The Best Films of 2011 Part 2: 20-11

January 4, 2012


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.


19.  Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

If ever a film could be slapped with the label “not for everyone”, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is it.  Much to my world cinema shame, this was my first encounter with venerated Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and despite hearing chatter about his glacial pacing and his affinity for the surreal, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the experience.  The plot, such as it is, involves Uncle Boonmee dying and being visited by ghosts and memories, presumably from past lives.  That synopsis is about as useless as they come, however, as the film really consists of a string of sequences, some of which seem to have no connection to any other.  What hovers over all of it is the thick atmosphere and the elegiac fade into death.  The imagery throughout is perplexing but beautiful, and I found that many of the visuals resonated and stayed with me, vividly, for weeks after I watched it.  Whether it be the spectre of a dead relative, now transformed into a black-haired beast with glowing red eyes, the beautiful caves where Boonmee ends what I can only presume is his funeral march, or even just a yak standing in the late-night darkness.  My assumption is that a great understanding of Thai culture and history will help to illuminate the obscure meanings of these seemingly disconnected series of images, but really it hardly matters.  Film is a visual medium first and foremost, and on that level this is a thoroughly unique, fascinating, and even moving picture.  Of course, if someone wants to explain why the princess has sex with a catfish, I’m all ears.



18.  Terri

The outcast high-schooler indie drama is about as tired a genre as the exorcism film, but Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt manage to breathe fresh life into their subtle character piece Terri.  I would like to say that this is the breakout performance for star Jacob Wysocki – who deserves awards recognition for his role as the titular Terri – but knowing Hollywood I can’t imagine someone of his size and look will ever get much more than a solid supporting career.  It’s a shame, because his Terri is fantastic to watch.  You can see the conflicting emotions in everything he does.  Terri, who has obviously suffered a number of traumas through his life, lives with his caretaker uncle (Creed Bratton) who is suffering from dementia.  He’s overweight and been bullied to the point where he wears his pajamas to school, supposedly for comfort reasons.  John C. Reilly’s Mr. Fitzgerald is the seemingly concerned assistant principal who takes Terri under his wing in an attempt to get him socialized properly.  It all seems quite stale and obvious, but it’s in the little things that the film truly feels unique.  Mr. Fitzgerald has many problems of his own, and is clearly unsuitable for a number of reasons to be the surrogate father figure Terri wants him to be.  Likewise, Terri isn’t just a sweet, unassuming kid with the heart of gold that most films like to cast the misunderstood, bullied teenager as.  He has psychological scars (consider the mice) that come from years of bullying.  His crush on his classmate occasionally veers into perverted voyeurism.  There’s a genuine misfit edge to Terri, and Wysocki suggests it without overselling it throughout.  He also has the bewilderment, courage, honesty, mistrust, and shifting defense mechanisms of any teenager.  It is a superb character drama, filled with a good heart and a smart, honest brain.



17.  A Dangerous Method

Many have dismissed A Dangerous Method as ‘minor Cronenberg’ and as a consequence it has been criminally overlooked.  I imagine many have written it off as being too ‘stagey’, for it is an actor’s film and is based on a play.  It also doesn’t fully delve into many of Cronenberg’s pet themes the way many of his other films have.  At a glance, I’m sure to many it looks like a staid period drama with brief flashes of kinky sex thrown in to make it interesting.  It is, thankfully, not that kind of film.  It is a confident director working with intriguing material to tell a story about the violent and destructive emotional and intellectual forces that are involved in the creation of a new idea.  Keira Knightley’s Sabine is the lynchpin of the trio, and though her performance may seem overdone at the beginning, all body rocking, eyes bulging, and jaw jutting, it soon enough becomes clear that this kind of jarring, violent movement is perfectly balanced against Fassbender’s Jung, with his quiet uncertainties, and Mortenson’s Freud, all condescendingly pleasant paternalism.  It is at times gripping and always involving, as well being an extremely visual film (note Freud’s insistence on commanding posh areas and Jung’s preference for water) without ever being showy.  It might not feature Cronenberg’s signature body horror, or even the explosive physical brutality of A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, but in its own mannered style, A Dangerous Method is as violent as they come.



