A Life to Live: My Top 10 Films of 2011
This list should have come about probably… um, six or seven months ago. But, I don’t get out often and my social life is more of a social networking life, so that generally prevents me from seeing a lot of films in the theater throughout the year. Personal ethics and the voices in my head prevent me from pirating or streaming generally, so I either end up seeing the film in the theater (I see an average of about… nine films in theater a year. I know, awesome) or I’ll catch the film on home video.
Anyways, last year was a pretty good year for film. I won’t say it was overly grand or abymal (I will, however, say, that the Oscars were abysmal), because how can you really compare a year to another just based on the films. I don’t even think if “more great films” were released on year than another would make it a “better year in film”. Aside from considering social/political/economic relevance, I don’t think the year matters as much anymore. That being said, the best films (to me) were the darkest ones. And they all, at least with regard to my list, had to do with life. Yes, you could argue that every film has to do with life, but the top ten films I chose from 2011 dealt with life in a particularly large magnitude. The ending of life on earth. The beginning of life on earth. The life of a man seeking redemption and meaning. What it means to live in your skin. What it means to grow up and live life as an adult. What it means to care and nurture for life. What it means for your life to be owned by someone else. What it means to consider the possibility of the end of all life. The ability to life as yourself and not as a lie. And what it means to live life in the present and reconcile nostalgia for the painful truth of now. And, in an honorable mention, what it means to give up your life for that of your bratty daughter. Yes, more than anything, I think the underlying theme of the best films of 2011 was about Life.
Which is ironic, because I don’t have one.
1. Melancholia | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
2. The Tree of Life | Directed by Terrence Malick
It seems far less important understanding or analyzing the film than it is simply basking in all of its beautiful, daring, and undoubtedly striking spell. At its core, the film may (or may not) be about a family in Texas, as a child begins to rebel against his strict father. But, throughout that story of man versus nature, Terrence Malick dares us to sit and watch as the universe comes together before our eyes. It can be a turn-off for some, but one has to admire his audacity and the sheer scope of the challenge. Brad Pitt’s fierce storm of acting and Jessica Chastain’s effervescent mother nature is a wonder to behold. Love it or hate it, The Tree of Life certainly is a wonder.
3. Drive | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
What Nicolas Winding Refn often does is say a lot without saying a word. This is especially true of his minimalist, post-modern, nostalgic Drive, in which Ryan Gosling fleshes out an entire character, sans origin story, and still makes us care for his journey in search of self. It’s a credit to Gosling’s ability as an actor that he can convey so much with just a, shall we say, vacant and dreamy look in his eye. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
4. The Skin I Live In | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Although Pedro Almodóvar revisits his usual themes In The Skin I Live In, the approach is, well, rather different. Taking a page out of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face, The Skin I Live In mixes horror, a little science fiction, and classic domestic drama for one of the most compelling thrillers of the year. With its production design that negates sterility with fruitful virility, the non-linear story, and superb cast, the film dances around decadent and painful themes of identity, sexuality, and masculinity. The story, though, retains a dark yet bubbly and soapy aspect, sure to please anyone who likes a good twist. Almodóvar’s experiment in horror examines what it means to live as who you are versus who you were meant to be.
5. Young Adult | Directed by Jason Reitman
I sure as hell hope that I don’t end up knowing, or turning into, Mavis from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s righteous and darkly hilarious Young Adult. Charlize Theron has the looks to have played a high school bitch, and she fits right into the role, almost as if she’d been playing it since birth. Cody’s razor sharp screenplay not only contains painfully funny dialogue, but even more painful examinations of disappointment and maturity, or lack thereof. She is as stuck in the past as one could ever be, manifesting her desires in her dying young adult book series. Joined by a stellar Patton Oswalt, maybe these guys should have paid attention during history, as they ended up being doomed and repeating it.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin | Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(I’ll have to review this in full later.) It isn’t what you think it is and the trailer does a good job misrepresenting it. I say that as a compliment, for nothing can prepare you for the thrilling rollercoaster that is We Need to Talk About Kevin. With its subjective, completely non-linear style, cracked, broken and fragmented like memories, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller make the most out of sneers, looks of contempt, and a haunting score. The looks convey more volatility and pain than the dialogue, and director Lynne Ramsay is perfectly aware of that. This is acting and cinematography and direction that kills. For all of its title, once you reach the end of the film, you may be left completely speechless.
