Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best and The Worst of 2011

The year 2011 is coming to an end. Now it’s time of the year where we reflect on the year that was, which means, of course, it’s time to assess the best and worst in the year’s movies!

This year has been a really good year for movies. That’s because there’s been a high quantity of good quality films. Last year, with a few exceptions, we really didn’t get many good films until the fall season. Not so, this year. Sure, there was the average share of crap during the first half of the year like the critically panned Season of the Witch, The Dilemma, Something Borrowed, and Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. But during that time there were also Limitless, The Adjustment Bureau, Insidious, Source Code, and Cedar Rapids – none of which were great per se, falling short of that due to a flaw or two, but were quite good.

Now, having said that, the one thing that 2011 lacked was a truly knock-your-socks-off great film. There is no The Social Network, no Inglorious Basterds, no The Hurt Locker this year. Bear in mind, I have yet to see The Descendents, Moneyball, and Melancholia, all of which are considered among the best of the year. However, from the more than sixty films I have seen this year, my statement holds true.

So what was the best film of the year? Hold your horses!

First, let’s briefly look at some trends and notables of the year.

For years, actresses whine (with good reason) that there aren’t enough good parts for them. Well, 2011 was a hell of a year for women. Yes, there was Bridesmaids, a film tailor-made to provide a handful of great female characters. But there was also Jennifer Lawrence in The Beaver, the wonderfully sexy-funny Anne Heche in Cedar Rapids and Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses, Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, Jessica Chastain in The Help, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff, the scene-stealing Elle Fanning in Super 8, and Charlize Theron in Young Adult. Not to mention the other critically-praised performances in films I have yet to see such as Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Felicity Jones in Like Crazy, and Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia.

This year has also been a year of looking back and embracing film’s past. Super 8 paid homage to Spielberg’s Amblin films and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with a pinch of Jaws and Jurassic Park thrown in. The Muppets heavily embraced the spirit of their glory days. Both The Artist and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo looked fondly on film’s Silent Era. And then there’s Rango, a blend of Chinatown corruption and Eastwood’s Man with No Name gunslinging.

As for 3D, argued as film’s future, we got our fair share of it shoved down our throats this year. However, 2011 was the first opportunity for its creative potential could actually be reached as more and more films shot and conceived in 3D were released, the best of which were Hugo, Kung Fu Panda 2, and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

There were also the superhero films: Captain America, Green Lantern, SUPER, Thor, X-Men… Luckily, audiences never grew weary and, more often than not, the quality remained strong.

Also worthy of note, the workaholics of the year. While many stars were seen in no less than three projects this year, here are the ones who worked even harder: Steven Spielberg produced Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, Real Steel, and TV’s Terra Nova and Falling Skies while also directing The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. This was a banner year for Jessica Chastain, who starred in Coriolanus, The Debt, Take Shelter, The Help, and The Tree of Life. And Daniel Craig starred in The Adventures of Tintin, Cowboys & Aliens, Dream House, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I would finally argue that 2011 had a lion’s share of great film scores. The Adjustment Bureau, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Kung Fu Panda 2, Super 8, Source Code, X-Men: First Class, and Drive all had exceptional scores.

The Worst

Before I countdown my picks for the best of the year, let’s look at the worst. You may recall some of these being mentioned earlier in the year, so I’ll keep the comments brief.

10. The Help

This has got to be the most over-rated film of the year – and it comes as no surprise. Like The Blind Side a year or two before, The Help is a surface-level feel-good Message Movie. Most of the characters are one-dimensional caricatures that react in one of two extremes: either with monstrous prejudice or with a 21st Century progressive perspective with little explanation to either. As a result, The Help often feels phony and is too lengthy to bear. What do feel genuine and enjoyable are the performances by Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Octavia Spencer – their scenes either add depth or pleasure to what is otherwise a dime-store flavor of the month hit.

9. Rio

This visually bright film is so forgettable, so bland, the only thing I remember now is the chorus to its opening number… “Ree-oh! Ree-oh!”. That’s it.

8. Battle: Los Angeles

It looks like fun. But, like a Transformers sequel, a moment’s thought reveals Battle: LA to be garbage – of the recycled kind. Poor dialogue, thin characters, idiotic writing, all of it adds up to a forgettable rehash of Independence Day.

7. Bad Teacher

A brash, selfish school teacher who is only in it for the money (ha!) so she can buy breast implants? That sounds promising, right? Well, only if you expect the character to have an arc and for the script to have any fun. Shockingly, such was not the case in this flat, unpleasant, disappointing comedy.

