Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011: It Was a Very Good Year

Back in May, I saw my first 2011 movie: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I was pleasantly floored. Seven months later, it’s become the consensus Movie Of The Year. But in the meantime, I’ve caught up with a few dozen other new releases, some of which smacked me even harder. It’s been a rich, ripe year for movies. Here’s a highlight reel of my favorite bits and pieces…

Scenes

  • The opening heist in Drive. I love the full movie, but it peaks early with this thrilling set-piece that doesn’t waste a shot or second. The sound design alone is as meticulous as any I’ve heard this year, balancing layers of aural information while keeping the viewer on edge. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a crime thriller.
  • The dueling Michael Caine impressions in The Trip. It’s just two performers (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) showing off, fighting to out-funny and out-ego one another. As such, it’s both an ideal comic showcase and the film’s midlife crisis narrative boiled down its essence.
  • The insult competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and a bitchy teenager in Bridesmaids. It’s an exercise in pure, improvised cruelty as Wiig and Mia Frampton, daughter of Peter, trade verbal daggers. (“You look like an old mop” might be my favorite.) Wiig isn’t afraid to get dirty or self-deprecating, and in this scene she’s at her funniest/lowest, losing her job with the checkmate line “You’re a little cunt.”
  • The performance of “The Show” in Moneyball. Kerris Dorsey and Brad Pitt sit in a music store. Dorsey, talented but a little shy, starts strumming a guitar and singing. It’s an understated scene of father/daughter bonding, one that studiously avoids cliché while setting the film on course to its emotional climax.
  • The climax of Attack the Block. Moses (John Boyega) finally gets his “hero” moment as he runs down a hall: sword in hand, firecracker in mouth, with gorilla-wolf motherfuckers snapping at his heels, and all in slow-motion. Add Basement Jaxx’s riveting soundtrack, and you’ve got an adrenaline-infused scene that plays like the best kind of side-scrolling video game.

Performances

  • Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, for blending vulnerability, eroticism, and despair in her reaction to the end of the world;
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being so silently perceptive he might’ve had X-ray vision, a bastion of maturity in a nest of childish spies;
  • Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin for turning her face into a portrait of motherhood-as-PTSD;
  • Brendan Gleeson in The Guard for cutting loose and flaunting his appetites as a 21st century Falstaff;
  • Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre for her ultra-Victorian restraint and her ability to match Michael Fassbender’s heights of passion;
  • Ben Kingsley in Hugo for concealing a father of cinema and inveterate showman beneath a mask of grumpiness;
  • Monica del Carmen in Leap Year for treating extreme sexuality as of a piece with the quotidian, lonely stretches of life;
  • Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris for bringing energy and comedy to his take on a literary icon;
  • and Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman for being feral, fascinating, and terrifying.

And now, my top five movies of the year…

#5: Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin

Every frame of Durkin’s debut feature made my skin crawl. A threat was palpable even in its most innocuous moments, and I’m not merely talking about the threat of physical violence. The danger in MMMM is much scarier than that in a typical horror film: Patrick’s cult threads its evil dogmas through the title character’s brain, leaving her with severe psychic hemorrhaging. She’s cleft into two times and lives, and it’s to Elizabeth Olsen’s credit that she plays both halves—the quivering bundle of fear and the would-be “teacher and leader”—within the same role, sometimes within the same gesture.

Olsen’s unease is supplemented by Jody Lee Lipes’ zoom-happy camera, applying the ambient paranoia of ’70s thrillers to the lakes and forests of the northeast. The whole film is colored by Martha’s anxiety; even a tree, branches shuddering in the wind as she flees the cult, is imbued with sinister intent. A story of atmospheric horror and systematized violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene itself has crawled into my mind and taken up residence. My one major misgiving lies in the treatment of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. They feel too schematically bourgeois for this otherwise loose, suggestive film. Nonetheless, I’m dying to see what Durkin tries next.

