Movie Madness

My movie reviews and rants at your fingertips.

Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011: The Good, the Awful, and the Favorites

Well, it’s that time of year again. The moment when all us film critics and cinephiles lay out the best films of the year. This year, I want to do something different. This year, I chose my list based on many factors. One factor I left out intentionally was critics’ opinions. In years past, my list of best films of the year has really aligned with the greater film-critique establishment. I’m done with that.

This year, I’m going to focus on the films that really blew me away. Just to make things a little more articulate, I will include my top five favorite films at the bottom. I’m also going to include the five worst films, as my tastes drove me to some truly awful films this year. All in all, this should be a list unlike many critics, but one that is void of lofty expectations. The films included are chosen by their merit, not the political machine that determines what is great. Yes, George Clooney was brilliant in The Descendants. But is the film great on its own or is it perceived even greater because of the great performances. It’s a difficult question to ponder, so I’ll leave you with that as I jump into my picks for the best films of 2011.

1. Warrior

This movie has to be included without question. When I first heard about the reviews for this film, I was really excited. As a huge fan of Tom Hardy, I was anxious to see him on the big screen. As the film reached its climax, I couldn’t help but sob. Here was a movie with as much heart as Rocky that drove me to tears. I’ve haven’t cried like that in a movie since I saw Stop-Loss.

2. Beginners

This snuck up on me. I’d heard great things and was looking forward to seeing Christopher Plummer play a recently out of the closet gay man. What I got, however, was a much more enriching story. Beginners is an absolute must see. I found myself having a lot of trouble shaking this movie off. It lingered with me, warping my mood and causing me to have an entire week of personal gloominess. But this isn’t a bad thing, as any film that causes such a visceral emotional reaction is one I can’t help but love.

3. Hugo

After Hugo, I may never watch another 3D movie again. The environment and story were so eye-popping that I may never find a 3D movie that bests this. Beyond its gimmick, director Martin Scorsese paints a family-friendly world that is almost too enchanting to be real. This simply must be seen, and it must be seen in 3D.

4. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

My hats off to cowriter/director Eli Craig. I have never seen a horror comedy as funny or brilliant as this. Instead of having the hillbillies be murderers, Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are just ordinary shmoes who find themselves surrounded by scared teenagers. This is destined to be a classic, as it should be.

5. Fast Five

No one expected Fast Five to be as big as it was. From the budget to the box office to the returning cast, nothing about this film was small. And it worked. Vin Diesel and the gang reignite a franchise by adding a heist angle. The result is one of the best and smartest summer movies of the year.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger

Speaking of smart and well-executed summer blockbusters, Captain America had both in spades. Besting even X-Men: First Class, the final Marvel movie of the summer was pure brilliance. Its mix of WWII nostalgia and comic book superheroes made it one of the most fun 3D movies I saw all year.

7. Hanna

Director Joe Wright can do no wrong. After breathing life into period pieces again (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), he takes a stab at the world of an assassin child. Combining elements of great classic films, he delivers a one of a kind story that will be studied and analyzed for years to come.

8. Margin Call

Zachary Quinto centers a fictional account of how Wall Street came to be so desperate for help. With a cast that is stronger than most ensemble movies this year, the story goes through one night when things that to hit the fan. A tense and exciting drama in the vein of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

9. Contagion

I’m so glad I went to this movie alone. Just the idea of a simple virus spreading so rapidly freaked me out. This was way more intense than Outbreak. The opening shot is a black screen and the sound of a cough. From there, director Soderbergh takes germaphobia to a realistic and disturbing precipice. I felt so dirty and gross after this film. It may not be considered a horror movie, but it should be. It’s truly unsettling.

10. Win Win

Thomas McCarthy films wow me. The Station Agent blew my mind. This one, his third, is one of the best films about family dynamics. Another rich performance by the always-amazing Paul Giamatti as a struggling lawyer and failing wrestling coach who finds a boy who turns things around.

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Worst films of the year

1. Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star– How the f— did this movie ever get made? This insults anyone who gives it a chance.

2. Season of the Witch– God bless Ron Perlman for finding work to do while on hiatus from Sons of Anarchy. There is absolutely nothing worth saying about the movie. Even watching the trailer made me wish for my time back.

3. Like Crazy– I had high hopes for this film considering it had Jennifer Lawrence and Anton Yelchin, what I saw was a gigantic piece of heavy-handed romance pandering. If you are really in love, why are you seeing anyone else? (Not an actual spoiler if you saw the trailer)

4. The Rum Diary– My appreciation for Johnny Depp has waned a great deal since Pirates of the Caribbean made him a household name. Here, he stars in another film based on a Hunter S. Thompson book. Unfortunately, it is nowhere near as fun or zany, or even as interesting, as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When Depp blamed the film’s failure on stupid people in Wichita, I wrote him off completely.