16.  The Myth of the American Sleepover

If you write out all of the basic plots of the individual stories in David Robert Mitchell’s debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, it’s easy to write it off as conventional high school self-discovery nonsense.  As ever, the execution is where the beauty lies.  It follows a group of teenagers of various ages, most about to enter high school, through the last night of summer and the various sleepovers they are attending or ditching.  In no small part thanks to a fantastic cast of mostly amateurs, Mitchell finds a nostalgic realism as these youths move from adolescence to something else (or not, as the case may be).  It’s sweet without ever being saccharine or forced.  There’s also a palpable sense of place as we move from supermarkets to lower-income houses to college gymnasiums and long-abandoned Detroit factories.  It all feels utterly familiar, and if it doesn’t quite jibe with the ‘present’ (there are no mobile phones…anywhere), it always has the aura of ‘some present’.  Mitchell gets across the bittersweet quality of kids eagerly desiring to grow up when they might be better off trying to enjoy the simplicity of their youth.  There is drinking, there is fun, there are fights, and there are lessons learned, sure, but all in the caring, subtle romanticism of the final, innocent Long Night of their lives.  It’s beautiful, dreamy look and subdued rhythm – as well as its use of acts like the Magnetic Fields on the soundtrack – makes me think it’s really intended for people my age as opposed to actual teenagers, but I hope it finds an audience with that age group.  Its well acted, smartly handled, and has just the right mix of honesty and sentiment.





15.  Tuesday, After Christmas

The Romanian New Wave continues to impress with Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, a film about infidelity and its consequence.  Hardly lurid or melodramatic, the tone of the film is set in a 9 minute opening scene with Paul (Mimi Branescu) and his lover Raluca (Maria Popistasu) casually naked in bed, full of post-coital joy and lovingly flirting with each other.  Paul seems like a nice guy, but the undercurrent of the film is that, in actuality, he’s a complete asshole.  Not that he understands or knows that, and that might be key to the film.  He’s bored with his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) but he doesn’t hate her.  He’s just fallen in love with someone else, in this case a local dentist, to whom he takes his six-year-old daughter to get her teeth fixed.  Much has been made, and deservedly so, of the scene where all four principles are awkwardly together at the dentist’s office as Adriana makes a surprise visit before a fitting for a retainer.  The acting on show, as well as the restrained, distant camera, is extraordinary, painful, and tense despite the fact that Adriana and the child have no idea about the affair.  The little scenes, however, all work to build a full and interesting world where we can at least understand –if never quite sympathizing, though apparently males and females disagree on that point- with Paul.  It creates an intriguing gender split about who might be at fault when things go stale, but for me, there is never any doubt that Paul is just being an asshole.  Still, that understanding of motivation is important and gives the film a richness rarely seen in this type of drama.  There’s also an unspoken but almost undeniably present critique of modern, middle class Romania and the malaise its capitalist culture has created.  The genial but subtly soul-destroying scenes in a mall where the married couple are shopping for Christmas gifts is contrasted with the joyous presentation by Paul of a family heirloom to Raluca.  Paul inevitably does what he considers to be ‘the right thing’, but in an excruciating scene learns that honesty about a wrongdoing doesn’t make the wrongdoing any less painful to the victim.  It’s a brilliant and devastating work about a simple situation dealt with honestly and unflinchingly.



14.  The Arbor

No nation does underclass misery quite like Great Britain.  They have a long tradition of it, from the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s through to Alan Clarke and Ken Loach and the newer generation of Andrea Arnold and Peter Mullan.  Clio Bernard’s documentary about playwright Andrea Dunbar is another in a long line, but its fresh take and unique style fit the tragic story of the author and her daughter perfectly.  Dunbar, famous for writing The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too (made into a film by Alan Clarke) lived on a Bradford estate known as The Arbor, and despite the acclaim her writing brought her, her too-short life was filled with the tragedy she wrote about in her plays.  Bernard mixes audio interviews with her family members and other key participants performed by actors with the staging of scenes from Dunbar’s plays (performed on the actual estate) to tell the story.  Not all a gimmick or a Brechtian device, the lip-synching echoes Dunbar’s reality-told-through-actors method of writing.   Through the stories of the people interviewed, and through the plays Dunbar wrote, we get a vivid picture of impoverished lives torn apart by society, alcohol, racism, abuse, and drug addiction.  The sad reality that, despite Dunbar highlighting these issues in the 1980s, nothing ever really changed.  The harrowing manner in which all of the problems were passed on to Dunbar’s children – and then compounded by the influx of narcotics – is devastating.  It is a social realist documentary about the near impossibility of escaping a culture that society acknowledges through art and then simply ignores.




