Film reviewer Al Alexander talks about the best - and worst - movies of the year. Do you agree with his picks?
The calendar may have read 2011, but many of the best movies of the past year felt like blasts from Hollywood’s glorious past. Those included such instant classics as “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “War Horse,” films in which renowned directors Michel Hazanavicius, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg paid tribute to the people and the movies that inspired them most.
Several blockbusters also got into the retro mood with flicks like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which revived a franchise made popular in the 1970s, and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a superhero movie that looked like it emerged from a 1940s time capsule. Audiences ate them up, too, making both surprise hits.
Then there was “Drive,” easily one of the most exciting and intense films of the year, with Ryan Gosling instantly spawning flashbacks to Steve McQueen in 1968’s “Bullitt.” And while we’re on the subject of 1960s icons, none was bigger than Marilyn Monroe, stunningly brought back to life by Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn.” But the most pleasurable return to the age of Camelot had to be “The Help,” a funny, touching tale of wealthy Mississippi women and their maids confronting racism, feminism and Minny’s “chocolate pie” with style and aplomb. And the cast, led by Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, was simply to die for.
Remakes of classics were also plentiful, although their artistic success ranged from the sublime, “Jane Eyre”; to the mediocre, “Arthur”; to the headache-inducing, “Just Go with It.” The latter, of course, being Adam Sandler’s star-studded, mentally stunted reworking of Goldie Hawn’s “Cactus Flower,” which the unfunnyman relocated to Hawaii for no other reason than he could.
Yes, 2011 was a year in which everything old seemed new again. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of room for fresh, new filmmakers like J.C. Chandor, who scored an unexpected art-house hit with “Margin Call,” his Mamet-like take on the 2008 financial meltdown, and Evan Glodell, who scorched the earth – and hearts – with his incendiary ode to failed love, “Bellflower.”
We also enjoyed “Oceans” of fine work from George Clooney and Brad Pitt, both doing some of the best acting of their careers in back-to-back films. For Clooney it was “The Ides of March,” which he also co-wrote and directed, and “The Descendants,” the heart-wrenching comedy that may well win him his second Oscar. And for Pitt, it was the mesmerizing duo of “The Tree of Life” and “Moneyball,” movies in which he was so good that you completely forgot he was Brad Pitt. No easy task for a star as big as he.
But Pitt and Clooney weren’t the only ones having great years, so were Gosling and Stone, two young actors enjoying meteoric rises to stardom. Each dazzled in three movies in 2011: he in “Drive” and “The Ides of March”; she in “The Help” and “Friends with Benefits”; and the two of them together in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” The sky is the limit for both these terrific youngsters.
Still, I think I’ll remember 2011 most for being the year that Hollywood went to the dogs – and/or animals in general. No fewer than five films – “Beginners,” “Water for Elephants,” “The Artist,” “Young Adult” and “War Horse” – featured four-legged stars showing up their two-legged counterparts. Too bad there’s not an Oscar category for the critters to fight over. But if there were, it would be a real dog fight between Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who dazzled in both “the Artist” and “Water for Elephants”; and the handful of thoroughbreds that portrayed the trusty steed Joey in “War Horse.” Giddy-up!
And before we say whoa to the films of 2011, let me have the last word on the 10 films that stood out most among the hundreds released during the past 12 months, beginning with:
1. THE ARTIST
The year’s best picture became as clear as black and white, as it silently took the world by storm following its deafening premier at the Cannes Festival in May. Springing from the creative mind of French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist” now stands the very real possibility of becoming the first silent film since 1929’s “Wings” to win the Oscar for Best Picture – and with good reason. This was no gimmick flick that merely attempted to recreate the look and feel of a silent film. No, it proved to be so much more, from its outstanding ensemble led by Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, to Hazanavicius’ shrewd storytelling to Ludovic Bource’s evocative score, “The Artist” dazzled in every aspect of its lovingly crafted homage to the great filmmakers of the 1920s. The real beauty, though, was you need not be a fan of those early classics to relish a story that was as funny as it was affecting in depicting the deceptively simple tale of two movie stars falling in and out of love at the close of the Roaring Twenties. It loudly gave voice to the idea that sound filmmaking doesn’t always require sound.
