and plot-specific discussions after the credits roll.

There have been a select few filmmakers over the years whose work has such a distinct style and feel, their names have been adopted as adjectives. Hitchcockian. Capraesque. Spielbergian. Kubrickian. Altmanesque. Lynchian. I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing it, but surely Scorsesean has been used. I’ve definitely never seen Terrence Malick’s name adjectivized (yes, I just made up that word too), but in a directorial body of work that contains only five movies in a 40 year span, I don’t think anyone could argue that his style merits this treatment. So mark it down: today, I’m coining the term Malickesque. And of all Malick’s films, none are more Malickesque than The Tree of Life.

The usual elements are here: contemplative voiceovers, sometimes barely whispered; stunning cinematography, often consisting of lingering shots of nature; a grappling with philosophical issues. Also here is as authentic and mysterious a depiction of childhood – perhaps boyhood, specifically – as I’ve ever seen dramatized. The film follows a midwestern family in the 1950’s, where three boys share a youth that is both idyllic and ordinary, full of happiness but also tension. The latter tone is set by their father (Brad Pitt), a stern man who loves his family but has been hardened by dissatisfaction with his life’s progression. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) balances that with a warmth and love that’s like a protective shield. There’s no plot to speak of, so if you’ve come for plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’ve come for depth of character, you won’t find that either…not in the traditional sense, at least, though Pitt, Chastain and newcomer Hunter McCracken as eldest son Jack certainly breathe full life into their characters and invite us to experience their inner lives. We never even know the names of the other two sons. There’s little dialogue spoken between the characters. Malick is American cinema’s premier practitioner of impressionistic filmmaking, and he pushes his art further here than ever before. Prior to settling into observing the family, there is a lengthy sequence that many viewers found frustrating: Malick walks us through the creation of the universe and the beginnings of life on earth. We see explosions of color dancing through the cosmos, the formation of the galaxy, the first bits of slime to crawl from droplets of water. Equally esoteric is the end of the film, which features Sean Penn (who makes brief appearances earlier) as the grown Jack. I don’t want to give away the ending…not that doing so would constitute a typical spoiler…since a spoiler usually requires a plot to spoil. Do I understand what Malick is trying to convey in these sequences, beneath their obvious surface? No I don’t…though I can’t beat myself up too much over that since Penn remains just as unenlightened. In the end though, I don’t mind that Malick’s intentions and the deep questions about life, the universe and God that so fascinate him are somewhat lost on me. I acknowledge and accept the movie with all of its mysteries, as well as its flaws. This is a filmmaker who offers a truly singular vision, and like David Lynch – another director with a wholly individual and abstruse voice – I am always willing to surrender to his work. I have my problems with The Tree of Life, but it holds me rapt nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it and decide to take the plunge, watch it on the biggest screen possible.

A treat for film buffs and foodies alike, this mockumentary casts Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated (and not always flattering) versions of…Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It begins with Coogan inviting Brydon (somewhat reluctantly, when his girlfriend is unable to join him) on a week-long excursion through England’s northern countryside as he stays at nice inns and reviews upscale food for a magazine piece. It’s a kick to watch these two together since they obviously know each other so well and you’re never really sure where the line between their on-camera dynamic and their true relationship starts to blur. Their rapport is easy, but not necessarily comfortable, as Coogan is frequently irritated by Brydon and often slights and demeans him. They bicker frequently but also entertainingly as they riff on pop culture and impersonate other actors (their dueling Michael Caine bit is classic). Meanwhile, they’re eating some amazing-looking food, and we get a glimpse into the various kitchens as chefs prepare their dishes. You’ll be itching to go out for a really nice meal by the end. And so it goes as we accompany Coogan and Brydon talking, driving, eating and taking in some of their country’s history. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and it all leads to a surprisingly bittersweet coda. The film was culled from a TV series that aired on BBC, and as a result the DVD contains deleted scenes that run almost the same length as the feature. They’re well worth checking out if the movie leaves you craving more.

