2011 in Film: The Best of the Kind of Mediocre!

Published on January 10th, 2012

Alex, despite his reservations, compiles a list of his favourite movies from 2011.

I recently had a dream in which that skinny, quasi-autistic genius character from Criminal Minds tutored kids when he wasn’t solving mysteries with Shemar Moore. It’s not his job, really, it was just something that made sense for him to do. I don’t look at myself as a film critic – mostly because I still have to pay for my own tickets so I don’t see shit like Shark Night 3D – but it probably makes sense that I make a sort of best of 2011 type list thing, if only so I can talk more people into watching Beginners.

Unsurprisingly, I find best of lists kind of flawed. They all rely so much on context; when you saw the movie, where you saw the movie, etc. And as I said half a paragraph ago, I haven’t seen everything. I’m not interested in seeing Extremely Tom and Incredibly Hanks, nor do I care about Meryl Streep’s 2011 entry into her ever expanding collection of accents. However, I see a lot of movies, and while I tend to like more than I dislike, sometimes there are things I really love. 2011 wasn’t a particularly great year for movies, and there was no The Social Network-type classic released, but even in a mediocre film year, there was plenty worth seeing. Below are those movies, in no specific order until the final one.

Honourable Partial Mentions!

Take Shelter was – outside of the most unsettling scenes in Dragon Tattoo – my favourite movie of the year aesthetically. The sound was amazing, the ever-present dread felt so real that I sometimes thought it was sitting next to me, and the most intense sequences made my heart fucking pound. I’m still undecided as to what the film was about, but I know I loved it. See it, and do so in a loud theatre… just don’t expect to necessarily know what it was trying to tell you as the credits roll.

I didn’t love Shame as a whole, but I liked parts of it a lot. The opening sequence was so perfect that it almost made the flaws in the rest of the movie seem too ridiculous to even mention. From the visuals, to the music, to Michael Fassbender’s unrelenting subway gaze, the scene is incredible. The rest of the movie is not, but that’s a small price to pay.

My initial excitement over Transformers: The Dark of the Moon was over the top. I know this, but that was how I felt at the time. And sitting through the movie a second and third time, it only became more clear to me that it was an awful, borderline incomprehensible film. But I still love it, mostly because the second half is simply too incredible and action-packed to ignore. The highway chase scene was the coolest action sequence of the year (people actually applauded after the elongated slow motion shot), and pretty much everything that happens in Chicago can only be described as ‘boss.’ Transformers 3 might have sucked, but the forty minutes of action insanity were enough to get me to come back to it.

Movies That Were Generally Great!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I don’t care about Stieg Larsson at all, and until yesterday he was little more to me than a better than average Ted Mosby punchline. But then director David Fincher got a hold of his material… and I love me some Fincher. Fincher’s aesthetic is a constant sort of ‘fuck you,’ with his quick pans/tilts and recurring themes of the rejection of society’s established institutions, and no character is more of a walking fuck you than Lisbeth Salander, who even goes so far as to wear a shirt saying, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck,” at one point. The character – played by the formerly adorable Rooney Mara – also represents a rejection and failure of institutions like law enforcement (who couldn’t solve the case that is the primary focus of the film) and social services (Salander is literally raped by the film’s representation of social services); early on we learn that Mikael Blomqvist (everybody’s favourite Cubist James Bond, Daniel Craig) has his cash drained wrongfully by a failure of the legal system. Fincher’s career has always shown these types of sentiments, and his films always promote the common person succeeding where institutions can’t. (That Fincher never went to film school should come as no surprise to anybody.) Dragon Tattoo has its problems, but it is mostly exceptional. It is unsettling in a way that no Hollywood movie since Seven has been, and without being overly violent, it remains terribly disturbing throughout. It’s a horror/mystery film that rarely bends to the conventions of either genre, and that’s all I ever really want.

(Gratuitous self-promotion interlude! James and I recently did a two-part podcast on the career of David Fincher, which you can check out here and here.)

Super 8
This movie has been supremely underrated, mostly because it’s a blockbuster. While I don’t love any of the Steven Spielberg movies it liberally borrows from – although the first half of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is pretty much perfect – I loved Super 8. The relationship between the father (Friday Night Lights’ king of smouldering, Kyle Chandler) and his son Joe (Joel Courtney) is interesting, and Joe’s interactions with his friends are some of the more purely entertaining dialogue scenes of the year. Elle Fanning is a phenomenal young actress (as previously proven in Somewhere), and all of her scenes with Joe are appropriately fucking adorable. The macguffin of Super 8 is, while perhaps overly sentimental, really enjoyable, and it leads to an incredible and beautiful closing scene.

The Tree of Life
This movie is generally recognized as good, but it’s a type of good that comes with a lot of qualifiers. “Well, it’s really douchey, but I probably enjoyed it,” or, “I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, but it was really pretty,” or, “Jessica Chastain’s nose is flawless.” I didn’t love the script for this movie, and I certainly didn’t care for a lot of the more rambling aspects of it, but it is a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, so I knew what I was going into, and I still love his work despite its nagging flaws. The Tree of Life featured what was undoubtedly the best cinematography I saw this year, and cinematography that was also particularly interesting. The movie is shot almost entirely in low angles, in an effort to provide a child’s view of what is going on around them. It’s a gorgeous movie, and it will seem as thoughtful as you want it to seem. A movie that only gives you ideas as to what it wants you to think can be ridiculous, but it can also be incredibly enjoyable. The Tree of Life was the latter.