7. Martha Marcy May Marlene | Directed by Sean Durkin
A part of me really, really wanted for Elizabeth Olsen to get an Oscar nod for this film. Actually, all of me did, as she would have completely deserved it. But, Olsen does what her sisters didn’t (or couldn’t, I don’t know) do: she challenged herself right off the bat. Playing a damaged girl returning home after escaping a cult, Olsen is effortlessly professional on screen, at once making you think that she’s been doing this for years yet still retaining the naiveté needed to make her character believable. Sean Durkin’s tale of a life owned and then a life trying to get a hold of itself once more is cynical, scary, but downright enthralling.
8. Take Shelter | Directed by Jeff Nichols
More like Apocalypse Wow, if you know what I mean. So many of the year’s best films were actor driven, and Take Shelter is no different. Led by Michael Shannon and his visions of the apocalypse, his descent into madness is arguably one of the most convincing ever on screen. It’s never over the top or hammy, and throughout his problem, there is always a sense of vulnerability that’s there. Jessica Chastain once again pops up and once again gives a superb performance as Shannon’s wife. It’s all about the world ending, and whose lives mean the most to him and how he intends on protecting them.
9. Beginners | Directed by Mike Mills
It may be a little quirky, but it is, above all, incredibly sincere. Beginners is about life, love, and relationship dynamics, but I’m sure you already knew that from the trailer. With its subjective, twee perspective, Ewan McGregor embarks on a new life with a new girl as he remembers when he and his father embarked on a new life when his father came out of the closet. Christopher Plummer is endearing and perfect, as is Melanie Laurents, both of whom give beautifully naturalistic performances. Punctuated by different memories and cute storytelling elements, throughout its entirety, there’s never a false note. Its honesty is the most refreshing thing about it.
10. Midnight in Paris | Directed by Woody ALlen
If you know me or talk to me, you may be a tad surprised that a Woody Allen film, one that I raved and ranted about since its release, is this “low” on the list. Well, a) lists and rankings are essentially arbitrary and b) it’s not that my opinion has changed, it’s that I’ve restrained myself a little. Nevertheless Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
Honorable Mention: Mildred Pierce | Directed by Todd Haynes
Okay, technically, this appeared on HBO as a mini-series, but it also premiered at the Venice Film Festival as a five hour movie. Mildred Pierce, for all of its length, is the closest anyone will ever get to a transliteration of a novel, every word and scene from James M. Cain’s noirish domestic drama brought to life by Kate Winslet. Winslet continues to impress me, taking on the role of the thankless mother as she gives in to her willful daughter’s demands. It’s a sight for the eyes, with the glorious cinematography and production value once again showing off HBO’s good tastes. Todd Haynes classic techniques and attention to detail is to die for. Winslet, though, is clearly the star, and won’t take no for an answer.
Last, but Certainly Not Least: Rango | Directed by Gore Verbinski
Rango is the perfect example of an animated film that just so happens to be aimed at kids, but whose subverted subject matter is elegantly and fantastically handled. It’s a quasi-Western about a lizard who, as the convention holds, pretends to be something he is not. Conventions notwithstanding, the dialogue, allusions, and voice work are enough to wipe any of the inconsistencies out of mind. The animation, however… will blow your mind. Industrial Light and Magic, you know the guys who brought Star Wars to life, make their first feature film and it is gorgeous. It’s photorealistic to the point where you have to squint to make sure it’s only computer generated imagery. Johnny Depp is wonderful, of course. With a story ripped out of Chinatown, Rango superbly goes where all animated films go but few do with such panache: self-reflexivity and meta-humor.
Come back in 12 months for my inevitable belated Top 10 of 2012!
