January 1, 2012

2011: The Movies I Actually Got Around To Seeing

There were some really good movies in 2011(and of course some really not-good movies), but my main feeling looking back is that this was a year where my interest in going out to the cinema each week dropped considerably, perhaps indicating that I'm starting to grow up on some minuscule level (although it's probably just a coincidence). There are many culprits for this: An exceedingly busy work schedule, my cable news addiction (made worse by the Herman Cain campaign for President this fall), the fact that a lot of movies in 2011 just didn't seem that appealing, and then of course, that my wife - my most frequent movie partner - became pregnant midway through the year.

This last one, of course, had the most significant impact for many reasons. Once you find out you're going to be a parent, important life-questions like, "Is it really worth 50 bucks and three hours of life to see fucking Cars 2?" become way more relevant. Although we have yet to do so, I'm pretty sure the answer to that one would have been a crisp, definitive "no." In practice, our total number of consumed movies in 2011 was only a little smaller than the year before, but somehow it feels like much of the time we simply chose to do other things that were more rewarding.

On that note, the act of going out to busy theaters and sitting in crappy seats for two some hours sounded a lot less comfortable to her and seemed like a big hassle to both of us. We were perfectly happy to watch flicks at home later... on DVD, BluRay or industry screeners, of which we luckily got several this year.
I know that's not the right way to see big-ass spectacles like Hugo or The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn or It's A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas, but hey we take it how we can get it, and it's probably a sign of life-to-be anyway, once our son is out and demanding attention. He'll be about five months old in July, meaning the timing will be juuuuust about right for us to take him to his first movie: The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX. We're planning to go to the midnight showing, which hopefully means he'll be a little more sleepy and therefore not as much of a bother to the other viewers. I'll be sure to let you all know how it works out.

Anyway, here's a quick and dirty ranking of what I saw… I've ordered the whole list from the ones I enjoyed most to the ones I enjoyed least, with handy dividers in between.

No movie in 2011 stuck with me with like director Mike Mills' semi-auto-biographical picture about the time period after his mom died and his father came out of the closet. Unlike other pictures that have very imaginative stylization, this one doesn't buckle under the weight of its own quirk. The picture freely jumps around in time, largely between the year or two leading up to Christopher Plummer's character's death, and the year or two after, but I was really blown away by how Mills tells the story in an unusual way without ever hitting an emotionally untrue beat. I realized when I saw it back in June that it would probably be high up on my list of best movies for 2011, and in fact nothing else ever got close to unseating it.

Paul Giamatti plays a buried-in-debt lawyer and high school wrestling coach who winds up in charge of a troubled run-away. It's not a groundbreaking movie, really (nor is it one that necessarily needs to be seen in the theater), but the thing that struck me about this one is that 10-15 years ago, a good comedic-drama about middle aged people with middle-aged problems featuring top notch actors like Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and the highly underrated Bobby Cannavale might not have had as much trouble getting studio backing and a wide release. This picture didn't really have either (although Fox Searchlight picked it up and gave it a limited run), which I think is a sad sign of the times.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost: Protocol
I'm usually of the mind that anything with the number "4" at the end of it is an artistically bankrupt cash grab on the part of those involved (see Indiana Jones 4, Star Wars: Episode 1, Taboo IV, or Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 at the end of this list). Nevertheless, director Brad Bird bested the three previous entries in the series with some of the most exciting action sequences I've seen in a movie in years (and all on a smaller budget than the other films had).

Midnight In Paris
I'm not much of a Woody Allen guy, honestly, but found this one to be atypically focused, coherent, and by my standards, at least, very pleasurable. Owen Wilson makes a surprisingly delightful Allen surrogate, and the picture has the feeling of one of those old short stories that the director used to write for publications like The New Yorker or Playboy, in addition to existing as beautiful love-letter to the cultural Paris of eld in its own right.

