2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)

#11: The Big, Dumb, Occasionally Smart Action Movie

I know I’m cheating a bit here, but I must say – this was a solid year for the action blockbuster. Fast Five, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol were all impressive contenders (the latter just barely missing out on this list). Even after Michael Bay descended into robotic madness, directors Justin Lin, Rupert Wyatt, and illustrious Pixar veteran Brad Bird have come along to challenge his throne as actioneer-in-chief. While these are very different films (with highly variable calibers of acting and character work), what they have in common is a sense of pace and coherence that was unmatched in action cinema this year, and deserves to be recognized for the talented filmmaking that it represents.

#10: X-Men: First Class

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenplay by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn, story by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner

Rewatching this film in the past week, I was reminded of a few things. First, Henry Jackman‘s musical score is distractingly bad at times, and bothered me even more on repeat viewing. When the X-Men swept over the final naval showdown in their supersonic jet, and the guitars, choir, and drums swelled to an absurdly bombastic theme, I felt more like I was watching a 80s laser rock opera than a 60s Cold War reimagining. But I didn’t mention that in my original review, because there was just so much else to love about this film. Michael Fassbender‘s performance and physicality as Erik Lehnsherr (“Magneto”) is nothing short of magnificent, and James McAvoy gives a fascinating rendition of the sage and reliable Charles Xavier as a young man. Indeed, nearly every one of the myriad of characters in this film feels well cast and written, with each of the young mutants getting their own small piece of the story to carry. Lucas Till (“Havok”) and Edi Gathegi (“Darwin”) both have particularly effective screen presence in their small roles.

But the biggest triumph of this film is how much every piece of the action is motivated by plot and character. Every major development in this film, from the villain’s inevitable undoing to the final epic showdown, has multiple, fascinating dimensions affected by the complex relationships between Xavier, Erik, Raven (“Mystique”), Sebastian Shaw, and others. While the finale didn’t feel completely earned, it did so many things well that it is still one of the finest scenes of the year.

#9: Hot Coffee

Directed by Susan Saladoff

Susan Saladoff is a trial lawyer-turned-filmmaker, and Hot Coffee is a documentary that not only argues against “tort reform”, but questions the very definition of the phrase. I’ll admit, the mere premise of this film both intrigued me and put me on guard. I already knew that the infamous “McDonald’s Hot Coffee” case (of an elderly woman who spilled coffee on her lap and received millions in damages) is more complex than the majority of the public believes, despite its continuing status as the poster child for frivolous litigation. The most important details – that the coffee was served at a temperature that would cause instant second-degree burns if consumed immediately, as well as the fact that Mrs. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her pelvic region (resulting in skin grafts and multiple surgeries) – are equally obscure pieces of trivia.

I expected all of this to be brought forth in this film. What I did not expect was to see a graphic photo of Liebeck’s injuries. This is a film whose opening salvo is strong, and it continues unrelentingly on a single premise: the state of American civil litigation is broken, and many tort reform measures, both current and proposed, exist solely to prevent American consumers from seeing justice when they are wronged by corporations. The film examines a variety of these tactics, including caps on damages, campaigning for business-friendly judges, as well as some of the less than savory tactics used to end opposing judiciary careers. In the last act, the film examines the increasing prevalence of binding arbitration clauses (if you have a cell phone contract, you’ve agreed to one!), by way of a woman who was forced to arbitrate her case against KBR/Halliburton using binding arbitration – a case that included charges of gangrape and unlawful imprisonment.

Needless to say, this is complex, emotionally-charged material, the effectiveness of which will depend a great deal on your individual politics. I remained guarded throughout, as these felt like the tactics of a Michael Moore film, albeit much less emotionally manipulative and fast and easy with the facts. This film has a provocative perspective to offer, but gives you plenty of room to decide how much you agree with it. It is a rare film that comes along and upends your worldview in a lasting way, but Hot Coffee might be one such film.

#8: Attack the Block

Written and directed by Joe Cornish

This film, which depicted an alien invasion fended off by a gang of thuggish London street kids, was an unrelenting delight with an immaculate sense of pace. From the opening scene, in which the gang robs an innocent woman at knife-point, these kids, as well as their leader Moses (John Boyega) are far from sympathetic, but go through an impressive and believable transformation over the course of the film. These kids may be the products of apathetic parenting, ineffectual law enforcement, and urban decay – but the movie makes it clear that they’re exactly the ones you’d want in your corner during an alien invasion. And despite the self-indulgent and anti-social behavior they exhibit at the beginning of the film, the overwhelming theme is this: actions have consequences. And what’s more, that message felt completely earned by the film’s end.