Origin Story: Prometheus
I am not sure whether it is because I am a cynic or because I am apathetic or because I spend most of my “deep thinking time” either analyzing films or sleeping, but the question of “Where do we come from?” and other “origin of life” and “meaning of life” questions has never really occurred to me longer than that of a piece of Trident gum. I am amongst the blithely unaware, and remain so. Even watching certain films and shows that prod at that very question, like Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even TV’s Lost, aside from analyzing within the context of the given show, I never though more of it outside of that context or applied it to my own life. Even after reading Camus’ The Stranger and even after watching Being John Malkovich (which, for the record, helped me grasp existentialism), I never thought of the meaning of life personally. Prometheus is no different, but I appreciated its probing at such questions nevertheless. While its admiration for Big Ideas is commendable, it is one hell of a messy film. But I enjoyed it anyways. Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979 with Alien is visually spectacular, but its storyline is about as coherent as the theatrical edition of David Fincher’s Alien3 .
Its big questions stick out in the dialogue much like the social criticisms that stick out like an eyesore in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, or the social commentary on race relations sticks out blatantly in Crash. Though, the fact that a mainstream blockbuster would even bother asking those kinds of questions in a world of film where deep thought is usually frowned upon is, to some extent, admirable. Its choppy form and presentation is something that is problematic, but it is nice to see something that asks its viewers to think of those things. Written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator/executive producer/writer Damon Lindelof, it asks those questions repeatedly, but perhaps not in an incessant manner. A good thing about the film’s screenplay is that, while it asks those questions, and filly in the backgrounds of certain characters with various ideologies, it allows for the audience to consider the answers.When scientists find an “invitation” in the form of archeological digs and subsequent symbols across the world pointing to something shared yet mysterious, it prompts Elizabeth Shaw (the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to go there. The invitation is a constellation, and with the help of Weyland Corp. (sound familiar?), they bring a crew aboard the expansive ship Prometheus to that very planet. You know, to go look for stuff. The speculation and main plot device is that the planet may hold the key to the origin of life and the creation of humans, even all life forms, something that has intrigued Shaw in particular since she was a little girl. Of course, once they get there, starting messing around a little bit, you know nothing good comes of it.
But its screenplay is the very root of the problem for Prometheus, no matter how “nice” it may be that something so mainstream would dare to make audiences think. The plot holes in the film and the unexplained questions and the abandoned subplots and the randomly inserted subplots… they are, to some, overwhelming and ruin the entire experience. Lindelof was called in for rewrites, and a new story may have developed, but it feels like fragments of the original are still apparent in the way that when you write a second draft of something, your friend will be quick to point out that something from the original is still there, but kind of not explained or even relevant. Some of this information and subplot is supposed to work in favor of the film’s suspense levels, but instead comes off as sloppy and unnecessary. Some of it may be a problem of logic. And while many complain about the issues, some of the questions are supposed to remain unanswered. Audiences hate a film where they are not spoon fed the answers, and while it may be a problem based both with the screenplay as well as the audience, the audience needs to grow up a little and work on its own for a bit. Certain things are supposed to remain unanswered, and intended to remain a mystery. There are certain parts where one could argue that the multiple sources of havoc in the film and not knowing which one is important is again intentional, to show that origins are chaotic in and of themselves. While some of these may be forgivable, the logic problems, as aforementioned, are sloppy and lazy.
Those problems aside, it was certainly a thrilling experience. Rooted in a very similar “haunted house” style of sci-fi horror (like Alien), it amps up the suspense by providing seedy characters, and cavernous set pieces which serve as perfection to haunt a viewer. Speaking as a matter of suspense work, director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and his return to the genre is a welcome one. His eye for visual style and his “Star Wars as a horror film” sensibility works well in contemporary film. It is a big film, shot in 3D, which I am pleased to report works in the film’s favor. Making its dark depths even deeper and more haunting and its immaculate rooms on Prometheus even more tantalizing, the 3D works well. Without the grand visual style of the film and its fantastic sense of thrill, the film’s weak points would end up outweighing its strengths.