50/50
Still funny, still touching. I wrote a review of this back when I saw it initially, and I still agree with every word. 50/50 is hilarious, emotional, and it will remain so as time passes.

Moneyball
I loved this movie, mostly because it is more about original thought than it is about baseball. When Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane tried to subvert baseball’s typical way of thinking in the early 2000s, he changed the sport (at least temporarily). What the movie documents is the struggle that Beane faces in trying something new, and in doing so the movie reflects how hard it really is to change the traditional method of thinking anywhere. There are some weird stylistic choices at various points in the movie, and it does try a little bit too hard to be The Social Network, but it works more often than it doesn’t. Moneyball is a humourous and entertaining (if not particularly truthful) documentation of Beane’s effect on his sport… it’s just that the movie isn’t entirely about it.

Drive
Nobody can really explain what it is about this movie that is so good, but everybody knows that it is good. Critics tend to argue that it is a comment on cinematic tropes, but I kind of think that’s bullshit, or at least an unintended coincidence. It’s a cool movie – an exceptionally cool one – but it’s not much more than that. It’s basically a spaghetti western, if the horses were replaced with cars and whatever Italian woman Clint Eastwood had his sights on was replaced with the dewy eyes of Carey Mulligan. Also, head stomping. I don’t think Clint ever did that.

Fast Five
Similarly to Drive, nobody can ever explain why they love Fast Five… they just do. What’s most interesting about this movie is that it was a sort of cultural punchline this year; I would bet that whenever somebody made a joke about how shitty Hollywood is in 2011, Fast Five was used as the joke at least 50% of the time. But that Fast Five is seemingly a joke is attributable to the fact that it is a movie from the past. The reason Vin Diesel and The Rock never truly became modern action megastars is because they are big, lumbering badasses who didn’t come around until long after John McLane made it cool to have feelings in between murdering terrorists. We don’t want the lumbering Stallone type anymore, we want somebody who feels at least kind of human… and nothing about The Rock’s muscles even kind of suggests humanity. Fast Five is similarly classical in that it is a heist movie, perhaps one of the oldest types of action film. When you’re watching Fast Five (and you should), you’ll see a clichéd, totally legit and badass, ridiculous modern action movie, but you’ll also be watching the history of film. It’s like Hugo, except that Fast Five director Justin Lin didn’t want to get all up front about it.

Beginners
I loved this movie. It is the only movie of 2011 that I (kind of) forced somebody to watch, and pretty much everybody I’ve talked to about Beginners seemed to really enjoy it. Christopher Plummer is too funny to ignore, and the way the story is told is clever enough to forgive any dips into the realm of being “a bit too twee.” I recognize that this movie might end up being similar to how I felt about Lost in Translation back in 2003; I was aware of its faults when it was released, but there was simply too much to love for those to be a real issue. It might not be something that I’ll love forever, but I loved Beginners when I saw it the first time this year, and still loved it on the fourth viewing. Beginners’ trips through history are meant to illustrate how little humans ever really change, and the film is about characters learning and adapting long after it seems like they should have their lives figured out. And while my opinion might change over time, that could be the case with anything. I guess I’ll have to wait to find out.

My Favourite Movie from 2011!

The Adjustment Bureau
The Adjustment Bureau essentially asks you one question: what would you do if you were told that fate existed, and that there was nothing significant that you could do in your life that was truly autonomous? And by choosing a politician and an artist as our protagonists, the movie is suggesting even more interesting ideas to us. David (Matt Damon) is sold to the voters as an authentic candidate, and is often called the ‘GQ candidate’ due to his comparative youth, but even he acknowledges that the way he has been marketed is not entirely truthful. Early in the film, he gives a wildly popular concession speech railing against his so-called authenticity, going on an unscripted rant about how he is told by his team that his shoes must always be slightly scuffed and he must always wear a red or blue tie in order to not alienate voters. While he has already lost this election, David is suddenly the early favourite for the next election due to this act of improvisation. But in making this speech, David (and by extension the movie) is suggesting that our politicians are such highly-contrived entities that we don’t have any real selection. He suggests that our votes do indeed count in that we are making a choice, but that choice doesn’t mean much more than our choice of drinking Coke or Pepsi: we are still choosing a highly-influenced entity as opposed to a real person.

Elise’s (the alarmingly charming Emily Blunt) dancing career isn’t the focus of the film either, but that the Bureau also controls the fate of her career is a suggestion about all successful art. In order for one’s art to reach a high number of people (with some exceptions), it needs to have the support of a company that can profit from it. This can easily be applied to the film The Adjustment Bureau, as test screenings showed that audiences hated the original ending of the movie, so the studio commanded reshoots (in the studio’s defence though, the original ending sounds fucking terrible). In order for this movie to be made, writer/director George Nolfi and his crew had to make changes to appease their version of the Adjustment Bureau. Should Elise not appease the Bureau and remain romantically involved with David, or if Nolfi truly stuck to his original ending, they would not be able to reach the level of wide-ranging success that they are separately looking for. Still, this movie is not without its problems; Anthony Mackie is laughably poor, there’s that shit with the hats, and the new ending is far from great. What it lacks in perfection, however, The Adjustment Bureau more than makes up for it by being interesting… more so than anything else released in 2011.

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