Head for Boyega’s IMDb page, and you will see just a single TV credit preceding this film. But damned if I wasn’t utterly riveted by his every line of dialogue. Even if he weren’t a newcomer, Boyega would be the standout performance in this film. He brings the brooding action screen presence of a much older and more seasoned actor, lending additional weight to all the action and chaos that ensues. This is an absolutely starmaking performance, and I look forward to whatever he does next (even if it’s an HBO boxing drama).

#7: Contagion

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, screenplay by Scott Z. Burns

First, a rare shout-out to the marketing department… This was one of the most riveting and effective trailers I saw this year (the cheesy tagline notwithstanding). Soderbergh delivered a sprawling epic with a global scale that seems disturbingly plausible as you watch it. The all-star cast seems to have been chosen in order to facilitate an audience connection despite the relatively short screentimes of each character (“You like Gwyneth Paltrow, right? Well you won’t believe what happens to her face in the first act!”), but a few of them (Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne in particular) present fascinating characters in their own right.

But this film wasn’t really about a single character or storyline. It was about the viral spread of information and fear at a pace that dwarfed that of the actual infection. Jude Law‘s role as a sensationalist blogger, easily the film’s sloppiest character choice, was nonetheless a fascinating (and mostly credible) peek into the kind of hysteria that would ensue with such a deadly pandemic. When I saw this film, I saw our very own world and civilization pushed to the brink of self-destruction, and I found it far more frightening than succumbing to a deadly illness. This is a film that sticks with you, even when you go right back to touching doorknobs and bar pretzels the next day.

#6: Drive

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, screenplay by Hossein Amini, novel by James Sallist

Ryan Gosling may have only a couple dozen lines of dialogue in this film, but it’s still one of his finest lead performances. He plays the unnamed “Driver”, a movie stunt performer who moonlights as a criminal for hire driving getaway vehicles. This is The Transporter as a brooding drama, prone to a surprising amount of emotional heft and some unexpectedly graphic violence. This film is a slow burn, and it’s not for everyone, but I was completely enthralled by it. It boasts one of the strongest casts I saw this year, featuring deft supporting work from Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaacs, and Bryan Cranston, as well as an outstanding dramatic performance comic mainstay Albert Brooks as an utterly vicious villain.

Drive is one beautifully constructed sequence after another, from its initial 10-minute vehicular chess match with the LAPD, to an elevator scene featuring one of the most operatic and bizarre romantic moments ever put to screen.

#5: The Artist

Direction, scenario, and dialogue by Michel Hazanavicius

The Weinsteins have spoken… This is 2011’s big awards contender. But screw it, I am completely on board with this silent, black-and-white film made this year in Hollywood. Michel Hazanavicius‘ silent storytelling works not only because it demonstrates the effectiveness and charm of the medium, but because it tells a story that seemingly could only have been told this way – the demise of silent film. We – the audience – know that the career of dashing silent performer George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is doomed, and yet his struggle to stay true to his art seems both foolish and noble in equal measure.

From my review

The Artist crafts a complex character’s journey without overly relying on title cards, and conveying a great deal of story via background set design – a technique that has remained effective to this day. In the present day, we have no choice but to regard silent film as an anachronistic technical limitation. But in its day, it was the engine that propelled innovative storytelling, and Hazanavicius clearly understands how it succeeded. This film could have been a baseless technical exercise, but with this execution, it’s nothing short of a modern classic.

#4: Littlerock

Written/directed by Mike Ott

This film offers a groundbreaking depiction of cultural interaction, by way of a pair of Japanese adult siblings stranded in a rural California town. The sister, Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) speaks no English, and the brother, Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) speaks a little bit – but whenever they’re split apart, we don’t get a single subtitle for their lines of Japanese dialogue. But this is not an inaccessible piece of indie cinema – it’s an uproarious comedy about how people interact at the most basic level, even when they don’t share the same language. It also features one of the most fascinating self-deluded characters of the year, Cory Lawler (Cory Zacharia), whose interactions with Atsuko make up the bulk of the film. The dialogue and interactions felt completely naturalistic, and demonstrated a great deal of talent on the part of the Japanese actors – fluent English speakers in real life – who were quite convincing in their inability to understand the specifics of what the Americans were saying to them.

Zacharia also gives an outstanding performance, although I have to mention – one of the actors present at the Q&A said that Zacharia is very much like his fictitious counterpart in real life, much like Jason Mewes in the films of Kevin Smith. Zacharia’s characterization is actually quite similar to that of Mewes, but his naïveté definitely sets him apart.

Listen to me, Daniel, and my fiancée Megan (who is fluent in Japanese!) discuss the film in depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #11: “Littlerock” (SIFF review)

As an aside:
This film stands quite well on its own (or it wouldn’t have made my Top 10), but Cory Lawler is nonetheless a character I wouldn’t mind revisiting. And now it appears I’ll get my chance… In a recent episode of The Tobolowsky Files, storyteller and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky confirmed that Mike Ott is shooting a sequel/spinoff to this film, in which (according to the film’s IMDb page) Tobolowsky seems to play Cory’s father. Both Cory and Atsuko reappear, although one dubious note, which I’ll try not to read too much into, is that “Atsuko” is now “Anna”.