#4: Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Steeped in the tedium of frontier history, streaked with political subtext, Reichardt’s revisionist western muffles its narrative progress. Its story expands through gestures, accidents, and mistakes. The film’s survival-oriented, focusing on the compromises and sacrifices necessary for human life in the wilderness. For the seven settlers led by guide Stephen Meek, every decision is a life-or-death decision: can a captive Native American lead them to water? Does salvation lie just over a hillside? Either they act together and make the right choice, or they die.

These colossal stakes drench the story in tension. Even as Reichardt dwells on textures and period details—the toil of reloading a rifle; the clash between dusty pink dresses and the parched landscape—the threat of endless wandering hangs over the pioneers’ heads. The actors wear it well, exchanging dazed, exhausted looks. And from this tired band, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) emerges as the only real hero, an understated, proto-feminist badass. With its arid compositions, Meek’s Cutoff turns western myth into tragicomic reality.

#3: Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

This discursive duet poses a riddle: “Are they or aren’t they?” But Certified Copy’s delights go far beyond its core mystery. That question is an intellectual spark, lighting up a dozen other points of inquiry: the film dives into art history, relationships, academia, and more through the ruminations of author James Miller and the nameless French woman leading him around Tuscany. Despite being one long conversation, the film never lacks for visual dynamism; Kiarostami tends toward beautiful static shots, but his camera often orbits the couple in graceful, deliberate movements.

And as if to complement Certified Copy’s technical and natural allure, Juliette Binoche gives the performance of the year. Binoche is always an exceptional actress, silently adding wrinkles to her every role, but this is something new. She’s sweet but tough, giving the impression that every delicate word she speaks is forged from a lifetime of experience. Her sparring partner, opera singer William Shimell, is a decent enough actor, but Binoche draws my eyes even when she’s off-screen. Midway through the film, she has a sudden breakdown in a café, and it’s unlike anything else I saw this year. You can see the shape of the movie totally changing as a single tear runs down her face.

#2: Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh

Russell (Tom Cullen) is relaxed, receding, sometimes melancholy. Glen (Chris New) is iconoclastic and impulsive. They’re the two poles of this bittersweet, naturalistic gay romance, and two of the year’s most unforgettable characters. Weekend hits all the right notes; it has all the awkwardness and tentative desire of an embryonic relationship, all the embarrassment and incidental comedy of sex. It astonishes me with its range of moods, as it shifts from funny banter to heartbreaking revelations in seconds, without ever seeming forced or jerky.

It’s such a humanistic film, too, so sympathetic to its couple’s pains as gay men in a homophobic world and as lovers whose relationship is squashed by circumstance before it has a chance to blossom. It has no “Notting Hill moment,” as Glen says derisively. Instead, its climax is a quiet little conversation about coming out as they lie in bed. It’s just a handful of lines, but it still tears me apart. Cullen and New have plenty of sexual chemistry, but beyond that, they have a powerful rapport. They work as an onscreen couple. 2012s romantic comedies will have an incredibly hard time topping them.

#1: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee here and at 366 Weird Movies. My point remains the same: it’s a spellbinding experience, an invitation to another world, and a collection of weird folk tales all rolled into one feature film. As I sat watching it for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s movie theater, I was utterly hooked. All it took was that opening scene, where a bovine pack animal shuffles through a velvety forest. Apichatpong handles his vast themes (death, morality, the afterlife) with the humor and imagination they deserve, and it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie.

Touring through past and future, caves and glades, human and animal worlds, Uncle Boonmee is dense with narrative tangles and metaphysical conceits. But it doesn’t gloat about its ambitions. It wears them lightly in a spirit of friendliness and warmth. I’ve never seen a ghost story or an art film like it. Open-ended, curious, and unusual at every turn, Uncle Boonmee is exactly what I want out of a movie.

[I have yet to see A Dangerous MethodHouse of PleasuresLe Quattro VolteMargaretPoetryA SeparationShame, or Take Shelter.]

