January 21, 2012

If Jane Weinstock’s 2003 romantic comedy Easy had been made for a Hollywood studio, with attendant bigger budget and presumably bigger stars, I probably would have praised it as a noble failure.  Sure, it is not a good film, but in those circumstances, it would certainly be trying to do something interesting in that blandest and most uninspired of genres.  Unfortunately, Easy is a low-budget indie that should understand the trade-off between having no budget is having no market expectations, freeing the filmmaker to break the mold of the everyday genre fare and explore the possibilities it offers in elucidating the travails of romance in modern society.  The fact that it was written and directed by a woman, something that still happens all-to-rarely, only makes it worse.  Read the rest of this entry »

I really can’t figure out who likes Conan the Barbarian.  Not just the latest reboot/reimagining/remake, but also the character in general.  What is the appeal? Fantasy fiction, whether it’s Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, takes us into new worlds that are somewhat recognizable and also completely alien.  The baseline interest in the genre is, really, world building (and a certain fetishization of medieval garb, I suppose).  Set up a fantastical, intriguing place and then create characters to play around in it.  I’ll bet this is a reason for the success of World of Warcraft or the Elder Scrolls series of games.  Still, there are characters in the fiction in which to invest, and a whole set of rules that are ever changing to inhibit their desires.  Conan the Barbarian’s sole source of interest is his muscular physique and the way in which that allows him to swing a sword quite well.  There are notions of heroics and honor, but this isn’t a well-established universe – at least as far as the film adaptations are concerned – and there doesn’t seem to be a central struggle.  In the new film, he wants revenge on a guy who also happens to want to take over the world.  Conan, then, must be devoid of personality or conflict or even flaws.  He is a Hero in the most banal sense – the always-good guy who can’t be beat.  Why is this interesting for anyone? Read the rest of this entry »

For what could have been a Tom Cruise vanity project, the Mission: Impossible series has been remarkably solid.  The idea to have a different director for each entry has been reasonably fruitful, though the extremely distinct styles of its first two entries – reflecting the status of their directors, perhaps – has given way to a less conspicuous visual mode.  Brian DePalma’s first entry was kind of brilliant in its use of wide angles and clear lines, playing up the director’s fascination with paranoia and subterfuge.  John Woo’s insipid M:I-2 was about as horrendous a film as I can remember, but it wasn’t lacking in those trademark slow-motion gun balletics or, indeed, doves.  The third in the series, directed by then-first-timer J.J. Abrams, came some years after the previous and in a way was a rejuvenation in terms of style, even as it reigned in the auteurist flourishes.  It was slick, to be sure, but it’s fun came from the zippy writing and plot movement instead of any sort of extravagant visual distinctness.  Now we have Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which sees Abrams return as a producer and Brad Bird, of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant fame, make his live-action directorial debut. Read the rest of this entry »

10.  Poetry

Mija is an elderly woman looking after her grandson.  She’s a part-time in-home caretaker to make ends meet.  She goes to the doctor to see about a pain in her arm and learns that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Soon after, a local girl’s suicide is tied to her selfish, carless teenage grandson and everything begins to fall apart.  In the midst of all this, she decides to take a poetry class at a local college.  Jeong-hie Yun plays Mija with thoughtfulness, confusion, and a reservoir of able understanding.  It’s one of the best performances of the year, and it’s the centre of Chang-dong Lee’s extraordinary character study Poetry.  As she comes to grips with the fact that her normal life is all but ending, she attempts to come to terms and fix the predicaments she finds herself in while also awakening to the possibilities of her creative self.  Her struggle to understand poetry and what it takes to write a poem gives her an aura of wonderment that those she comes in contact with assume is a goofy thoughtlessness.  Her slow understanding of the transcendent power of creativity and art, and her final attempts to truly know herself, make for a stunning, thoughtful film.