#3: Young Adult

Directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Diablo Cody

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) and Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), former high school classmates who reunite when Gary returns to her tiny, franchise-laden Minnesota town determined to break up the happy marriage of her ex-boyfriend, are as bizarre and unlikely a pairing as I’ve ever seen this year. Former popular kids who couldn’t get on with their lives are amusing narrative punching bags, but they seldom transcend their status as stock characters. Mavis Gary is certainly the most richly layered version of this character I’ve seen, equal parts alcoholic and Diet Coke fiend, determined to keep reliving the glory days, even via her profession – ghostwriter of trashy teen fiction. Theron’s performance is brave and effective, keeping the character utterly unsympathetic for most of the film’s runtime, and yet inspiring sympathy when she has to. Oswalt’s performance is remarkable – every bit the awkward former nerd (who paid a serious price for his lack of popularity), but much more self-aware, hiding behind a fortress of adept sarcasm and other tidbits of verbal sparring. To watch these two thoroughly damaged people butt up against each other (to their own mutually increasing frustration) is remarkable and hilarious. And what’s more (in typical Jason Reitman vein), this is not a story about damaged people growing and changing and getting on with their lives – quite the opposite, in fact. Several late scenes are immaculately constructed – equal parts devastating and hilarious (and one featuring an outstanding supporting turn from Collette Wolfe).

Diablo Cody has certainly matured as a screenwriter since Juno, and this latest collaboration with Reitman is another fascinating dark comedy character piece. These characters still have a bit of the quirk and banter we’ve come to expect from her screenwriting, but they feel much more grounded in reality. Dark, hilarious reality.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in-depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #15: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, “Young Adult”

#2: 50/50

Directed by Jonathan Levine, screenplay by Will Reiser

There’s nothing funny about a young man getting cancer. But screenwriter Will Reiser‘s semi-autobiographical tale of getting cancer at a young age not only tackles this serious material with an incredible degree of levity, but feels authentic and intensely personal in the process.

Shortly after Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has received his diagnosis, a random coworker gives him an emphatic hug at a party, tearfully announcing, “I’m gonna miss you!” At his friend Kyle (Seth Rogen)’s insistence, he walks up to a girl at a bar and attempts to pick her up by announcing that he has cancer, shortly after shaving his head with Kyle’s electric “body-groomer”.

So many of the scenes in this film felt as if they could only have been taken from real life, not only because fiction wouldn’t dare tread on such ground, but because fiction rarely has the slightest idea of what dying is actually like. As I write this, I’m a healthy young man (my penchant for whiskey and kielbasa notwithstanding), so I can’t say whether this superlative film got it right. But I can say this… I saw myself in Adam, and his plight feels genuine and heartbreaking. Gordon-Levitt gives a remarkable performance here, and his chemistry with Rogen is pitch-perfect. I found myself laughing throughout this film, and tearful at several points – and I never once felt like the film had manipulated me into either reaction.

Take some notes, Patch Adams. This is how it’s done.

Listen to me and Daniel discuss the film in depth:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #13: Jonathan Levine’s “50/50″

#1: Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by John Logan, book by Brian Selznick

This has definitely been a year of fascination with the techniques of prototypical filmmaking, between this film, The Artist, and My Week With Marilyn. And yet, this film stands apart not just as a celebration of the magic of cinema, but as an argument for the preservation of any creative endeavor. This film is gorgeous and utterly immersive, rich with memorable characters to bring you along for the ride.

From my review:

Hugo strives to be both a children’s adventure film and a poignant drama about the burden of a forgotten artist, and it largely succeeds as both. What’s more, for any auteurists out there, it certainly feels like a personal project for Martin Scorsese, whose marvelous body of work is fortunate enough to exist in a century with both the technology and inclination to preserve it. No one quite knows how their creative efforts might be remembered in future generations, but this film deftly argues that such efforts ought to be remembered and cherished. What truly makes this is a great family film is not just the zany and inoffensive hijinks that it shares with so many other blockbusters, but also this message, subtly woven throughout a story that is quite worth telling.

Honorable Mentions:

  • War Horse (directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, book by Michael Morpurgo)
  • Bridesmaids (directed by Paul Fieg, screenplay by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo)
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (directed by Brad Bird, screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, TV series by Bruce Geller)
  • Shame (directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan)
  • Beginners (written and directed by Mike Mills)
  • I Saw the Devil (directed by Jee-woon Kim, written by Hoon-jung Park)
  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (directed by David Fincher, screenplay by Steven Zaillian, novel by Stieg Larsson)
  • Midnight in Paris (written and directed by Woody Allen)
  • Kosmos (written and directed by Reha Erdem)
  • Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Fukunaga, screenplay by Moira Buffini, novel by Charlotte Brontë)
  • Double-honorable mention: Certified Copy (written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami – just saw it last night, too late to be eligible for this list!)