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Better Dead Than Red State

It’s not hard to mock the Westboro Baptist Church. I mean, come on: picketing military funerals? Adopting “God hates fags” as their motto”? Recording childish, homophobic parodies of Lady Gaga songs? The satire practically writes itself. You’d think an experienced filmmaker like Kevin Smith, with a string of juvenile, stoner-inflected comedies under his belt, would have a field day with this material. But you’d be dead wrong.

Because Red State is anything but a “field day.” 90-minute death march through a morass of terrible dialogue and meaningless violence? That’s more like it. Its set-up is ripped off from every horror movie ever made: three teenage boys meet up with a woman for sex, she drugs them, and they end up inside a WBC-style cult compound, about to be crucified. And you know, theoretically, I have nothing wrong with Smith making his own riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I love the idea of a comedy director breaking into horror. But Red State provides the worst of both worlds, as it blends the horny/homophobic banter of a typical Smith outing with the paper-thin characters and plot “twists” of a low-rent Saw imitation. The most frightening aspect of this “horror” movie is that it makes Dogma look like a masterpiece by comparison.

And just as Red State’s meager plot is starting up, it stops. Kevin Smith is so blindingly in love with his own authorial voice that he has his evil preacher deliver the mother of all monologues—a 10-minute rant that apes Fred Phelps’s rhetoric without skewering it. It has no wit or humor or imagination; it’s just a totally straight-faced run-through of fundamentalist talking points, and it goes on forever. Why turn your movie into a soapbox for a homophobic, long-winded lunatic? I have no idea, but this choice torpedoes the movie before it even fully comes to life. The remaining hour is like watching debris settle in slow-motion.

It’s almost eerie how bad Smith’s writing is here. His debut Clerks became a cult hit on the strength of its profane, naturalistic dialogue; 17 years later, he’s hauling John Goodman onscreen to have him spit out reams of clunky, tedious exposition. (Exposition which, by the way, adds not an iota to our understanding of the plot.) This dialogue doesn’t show, and it doesn’t really tell. Instead it tries to push information toward the audience in ugly, tone-deaf paragraphs. Thankfully, it all but disappears during the film’s protracted climax, as ATF agents exchange endless gunfire with the fundamentalists. Then it’s just a matter of watching the characters die off, one by one, as Red State creaks to an end.

I don’t know what the worst part of this movie is. Maybe how it wastes Goodman, Melissa Leo, and Stephen Root; maybe the way Smith hyped it up with his embarrassing Sundance antics and overpriced roadshow tour; or maybe how spectacularly it fails in its anti-fundamentalist mission. Hell, I haven’t even touched on its handheld camera abuse or its hacky editing. Red State gives joyless dreck a bad name.

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Pussy Goes “Happy Holidays!”

Happy holidays, from us to you! Whatever you celebrate, wherever you are, we love you and appreciate your readership.

As for us: both Ashley and I have spent the holidays with our respective families. We exchanged gifts! I got her a kick-ass Shining t-shirt from Fright Rags; she got me a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie shirt. (Plus a Godzilla plushie and framed picture of herself for me, headphones and a copy of Chicken with Plums for her.) Oh, and to top it all off? This December 26th is our 4-year anniversary. Cute, right?

So as we move into that awkward half-week between Christmas and New Year’s, stay warm and comfy. Best wishes from Pussy Goes Grrr!

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Most Disappointing Movies of 2011

2011 was an incredible year for movies. I’ll be delving into its bounty next week with a year-end round-up. But as always, some movies just didn’t deliver. Saddled with impressive pedigrees or reputations, these three left me frustrated and disappointed…

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen is back, I was told. It’s a return to form! His highest-grossing movie ever! Brimming with magic and wit! So I watched it, and saw… well, a series of Lost Generation caricatures more befitting a New Yorker article than a feature film. It’s pleasant enough, representing 1920s Paris as a haze of champagne and Cole Porter music, but also terminally self-satisfied. Its iconic writers and artists aren’t meant as real people, but automatons: they come onscreen, stroke the ego of Owen Wilson’s Allen surrogate, spout some stereotypical dialogue, then disappear. Corey Stoll has fun with Hemingway, and Adrien Brody makes a hilarious Dalí, but they’re still just idealized sketches. The film ends by disavowing nostalgia, yeah, but in a really facile and half-assed way. It’s a cute, fuzzy lark of a movie, a mildly cultured wish fulfillment fantasy, but that’s about it. (Extra points off for totally wasting Rachel McAdams as a one-note shrew.)

