I have a motto: “Life’s too short to watch bad movies”. In fulfillment of this, I spend much of my spare time trying to tick off ‘Best Picture’ winners, nominees and classic films from previous years. I just finished watching Lawrence of Arabia. This year I also checked off Blade Runner, Brokeback Mountain, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Blind Side and the ‘Dollars Trilogy‘ and a few others, including my best ‘film viewed’ this year, Frost/Nixon. If you haven’t seen it, do so. Frank Langella is incredible as Richard Nixon.
I also regard myself as an amateur film buff. I don’t use the word amateur either literally (because I’m not a paid professional) or with false humility, but because I recognise that I have a fairly amateur point-of-view. I like quirky films, films with heart, character-driven dramas, tear-jerkers that have purpose and meaning behind them and huge, glorious epics that strike me down with grandeur. I also have young kids and work infrequently at an OSHC, meaning I see a lot of kids films. Too many. But sometimes they’re brilliant and that gets taken into account too. So I recognise that there is a specific type of film that is more likely to win me over and that my critical eye is likely to be distinctly different from that of everyone else.
In some ways…this is a good thing.
But this year has been such a bummer. It’s the year of the sequel and the superhero, and those that I’ve bothered to watch have been very ordinary.
This is also a funny time of year to do a ‘best of’, I know, but it’s award season, the true end of the film year. If not now…when? December? In honour of tomorrow’s Oscars, my top ten films of the year plus the worst and some Oscar picks.
1) Films had to be eligible for the 2011 Oscars
2) Films have to be watchable. This DEFINITELY came into play in 2011. There are some films that are ‘epic’, possibly ‘well-acted’ and from a ‘name’ director, but were terrible and unwatchable. Oh, who am I trying to kid, it’s Jack and Jill.*
3) Films must be seen by me personally, at least 90% through. That’s fair. It covers catnaps.
The ones that were close:
15) The Adventures of Tin-Tin
14) The Adjustment Bureau
13) Captain America
12) Cars 2
11) X-Men: First Class
Note: If that didn’t give you an idea of how poor a year this was, #16 was Kung Fu Panda 2. #17 was The Hangover 2. Yup.
So without further ado…
Mike’s Top 10 Films Of 2011
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
I’m so very glad this snuck onto the end of this list. While I didn’t choose to see it (I watched it with one of our youthies) it was everything I could have hoped for.
Let me clarify. If you go into an MI movie expecting a well-thought out script, you’re a fool. If you want clever dialogue, you’re naive. What you should want to see are the following things:
1) A car chase
2) A completely impossible, but perfect-for-a-trailer moment (in the original movie, it’s the scene where Cruise ziplines to the floor of an alarm-activated vault and is caught, horizontal, millimetres above the floor)
3) Bad guys that are either angry Middle Easterners or Eastern Euros (hint: MI4 has BOTH! The Russians are back!!). Important note: the bad guys need to be portrayed in a way that makes you think somewhere from, “borderline racist” to “openly, horrifically racist”.
5)Car chases that end with explosions
6) Implausible events in famous locations
76) Tom Cruise running. If you haven’t enjoyed that simple pleasure before, you really should:
Head all the way through to the end – the last one’s my personal favourite.
All you get out of MI4 is a lot of action sequences, big locations (Burj Dubai, anyone?), laughably bad dialogue, stereotyped bad guys and two hours of turn-your-brain-off bliss.
Honestly, it was all I could have asked of it.
9) The Ides Of March
You don’t need me to tell you that this has been the year of Ryan Gosling. The man has had the Midas touch this year. Rolling on from last year’s successful Blue Ivy Carter Valentine, this year Gosling has crushed (reportedly) in Drive, Crazy, Stupid, Love and finally in The Ides Of March. Add him to the perpetually loveable and charismatic George Clooney and two character actors with serious chops (Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and what do you get? To be honest…not a whole lot.
While both Hoffman and Giamatti kill their (too-small) roles as always, Clooney and Gosling radiate disinterest. Poor old Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t get much in the way of a meaty acting role here either and doesn’t exactly do feminists proud either.