This terrific family drama stars up-and-comers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as brothers raised by a father (Nick Nolte) whose alcoholism tore the family apart, leaving them estranged from each other and from him. Tommy (Hardy) is a withdrawn Marine who served in Iraq, and Brendan is a high school physics teacher with a wife and two little girls. The three re-enter a common orbit when both brothers – who have backgrounds in mixed martial arts – enter an MMA tournament designed to bring the world’s best fighters together for a two-day elimination event with a $5 million payout. If you think you know where this is headed…you’re right. It goes exactly where you think it’s going. The film’s trailers made no attempt to hide it. But what matters is how we get there, and Warrior succeeds on the strength of a well-drawn script, restrained direction by Gavin O’Connor and a collection of strong performances by Hardy, Edgerton, Nolte, Jennifer Morrison and Frank Grillo (the latter two as Brendan’s wife and trainer, respectively). There are elements of the movie that may be traditional or predictable, but it overcomes that by getting the audience so invested in all three main characters. Tommy and Brendan both have a need for the money, and we want both of them to get it, just as we want to see them soften even a little bit toward their now sober father, Paddy. When the inevitable climactic scene arrives, it’s not just a physical match-up, but an emotionally fraught one, with Paddy bearing witness to a catharsis born from the damage he caused his family. One thing we don’t know from the beginning is how it will turn out, and though we get to see the immediate outcome, the long term resolution remains open-ended.

Sadly, Warrior didn’t catch on at the box office, but this is a movie that should have been a big hit. It’s a mature drama, but has all the elements of a Rocky or Karate Kid-like crowd-pleaser. One does not have to be an MMA fan to enjoy it, but the sport’s popularity should have raised the movie’s visibility. Hopefully it will find a new life in the home viewing arena, because it’s an enormously satisfying movie that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

What writer/director Tom McCarthy does is similar to what Alexander Payne does, yet he doesn’t get nearly the same degree of credit or accolades. Not that he’s ignored, but he deserves more attention and more praise for his sublime, original stories about ordinary people and the relationships that sustain them. His first two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, are centered on closed-off characters who dare to open themselves up to friendships that wind up changing their lives. Win Win doesn’t follow quite the same course, but certainly shares a similar DNA with its predecessors and cements McCarthy as a gifted storyteller worthy of mass attention. In his latest, Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a suburban lawyer, family man and coach of a failing high-school wrestling team. He’s a good person, but mounting money problems lead him to make a bad decision that involves duping an elderly client named Leo (Burt Young), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The plan seems sound enough to Mike, until Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Schaffer) shows up from out of state looking to stay. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take the kid in, jeopardizing Mike’s ploy but soon offering unexpected benefits as well. Better to let the details unfold when you watch it, but suffice it to say the movie is a gem. Simple, real, yet more inventive than it might appear at first glance. There’s nothing fancy about McCarthy’s movies. The camerawork and production design are straightforward and the characters are completely ordinary, which is exactly what draws us in and makes it so easy to get invested. McCarthy’s characters are your friends, neighbors and family members, and it’s no surprise that he draws such consistently great performances, considering that he’s an actor himself. (He hasn’t been in his own work yet, but has appeared in plenty of well known films and TV shows including Meet the Parents, The Wire, 2012, Boston Public and Good Night, and Good Luck.) Giamatti and Ryan are terrific, as is Melanie Lynsky as Kyle’s mother – long estranged from Leo. Bobby Cannavale is a standout as Mike’s longtime friend Terry,  but the real scene-stealer is newcomer Schaffer as the self-reliant Kyle, whose blonde-dyed mop of hair, nasaly twang and disarming nonchalance make him one of my favorite film characters of 2011.


So those were my very favorites of the year. But because there were many others that I liked and feel guilty not mentioning, I’ll go through a few that didn’t rank quite as high as those above but still made a lasting impression. Consider this Tier Two:

In this involving sci-fi romance, Matt Damon plays David Norris, a beloved politician who, on the evening of a crushing electoral defeat, has a chance meeting with a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). They’re forced to part suddenly, yet both are left feeling inexplicably drawn to each other. It soon transpires that their meeting was not so chance after all, nor is their chemistry without reason. When David stumbles upon the secret forces keeping him and Elise apart, he is determined to overcome them and unite with his true love. Damon and Blunt make a hugely appealing pair, and their love story and witty interplay are emphasized while the sci-fi elements are handled with a low-key realism. I dug it.

Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his graceful performance as Hal Fields, a septugenarian who, after the death of his wife, embraces the homosexuality he had suppressed for years to live a “normal” life as a husband and father. But his part is fairly small in the scheme of Beginners. The film’s true focus is on Hal’s son Oliver (an excellent Ewan McGregor)  and the budding romance he falls into almost immediately upon meeting Anna (equally excellent Mélanie Laurent) at a party. The movie is laced with quirks that writer/director Mike Mills – who based the film on his own experience with his late-blooming father – nicely balances with the warmth of the relationships as both Hal and Oliver sweetly embark on new personal adventures.

