Monday, March 26, 2012

The Oscars have their list, I have mine.

According to my calculations, I saw 52 films from the year 2011. That averages out to one movie a week. I don’t know what my usual haul is, but that seems like a lot. Unlike most years, this past one didn’t contain any flicks I was really anticipating impatiently. Even Captain America (whose comics I have been reading since before I even knew how to read) didn’t really incite that “hurry-up-and-be-released” feeling I usually get. My general dissatisfaction with the films of 2011 (the mainstream ones, anyway) was perfectly summed up by my overwhelming ambivalence of the Academy Awards. I didn’t even watch the show this year. Not even the multitude of Oscar parties I was invited to could make me care. As I compiled my top ten list throughout the passing year, I wasn’t very impressed with it. They were decent movies, sure, but nothing I was particularly excited about. I knew I was gonna have a hard time writing about how much I liked these movies when my longstanding number one film was Cowboys & Aliens.

Thankfully, I spent the early part of this year tracking down those more obscure films from last year that had caught my attention, but eluded me when (or even if) they played in the theaters. I think that’s probably why my view count was so high this year: I kept watching ’til I found something good. In previous years, when I thought That’ll do it, this year, I thought C’mon, you can do better’n that. And I’m glad I did because amidst 2011’s sea of mediocrity, I found some real treasures. It always makes me feel good when my top ten list contains great stuff my readers have probably never seen, but should.

#10: Martha Marcy May Marlene – The Academy’s complete shut out of this film in the Oscar nominees is a big part of why I didn’t really care what actually was nominated this year. This is such a brave and powerful film, how could it be totally ignored? My guess is because the writing, acting, directing, and editing (all of which it should be highly praised for) are so subtle, that they’re virtually unnoticeable. One watches this film and feels almost as though it’s a documentary. Plus, the ending is so disturbingly vague that, while most conventional movie-goers who insist on being spoon-fed their stories probably hate it, it really is a brilliant “conclusion” that drives home the intensity of the film’s message. And what a spectacular debut from Elizabeth Olsen. Let’s hope that despite the public’s lukewarm reception of this film, she still manages to land roles as bold as this one and move out from under her sisters’ shadow into the spotlight.

#9: BridesmaidsKristen Wiig finally lands a starring role and proves she has the chops to be a star - not only as a comedienne, but possibly a serious actress as well. While this film could have settled for being a showcase of dirty jokes and absurd situations going from bad to worse, Wiig (who also wrote the script) fits in a good amount of authentic sentimentality and melancholy without feeling forced. I was actually taken aback by how much I not only sympathized with her character, but identified with her as well. I wasn’t expecting that and, as funny as the movie was, I found those sweet scenes to be the best of the film. Another refreshing change was how the comedic situations were allowed to develop and unfold at their own pace. A frivolous movie like this tends to cram in one joke right after another with very little cohesion, but Bridesmaids was willing to indulge the possibilities of consequences and aftermath even when it wasn’t particularly necessary. Most female alumni from “Saturday Night Live” end up settling for sitcoms, but let’s hope Kristen Wiig sticks to movies and raises the bar accordingly.

#8: Green Lantern – I suspect most people would think my inclusion of this film would render this top ten list null and void, but Green Lantern did not deserve to be as thoroughly crucified as it was. It deserves defending and I’m happy to do it. First of all, superhero movies are a huge gamble to begin with. It’s really hard to translate something that’s awesome in the comics into something that’s awesome onscreen and, trust me, this film could’ve been much, much worse. I, for one, thought it was an exemplary summer popcorn flick. The action scenes were exciting. The special effects didn’t feel cartoony. The dialogue wasn’t insulting. The characters were likeable (even the bad guys). The romantic subplot didn’t feel forced or pointless. Okay, so it didn’t measure up to the caliber of The Dark Knight or even the original Iron Man, but it didn’t have to, either. A movie should be judged on how well it attains the goals it sets for itself and Green Lantern delivered exactly what I wanted from it: I found it entertaining and exciting, which is more than I can say for Thor (which, for some bizarre Twilight Zone reason, most people seemed to like more than Green Lantern).

#7: The Artist – As dissatisfied as I was with the line up of Oscar nominees, I’m glad that this film took the grand prize. Rewarding such a lovely film is a step towards renewing my faith in the politically-sapped, self-congratulatory Academy Awards (but that’s still a long road, I’m afraid). I was a big fan of the director’s previous work with Jean Dujardin in the two OSS 117 spoofs and I hope their respective Oscar wins don’t keep them from making more additions to that hilarious series. Although, if they continue making more films like The Artist, I guess I can’t really complain. Anyway, while it seems like such a corny cliché to compliment a movie by calling it “magical”, that really is the best word to describe The Artist. A lot of critics have been comparing it to Singin’ in the Rain, and Sunset Boulevard and rightfully so. Offhand, I can’t think of a recent film that so lovingly pays tribute to the origins of filmmaking than this one. Hollywood needs to be reminded of its roots once in a while.