2. THE TREE OF LIFE
As maddening as it was exhilarating, Terrence Malick’s existential masterpiece hauntingly delved into the joys and heartbreaks of being alive. Blending Darwinism with creationism, Malick and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (an Oscar shoo-in) created a cosmic stew that beautifully illustrated how we are all connected by time, space and the future. A fact vibrantly illustrated through the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas. The era was the 1950s, but the depictions of the clan’s evolution from post-war idealism to space-age paranoia felt timeless and true thanks to a pair of outstanding performances by Brad Pitt and this year’s “It Girl,” Jessica Chastain, as the disparate parents of three little boys futilely trying to make sense of Mom and Dad’s “good cop, bad cop” style of child rearing. Love it, or hate it (as many did), there was no denying that this was the riskiest – most rewarding – movie of the year.
Brad Pitt, this year’s MVP, hit another tape-measure home run with his finely nuanced portrayal of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, a man whose inglorious past drives his pursuit of excellence. Sort of like Pitt himself. Based on Michael Lewis’ runaway best-seller and fluidly adapted to the screen by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), “Moneyball” wasn’t so much about baseball and the A’s unlikely climb to the top of the American League West Division in 2002, as it was about a mad genius (Beane) sticking to his guns in the face of an armada of naysayers, including his own manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who said his radical plan to revolutionize baseball was a recipe for failure. Directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote”) with an irresistible mix of grit and romanticism, “Moneyball” thrived on the unlikely chemistry stirred by Pitt and Jonah Hill as Beane’s bookish assistant, Peter Brand, two guys who couldn’t be more different, or more alike. And who knew that the sight of a rotund baseball player falling down at first base would prove to be the year’s most moving metaphor for not seeing the forest for the trees? Simply brilliant!
Who says an old dog has no new tricks? Certainly not Martin Scorsese, who completely reinvented himself with this moving fantasy about moving pictures. It marked a host of firsts for the iconic director, who had never before made a family film or dabbled in 3-D. But you’d never know it given how fluidly he delves into his inner-Spielberg to create what was easily the most magical film of the year. It embodied everything you love about movies, from the sense of wonder they inspire to the deep, emotional resonance they leave behind. And I know I won’t soon forget it or the lead performances by Ben Kingsley, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz as three lost souls who find a commonality in their admiration for the cinema. Set largely inside a bustling Paris rail station in the early 1930s, the movie – written by John Logan based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick (cousin of legendary producer David O. Selznick) – dealt with issues of grief, loss and regret with unerring poignancy and grace.
5. TAKE SHELTER
Writer-director Jeff Nichols cleverly incorporated an everyman’s descent into madness as an effective metaphor for all that ails America. Health care, joblessness, terrorism, climate change, you name it, Nichols subtly touched on it within the framework of an old-fashioned sci-fi thriller in which the mood affected you every bit as much as the story. The unease Nichols and leading man Michael Shannon created was almost unbearable at times. Your nerves became on edge; your mind deliriously confused by what was real and what was not, as Shannon’s character, a money-strapped miner, begins having apocalyptic visions that take control of his life, much to the detriment of his wife (an amazing Jessica Chastain) and handicapped daughter. Kudos, too, to Nichols’ judicious use of special effects, which never overshadowed the story, only enhanced it, as the film charged toward a wonderfully ambiguous conclusion that hauntingly reminded us that all we need fear is fear itself.