Ultimately, The Ides Of March is good the way a standard pub chicken parmy is good. You know exactly what you’re getting. So you never get disappointed…right? Wrong. The salad bar probably sucked, you didn’t get enough chips and they made you pay extra for the topping. You know exactly what I mean. And so does director George Clooney. Give us a bit more on the side, a bit more on top and the movie rates higher. Sorry George.
What did this need? More Hoffman and Giamatti, a decent twist, less ice-cold Gosling stares (oh, who am I kidding) and Tom Cruise running.
8) Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Something truly amazing happened this year. In a year of bad sequels, prequels and hero movies, they released an updated version of Planet of the Apes. While in itself this isn’t the truly amazing thing, it comes close when you consider how bad the Mark Wahlberg version truly was. No, what was amazing is that it was actually pretty good!
James Franco’s not the star, of course. Andy Serkis, as Caesar the ape, motion captures the audience’s heart (cringe).
Listen, I’m not trying to say this is the movie of the year. But it’s an entertaining, action-packed romp with great special effects and scenery that is well worth a couple hours of your time – particularly if you caught it on a plane, like I did. What? How dare you suggest it impaired my judgment just because the other movies on the flight were Zookeeper and Mr Popper’s Penguins!
7) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2
Without a doubt the most underrated movie of the year. Deathly Hallows 2 was a non-stop roller-coaster ride of fun for Potter fans that ticked all the right boxes, but unsurprisingly felt no love from Oscar except in cinematographic categories. This ticked off Daniel Radcliffe, who admits he was ‘miffed’ at receiving no nominations for DH2. Strong words, Radcliffe. Strong words.
In all seriousness, what does the Academy want? The franchise went for 8 films, used some of the greatest British actors and actresses of the last 50 years and grossed around 7.7 BILLION DOLLARS! If that wasn’t enough, they ended it exceptionally well with a movie that has a 100% top critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And it couldn’t have had War Horse‘s spot? Or…well, I’ll get to that.
A thoroughly great ending to a very good franchise.
There’s a reason that I and pretty much everyone I know that has ever watched a movie don’t like Sean Penn. He never seems to pop up unless it’s in a movie that smells like the Academy Awards. Some of these films are good (I Am Sam). Some are woeful (Mystic River). But if there is even a whiff of Oscar, *poof*. There goes Sean Penn, nose in the air. And it bugs me that he gets rewarded for this.
Brad Pitt is a little different. I like Pitt because he does fun movies. Moneyball, for all its hype, is not an Oscar movie. It has a zero per cent chance of winning the Oscar. It’s a sports movie, it’s entertaining, it’s got a great narrative, but it’s not Oscar-worthy. Pitt chose to do this as a kind of personal project and I respect him for it because it’s a good movie for the sake of being a good movie, not for the sake of grubbing to the Academy. Millions will see and enjoy this movie and in the end, that’s a large part of film-making. For crying out loud, even Jonah freaking Hill is good in this movie!
But despite all of this, it’s still #6 on the list. Sorry Brad. Another Oscar-less year.
Not that this is saying a great deal, but Bridesmaids is the best film Judd Apatow has ever made. I’m not an Apatow fan. I find most of his work needlessly offensive without being amusing (see The Hangover for it can be done well) and a shameless vehicle for his wife Leslie Mann. Who’s an okay actress, but definitely riding Apatow’s coat-tails.
Who I AM a big fan of is Kristen Wiig. Saturday Night Live superstar and scene-stealer in the terrible Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais, Wiig is the sort of shameless, hilarious female comedian that paves the way for others to follow.
And is she the best part of the movie? Heck no. Melissa McCarthy, everyone. She won’t win the Supporting actress gong but boy should she. Her sink scene is now iconic. The puppies scene is priceless. But my personal favourite is where she gets introduced and ad-libs (at least, I’m pretty darn sure that’s what she does) lines about falling down a flight of stairs on a cruise ship and a dolphin communicating with her soul. Hilarious stuff.
Bridesmaids is the sort of comedy that comes around once a year, tops. It transcends gender, doesn’t try to too hard to be clever but just blows you away with laugh-out-loud moments. Phenomenal stuff and worthy of an Oscar spot – it’s better than at least two of the films on the list.