#6: My Week with Marilyn – I’ll admit it: There’s a good possibility that the reason this movie rated so high on my list is because I’m a heterosexual man. I was pretty mesmerized whenever she was onscreen and never got tired of it. In fact, I think I felt just about every emotion the lead character felt about Marilyn Monroe as he was feeling it: awe, respect, sympathy, affection, frustration, concern, pity and, not love, but possibly the potential to love her if she let me. Marilyn Monroe is not an easy role to play (particularly because she had something that no woman before or since has ever had), but Michelle Williams really rocked it – particularly in her ability to devour a man with her eyes. This movie also made the right move by doing a biopic on a specific part of a person’s life rather than trying to cover the whole gamut. I think that’s why J. Edgar and The Iron Lady weren’t as good (that, and because they weren’t about Marilyn freakin’ Monroe).

#5: Win Win – With every movie he makes (Win Win being his third), Thomas McCarthy gets closer and closer to joining my (short) list of directors whose work I will check out without even bothering to learn what the film’s about. This is largely due his writing more than his directing, but since he’s written everything he’s directed, I’m hoping this will be an ongoing package deal. He has an uncanny knack for making his characters remarkably human to the point where after seeing them onscreen for merely 30 seconds, you feel like you know them. Consequently, most of the humor and tragedy in his films comes across as accidental. Case in point, every film he’s made so far (including Up, actually, which he co-wrote) is about characters circumstantially finding surrogate families with people who start out as total strangers with whom they have almost nothing in common. You’d think that scenario would become tiresome, but McCarthy’s films are as uniquely individual as the eclectic characters that inhabit them. I realize I’ve said nothing about Win Win specifically, but I’ve done you a favor. The less exposition you know going into it, the better.

#4: Our Idiot Brother – Like Win Win, the strength of this movie comes from the realism of the characters and the players in Our Idiot Brother are so wonderfully authentic that I’m wondering how much of the film was inspired by real life. It was, after all, co-written by a guy, his sister and her husband. This film is consistently funny and, after a certain point that I’d be hard pressed to identify, becomes even funnier from just being familiar with the relationships of the characters. I’m not sure it was meant to be a “feel-good” movie (another term, along with “magical”, I am loathe to use), but it’s certainly one that makes you feel like life will be okay no matter what. It’ll also probably make you appreciate your family more. There’ve been a number of movies that I’ve enjoyed so much I wish they were longer, but I actually wish Our Idiot Brother was a television series so it could go on indefinitely.

#3: Red State – When Kevin Smith first departed from what’s been called the “View Askewniverse”, he made Jersey Girl, a romantic comedy that failed miserably (although, I personally didn’t think it was all that bad). His penultimate film was the aptly-named Cop Out, which also flopped but, in Smith’s defense, he didn’t write that one. Red State didn’t do much better than either of those films, but that’s a damn shame because it is one hell of a movie. The only acceptable reason I can think of as to why audiences didn’t identify with this film is because it was way out of their comfort zone. Although, on that level, it measures up to the intensity of “theoretically this could actually happen” horror flicks like Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it’s just as gut-wrenching. Doing a horror movie (especially an action horror film) is as big a departure as Smith has ever done, but now I wish he’d tried one sooner. His writing and directing on Red State are so effective that I think that Smith should not only make another horror film, but maybe try his hand at a war movie as well.

#2: Tales of the Night – Just like My Week with Marilyn ranked high with me ‘cuz I’m a dude, Tales of the Night scores big probably because I’m a graphic designer. That’s not to say it isn’t a superb film with a great story, but in this age of highly-detailed, meticulous 3-D computer animation, it’s nice to see an equally gorgeous animated film that could’ve been inspired by flannel board story-telling. The film is nothing more than a series of fables and folk tales being performed by stark silhouettes in front of colorful backgrounds, but it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. And the stories themselves are quite poignant and engaging for as short as they are. I have no idea if they’re based on actual fairy tales, but the film’s credits indicate it’s an original screenplay, which is all the more impressive. This is a French film scheduled for a wider release in America later this year. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but hopefully when it comes out, it will be dubbed rather than subtitled. I say that because, first of all, given the character design, it’s pretty insignificant if their lips don’t match the words (indeed, I doubt the viewer would be able to notice) and, secondly, if the viewer isn’t dependent on the subtitles, they’ll be able to take in all the visual wonders of this film even more effectively.

#1: The Lie – One of my favorite comedy routines is the schtick of the person who tells a horrible lie and tries to stick to it no matter how out of control it becomes, even if only as an attempt to save face. Chevy Chase had this down pat in the 80’s and Steve Carrell perfected this during his stint on “The Office”. I had heard of this modest film (a film seemingly dedicated to that scenario) and was interested in checking it out for some time before I actually found it on DVD. It was not what I expected, but I’ve never been so pleasantly disappointed with a film in my whole life. Yes, this movie’s about a guy who tells a bad lie that gets worse and, yes, it’s funny, but that’s only about maybe 10% of the movie. The heart of it is a beautifully reflective film exploring what one has and what one wants and what one does about it. I’m deliberately being vague here as I was with Win Win for essentially the same reasons. You could probably find out what the titular lie is by reading a synopsis of the film (in fact, I think they reveal it in the trailer), but you’d be better off not knowing and just let it present itself in the context of the film. Don’t be dissuaded by the fact that the poster makes it look like a garden-variety chick flick. This is a delightful movie and a fairly unconventional one at that.

So, I guess the key to a good year of movie watching is to ignore the masses and seek out what interests you personally. While I intend to do that again for 2012, let me just say thank god Christopher Nolan has another Batman movie coming out.

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