6. Cowboys & Aliens

The title tells you all you need to know about the plot for a film directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, and Olivia Wilde. Should be a no-brainer, right? So then how the hell did this turn out to be so brainless and unsatisfying? Get a rope!

5. The Ward

John Carpenter returns to prove his best years are behind him with this idiotic psych ward horror. The cast (Amber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris) do what they can, but can’t save a nonsensical script.

4. The Green Hornet

Seth Rogen’s disaster of a crime-fighting movie. After all these years in development, this is the result?

3. Kaboom

This film, starring Thomas Dekker and Juno Temple, is so all over the place and ridiculous that it’s actually a strong contender for Worst of the Year. Unfortunately, there were worse than this.

2. Passion Play

Megan Fox, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Murray slum through a horrible script under the incompetent direction of first-timer Mitch Glazer. Quite an achievement in awfulness.


When I saw SUPER on-demand last spring, I named it the most unpleasant experience you could have this year soon after. It still is. What I didn’t mention that helped make this so-called superhero dark comedy the worst film of the year is that with a cast that includes Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, and Sean Gunn and directed by James Gunn (Slither) this could’ve been one of the best comedies of the year. Instead it became the most disappointing film of the year.

Dishonorable Mentions: Arthur, Conan: The Barbarian, Green Lantern, Our Idiot Brother, and Paul.

The Best

10. Win Win

Who hasn’t tried doing something for one person’s benefit only to end up hurting another? Todd McCarthy’s dramedy, starring Paul Giamatti as a struggling lawyer who finds himself taking care of a client’s grandson shortly after making a questionable choice to make ends meet, speaks to this dilemma and is one of the best films of the year. At its core, the story follows a somewhat typical guy-makes-bad-decision-that’s-eventually-discovered plot; however the performances by Paul Giamatti, Melanie Lynskey, and newcomer Alex Shaffer provide dimension, complexity, and empathy rather than melodrama to the film.

9. Midnight in Paris

A hack Hollywood writer struggling to pen his first novel takes a trip with his detached, realist fiancée to Paris, falls in love with the city’s beauty and fantasizes about living in its past. One night, he gets to live the dream when a car takes him away to meet such Modernist period legends as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. Owen Wilson really sells this simple, romantic comedy that reminds the nostalgic that life was never any better than in the present. Midnight in Paris is probably Woody Allen’s most broadly appealing film (Woody haters will even enjoy it), yet still manages to become one of the best of the year.

8. Bridesmaids

I swear it’s nothing more than coincidence that the three best comedies of the year happen to fall into place consecutively on this list! In my opinion, Bridesmaids is tied with Midnight in Paris for best comedy of the year. What makes Bridesmaids so good? The fact that the female characters have more than one dimension and exist and conversate about things outside of any “Should I or shouldn’t I?” romantic dilemma; that you’re given an opportunity to buy into the friendship between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph so you care about what happens between them; and that it’s pretty damn funny. I had a feeling Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig (TV’s The Office and Arrested Development) would be good even before its release. But I had no idea it would be great. It is the funniest film about friendship since 2009’s I Love You, Man.

7. Drive

If you weren’t on the Ryan Gosling bandwagon before than you probably are now thanks to his performances this year, including this neon-hazed art house crime thriller about a stoic man-with-no-name mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for whomever requires his services. Gosling does a lot by giving very little here. But it’s not all Gosling’s show. Credit must also go to Nicholas Winding Refn’s spare direction and a supporting cast that includes Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman as a couple of baddies, Carey Mulligan as a single mom oblivious to the ugliness surrounding her life, and Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s foolish representative. While this film may kick off with the best car chase in years, there isn’t that much actual driving going on here. Yet it still crosses the finish line as one of the best films of the year.

6. Hanna

Hanna is one of the only films to stay on my best of the year list and that’s partly because it’s proven to get better with each viewing. Whatever mild quibbles I had in my initial review are no longer issues for me at this point. Hanna, with its fairy tale motifs, fish-out-of-water elements, and existential themes is one of the most intriguing and nuanced assassin thrillers ever made. Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett are fantastic adversaries, the Chemical Brothers provide some great beats that keep the action moving and will shake anyone in the other room, and Joe Wright provides expert direction, complete with a single-take fight scene. Hanna is one of the most exciting films of the year and not to be missed.

