Sunday, January 1, 2012

Wide Angle: 2011 in Review

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

It's folly to unequivocally declare an entire year a good or bad one for movies - quality doesn't follow the calendar. It's easier than ever to curate your own viewing, making it tempting to perceive a critical mass of depth. On the other hand, the sheer number of releases available to the average person can also give one the feeling of drowning in a sea of dreck. A fruitless scan through the Netflix Streaming library is the new lament of the media-saturated mind, the "100 channels and nothing good on" of the next decade.

But it's helpful and instructive (and more than a little fun) to take stock of everything when a benchmark presents itself. I had a chance to do just that a couple of weeks ago with a top ten list for Screen Invasion. Such exercises can be frustrating because they will never be definitive, with second-guessing virtually guaranteed. It can't be helped. And to be honest, it's a big reason of what makes movies fun. Films are missed only to be discovered later, opinions are reconsidered, and experience interprets a story differently than it would have a year, a month, or even a week before. Doing a year-end survey like this really reminds me why I love the movies, these things than can be so trivial and yet so essential, explaining nothing but meaning everything.

Top Whatever
I don't see a whole lot of sense in numerical rankings or round numbers when talking about great films. So my list of 2011's best begins chronologically with the bizarre fable that was Rango, distinguished by a voice-acting performance from an A-list star (Johnny Depp) who is there to complete the character and not just to fill in space on the poster. The poetic Tree of Life confused and polarized and perfectly matched an uncompromising narrative to a daring method of storytelling. Conversely, Attack the Block was an unquestioned crowd-pleaser and announced itself as an instant genre classic in every frame.

The Interrupters was never easy to watch, but the way it invested a gritty topic with genuine warmth and hope was a stunning achievement. I can still hear the grumbling during the end credits of Drive, a tense and terrific rebuke to the consequence-free world of the typical action movie; similarly, Moneyball focused on a compelling human drama and proved that the best sports movies are not necessarily about sports.

Melancholia and The Skin I Live In were decadent, anxious, and personal movies orchestrated to maximum emotional effect by two great directors, but it doesn't get more personal than Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for cinephiles that also captures pieces from the reality of a lifelong love affair with film. And sneaking in at the end of the year, A Separation belied its unassuming nature with a story and performances that cut to the quick while We Need to Talk About Kevin delivered the goods in every aspect of its lurid premise.

Other Good Stuff
2011 had plenty of films that were a notch or two below greatness but no less memorable, including the moving biography Senna, the inscrutable Into the Abyss, the elegiac War Horse, the hilarious Bridesmaids, and the intimate Another Earth.

50/50 successfully mixed pathos with comedy, as did The Trip. And The Artist, whether trifling or manipulative or unrealistic, was still a superior cinematic confection.

Best Performances
Only Ryan Gosling's taut, mannered work in Drive stands as tall as the Year of Michael Fassbender, whose tortured cycle of restraint and release elevated both Shame and A Dangerous Method. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen hinted at an ocean of torment underneath a placid exterior as an cult escapee in Martha Marcy May Marlene, while Elena Anaya found a certain strength as another type of captive in The Skin I Live In.

The pairing of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Melancholia's sniping sisters was all the better for being so unexpectedly natural, likewise Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win Win, where a non-professional actor and real-life wrestling champion brought out the best in an Oscar winner. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and especially Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) gave great performances as individuals whose worst fears are not taken seriously, while Seth Rogen successfully translated his wisecracking schtick into a heartfelt role as a bulwark for a seriously ill friend in 50/50. And this list could not be complete without John Lithgow, who steals New Year's Eve with the briefest of scenes as a record executive who has to shriek lines like "But it's Grammy season!" in a hot, hammy lather as only he can.

Flawed But Fascinating
Midnight in Paris is an agreeable, lighthearted trip into the past but egregiously dresses up its simplistic themes in a way that makes its audience feel smart without having to do much actual thinking. Bellflower's unique visual style and interesting characters can't fully compensate for the ugliness of its second half, a juvenile and indulgent revenge fantasy that should captivate therapists for years to come.

But neither is anywhere near the piece of work that Sucker Punch is, Zach Snyder's hot mess of a thesis on feminism in pop culture. Somehow believing that he can coherently explore the physical and psychological oppression of women from the exploitative vantage point of a leering fanboy, Snyder's presence is heavily felt in every second of a fascinating disaster with a methodology far too dumb to properly execute an experiment this clever.

Most Unexpected Surprises
Raise your hand if you thought Rise of the Planet of the Apes would even be a watchable action flick, let alone a surprisingly thoughtful portrayal of the relationship between man and beast. The remake of Fright Night was another of 2011's entertaining overachievers, and I suppose Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol belongs here too for making us all forget that Tom Cruise is a bit of a weirdo.

Biggest Disappointments
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's sterling track record was sullied by the inert, only sporadically funny Paul (maybe they should collaborate exclusively with Edgar Wright?). Super 8's nostalgia train derailed spectacularly as it squandered a pitch-perfect first act on two-thirds of a ridiculous monster movie. And don't get me wrong - I liked most of The Muppets, but it took a major second-half rally to make me forget its early tone-deaf humor and abundantly puzzling creative choices.

Just the Worst
I would just as soon forget the painfully unfunny Your Highness and ridiculous character dynamics of Something Borrowed, but I fear that nothing will be able to remove the stain of Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence from my memory. Inexplicably addressing his own (very small) audience with an undue sense of contempt, Tom Six at least makes clear his intentions in extending his ass-to-mouth horror "franchise" - he simply loves forcing people to swallow his shit.

And on that note, here's wishing everyone good health and good movies in 2012! Thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, and sometimes confronting me in person about my reviews. I can't wait to continue the conversation.

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