6. PROJECT NIM
Oscar-winning director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) made it hard not to erupt into a tear-filled rage while watching in horror as an adorable, human-like chimp named Nim suffered one indignity after another in going from being raised like a child in an Upper East Side apartment to being locked up in a tiny cage inside a facility conducting deadly medical trials. The goal of the Columbia University experiment Nim originally took part in was to prove that chimps could ape the developmental stages of human children, including learning to communicate via sign language. It worked, of course, but the thing none of the geniuses at Columbia considered was Nim’s animal instincts. His increasingly violent and unpredictable behavior eventually got him expelled and shipped off on a lonely, years-long journey into a cruel world that rarely offered sympathy for him or his plight. Suddenly, “Project Nim” seemed less a story about a chimp and more of a story about us. And the reflection in the mirror Marsh propped up was pretty darn ugly. Not to mention, shameful.
7. THE TRIP
You’ve probably never heard of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which was sort of the central joke of a largely improvised story about two middling comedians scrambling for the crumbs of fame, as father time cruelly lets the air out of their big dreams and swollen egos. It was deeply poignant, but it was also quite funny thanks to Coogan and Brydon, who reprised their riotously neurotic characters from “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” Like that film – also directed by Michael Winterbottom – Coogan and Brydon portrayed loosely based versions of themselves while embarking on a weekend road trip through the north of England, all the while providing insights into the minds of adversarial amigos determined to one-up the other, whether it’s having the best room at a rustic inn or an impromptu battle between them to determine who does the best voice impersonation of Sean Connery or Michael Caine. As with its American twin, “Sideways,” “The Trip” reveled in exposing the petty jealousies and repressed insecurities that are so much a part of male friendships – and did it with gut-wrenching hilarity.
8. MARGIN CALL
Providence-based writer-director J.C. Chandor proved David Mamet had nothing on him with this lacerating look at the evils that men and women of finance do in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Aided by arguably one of the year’s best ensemble (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Stanely Tucci, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto), Chandor rivetingly encapsulated the 2008 financial meltdown through a microcosm of an over-leveraged Wall Street brokerage unloading billions of toxic mortgages on unsuspecting clients just prior to the crash. You relished every word of Chandor’s expletive-filled dialogue, as he gave us a sort of Wall Street version of “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It was funny and unsettling to watch, but what got to you was the amount of empathy Chandor extracted for his array of misguided characters, from entry-level underlings all the way up to the utterly clueless CEO. No stock characters here; just blue chip actors delivering huge dividends.
9. THE DESCENDANTS
The combination of George Clooney and Hawaii were pure paradise in Alexander Payne’s funny, emotionally charged tale about a splintered island family finding hope in the wake of death. As patriarch of the distraught and dysfunctional King clan, Clooney gave the best performance of his career, drawing laughs and sympathy for a man who suddenly becomes privy to his dying wife’s cheating heart. Undeterred, he rounds up his two equally troubled daughters (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley) and embarks on an enlightening journey in which he heals his family’s numerous ills while also gaining a modicum of cathartic revenge on his wife’s louse of a lover (Matthew Lillard). “The Descendants” was Payne’s first movie since “Sideways,” his 2004 Oscar-winner, and it proved well worth the wait.
10. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Woody Allen, the diminutive New York Jew, and Owen Wilson, the hunky Texas gentile, may strike you as complete opposites, but in this comedic fantasy they melded fluidly together to form one of the Woodman’s most compelling creations in years. Borrowing a page from “Back to the Future,” Allen used a 1929 Peugeot to transport Wilson from modern-day Paris back to the days of The Lost Generation, where our self-loathing hero exalts in the opportunity to rub elbows with his literary idols, from Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein. Romance also beckons enticingly in the form of a never-better Marion Cotillard. But the question that lingers most is whether or not Wilson’s Gil is better off living in the past or in the seemingly less glamorous present. The answer may surprise you almost as much as the film, which was refreshingly free of over-tried and rarely true Woodyisms, like the stammering, neurotic nebbish. Not only was it one of Allen’s funniest films, it also was one of his most poignant, as he thrillingly reached the upper octaves of romantic lyricism.
“A Separation,” “The Help,” “Hanna,” “War Horse,” “Bridesmaids,” “Drive,” “Of Gods and Men,” “Young Adult,” “Carnage,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.”