The Ides of March

I’m always game for a good political thriller. And a cast including George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Paul Giamatti? I couldn’t be gamer. But The Ides of March squanders them all on a silly, self-important story whose twists and turns are more funny than thrilling. Gosling plays a doe-eyed campaign strategist who worships at the feet of Clooney’s Obama-esque candidate. But the second he discovers that Clooney gasp spoiler once had sex with a cute intern, he pulls a 180 and becomes hell-bent on clumsy, nonsensical revenge. The movie’s political landscape is a total fantasy; its women are dispensable plot devices; and its dialogue is inert and overwritten, punctuated by random fucks like a bad Mamet imitation. Hell, the film’s most enjoyable moment is when Hoffman growls the words “tits and all.” I love movies about tense political chess matches. The Ides of March is a drunken game of political foosball.

The Future

In theory, I love a lot about Miranda July’s sophomore feature. I love the idea of filtering midlife ennui through oddball metaphors with all the clarity of a children’s book. I love loose, unconventional approaches to storytelling and I love kitties. But wow, I hated watching The Future. July and co-star Hamish Linklater play a thirtysomething couple who, dominated by entropy, move incrementally toward pet adoption. When they speak, it’s in a halting deadpan; when they make choices, they bow to the gods of whimsy. Eventually they break up—and this would be poignant, but all emotion has been smothered out of The Future by a pillow of affectations. The film’s occasionally inspired, as when July chats with a pair of friends who age, give birth, and die over the course of a few shots. But it’s all so solipsistic, so barren, and so grating, with two protagonists who only vaguely resemble real people. A hellish Future indeed.

Did you enjoy these, or were you similarly underwhelmed? What were your great disappointments of 2011?

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Occupy Broadway

Conventional wisdom regards Busby Berkeley musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 as plot-free, escapist fluff. As usual, conventional wisdom is dead wrong. The class resentment and solidarity of Depression-era America are bred into Gold Diggers; they drive its story of four unemployed showgirls who gold dig their way to financial stability. Furthermore, the film is bookended by two politically trenchant musical numbers—the ironic “We’re in the Money” and plaintive “Remember My Forgotten Man”—that take the Depression by its horns.

In short, this isn’t just fluff. It’s a cry for help dressed up with showbiz panache. It’s class warfare as musical comedy. The war begins as two envoys of the upper class descend on the showgirls’ apartment to rescue their compatriot Brad, a trust fund baby working incognito as a songwriter. These envoys are played by Warren William, a smug, handsome staple of 1930s melodrama, and Guy Kibbee, his pompous, buffoonish counterpart. Before you can say “gullible,” they fall into the hands of two showgirls, who (through a series of intricate, seductive games) rope them into buying extravagant gifts and making marriage proposals.

One gold-digging tactic stands out as especially risqué and genuinely cruel. Trixie, the lanky trickster played by Aline MacMahon, transports the drunken Warren William into the bed of his paramour Carol (Joan Blondell). He awakes with a disorienting hangover and the misguided belief that, blue-blooded or not, he has fucked a chorus girl. Ashamed, he pays out $10,000 in blackmail money to Trixie. It’s the 99% sexually pranking the 1%—a Marxist wish fulfillment revenge fantasy.

