Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Reel Best & Worst Films of 2011, Part 2

2011 was a year of quantity over quality; box office numbers and attendance were down, and most of the top releases this year did not have that gotta-have-it-right-away appeal for first-day Blu-ray buyers. There might not have been a lot of great films, but were a ton of very good films, with many of them coming from the independent circles; many of the smaller releases reviewed better than the big-nuts studio productions (BLACKTHORN reviewed better than COWBOYS & ALIENS, for example).

Reel Speak reviewed 52 movies in 2011, nine of which went towards the Worst List. So whittling down 43 to just ten was a difficult task. Honorable mention must be given to HUGO, DRIVE, SHAME, THE SKIN I LIVE IN, THE IDES OF MARCH, BLACKTHORN, MONEYBALL, HIGHER GROUND, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, THE BEAVER, THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED, THE TREE OF LIFE and LEBANON, PA. All fine films.

Now on to business:

Reel Speak readers are certainly aware that there is no such thing as indecisiveness on this blog. With that in mind, no one should have a problem with a TIE for the no. 10 spot; not because this Blogger can’t make up his mind, but because the two films are remarkably similar in many ways. Both TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE are psychological mind-benders in which their main characters are tortured by a pending threat which may or may not be real. One film answers the question definitively, the other does not…but both methods work in the storytelling and with messing with the viewers head. Both are composed with an atmosphere so looming that you’re glancing over your shoulder, and both have outstanding performances by their leads (Michael Shannon for SHELTER, and Elizabeth Olsen for MARLENE).

Rounding out the trio of brain messer-withers is Lars Von Trier’s deeply atmospheric and tragic MELANCHOLIA. Composed more than crafted, MELANCHOLIA paints an intimate portrait of worldwide Armageddon from the unique perspective of two depressed people, and therein lays the genius; a depressed person is always feeling the end of the world, so why not put them in it for real? Characters rule here; there are no toppling bridges, no collapsing buildings or exploding national monuments, just pure raw emotion driven mostly by a career defining performance by Kirsten Dunst.

The tragedy in THE DESCENDANTS is a bittersweet one, as it tells the all important story of how good things can emerge out of great loss. The theme is centered on a broken family, and the characters are fleshed out so well it is hard to believe that anyone would have problems relating to them or the film. Beautifully shot in Hawaii, THE DESCENDANTS centers around an unexpected emotional performance by George Clooney that is bursting with raw feelings. Despite the tragedy in the story, this is one of the feel-good films of the year.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO feels like the film David Fincher has been making his entire lifetime. All the best elements of his better efforts over the years are present, and this Blogger cannot think of a better director who was perfect for this adaptation. Thick with mystery and deeply atmospheric, TATTOO’s star is the cold and distant Lisbeth, played perfectly by Mara Rooney on many levels. The real super-sleuth of 2011 is Lisbeth, and a certain Downey Jr. ought to take notice.

If you have names like Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Colin Firth in your film, you dang well better deliver something special; and special is exactly what TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is. Outside of the incredible performances by the entire cast (Oldman in particular), the film brings the world of the 1970’s Cold War to life so well that you can feel the damp chill of London, the thick smell of tobacco and the sting of the whiskey glasses. Dense with plot and sharp dialogue, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is very much a film for grown-ups with mature minds; proving that you can have a film full of old men in three-piece suits sitting around talking and still be very, very good. A certain Guy Ritchie ought to take notice.

The animated film RANGO is inhabitated by talking animals. But make no mistake, RANGO is no kiddie film packed with fluffiness and sing-a-longs and toys. Gore Verbinski has created a film saturated in film lore; crafted with the Old West in mind and brought to life with the most stunning and breathtaking animation to date. The detail is jawdropping, but RANGO never rests alone on its visuals. It is a character piece, an adventure, a love story and a caper a rolled into one big fun barrel. RANGO was the most fun to be had in the theatre in 2011.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg did not hire any talking animals for his WAR HORSE, but he still managed to make his four-legged beast Joey a likable character that everyone just had to root for. Set against a tragically magnificent backdrop of WWI, Spielberg returns to his old (and better) form by putting us on Joey’s back for an emotional journey. Despite its many twists and turns amidst a world gone mad, Spielberg still manages to make this film a simple tale about a boy and his horse. Only he can do that perfectly.

An emotional gut-punch is exactly what the mighty WARRIOR throws and you never see it coming. WARRIOR’s first stroke of genius is ditching the ROCKY formula in which the main character’s opponent is the villain, and instead makes the fighters people that we want to, and have to root for. The second stroke is making those two fighters brothers; brothers set against the backdrop of a broken family. Fueled by powerful performances by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and most especially Nick Nolte, the emotional power of WARRIOR sneaks up on you in a hurry. This Blogger hasn’t shed that many tears in the theatre since a certain KING made his RETURN.

Where WARRIOR went for the gut, the top two films go for the heart and are equally effective. Charming is the first word that comes to mind when writing about THE ARTIST; a black-and-white silent film telling the story about the downfall of silent film in the 1920’s. Less of a gimmick and more of an important story, THE ARTIST focuses a lot on character, and the important lesson of what happens when one can’t let go of the past unfolds silently. The silent-film treatment is a joy to watch and is brought to life by clever filmmaking and performances that have not been seen on the silver-screen in almost 100 years. THE ARTIST will be seeing gold.

Taking a nearly-obscure event in Hollywood history and turning it into a feature film is a difficult task, especially when the main character is one of the most beloved and fascinating figures who ever lived. Charming, romantic and fun, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is the movie that sweeps you off your feet right away and never lets go. Not a biopic, MARILYN is instead a character study combined with a slight coming-of-age spin with loads of whimsical energy. The loveliness and mystery of Marilyn is brought to life by Michelle Williams in a breathtaking performance. MARILYN is the one film that had this Blogger smiling from ear-to-ear from beginning to end. That is a hard thing to do.



1 comment:

  1. Umm I've seen one of these "top 10" movies. Shit. Clearly I wasted a LOT of time in 2011. And clearly I will be renting a LOT of movies in 2012 :)


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