4) The Help
The Help is a beautifully well-acted movie. It has characters that are easy to love or hate, with only one (the rich lonely white girl) who could possibly give any mental conflict. It deals with a topic that is always prevalent and easy to connect with (though not to the degree that it was in the 1960’s), with a familiar backdrop and folksy charm and a fairly easy, clean ending.It is moving, emotive and beautifully filmed. And Emma Stone shows us just exactly what Lindsay Lohan could have been if not for, you know, everything.
The Help’s charm is in everything I just described. It’s also the reason there is ZERO chance it will win the Oscar. The underlying current to The Help has a feel to it that says, “aw shucks, ain’t we lucky that young white girl came and saved us poor black folks? Everybody thank her!”
It’s not that simple, of course. It never is – The Help deals with real topics. But it’s too clean, too remote from today’s setting and too…white…to get a nod from either the Academy, or me.
3) The Descendants
Clooney is effectively an older, slightly more charming, Brad Pitt with slightly better choice in Oscar roles. The Descendants is his best yet and will probably score him the gong for Best Actor based on my buddy Solid Gold’s ‘three-for’ theory, that every great actor needs at least three ‘Oscar-worthy’ roles and they tend to take the third. Clooney of course had Syriana, Michael Clayton and Up In The Air (but not The Ides of March) as quality pieces in his body of work.
The Descendants, as opposed to those flicks, doesn’t have that same body of work. Alexander Payne does well with it, but it’s just a little too much. Hawaii? Billion-dollar real estate deal? Sleazy scumbag interfering with a marriage? Coma? Family breakdown…AND extended family breakdown? It took it from ‘enjoyably over the top’ to ‘almost featuring Shia LeBouef’. Clooney is great in it (though he still, as I always maintain, just portrays George Clooney in a Hawaiian shirt. Like every movie he’s in.) and so is Nick Krause as the oafish Sid. Worth everyone’s time, just not the best film.
2) The Artist
Yes. I went to see a black-and-white, silent film starring two Frenchmen and John Goodman and…I loved it. Amazing.
There’s something aboutThe Artist that almost makes it a shoo-in for Best Picture this year. It has the exotic notion of being French, but is very Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?). It stars well-known actors in good support roles (Goodman and James Cromwell). The main characters are charming. It revives a golden era of Hollywood. Malcolm McDowell is in it for about 8 seconds.
But the thing that makes The Artist so great is that it’s incredibly self-aware. It’s a silent film, meaning lots of deliberate over-acting and mugging for the camera, but it’s also about silent films becoming obsolete. So as one sits in the cinema, enjoying the anachronistic throwback to a bygone age, we see the star, Jean Dujardin (or as I call him French Clooney), attempting to deal with becoming obsolete himself. As Berenice Bejo quips about people wanting ‘talkies’, not silent stars mugging for the camera, she immediately overacts and mugs for the camera.
It’s well-written, well-acted and fun, but it’s not quite too frivolous thanks to the nostalgia factor. And of course the dog. I’m sure we’ll see him at the Awards.
For me it’s second, because although it was wonderful and charming, it was not the most wonderful and charming film of the year. That honour belongs to…
1) Midnight In Paris
It is somewhat of an indictment on the year in film that the best movie is one I would describe as either ‘whimsically charming’ or ‘utterly delightful’. But it is what it is. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film. My first Woody Allen film – with Annie Hall firmly on the horizon – it not only charms you with its cobblestoned Parisian streets and perfectly Woody/French score, it features Owen Wilson – a man born to play a role in a Woody Allen film – enjoying conversation with great artistes from the twenties such as Picasso, Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. These characters are not only played with great aplomb – particularly Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Adrian Brody’s obsessed-with-rhinos Salvador Dali – but are enjoyable, unashamed caricatures.
The thing is, ALL the best films this year were whimsically charming and utterly delightful. The Help, The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight In Paris. Some critics have lambasted this as an indication that Hollywood is not prepared to deal with present reality. Maybe…but isn’t escapism a big part of film? Why can’t we have a year of charming film?
Would Midnight In Paris have won in 2010? No. It would have fought neck-and-neck for third with The King’s Speech and been a distance behind The Social Network and the CLEAR best picture, Inception. Don’t kid yourself. But this year, surrounded by like-minded movies of nostalgia, escapism, cinematographic excellence and charming actors in befuddling situations?