5. Meek’s Cutoff

Is there anything more fun than a deliberately-paced reproduction of life on the Oregon Trail? Definitely. However, there were few films this year as well-crafted as Meek’s Cutoff. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy) paid a lot of attention to detail, even going so far as to allow the camera to observe the lengths to which any of today’s simple tasks take to complete; in order to alert others of danger, one character runs a hundred yards to a shotgun and spends at least a minute to load the firearm (including pouring gunpowder) to fire one shot, only to do it again. All of this effectively transports you to another time, when life wasn’t so fast-paced, when living required hard work and elbow grease, yet was highly dangerous. It does not romanticize life in the Old West nor rely on mythic gunslinging to entertain. It transports the audience to its era better than most westerns can. That, along with the powerhouse performances by Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, and Paul Dano, makes Meek’s Cutoff one of the best films of the year.

4. Kung Fu Panda 2

This year brought us a lot of animated films. Most were forgettable. Of them all, Kung Fu Panda 2 was easily the best. It was also the best DreamWorks sequel ever, coming close to reaching the standard Pixar has set. What made it so good? In a time when every animated film that makes any coin at the theater cranks out one sequel after another, Kung Fu Panda 2 felt the least superfluous. Its villain-affected-the-hero’s-past plot isn’t original, but was executed in such a way that it added a weight and legitimacy that most sequels lack. Not only that, but its reverence to kung fu was elevated beyond bad-ass posturing to a literacy of the martial arts genre that many fans would appreciate. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a film that’s visually beautiful with a great blend of dramatic storytelling for adults and fun energy for kids.

3. Hugo

While its title may be a bit bland and misleading as to what it’s about, Hugo remains the biggest surprise of the year. The trailer asks, “Wanna go on an adventure?” Little did we know that adventure would be a touching look at a part of film history. Asa Butterfield may have held the film together with a performance that kept us caring, but the real focus of this film is its story, which directly engages in the industry’s current 3D discourse. Scorsese set out to prove that 3D can be more than just a razzle-dazzle (ahem) ‘cheap’ gimmick for action films; here it’s a tool that adds another layer to his film’s story. It also helps that the 3D is the best ever for a live action film. This achievement and topping of expectations makes Hugo one of the most impressive films of the year.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

It all ended. After ten years, the final chapter to the most successful fantasy film series ever has arrived. It’s easy to dismiss The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 as simply an event film when considering the best of the year. But that would be overlooking how great a film it truly is. This is an epic that involves themes of fascism and taking control of your destiny while many beloved characters meet their doom. It came as close as possible to satisfying every expectation. It was also the most exciting action film of the year. What kept it from being number one this year? It was only one-half of the final chapter to a larger saga – an exceptionally satisfying fragment – but not a film that stands on its own.

1. 13 Assassins

This might seem like a curveball to some: a Japanese samurai saga is the best film of the year?! Absolutely. Unfortunately, no film on our shores stood out as the indisputable crowning achievement of the year. The closest film to earn that honor was Takashi Miike’s brutal masterpiece about a group of ronin who endeavor to take down a sadistic lord positioned to become emperor. I’m not the biggest fan of the stomach-wrenching thrillers Miike is known for. However, here he shifts into Kurosawa mode to deliver a compelling drama that culminates in an action-packed battle royale that’s nearly an hour long. The attention to detail is also partly what makes this film the achievement of the year. Miike explained in an interview that he thought every samurai should have their own fighting style; therefore every single sound their swords make during battle was distinctly different. Also, the dialect the samurai speak is one that younger Asian audiences would find unfamiliar since it is what was spoken over a hundred years ago. I’m not sure I saw a film this year with the same level of craftsmanship or effectiveness as 13 Assassins. You probably didn’t either. That’s why it is the best film of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Beginners, Crazy, Stupid, Love., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Muppets, Rango, Super 8, X-Men: First Class, and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Those are my picks for the best and worst of the year. What are your picks?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Golden Globes Picks Fail to Shine (Again)

The awards season has returned and it seems yet again the Hollywood Foreign Press has failed to restore the public’s faith in its credibility with this year’s list of nominations. It isn’t that the Golden Globes nominees are so bad that they’re beginning to mirror the Razzies; there do seem to be plenty of good picks. However, there are many oversights and head-scratchers.

Now, I’ve only seen 5 of the 35 films nominated, but I’ve also seen over 50 of 2011’s films, so take my thoughts however you like.