And they get away with everything. Trixie, who had bragged about taking her mark “like Grant took Waterloo,” is never punished. She’s rewarded with a lifelong meal ticket. In the Gold Diggers America, poverty trumps pre-Depression notions of black and white morality. These girls are survivors and, if need be, sexual/economic mercenaries. Their gold-digging, played for laughs by the film’s impressive roster of comic performers, leaves a bitter aftertaste. All that unspoken despair and frustration rises to the surface in the film’s last few minutes, as the happy ending segues into “Remember My Forgotten Man.”

Berkeley’s musical numbers are typically renowned for their overblown, macroscopic staging. The “Forgotten Man” number, however, begins with the camera trained on Blondell’s face as she delivers a spoken word intro. “I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,” she mutters. “Until they came and took my man away.” It’s a poignant, proto-feminist* plea whose power is amplified by its visual simplicity, and Blondell gives a compact, heartbreaking mini-performance over the course of the song.

Then the number shifts into full-on Hollywood/Broadway grandeur: Berkeley recreates the soggy warfare of World War I, a ticker tape parade, and bread lines, all leading up to a vast Art Deco tableau of lower-class solidarity. All this, ostensibly on a real-life stage, with Blondell as its centerpiece, begging to have her man back. Then, audaciously, the movie ends. No more backstage shenanigans; just a tragic vision of the Great Depression.

It’s a vision with renewed relevance nearly 80 years later, thanks to the endemic greed of the financial sector. 2011 is uncannily similar to 1933, with the crowds of forgotten men and women, the extreme income inequality, and the well-funded reprisals against any attempt at protest. Some things, it seems, never change. In both Depression and Recession, the jobless masses lack the power that comes with money—but at least they’ve still got voices to sing out for economic justice and, just maybe, bodies to seduce it into reality.

*The song’s gender politics are admittedly complicated. I say “proto-feminist” because it’s from a woman’s POV and calls specific attention to the Depression’s effect on her. However, it also advances a heteronormative conception of women as dependent on the love and income of their husbands. Either way, it’s certainly powerful and worthy of further discussion.

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Link Dump: #54

Ah, Tigger: top made out of rubber, bottom made out of string, the hyperactive bane to parents everywhere. Did you see the new Winnie the Pooh movie? It was a really cute, modest effort that got financially crushed under HP7.2‘s enormous heel. But it’s still very funny, well-cast, and worth watching. (Hell, “Everything Is Honey” and the not/knot routine are both solid gold, and it’s only an hour long.) Now that I’ve plugged one of 2011’s sweetest animated treats, here are some links…

We had a few odd, off-putting search terms this week. First, as usual, are the vaginal ones: “truly the best pussy movie show” and “funny thinkings that women put in cunts.” Then “dark blood satanic pentagram,” which sounds like an excerpt from My Immortal. And speaking of bad Harry Potter fanfiction, “albus and rose incest.” Yep. All right.

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Get Moving

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing really wrong with Fast Five. It’s dumb as dirt, sure, and it embraces all the hoariest action movie clichés. It makes Rio de Janeiro out to be a hillside aggregation of crime-ridden slums, and it treats women as interchangeable T&A, the fleshy equivalents of fast cars. Still, it’s trashy fun that delivers on its promise of gunfire and Vin Diesel in tight shirts. The characters share a rough-and-tumble camaraderie as they plot their $100 million heist, exchanging Predator-style hand clasps and basking in Diesel’s goofy grins. Affable and generic for the most part, Fast Five peaks with its climactic set-piece—a high-speed chase that harks back to Buster Keaton.

So I have nothing against Fast Five, but I still flinched when Time film critic Richard Corliss listed it as #10 in his “Top 10 Best Movies of 2011.” Which I assume was his point. The rest of his list—The Tree of Life, Hugo, The Artist, etc.—comprises a pretty standard, amiable summation of The Year in Film. Fast Five is his bold, counterintuitive choice: an olive branch to blockbuster-loving readers, maybe, or a gesture of mild defiance to the critical establishment. In your face, “sensitive indie dramas!” Fast Five has more “craft and cojones” than you ever will, you effete piles of mush.