I sat down for this movie having not read the book nor seen the Swedish film (I have seen it since). My reaction was that David Fincher had directed the shit out of a fairly ho-hum murder mystery that wasn’t much of a grabber in and of itself. But under Fincher’s guidance, the film sure is. The cinematography, art direction, score and sound design combine to create a visceral experience, kicked off so effectively by that brilliant, stunning opening credits sequence and sustaining the mood all the way through. Daniel Craig often plays hardened or icy characters, so I was pleasantly caught off guard by the normalcy and dry-humored kindness he brings to Mikael Blomkvist, while Rooney Mara throws herself into the role of Lisbeth Salander and achieves bewitching results. An actress would have to be considerably lacking skills to screw up such a dynamic part, so Mara has that advantage, along with the advantage of being largely unknown. But neither fact dilutes how impressively she embodies the character.

It may have been marketed too much like a lighthearted chick flick, but first-time director Tate Taylor strikes a successful balance between humor and gravity with The Help. It’s serious without being heavy, and has levity without being light. It avoids the pitfall of movies about civil rights struggles that focus on white protagonists by making Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia Spencer’s Minny central characters who take charge of their own destiny, even if the opportunity is initiated by the young white journalist, Skeeter (Emma Stone). The almost entirely female ensemble is excellent across the board, with standout work from Davis and Jessica Chastain. Davis is a study in subtlety and immersion into character, adopting a weary gait and a frail stance that drive home her years of suffering, while Chastain reveals layers of depth as a flighty, ostracized housewife.

I’m not sure what studio marketing numbskullery resulted in the title of this book adaptation going from the intriguing The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the completely generic Hugo, which suggests a movie about a mischievous yet lovable orangutan, but the result is a movie that’s both unexpected and completely natural for Martin Scorsese. Following an orphan named Hugo living in a Parisian train station, the film expands on Brian Selznick’s book by significantly beefing up the role of the station inspector, amusingly played by Sacha Baron Cohen. I could have done without this largely slapsticky subplot, preferring the main thread involving Hugo, his closely-guarded secrets, the old toymaker (Ben Kingsley) whose wrath he incurs and the toymaker’s godchild (Chloë Grace Moretz) who befriends him. The gorgeous production values are enchanting, and the film is at its best when it flowers into an affectionate love letter to the earliest days of cinema, made all the more poignant coming from one of the art form’s most learned and loving students. As a lifelong movie fan, I couldn’t help but be moved and even shed a few tears during the last third of the film.

Sean Durkin’s haunting feature debut as writer/director follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in an alluring breakthrough performance), a young woman who is drawn into a cult and eventually manages to escape, but not without severe emotional scarring. The film moves back and forth between Martha’s time with the cult and her attempts to re-adjust to normal life while living with her sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and Ted (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), at their lake house. The relationship between Martha and Lucy is prickly, but we’re left to fill in the blanks of their history on our own, and in doing so we can infer why Martha might have been drawn to the family-like atmosphere of the farm where the cult resides under the leadership of the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). Life there is serene, but also dangerous, and Martha never seems fully onboard with what’s happening around her, even while she embraces her own empowerment under Patrick’s tutelage. Unable or unwilling to tell Lucy and Ted what she’s been through, she grows increasingly anxious and fearful of being found by those she deserted.

The film moves between past and present with smooth, organic transitions that often left me feeling displaced, needing a moment to figure out where and when in the story I was. It’s an effective way to approximate Martha’s own state of mind after her escape…not always sure where she is, what’s going on or what’s waiting around the corner. Olsen beautifully captures Martha’s fragile state of mind, anchoring this unsettling examination of a woman frightened and adrift.

This is an odd one for me, because it’s a pretty impeccable film, and yet I just don’t love it. I don’t know why I don’t love it. I want to love it. I should love it. There’s not a thing I can point to that I have a problem with. It’s wonderfully directed by Bennett Miller, well acted by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and every other actor who steps on screen, and the script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is a home run. So why do I merely like it? I can’t explain…but I recommend it unequivocally.