Here are the nominees for 2011:

Best Drama:

- The Descendants

- The Help

- Hugo

- The Ides of March

- Moneyball

- War Horse

Best Comedy or Musical:

- 50/50

- The Artist

- Bridesmaids

- Midnight in Paris

- My Week with Marilyn

Best Animated Film:

- The Adventures of Tintin

- Arthur Christmas

- Cars 2

- Puss in Boots

- Rango

Best Foreign Film:

- The Flowers of War

- In the Land of Blood and Honey

- A Kid with a Bike

- A Separation

- The Skin I Live In

Best Director:

- Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

- George Clooney (The Ides of March)

- Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

- Alexander Payne (The Descendants)

- Martin Scorsese (Hugo)

Best Actor, Drama:

- George Clooney (The Descendants)

- Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar)

- Michael Fassbender (Shame)

- Ryan Gosling (The Ides of March)

- Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Best Actress, Drama:

- Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)

- Viola Davis (The Help)

- Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

- Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)

- Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

Best Actor, Comedy:

- Jean Dujardin (The Artist)

- Brendan Gleeson (The Guard)

- Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50)

- Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love.)

- Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris)

Best Actress, Comedy or Musical:

- Jodie Foster (Carnage)

- Charlize Theron (Young Adult)

- Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids)

- Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

- Kate Winslet (Carnage)

Best Supporting Actor:

- Kenneth Branaugh (My Week with Marilyn)

- Albert Brooks (Drive)

- Jonah Hill (Moneyball)

- Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method)

- Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Best Supporting Actress:

- Berenice Bejo (The Artist)

- Jessica Chastain (The Help)

- Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)

- Octavia Spencer (The Help)

- Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Best Screenplay:

- Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)

- Nat Paxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash (The Descendants)

- George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon (The Ides of March)

- Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)

- Aaron Sorkin, Steve Zaillian (Moneyball)

Best Score:

- Ludovic Bource (The Artist)

- Abel Korzeniowski (W.E.)

- Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

- Howard Shore (Hugo)

- John Williams (War Horse)

In case you weren't keeping count:
6 – The Artist

5 – The Descendants

4 –The Help, Ides of March, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball

3 – Hugo, My Week with Marilyn

So what’s the problem? Well, let’s start with the forced entry of My Week with Marilyn into the Comedy category. Not only was the film widely considered to be merely acceptable, but I looked the film up on IMDB and nowhere is the word ‘comedy’ to be found. I agree Michelle Williams probably deserves kudos; she was widely noted as the best thing about the film – and if she didn’t deserve it for the biopic then why not for the Oregon Trail drama Meek’s Cutoff?

Also, why is the much-maligned Cars 2 favored over the much-loved Kung Fu Panda 2?

Here’s another puzzler: I understand why the French film The Artist is not nominated for best foreign language film (it's in English), but why not the Japanese masterpiece 13 Assassins?

If Christopher Plummer is going to be nominated for Beginners, than Ewan McGregor should also be included for giving what may be the best performance of his career. Huge over-sight!

If Ryan Gosling is going to be nominated for two different performances, why not as the stoic protector in Drive?

Other major over-sights:

This has been a fantastic year for female performances. We’ve got Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Anne Heche in Cedar Rapids, Cate Blanchett in Hanna, Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, Jennifer Aniston in Horrible Bosses, Chloe Moretz in Hugo, Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Olson in Martha Macy May Marlene, Elle Fanning in Super 8, and Melanie Lynsky in Win Win. All of these have been snubbed (some more surprising than others) by the HFPA.

Speaking of Win Win, one of the year’s best comedies was surprisingly left out in the cold completely!

Jessica Chastain starred in no less than five films this year. Is her performance in The Help really the best one?

Other best-of-the-year titles shoved aside include Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which I still feel is the 2nd-best film of the year and The Tree of Life, not one I’d pick, yet was one of the most highly-regarded films of the year.

While being a great year for female performances, 2011 has also been a great year for film scores. Source Code, Hanna, X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adjustment Bureau all had really great scores to my memory – and all were snubbed.

Obviously, there’s only so much room in each category so not all of these could possibly be nominated. The question then becomes who is more deserving than those that were nominated? Again, unless you’ve seen all 30+ films nominated, it can be difficult to say. Several of the nominees hadn’t opened until recently (The Descendents) or were only seen in select cities (Carnage) or festivals (Albert Nobbs). Until then I can’t say for sure that Gosling’s performance in Crazy, Stupid, Love wasn’t better that of Drive. Or that Winslet deserves a nod more than Foster for Carnage (if at all). What can be said, with credibility, is limited at the moment.

On the other hand, the Golden Globes are proof that being a part of an international association of journalists doesn't bring one much credibility either.

What are your thoughts on this year’s nominations? Do you disagree with any of the issues I raised? What are your picks?