Its cast, though, is also something to scream about. Noomi Rapace, and her harshly defined cheekbones, gives a very good performance in the film. Her idealistic Shaw, perhaps lost in search of something out there to believe in because of her father’s own faith, is smart, convincing, and yet also naïve. She also screams well, so that is also a plus. But it’s a performance that works very well for the film. Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an exec at Wayland Corp., brings in her full time bitch to the role, something that was sorely missed in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her cold and austere disposition is actually somewhat reminiscent of her bravura turn in Young Adult. But, this is a different kind of “bitch”. She is there to do her job and do it well, and she will have nothing less.
Though, the cast member that blows everyone out of the water is, of course, Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender does not merely play the android David. Michael Fassbender plays an Android playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Fassbender’s sociopathic android David plays the David Lean epic on a loop, dyes his hair blonde, and models himself entirely on Peter O’Toole in said Lean epic. Needless to say, if they do not immediately call Fassbender to play O’Toole in a biopic, I, as well as many other people, will be very unhappy. Fassbender’s portrayal is perfect. It’s the right mix of dead emotion, wunderkind android curiosity, and devilish duplicity. Next to the visual style, Fassbender’s perfect performance is the best thing about the film. Though some of David’s actions have garnered questioning and complaint, the fact that David is so emotionless (despite his desire to feel emotion), it makes those unanswered motivations and action seem all the more eerie and frightening. Fassbender’s voice takes on a very smooth, emotionless tone, almost like HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fassbender is so intriguing and insanely good, one kind of hopes for a separate spin off. Fassbender’s is a standout, electrifying performance, and one of the best things about the film.
To really break things down, the enjoyment of the film Prometheus is directly proportional to a) your expectations regarding the film as a prequel to Alien, b) your tolerance for unanswered questions, and c) how much you appreciate grand visual design, excellent suspense, and Michael Fassbender. If you consider the three factors prior to seeing the film, notably the first two, they will probably dictate as to how much you will enjoy the film. I was personally able to overlook its (perhaps glaring) plot flaws in favor of appreciating it as an exercise in sci-fi tension, outstanding visual design, and the fact that the film does ask big questions, even if it does not answer them. Because, if anything, doesn’t it matter that the questions are being asked at all?
Unfairest Game: Snow White and the Huntsman
As a child, when it came to fairy tales, I was infinitely more interested in Grimm’s original collected stories than the watered down, neutered Disney versions that anyone else in my age group seemed to fawn over. When I was seven or so, my mother bought me a book entitled Grimm’s Grimmest, collecting the most gruesome and horrifying of the tales that the Brothers Grimm had taken down in Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed its perversity. I never did end up watching the entirety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but I read over the original tale several times growing up. Which brings us for a less Disney-fied, more “adult” interpretation of the fairy tale. Snow White and the Huntsman attempts to right the wrongs of dull, sterile Disney version, making it supposedly closer to the original and all the more action packed. Sadly though, while the attempt to make the tale both exciting for a contemporary audience as well as try to adhere somewhat closely to the story is significantly marred by there being a total lack of depth, lousy acting, and a terribly weak script.
Of the worst things you could say about Snow White and the Huntsman, one of them is that it seems half assed and bland. The sad attempt to make Snow White more action packed, director Rupert Sanders recreates the story like a piece of mythology, with the prologue taking on this dark vision of bleakness with intense narration and slow motion cinematography. Snow White’s father, a kind king, rescues a fare maiden after defeating a dark army, takes the fare maiden home, marries her, and then, that fare maiden kills him. Yup, it just so happens that that fare maiden acts like a Trojan horse and it is revealed that she is the evil queen, taking the name of Ravenna. The dark army takes over the castle, lock Snow White in the dungeon, install the mirror, and Ravenna remains the fairest of all the land. That is, until Snow White comes of age. Also, Snow White escapes, and Ravenna hires what is basically a bounty hunter to track her down.