The Descendants
I didn't like this movie as much as several of Alexander Payne's previous films, but I still really liked it. Election, About Schmidt and Sideways all found ways to bring interesting levity to some very dark subject material. This one, a character drama set in Hawaii about Clooney bonding with his daughters and coming to terms with the recent news that his comatose wife was seeing another man and was preparing to leave him before her accident, has moments of that too, but is appropriately a very somber affair, overall. There are stellar performances from Clooney and the show-stealing Shailene Woodley as his older daughter, and a few absolutely electric dramatic scenes in the last part of the film, but the whole thing didn't quite make it into my top tier for the year for some reason. I hear from people who vote on such things that it's got a good shot at winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, if only because nothing better ever came along, and that wouldn't necessarily bother me. Interesting trivia is that the film was co-written by Jim Rash, who also plays Dean Pelton on Community. If the film wins Best Screenplay, I really hope he does his acceptance speech in character.

X-Men: First Class
I've got a soft spot for X-Men movies. As such, I'm not sure how good this picture really is, but if nothing else, I enjoyed watching it immensely. First Class reboots the franchise a bit and tells the untold story of how mutants both precipitated and then prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis (suck it, Thirteen Days). I thought it was a little weird that the movie only kept continuity with the other movies when it wanted to, but I'm also very glad that it was not entirely beholden to them. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender weren't trying to do imitations of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, instead playing Professor X and Magneto as enthusiastic young men with very different world views. I think that was very effective and 100% the right way to go. I love all the 60s retro James Bond stuff, but thought it was a little weird that January Jones appeared in yet another 60s role that's almost as evil as her Betty Draper character on Mad Men.

The Ides Of March
I thought the movie lost a bit of its potency in its second half, when the sex scandal stuff seemed to usurp the fairly grim commentary about the ugliness of the U.S. political process.

The Help
We caught a screener of this a month or two back… Although I was surprised by how much liked the movie, I can't shake the feeling that it is still a pretty tame Disneyfied version of what it was like to be black in the 1960s south. Nevertheless, there were some great performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, although it freaked me out to see Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain, two actresses that I can barely tell apart in the first place, playing opposite each other in the same movie. If Amy Adams and Isla Fisher had appeared in competing roles as well, I think I would have completely lost my shit.

The Muppets
The first Muppet production since Jim Henson's death in 1990 where the characters are as funny and as delightful as they were in 60s, 70s, and 80s. It's not my favorite of the Muppet movies (that's still a tie between The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Henson's last project, Disneyland's MuppetVision 3D attraction), but it has the same spirit as those movies, and praises be for that.

The Tree Of Life
I'm just not sure where to put this one, so I'm parking it here. Equal parts unforgettably beautiful and excruciatingly oblique. I've thought about this movie a lot since I've seen it, really, and with time I believe what Terence Malick was trying to do with it has seemed richer and more clear to me. That said, however, I would never want to sit through it again, and I would not really recommend that anyone else do the same.

Your Highness
I'm pretty sure I'm the only guy who is putting this one on any kind of "good" list, but I swear that this thoroughly bizarre parody of early 80s sword-and-sorcery epics like Ladyhawke, Krull, and The Dark Crystal is really funny. I'm not much of a fan of Danny McBride, to be honest with you, but a late night BluRay viewing with low expectations somehow resulted in me enjoying the hell out of this very strange movie.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
I never read the late Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" books, but I saw the three Swedish films which were based on them and released in the U.S. in 2010: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. David Fincher's American remake features a wonderful cast led by current James Bond Larry Craig and newcomer Mara Rooney, and thankfully retains the Swedish setting of the books. Oddly the film doesn't feel substantially different from the earlier movies until about an hour and forty-five in, when we get to the picture's climax. Fincher stages that beautifully, but during the whole first 2/3rd, I had a strange malaise like I was watching a movie that I was already really familiar with. That's not Fincher's fault or the film's fault, but a product, I guess, of having already seen a faithful adaptation of the material previously.

I feel bad, but I just didn't feel a connection to this movie the way many others apparently did (see the comment section on my original post about it!), and I'm sure I'll catch more shit for placing it closer to the center of my list than to the top of it. Although the film is unquestionably beautiful to look at, it seemed to me that once the Georges Méliès story-line heated up, Hugo's kinda got pushed aside instead of dovetailing with it in a satisfying way.