And, you know, that’s cool. It’s Corliss’s prerogative. It’s his list. I think it’s stupid to refer to such a melodramatic, cookie-cutter action movie as the “first great film of the post-human era,” but whatever. Maybe he really, truly loves Fast Five. No, my real grievance lies with The Guardian, which asked (in response to Corliss’s list), “Would Fast Five make your top 10 films of 2011?” Let’s make no bones about it: this is a really shitty article. You have been warned. And now I’m going to do perform some close reading:

  • It starts out bemoaning the sameness of year-end lists. That’s a totally legitimate complaint to make, except 1) author Stuart Heritage uses the phrase “dutifully chronicling,” assuming a total lack of passion in everyone’s top 10 lists and 2) he draws a dichotomy between “prestigious middlebrow Oscar-bait” (i.e, boring) and “big summer marquee blockbusters” (not-boring). So yeah, he’s lumping every low-budget or non-franchise movie together under the heading “Oscar bait.”
  • The next two paragraphs are brimming with mock surprise at Corliss’s audacity. They say that he “remembered films that people actually went to see”—because, of course, critics or cinephiles who go to see artsy movies don’t count as people.
  • Heritage asserts that Fast Five is “undeniably fun,” then derides Drive as basically Fast Five rendered boring through artsy pretensions. He also employs those essential weasel words “There is an argument, perhaps…” (Own up to your worthless claims, man!)
  • The next paragraph is a classic: it alludes to “films that have been written and produced specifically to win awards,” then cites The Skin I Live In, Margaret, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. By “win awards” does he mean “take artistic risks and thereby earn critical accolades”? Does he know anything about those specific movies or about awards season? “It almost seems like a validation of brainless popcorn flicks,” he says of Corliss’s list. Almost seems. Two words that tell us nothing.
  • This disingenuous, faux-rebellious article ends by declaring “amnesty.” That’s right: people are allowed to express fondness for popular, profitable movies again! Fie on you, critics, for making us ashamed to love Thor. Never again!

Before I rant on, I should add that if this were posted on some random asshole’s blog, I wouldn’t blink. But this was posted by the fucking Guardian. 44,000 people saw it linked to on Twitter. This piece received 52 comments. And it’s meant to pass as professional film journalism. That’s just bullshit. I’m all for genuine populism, for recognizing genius in lowbrow movies. (Hell, I’m second to no one in my love for Chopping Mall.) But that Guardian piece’s unspoken thesis is that we should collectively disregard any movie with a modicum of artistic ambition. Fast Five is good enough, and “good enough” is the new “great.”

You know why people “actually went to see” Fast Five and Transformers 3 and The Smurfs? Saturation marketing. Because they were advertised ad nauseum, and then opened in multiplexes nationwide. Margaret, meanwhile, was dumped into 14 theaters by Fox Searchlight. Notorious piece of Oscar bait, that. These simple circumstances give the lie to Heritage’s whole pseudo-populist agenda. He’s set up a false hegemony—i.e., “Critical groupthink only supports boring, artsy movies!”—when in reality, this is about publicity and access. It’s about real, active critics vs. the stultifying power of ad dollars.

When critics endorse mediocrities because they’re “good enough” (or from fear of looking elitist), they’re no longer critics. They’re just adjuncts to studio publicity. Criticism is about drawing attention to great cinema even though most such movies are, yes, artsy and in limited release. If you can’t countenance praise for movies that nobody “actually went to see,” then I’m really sorry, but you have nothing meaningful to say about movies.

Incidentally, Corliss later released some “Filthy Secrets” about his list-making process. He explains that “indie or foreign art-house films… with important exceptions, are going through a static or mopey phase,” gets in a dig at A Separation, then clarifies that Fast Five “did what movies should do: move.” Movies are supposed to move. Maybe all those mopey art films will keep that in mind next time, and splurge on some car chases. Thanks for the advice, Richard Corliss.

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