2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” – Everything old is new again

Poster for "The Artist"

There’s a curious trend in modern cinema to slavishly replicate film techniques from years gone by. In some cases, the decision seems purely stylistic – in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, for instance, contemporaneous TV cameras were used to recreate the period look and feel of HBO boxing matches. This deliberate reduction in visual quality seems meant to provoke nostalgia, as well as ground the film in some kind of documentary-style reality as a recent period piece. But never before have I see such deliberate eschewing of modern cinematic technology – in a way that works entirely in favor of style – as in Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, which is a genuine black-and-white, silent film, made this year in Hollywood. Given that the film depicts the transition from silent to talking pictures, this format not only feels appropriate for the subject matter, but is seemingly the only format in which this story could have been told.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a popular silent film star who has just been told rather tactlessly by his studio head (John Goodman) that the future of cinema is in talking pictures. If this is the future, [a title card informs us he says], “They can have it!” Valentin’s career immediately begins to fade into silent obscurity, even as he inadvertently launches the career of rising star Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), whose voice (we’re told) is exquisite enough to attract patrons of the new cinema.

This film is a bit paradoxical, since it could be construed just as easily as a love letter to silent film or a self-aware satire of its constraints. We are “told” a number of silent film’s shortcomings, and “hear” all about old actors mugging for the camera instead of giving fully realized performances. Valentin is a curmudgeonly figure, and a great deal of the character’s sympathy lies in the outside knowledge that his career was doomed from the outset of the film. There’s the obvious point that talking pictures were indeed the future of cinema. The film’s audience knows it, even if the characters do not. There’s also some “Inside Baseball” type context: the rise of talking pictures also marked the beginnings of the studio system, in which actors were contractually beholden to the powerful studios that had discovered them. They owned the actors, as well as every level of production and distribution. Given that Valentin is unwilling to play ball with the new method of film production, his career is unquestionably at an end. Back then, they could say “you’ll never work in this town again”, and it actually meant something.

Still from "The Artist"

Jean Dujardin is forced to convey a great deal of emotional nuance through Valentin’s slightest glance or gesture, and the film resorts to techniques and shots that, in any other film, would have seemed incredibly manipulative. There’s a scene late in the film when Valentin confronts a room full of his old belongings, covered in sheets. As the music swells, he dramatically rips down every sheet, revealing the vestiges of his former success, finally staring heartbroken at a prized full-body portrait of himself in a tuxedo. His tears come forth, and Ludovic Bource’s score swells to overpowering heights, just as it does in many other scenes. But somehow, the tense crescendos of music that punctuate this film manage to craft a believable emotional arc of their own, even lacking the additional tones of a wailing, tormented man’s voice. The score supplements the visible emotion and physicality of Dujardin’s performance. These scenes worked, and in this medium, they seemed entirely appropriate.

This is not to say the film was entirely believable – the romance was a hard sell, despite the impressive standalone performances of the two leads – it’s hard to buy them as anything but old friends as the film goes on. The first half was a bit too slow, getting bogged down with history instead of advancing the story. Even so, the tone of the film feels more like a fairy-tale than an accurate depiction of the demise of silent film. But at this point, I must admit – my knowledge of silent film is rather limited. At the time of this writing, I could recall seeing exactly one other silent film – Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. While I can’t comment on the parallels (if any) between the fictitious George Valentin and any real-life silent film stars, I do know that all art should stand on its own, and George Valentin is indeed an artist. His obstinate refusal to conform to a new method of artistry could be seen as either noble or foolish, depending on your perspective – but the parallels to modern franchise films and 3D are readily apparent. The future of cinema may or may not lie under the cape of the most popular superhero of the present year, but there are plenty of beloved and respected actors who have made the transition into big-budget comic-book cinema. And while I won’t presume to know the minds of Sirs Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Ben Kingsley, and others – I imagine they would have a great deal to say about the nobility of eschewing one’s own pride in favor of elevating a new form of cinema. Or perhaps they just did it for the money. Who knows.

It is not for us to judge Valentin too harshly, but the film certainly sells the nobility of his struggle. The Artist crafts a complex character’s journey without overly relying on title cards, and conveying a great deal of story via background set design – a technique that has remained effective to this day (Children of Men is a recent example). In the present day, we have no choice but to regard silent film as an anachronistic technical limitation. But in its day, it was the engine that propelled innovative storytelling, and Hazanavicius clearly understands how it succeeded. This film could have been a baseless technical exercise, but with this execution, it’s nothing short of a modern classic.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10