It's a funny movie. I don't have much else to really say about it, though.

I made my wife go see this against her will, which I think represented a major turning point in our marriage. I maintain that it's an alright movie, actually, but I wasn't allowed to pick what we were going to go see for a while after this. Later in the summer, if I wanted to see movies like Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon or Real Steel (both of which, by coincidence, feature giant robots punching each other), Laura made it clear that I had to do it by myself late at night, after she had gone to bed.

The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn
I sorta hate the motion-capture animation medium, really, but admired the thrilling way in which Spielberg used the technology here, staging elaborate action scenes without any "cuts" and using the virtual camera to follow characters like Snowy The Dog through the streets and alleyways in a fashion that you could never do in live action. Surprisingly, though, I was completely uninterested in the movie on a plot / character level, and had trouble staying awake during the talkier passages (such as the painful, seemingly 45 minute segment where hopeless alcoholic Captain Haddock tells a rambling, listless story about his ancestors who got into a pirate fight or something).

Puss In Boots
Adorable anthropomorphized kitty animation kinda makes this movie worth it for cat freaks, but a lousy, irritating villain and a direct-to-video style plot kinda makes the whole thing a wash. It's good for about 15 minutes, though.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2
Director David Yates committed the unforgivable sin of taking three very engaging, imaginative books and making four anemic movies out of them that barely have a pulse. I thought that the previous film, The Deathly Hallows Part 1, was a huuuuge step up from the TV movie-ish Part 5 and the stuffy, joyless Part 6, but with this eighth and final movie, Yates somehow got me to feel little to no excitement or emotional investment about the climax of a series that I had been manically excited about just a few years earlier. There's talk of Warner Bros. giving him a few other big properties to adapt into films now, but if it were up to me, I would keep him strictly regulated to dog food commercials and cable access sports discussion programs (all, preferably, without pay).

Captain America: The First Avenger
I'm jealous of the blurb about this on www.rifftrax.com: "Captain America: The First Avenger tells us the inspiring story of a skinny weakling who takes excessive quantities of a dangerous performance enhancing drug and becomes a national hero." Unfortunately, it really feels like a third rate affair through and through... the villain is uninteresting and I cannot remember what his evil scheme was even all about. Chris Evans was charismatic as the lead, but apart from a few dynamic action bits, the film felt like its primary function was to introduce the character and to get him where he needed to be so he can appear in 2012's Marvel superhero circle-jerk, The Avengers.

Super 8
Saw this one on DVD… I liked the Amblin movies of the 80s, although I kinda have a natural aversion to the idea of trying to make another one of them now. It's more like the movies that Spielberg executive produced for directors Joe Dante and Richard Donner than the ones he directed himself, but still it's a mix that didn't quite work for me on numerous levels, despite some strong acting from the kids. I have a big problem with the sledgehammer sentiment of the film's ending too... That's a Spielberg thing as well, of course, but at least when he would do it, the syrupy finale would be earned to some degree. At the end of this movie, beautiful, soaring music plays in support of a horrible monster who destroyed an entire town and killed a bunch of people, which seems kinda like a disconnect to me.

Young Adult
I was probably way too hard on this one in my initial blog post. I recognize that now, but I'm not taking anything I said back. It's an interesting premise that's reaaaaaaaaally slow to take off. Once it does, the movie is really good for about a scene and a half, but then the filmmakers decided to flush everything at the end for the sake of a joke, which pisses me off way more than if the movie had just been crappy throughout.

The Adjustment Bureau
I kinda liked this movie, but I don't know anyone else who did. It's one of the few times where I had a pretty mild reaction to something that Laura expressed a Lewis Black grade of displeasure with in the car ride home.

Water For Elephants
This is a rare case where perfectly fine acting, direction, cinematography, and music all add up to something that's merely alright. I remember thinking at the time that the performances by the three leads were fine and of themselves, but that they didn't necessarily work up against each other.

I'm pretty sure that this lukewarm comedy about the romantic troubles of the repugnantly wealthy was directly responsible for the "Occupy" movement throughout much of 2011.