It is my Best Picture for 2011. But expect the Academy to pick The Artist
Mike’s Oscar Tips:
Picture: The Artist
Director: Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Actress: Viola Davis, The Help
Supporting Actor: Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Help
Mike’s Worst Movie of the Year
The Tree Of Life
In professional wrestling there is a move called the Tree Of Woe. A wrestler lifts his injured opponent up onto the turnbuckle, then hits them until their upper body sags down towards the ground, leaving them upside-down and easy to kick in the face. You know, if people actually did that for real in pro wrestling.
The Tree Of Life was essentially like that. 3 hours of being kicked in the face, upside-down.
It is somehow, bafflingly, being touted for an Academy Award. Potential nominees (apart from the picture itself) could have included Best Actor for Brad Pitt (deserved – he does a wonderful job as the emotionally repressed father), Best Actress for Jessica Chastain (horrible – she spends most of the film gazing through billowing white curtains, repeating open-ended questions that are supposed to be deep and probing into life’s most philosophical challenges, but are really just horrible cliches/dramatic devices), Cinematography (grudgingly deserved and will probably win) and Best Director for Terrence Malick.
In 40 years as a director, Terrence Malick has managed to direct exactly five, count ’em, five full-length feature films.
These include (ratings from Rotten Tomatoes – audience first, then critics – followed by US box office takings):
2011: The Tree of Life (61%, 84%, 54 mil)
2005: The New World (46%, 61%, 12.5 mil)
1998: The Thin Red Line (64%, 78%, 98 mil)
1978: Days Of Heaven (62%, 93%, 3.4 mil)
1973: Badlands (66%, 98%, unknown)
What do we notice here? Malick is a critical darling, with a generally high love from film buffs (except the woeful Lost World. Colin Farrell? Really? And we’re to trust Malick as a genius?). His films tend to make money if the actors are interesting – Thin Red Line has a magnificent cast. But people don’t like them. Look at the audience vote!
Do I trust the masses? Not necessarily. They’re the ones keeping Two and a Half Men on the air. But when they consistently say the same thing? Then we realise that Terrence Malick – wait for it – simply doesn’t make good movies.
He’s ecletic. He makes ‘critically acclaimed’ movies. He makes use of innovative devices. He thinks outside the box. But he can’t seem to put it together into a legitimately good movie that can be enjoyed.
Listen, I can grump about this film all day. And I have done. So here’s my final argument.
In 2007, No Country For Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture. No disagreement here, though it was a year of strange films – when Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers are nominated, you get what you get.
I talked to my buddy Solid Gold about it and we agreed that NCFOM is 75% of the greatest movie of all-time. The first three-quarters is magnificent. Entertaining, thrilling, fascinating, mysterious. Then it falls off.
Is it the fact that-oh wait…
…-we never find out if Brolin’s wife dies, and barely find out about Brolin himself? No.
Is it that the villainous Anton Chigurh randomly gets hit by a car and we don’t know if HE lives or dies? No.
They contribute, sure, but the real reason it dies is Tommy Lee Jones’ ridiculous dream monologue that ends the film. It’s the equivalent of The Sopranos season finish ‘fade to black’.
The Tree of Life is three hours of that dream monologue. It has no point to it, save for directorial self-indulgence. It has no narrative, barely a plot and mixed acting. No less an authority than Sean Penn has said, “The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen. […] A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.”
That would help, for sure. But really it comes down to Malick’s direction, Chastain’s acting, twenty minutes of Discovery Channel footage and, of course, the aforementioned Sean Penn.
I’m going to leave the final word on Tree of Life to my dear friend and fellow film auteur Callum:
“Sean Penn is easy to hate on a good day. But clad all in white linen, walking through metaphorical doorways on a ghost beach? That takes the hatred to a whole new level.”
That’s a pretty fair summation of Tree of Life. I don’t want to kill those who watched it and loved it – different folk have different tastes – but it seems to me that you have to convince yourself you enjoyed the Tree of Life. It’s charms are not easily apparent, even to Sean Penn.
Go see something whimsically charming and delightful instead, okay? It’s 2012, after all.
* I didn’t watch Jack and Jill. Don’t be absurd. I did catch half of ‘Grown-Ups’ though.