You would guess right in saying that the story itself is not really that engrossing. There’s very little of interest, and despite the attempts to make it more interesting, it seems like the writers were pulling from thin air. It is almost incredibly disappointingly boring and dull, the “almost” preceding it because one’s expectations should be fairly low. The dialogue, though, is terribly problematic. Sounding less naturalistic than even Lord of the Rings and sounding more like the writers had “Medieval English for Movies for Dummies” by their side, the tonality and cadence of the lines is grating because, boiled down to it, the words mean so little. They portray very little drama or emotion and seem to just be there to make it feel like a period piece of some sort. It probably would have been more effective had the lines been written and spoken plainly. The dialogue, though, could be another example of how superficial this movie is, lacking depth or interest. Plot holes abound, dialogue sounds hammy, and all the actors strain to make it worthwhile for the audience.
Regarding hamminess, it is with much disappointment and regret that I should have to say that Charlize Theron was not very good in Snow White and the Huntsman, which honestly surprised me. She can play a bitch, and she can do it damn well (see: Young Adult and Monster). Despite her ability to channel into a cold, selfish persona so well, her performance as Ravenna was startlingly overdone. It seemed she was exerting far too much energy into the role, so that it came off as fake, unbelievable and terribly annoying. She felt the need to imbue her every line of dialogue, not with effortlessness, but with great exertion, with breathy sighs, and with lots of yelling. I was hoping that at least she would be enjoyable, but she ended up just making me more annoyed. While the writers attempted to give her story some feministic origin story (which ended up coming off oddly as misandrist), it gave little depth to the character herself. She, like the film itself, was nothing the cold superficiality of looking good but lacking any real power.
I am mystified as to why Kristen Stewart was cast in this film as the lead, Snow White. Not because she’s a lousy actress (even though she kind of is, she couldn’t even play Joan Jett well), but when people think of an actress who embodies and epitomizes innocence, beauty, and strength, they don’t automatically think, “Oh, Kristen Stewart!” Well, I guess the director did, otherwise they would not have paid her a hefty $34 million to be in the film. Unsurprisingly, she is dull, does not give Snow White any more depth than one could expect (which is probably more the writing than her), and adds little to the film. Again, a bit puzzled as to why she was cast in the film and why she was paid so much. I guess we will never know. What particularly troubles me is that Snow White is essentially the story of a woman coming into her own (leave the sex off the table here), and the film is supposed to portray that aspect her as some kickass heroin. The thing is, we never actually get to see that aspect of her. While she may run quite often, there are no moments when she really takes control of the situation, to really be the heroin.
The rest of the cast is just as bland. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is essentially fine in the film, and he adds some much needed humor to the game. The seven dwarves serve very little purpose, but the faces of famous actors seemed to have been super imposed on the bodies of little people. Hey, look, Bob Hoskins! Ian McShane! Nick Frost!
The action sequences are actually less than interesting and the way that they are edited is comparable to something called chaos cinema. But there seems so little point with the action sequences that are included, as they do pretty much nothing to drive the story forward. With the scale that they have, the actual purpose is minimal.
After all that negative stuff, there are some nice things to be said about the film! Yes, I’m not joking! It is very, very pretty to look at. The cinematography is often breath taking, the production value is extremely high, the visual effects are stunning, and the costumes (by Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood) are gorgeous. Yup, that’s about it. There’s no reason why it should look so good but be so bad.
Snow White and the Huntsman felt like a half assed Lord of the Rings rip off, trying to recreate that same stylistic majesty with none of the depth of its source material. Its convoluted and shallow writing, by three people (Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini, the latter of whom wrote the flawless screenplay for Drive), offers no reason or depth or nuance for the audience. The acting is sadly subpar, even from the High Priestess of Bitchery, Charlize Theron. What can be said about the film is that it is pretty to look at. It is eye candy and nothing more. But great cinematography and production value does not a movie make. There has to be a reason why we care that Snow White, blandly played by Stewart, is the fairest of them all. Otherwise, it’s technically fare game.
2012 in Film: #89 – Young Adult
2012 in Film: #89
Young Adult (2011) | Directed by Jason Reitman
Thoughts: There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.