African Cats
There's nice footage of big cats running around Africa, as the title might imply there will be, but there's also scary scenes of them trying to kill each other too, and of cubs being picked off by hyenas and other African predators.

Scream 4
I barely remember seeing this. I don't remember seeing the earlier ones either, really.

I like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and I love director Greg Mottola, who made Adventureland, my favorite movie of 2009. Nevertheless, this movie was a huge disappointment in that it neither had the heart of Mottola's earlier movies, nor the aggressive humor of Pegg and Frost's earlier collaborations, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, which were both directed by Edgar Wright. I was kinda hoping that the movie would be a little more savage toward the ComiCon crowd, but since that demographic buys a huge percentage of movie tickets, they puss'd out and went all toothless and Galaxy Quest on them.

Jane Eyre
I just didn't have much of a reaction to this one, honestly. It's in that middle zone... I didn't especially like it, I didn't dislike it. It was there, and then it ended.

Real Steel
Spielberg produced remake of Over The Top and Rocky IV, but with the added element of giant robots punching each other. The drama of a good sporting event kinda works, actually, and alllllllmost makes up up for how unbelievably stupid and contrite virtually everything else about the movie is.

Our Idiot Brother
It's not really bad, but it's just kinda lightweight and clichéd. I like a lot of the actors in it, but thought the writing was pretty insipid.

Transformers 3: Dark Of The Moon
Slightly better than the previous two Transformers movies, but still largely indecipherable and incoherent.

Crazy Stupid Love
Shit sandwich.

The Hangover Part II
Director Todd Phillips' meticulous remake of the classic 2009 comedy The Hangover has a couple good laughs, but bizarrely replays the first movie beat for beat with only a minimum of variables changed up (the main one being that they're in Bangkok now).

Pirates Of The Caribbean 4
Fuck this movie.

We kept wanting to see this one, but could never pull the trigger on it for some reason. I think we were both in escapist moods when it was out, and the idea of sitting through something that was reportedly ultra violent was never appealing.

Sherlock Holmes 2
I loved the first one but since L can't really sit through a theatrical movie right now (and because we did not happen to get a screener of it), we'll have to wait until it hits BluRay.

The Iron Lady
I really wanted to see this comic book adaptation about Tony Stark's female cousin, played by Meryl Streep, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain for a time in the 80s, but Marvel made the curious decision to do an extended origin story that doesn't even get to the part where she builds a metal suit and flies around the world beating up terrorists. Instead, there are apparently numerous book-end segments which show the elderly superhero suffering from Alzheimers, which sounds like even more of a downer than Iron Man 2 was.

The Artist
We got a screener of this, but had not watched it as of press time.

War Horse
We watched about 45 minutes of this, actually. Pretty photography, a gorgeous score by John Williams (which neverthless seemed sorta overbearing in the movie), but not a lot of generated interest from either of us. We gave up after the plow scene, and I can't really see us going back.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
I'm a sucker for the Planet Of The Apes movies except for that horrible, horrible, horrible one that Tim Burton made starring Marky Mark in 2001.

Horrible Bosses
My wife saw this with her friend, but left me out of it. Girls.

I hear it's kinda like Phantasm, but instead of the ball sprouting blades and fucking killing people, it dispenses money or something, which is exactly what recession-stricken America needs right now. Whatever happens in this movie, it won't be nearly as cool as what happens each day on Cash Cab, but then again, what can be?

The Green Lantern
I kinda want to see it just to see if it's as shitty as the trailers made it look.

A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas
Same as above, but I guess there's a scene where Danny Trejo ejaculates at a Christmas tree in 3D or something.

Cars 2
I think this is the first Pixar movie that I've had virtually no interest in seeing. Cars 1 was their weakest blockbuster hit (both critically and financially), but the one that sold the most merchandise... therefore sequel. They're making another Monsters, Inc. as well, which all makes me seriously fear for the company's future.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 1
I won't watch this one until there's a RiffTrax commentary available for it, but I can't wait to see the scene where Edward uses his vampire teeth to give Bela a C-Section.

And that's it! I can't wait to see what Adam Sandler has in store for us in 2012!