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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best and Worst Movies of 2011

As the year draws to a close, we here at Weird Movie Village get all misty-eyed, reflecting on the highlights (and lowlights) in filmed entertainment from the past 12 months.

Here are some of them. Keep in mind, if you haven't seen these, there may be spoilers...

THE BEST

1. Hugo. Somehow it's fitting that this would be the last movie I saw this year—just this afternoon, as a matter of fact. It perfectly fits into the WMV milieu, and I'll be discussing it in greater detail in a later post.

Martin Scorsese has taken a children's tale and made it relevant for adults, weaving in some wonderful, magical movie history history and a plea for film preservation to boot.

As Hugo and his spirited sidekick, Isabelle, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are terrific, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays Georges Melies with a tragic dignity. Once a pioneer in special effects films, he's lost everything and now sells toys at the train station that Hugo—also a lost soul—inhabits. It's utterly charming, and elder statesman Scorsese probably understands the power of 3D better than any filmmaker of any generation.

2. Moneyball. Man, I loved this movie. Not only was it a fascinating study of the inner workings of major league sports, it featured a major league performance by Brad Pitt as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who has a unusual plan to take his team to the top. Jonah Hill is fine as his nerdy, numbers-driven assistant, and Philip Seymour Hoffman adds another character notch to his belt as team manager Art Howe. And it was funny, too!

3. Crazy, Stupid, Love. This smart and frequently hilarious film showed us that romcoms don't always have to have "long distance relationship" or "meet cute" or "terminal illness" plot points (and you people know who you are) to carry them through. Just pair sad sack Steve Carrell with suave barfly Ryan Gosling doing his Pygmalion thing, throw in other dysfunctional characters, blend them all together and you've got comedy gold.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The little (well, not so little) movie that could. People scoffed at the idea of Fox rebooting its ancient series, especially as the films got more and more po'-faced and the TV series even worse, but most were blown away by a truly exciting prequel with lots of heart, seamless digital effects and another Academy-award worthy performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. James Franco is believable as a research scientist (!) and John Lithgow gives the film its soul as Franco's father, battling against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease.

5. Drive. Here Gosling plays a completely different character, a morally ambiguous stunt driver who finally gains a soul when he is motivated to rescue his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) from vicious thugs. Of course, this rescue involves splattery killings, but it somehow all works in Nicolas Winding Refn's strange, dark film that challenges conventional techniques and characterizations.

6. Shame. Dark is certainly the operative word to describe Steve McQueen's portrait of an emotionally blank sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his equally screwed-up sister with the quite literal name Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

Certainly not for all viewers, Shame features a fearless and literally stripped-down performance by Fassbender whose compulsions are never explained but are somehow linked to a horrendous childhood that Brandon and Sissy experienced.

7. The Devil's Double. Breezing through theaters in limited release earlier this year, this story of Saddam Hussein's son Uday and his body double Latif Yahia (both mesmerizingly played by Dominic Cooper) painted a violent portrait of the tumult in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Cooper provides two good performances as Uday, whose tastes for bloodshed and depravity are unchecked, and Latif, who finds himself at a moral crossroads.

Also worth mentioning is Fright Night, a decent remake of the 1985 original with Colin Farrell particularly striking as Jerry Dandridge. Instead of Chris Sarandon's suave man-about-town portrayal, Farrell is much more...well, feral. X-Men: First Class was an entertaining prequel, with James McAvoy and Fassbender lots of fun as the young versions of Dr. Xavier and Magneto.

Steven Soderbergh's star-studded Contagion took what could have been a really clinical plot about a contagious disease exploding around the world and made it fast-moving and fascinating. Martha Marcy May Marlene featured an outstanding performance by Elizabeth Olson as a damaged young woman who escapes from a cult in a movie that really creeps up on you.

THE WORST

There were a few stinkers from filmmakers who should've known better—nevertheless, they made a boatload of money and critics even liked a couple of them.

1. The crowning achievement of crap surely must go to The Hangover Part II. It's hard to believe that the creators of the original had anything to do with this, because it plays like it was done by opportunistic louts with no understanding of how the humor worked in Part I. It's flat, repetitive and frankly pretty disgusting. I only need remind you of Ed Helms' character and the "ladyboy" to help you understand. It's amazing that this sequel didn't derail the series, but I guess Part III is in the works.

2. Bridesmaids was a smash hit and earned many critical laurels, and I just don't get it. To me, it was just as disgusting as Hangover Part II, alternating between ridiculous slapstick, nauseating body-function comedy and absurd "women's drama." What's the sequel going to be called? Divorcees?

3. J.J. Abrams' Super 8 was eagerly anticipated but fell flat on its ass. I wasn't the only one who felt betrayed by this misfire. Half Spielberg-inspired memory piece, half Cloverfield-style monster scare film, it seriously failed to deliver on the latter part, devolving into a Michael Bay-style crash-and-smash fest with a stoopid monster that gave me a headache long before the end credits rolled.

4. Red Riding Hood. Dumb, dumb, dumb, this mess tries to add Twilight teen angst to a classic fairy tale, and it's ridiculous. And what's up with Amanda Seyfried? She seems to be in everything these days, but I find this googly-eyed blonde to be a particularly limited performer. As Dorothy Parker famously said about another actress, "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." More tragic was the appearance of the elegant Julie Christie as her grandmother. My God, did she really need the money that badly?

Insidious had the creators of Saw team up with the creator of Paranormal Activity, but the result was more of the latter—a cliché-ridden, alleged "horror film" for people who are scared of horror films. And Anthony Hopkins, who was enjoyable in last year's rather good remake, The Wolfman, was somehow talked into participating in The Rite, playing an exorcist who himself becomes possessed and babbles endless lines of pretentious dialogue until the demon is forced out—or the audience is forced to leave—whichever comes first.

2012 is already looking to be ruled by sequels and 3D spectacles. Tim Burton is expanding his 1984 short film Frankenweenie into a feature for Disney—ironically the company that fired him for making it in the first place. James Cameron is hauling his groaning 1997 epic Titanic out of drydock for another go-round in 3D. I'm interested in Mark Webb's take on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise with the fresh-cast The Amazing Spider-Man. Wrath of the Titans is a sequel to the 3D remake Clash of the Titans—and it's also getting an upconversion! Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is surely one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and Christian Bale is back as Batman in The Dark Night Rises.

Suckers will fork over their money for Paranormal Activity 4, a franchise I absolutely fail to see the appeal in. Kristen Stewart is giving up sparkly vampires to appear as the title character in Snow White and the Huntsman. And Brad Pitt takes on zombies in Marc Forster's World War Z.

On the arthouse front, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, already in limited release, will be expanded in 2012. Actress Sarah Polley, whose 2006 Away from Her was terrific, has Take This Waltz. Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a teen who went on a high school killing spree in We Need to Talk About Kevin. And the Australian serial killer film Snowtown is coming early this year. Both of the latter are on my hot list and should be reviewed when available.

In the meantime, we here at Weird Movie Village wish you a happy and productive New Year!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Also for your excellent list, I would suggest "My Week with Marilyn," which adds one more beautiful performance by Michelle Williams to her growing (and glowing) resume. It's not a barn burner, just a sweet, sincere effort to entertain. I would not include "The Artist," however, in either the plus or minus column. It's a good film - just not the great one we've been told ad nauseum that it is. I would recommend seeing an actual silent film. There were a few, you know.

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