Though there were stories ahead of the movie’s release that described some old-school Muppet performers – including Frank Oz – as being unhappy with the script for the new film, director James Bobin and writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller do Jim Henson’s legacy proud with their affectionate movie that’s one part The Blues Brothers, one part Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion and one part Oz’s own The Muppets Take Manhattan. Segel plays Gary, whose adopted brother Walter has never quite fit in…because he’s a Muppet. When he accompanies Gary and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Hollywood and discovers that oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) intends to tear down the Muppets’ old theater, the trio sets out to find Kermit and help prevent Richman’s plan. The trademark Muppet goofiness, subversiveness, sweetness and unabashed positivity are all intact, and it’s a total kick to see the beloved characters back in action. I can pop in The Muppet Show DVDs anytime, but sitting in a theater and watching the whole gang recreate the opening theme song had me grinning ear to ear. Pretty much what the whole movie had me doing, in fact. The Muppets are back. Let’s hope they stick around.

A patient and gripping film anchored by strong performances by Michael Shannon as Curtis, a devoted husband and father in rural Ohio who begins experiencing nightmares and waking visions of a coming apocalyptic doom, and Jessica Chastain as his wife Samantha, concerned by his increasingly odd behavior. The signs Curtis sees – oily rain, gathering storm clouds, lightning flashes, swarms of birds swirling in irregular flight – are presented in a chillingly matter-of-fact manner, and the movie continually unnerves us as we experience Curtis’ own doubt as to whether it’s all real or happening in his head. There’s a sad trajectory to the movie as his visions lead him to make decisions intended to protect his family, but which continually end up threatening their well-being in one way or another. Shannon exudes integrity as he tries to be the strong man, guarding his family from what’s happening to him, but ultimately having to admit weakness, explain his state of mind and seek help. The events slowly build to a quiet but intense climax, which itself precedes an intriguing final scene that appears to offer resolution but leaves us appropriately uncertain.


And now for a couple of extras. During the Oscar season, I like to include my own personal slate of nominees alongside predicting the actual nominees, but this year I held off because of those aforementioned late-to-the-Bay-Area openings. Not that anyone cares now, but for my own sense of closing out 2011 and moving on to hopefully better things, I’m adding my picks to this post. In most of these categories, it was tough to come up with five nominees that felt worthy. I had to go with some padding for some of them. Nevertheless, here’s how my list of Oscar nominees would have looked:

Bridesmaids; The Descendants; Drive; A Separation; Shame; The Tree of Life; Win Win

Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive; David Fincher – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Bennett Miller – Moneyball; Steve McQueen – Shame; Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Demián Bichir – A Better Life; George Clooney – The Descendants; Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar; Michael Fassbender – Shame; Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

Viola Davis – The Help; Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Saoirse Ronan – Hanna; Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady; Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

Paul Bettany – Margin Call; Ryan Gosling – Crazy Stupid Love; Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life; Christopher Plummer – Beginners; Alex Shaffer – Win Win

Jessica Chastain – The Help; Keira Knightley – A Dangerous Method; Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids; Carey Mulligan – Shame; Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

Bridesmaids; Margin Call; Rango; A Separation; Win Win

Coriolanus; The Descendants; Drive; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Moneyball

Kung Fu Panda 2; Puss in Boots; Rango

Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Hugo; Shame; The Tree of Life

Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; The Tree of Life

Anonymous; Hanna; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Hugo; Shame

Anonymous; Captain America: The First Avenger; Cowboys & Aliens; The Help; Hugo

The Artist; Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Hanna; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Lay Your Head Down (Albert Nobbs); The Living Proof (The Help); Man or Muppet (The Muppets); Pictures in My Head (The Muppets)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Hugo; The Iron Lady

Captain America: The First Avenger; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; The Tree of Life

BEST SOUND (Cheating a bit on this one, by going with my belief that there should be one Oscar for sound, honoring the overall sound design in a film):
Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Super 8; Take Shelter

And just for added fun (fun for me, that is; I don’t delude myself that anyone else is having fun right now), here are nominees in a few categories that don’t exist at the Oscars, but deserve recognition nonetheless:


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Moneyball; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Warrior; We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Help; The Ides of March; Margin Call; Our Idiot Brother; Win Win

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Jane Eyre; Like Crazy; Shame; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I wasn’t actually thinking about the next two enough during the year to offer a slate of nominees, so my winners would be…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Best to experience it as part of the film as a whole, but if you want to see it – and learn how they did it – check it out here. And let the whole thing load before you start playing. You don’t want the flow of this baby interrupted by buffering.)

Super 8

Alright alright, I’m done. Here’s a final look back at the movies of 2011. Onward to what promises to be a much more satisfying year…


  1. Good call on the Hot Pink w/Drive’s title. ha

    Comment by Jim — March 19, 2012 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I thought that would be a nice touch…

      Comment by DB — March 19, 2012 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

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