13.  Cold Weather

The mumblecore movement (though most involved would repudiate the term) has been notable not just for its cheap production values, but also for its limited scope of characters.  There’s value in depicting the realities of 20-something artists meandering through life and love, to be sure, but there’s a tedious, self-indulgent tinge to most of the mumblecore oeuvre.  Aaron Katz has been one of the leading lights of said ultra-low budget film scene, as he has a slightly more intriguing visual sense as well as a better understanding of his characters and what makes them tick.  Cold Weather, in many ways, is a possible next step for the movement as well as being something of a commentary on it.  Doug (Cris Lankenau) has left his criminal science college course to return to his hometown of Portland, where moves in with his sister and gets a job at an ice factory.  He befriends co-worker Carlos (Raul Castillo) and introduces him to his love of Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  When an ex-girlfriend comes to town and then seemingly disappears, Doug and Carlos decide to put their investigative skills to the test and find her.  Katz displays a visual desire beyond the lo-fi handheld that has defined the movement, and even if he can’t quite transcend certain limitations, there are a few moments that are quite striking.  Still, there is a requisite amount of mumblecore dithering as friends play board games or muck about in a club.  Katz’s gift for characters gives everyone a likeability that transcends the mundanity of the situations they find themselves in.  Of course, that mundanity leads to the mystery plot, which is occasionally interesting, but only so far as the characters are interested in it.  There’s a prevailing sense that they’re making mountains out of molehills out of sheer boredom; their aimlessness causes them to invent fantasies and theories just to feel the excitement and adventure of being in a detective novel.  The mystery is never properly resolved, and perhaps that’s the point.  Katz seems to suggest what might the mantra for the mumblecore movement:  it isn’t about what you’re doing; it’s about the people around you and how you relate.



12.  Tyrannosaur

A man walks out of a bookies shouting angrily before kicking his dog to death.  So begins Tyrannosaur, another entry in the long list of the aforementioned British Misery Films.  Not long after that brutal opening, a woman lies on the couch.  Her inebriated husband comes home and urinates on her as she pretends to be asleep.  If these events seem extreme to the point of parody, they don’t feel that way when watching them.  Tyrannosaur is the writing/directing debut of Paddy Considine, one of my favourite actors working today, but it never plays as an amateur trying his hand at filmmaking.  The spine of the film is the acting from Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, and most importantly, Olivia Colman, who steals the show as a devout Christian working in a charity shop and attempting to mask a hellish home life and the alcohol dependency it causes.  It is a film about two broken people helping each other, yes, but when it threatens to turn mawkish (specifically at a drunken wake) it manages to make a believable but surprising turn.  Considine and the actors fill every scene with a brutal tension that rarely lets up, and a combination of smart writing and exceptional acting not only saves it from descending into parody, but elevates it into the best example of British Misery Filmmaking of the year.



11.  Take Shelter 

Yes, Take Shelter is a fantastic showpiece for Michael Shannon as possibly psychologically damaged Curtis LaForche, but what really sticks with you and what moves it beyond the realm of an actor showcase is the way in which the central theme becomes that of family.  Curtis is beset by strikingly realistic dreams and eventually daytime visions of a violent, impeding apocalyptic storm.  Due to a history of family mental illness, he begins to see a local counselor without telling his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastian, surely the breakout star of the year).  Director Jeff Nichols demonstrated his understanding of rural lower-middle class American and its close-knit community in his previous feature, Shotgun Stories, but there he emphasized an almost Malick-like natural beauty in the environment surrounding the story.  Here, nature is a threatening presence, always threatening to destroy the lives of its characters.  Curtis eventually gives into his visions and begins obsessing over expanding the tornado shelter in the backyard.  These scenes echo Richard Dreyfus’ role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but there he had to leave his family for a higher, and eventually more gentle, purpose.  Family is all that matters in Nichols’ film, and the truly emotional, involving drama comes not from a character’s insanity, but from the way his wife reaches out to him to help him through it.  The ending has been controversial, but it worked fine for me.  The potential storm could easily double as an allegory for economic woes for average Americans in the midst of a crushing recession, after all.  What really shines through is, of all things, the film’s hopefulness.



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