5. Cowboys & Aliens– Here’s a movie that’s concept is its title. Another tally mark in Harrison Ford’s list of horrible films. It makes me weep everytime Ford makes crap like this.

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Top Five Favorite films of 2011

1. The Trip- Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon traverse Northern England, tasting expensive food and getting on each other’s nerves. The films thin story allows for some truly inspiring improv. In fact, this movie succeeds because of the combined wits of Coogan and Brydon constantly upping the ante.

2. Warrior

3. Our Idiot Brother– Instead of getting a simple comedy, Our Idiot Brother explores siblings and family. The movie is filled with heart and warmth. The scene with the family playing charades really sucks me into the film and shows a whole other depth to the story.

4. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol– I’d seen it three times on IMAX screens before it was out a week. Tom Cruise rockets back to stardom and brings a perfect cast of Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg. The best in the franchise by far.

5. The Bang Bang Club– Ryan Phillippe leads us through the world of photojournalism in Apartheid Africa. The story and the rich details of the true story make for a compelling ride. This film was so intense and interesting, I wanted to pick up a camera and start learning photojournalism. This film and Breach made me a big fan of Phillippe’s. I hope he continues to make great films in years to come.

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Breakdown: Foreign Films

The average American isn’t much of an art-house film fan. They aren’t for everyone, but once in a while, a film breaks through and achieves mainstream status and appeal. Look at the Oscar nominations of the last few years; there are many films made for a select audience that garnered a wider appeal.

Foreign films have it even tougher. Reading a film feels a bit beneath a lot of filmgoers. They want the language they know. This is really unfortunate. Many of film’s greatest achievements have either been created or improved by cinema made outside of the U.S. In fact, we are not the most productive country in terms of film releases in a year. India produces anywhere from five to ten times more films per year than we do. With this amount of movies being released, not just in India but worldwide, how can America claim the monopoly film advances? I urge you all, watch foreign cinema. It really is a treat to learn about other cultures through their art.

You wouldn’t manipulate van Gogh and call it better because we Americanized it (learn not trust that word).

A Starry Night in Gotham

The same goes for foreign films. There are literally thousands, probably millions, of great films you have never experienced. Open your mind to new languages and new adventures. After a while, the subtitles become familiar and you will later feel like the characters indeed spoke English.

The last little thing I want to throw in before I get to my list of favorite foreign flicks is to avoid every opportunity to watch a film dubbed. There is a reason we make fun of these films. The dubbing allows you to look at the mouth of a character while they speak instead of reading subtitles. This dissonance makes it hard to watch. The words you hear aren’t matching the mouth shapes and it feels unnatural. Leave it as it’s original language. Allow the wonder of a new or unfamiliar language wash over you. Plus, for those learning a language, it helps a great deal to hear it spoken in real situations.

That’s it for my spiel. Now to my top five favorite foreign language films:

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) – Swedish

I wrote about this film before on my Breakdown: Recommendations for a Friend so I won’t rehash every detail year. Simply said, I hope to finally get a copy of this for Christmas this year.

Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) – French

Every few years or so, a foreign film makes a big splash on American soil. Antonio Banderas, Marion Coittard, Jean Reno, and Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Gerard Dépardieu (the list goes on for miles) have all transitioned from cinema from their country of origin to find levels of success in American films. Amélie is Audrey Tautou’s crossover hit. Though she has remained rich in French cinema, she occasionally pops up in films like The Da Vinci Code, adding to her appeal. Tautou, who I refer to as the French Audrey Hepburn, plays Amélie, a young woman looking to bring some adventure to those around her. She punishes a cruel grocer, sends a lawn gnome around the world, and falls in love with a mysterious man. A charming and heartwarming movie filled with imagination.

Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru) – Japanese

A girl fascinated with Japanese culture suggested this to me. Battle Royale is about the overwhelming level of crime in Japanese youth. To solve this, the government has arranged a lottery. The class chosen from that lottery is sent to an island, where they must fight until only one student is left alive. These kids, most of them nonviolent, must kill their peers and stay out of reach of the minefields that change on a random schedule. There is a sequel, but I have yet to see it. This one, however, is a violent epic battle.

Black Book (Zwartboek) – Netherlands

This film I already talked about at length (click here). Having seen it four or five times now, I still really love the story.