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20.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

As July turned to August it felt like the summer movie season was going to be the worst in recent memory, with Super 8 standing as the lone bright spot amongst the sea of pitiful sequels and sub-par superhero fare.  Shockingly, in the Hollywood Dump Zone that is August, a surprise hit rose out of the mist (yep).  It shouldn’t have happened, of course.  When the early teasers came out proudly exclaiming “from the visual effects studio that brought you Avatar”, you could feel the desperation as the marketing department scrambled.  In the end there is no substitute for having a good, quality product that people like, and they liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes in droves.  A huge box office success – a rare occurrence in a year that saw consistent under-performing from tentpoles – and well liked critically to boot, Rise seemed to have tapped a nerve with audiences.  Personally, I think that was down to the simple reason that it is a good story well told.  Its simple three-act structure is executed almost perfectly and with a minimum of fuss.  A good deal of the credit must go to British director Rupert Wyatt (unknown to me, and my original cry of “studio hack!” saw me eating crow after the screening), who understands the basics of storytelling in an age where visual excess is the raison d’être of so many filmmakers working in The Industry today.  The humans hardly matter, but the focal point of the story was always going to be Caesar, brought to vivid life by the visual effects team and the performance-capture heroics of Andy Serkis.  There were subtleties in his performance and the effects of the completely CGI Caesar that telegraphed a world of meaning and understanding.  Wyatt also understood the value of pacing one’s self.  It moves along at a brisk pace – it is a lean 100 minutes after all – but there’s no rush to throw out huge set-piece spectaculars every twenty minutes lest the audience get bored.  It’s a proper build consisting of establishing the hero and his life, throwing him into a situation where he finds his consciousness raised, and then evolving into a leader.  The inevitable ‘rising’ has all the build-up it deserves, allowing for a cathartic sequence of apes run amok, while still maintaining through almost purely visual terms their location, their goals, where they have to go reach them and what they have to do to achieve them.  Throw in a brilliant ending credits sequence – complete with a pounding John Powell score – and you have the best summer movie of the year.  I wonder as well if part of the reason for its success is the way it seemed to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots civil unrest.  Critics complained about the lack of allegorical substance in the film as compared to the original series, but in the year of the Arab Spring and, eventually, the Occupy Wall Street movement, it feels like too much of a coincidence that one of the biggest films of the year would be about the rebellion of beings abused and mistreated at the hands of sadistic, power-hungry jailers and uncaring corporations.  Caesar’s rebellion against the forces holding him back gave a sense of catharsis to those who feel impotent to act in these troubling times.  Serkis’ performance humanized the downtrodden.  It just so happened to be an ape.

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There was an exceptional episode of South Park this year where Stan turned ten years old and suddenly everything he loved previously started to literally look and sound like shit.  He had suddenly hit an age where cynicism had kicked in, and things that formerly looked awesome to him no longer looked appealing in the slightest.  There is a fantastic scene when he attends a film, and in the various trailers he sees, including one for Jack and Jill, every character turns into fecal matter and the narrator sporadically tells the audience, “fuck you!”  I felt that way for a while this year, as the summer movie event season was particularly poor in that it produced only 3 or 4 films I even partially enjoyed.  I always prided myself on seeing the joys of mainstream Hollywood, even when it was mostly producing rubbish, but this year I felt like I had cracked.  As the end of the year approached, however, I realized that actually it had been pretty brilliant for film.  This list started as a more traditional “top 20”, but it soon ballooned into 25 before finally hitting the incredibly self-indulgent Top 30 you see before you.

If you want to read the general rules of this list, please refer to the introduction to last year’s.  The differences this year is that I’ve made a conscious decision to cut myself off on December 31st, so every film considered was seen by me for the first time in 2011.  I’ve still retained the rule that it had to be theatrically released (festivals do not count) during the calendar year.  As I don’t live in Los Angeles or New York, nor am I rich beyond my wildest dreams and can afford to see everything, this leaves me with a number of notable omissions due to not having seen them.  The heavy hitters include Mysteries of Lisbon, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Le Havre, and Shame.  I was also ill for quite a bit of the year, and though I’ve tried my hardest to see as much as I can, there was always going to be a limit.  Anyways, here they are, my top 30 films of 2011.

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