Priceless (Hors de Prix) – French

After Amélie, I became engrossed in French cinema, specifically Audrey Tautou films. This one I found by accident one afternoon in San Antonio, Texas. When I learned our class would have a half-day, I looked at films playing in town. When I came across this one, I raced there the second we were dismissed. Tautou plays a gold digger who finds herself at the receiving end of a hotel clerk’s affection. When he runs out of money to entertain her with, she leaves. He decides to play her game and become a gold digger too, just to stay close to her. She coaches him as he becomes more and more attractive to her. Probably my favorite French film. I was so impatient to own this, I bought the all region DVD instead of  waiting forever on the American release.

Other foreign films to see:

The City of Lost Children

The Grand Illusion

Night Watch

Hate

M

A Very Long Engagement

High Tension

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Paris, Je t’aime

Y Tu Mama Tambien

The Host

Gozu

Breakdown: Classic Superhero Films

This came up when I was waiting in line to take a final exam today. Why a university wants to shove 2,100 students through a computer lab of 42, I’ll never know. But that’s a different story.

My friend Brandon and I were discussing what would be considered the 5 superhero movies based on existing comic books. We talked at length about the difference between great and classic. For example, Captain America: The First Avenger(one of the best films I’ve seen all year) is great, but not a classic.

The late-great Christopher Reeve

A classic is something that both defines and invigorates a genre. Because I never saw any of the Superman films with the late Christopher Reeves, I can’t very well comment on its strength and impact on cinema (relax, it’s in my Netflix queue). Its effect is felt to this day. But readers know this, I make it a point to only write about movies I’ve seen. Sure, Jack and Jill may be a terrible movie, but I haven’t seen it. The only exception is films so blatantly awful that I must leave for fear of a migraine due to shitty filmmaking (my Bucky Larson review).

So, keeping in mind that Mr. Reeves is the honorable mention of this list, here is my list of superhero classics.

The Dark Knight

This is an obvious choice. What Christopher Nolan has done has brought realism and depth to something that became corrupted when Joel Schumacher took over from Tim Burton. The highest grosser of the bunch, Nolan and his cast create a film epic on scale that knows how to balance story and action. The fact that it was never nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards the year of its release is a crime. I saw all the Best Picture nominees that year, and The Dark Knight was easily better than the solid but not brilliant The Reader or even Milk.

Iron Man

Out the same summer as The Dark Knight, both of these films changed summer movies and superhero films to this day. Every film wants to have either the stark realism of The Dark Knight or the humor and earnestness of Iron Man. Here was a film that was anything but a guarantee. Robert Downey Jr. was not insurable just years before. Thank god director Jon Favreau took a chance on him. The film kicked off the summer of 2008 with a film that did everything right. I remember reading one review that complained how short it was. After seeing it 3 times in theaters (the most times I’ve ever seen a film in theaters), I loved every minute and was so pleased that Robert Downey Jr. finally got the A-list jobs he deserved.

Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man

Spiderman

This film is responsible Marvel getting a foothold in the movie business. They haven’t all been winners (Ghost Rider is getting a sequel?!), but this one really shined. The cast was perfect. The epic Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin and the dweebish Tobey Maguire really gave the film credibility. This wasn’t campy or over-the-top, this was a film that brought mind-blowing special effects to superhero many of us grew up with. Director Sam Raimi gave us the best possible Spiderman film with this and Spiderman 2. With Andrew Garfield set to take over in The Amazing Spiderman, I won’t hold my breath for something better than the first two.

Hellboy

I don’t know if I can get away with calling Hellboy a superhero. He is actually a demon. But there is no denying that Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film was a blast. Focusing more on the characters and conventional special effects than CGI, del Toro made a fun and exciting action movie. Casting Ron Perlman as the lead was brilliant. No other actor could embody Hellboy the same way. It may not be the classic that the rest of the films on this list are, but it showed that DC and Marvel aren’t the only universes one must explore for rich stories.

Brandon Lee in The Crow

The Crow

Brandon Lee was taken from us way too early in his career. If this film is any indication, he had a long career ahead of him. When watching the film, an already gothic and dark film, you are left feeling bereaved. Seeing Brandon Lee trapped on-screen in his last (and unfinished) role gives the mood of the movie an extra layer of dread. The story of his unfortunate demise on set can be found all over the internet. Like The Dark Knight, The Crow had to market a film while missing a central actor. It’s impossible to say how the films would be received had Heath Ledger and Lee not been deceased, but I like to think that element doesn’t matter. Both gave brave and strong performances in films that are now required viewing for many circles. That would have made them feel honored I think.