Year in Review: The Best of 2011

I know that I haven’t been writing lately. But I’ve been busy watching movies and reading and smoking cigarettes. I also have been working harder than Mitt Romney, which is pathetic in its own right. Anyway, if there’s anyone out there, here’s what I considered the Best of 2011, in order.

Best Films

“The Tree of Life”

“Drive”

“Shame”

“Melancholia”

“Hugo”

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

“A Dangerous Method”

“Beginners”

“The Descendants”

“The Iron Lady”

“Bloodworth”

“Captain America”

“Contagion”

“Midnight in Paris”

“Carnage”

“The Artist”

“My Week with Marylin”

“The Last Rites of Joe May”

“The Ides of March”

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

“Passion Play”

“Sucker Punch”

“Moneyball”

“X-Men First Class”

“Warrior”

“Thor”

Best Director

Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”

Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Drive”

Lars von Trier, “Melancholia”

David Cronenberg, “A Dangerous Method”

Best Actor

Michael Fassbender, “Shame”

Gary Oldman, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

Hunter McCracken, “The Tree of Life”

Ryan Gosling, “Drive”

Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”

Best Actress

Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”

Kiera Knightley, “A Dangerous Method”

Kristen Dunst, “Melancholia”

Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Melancholia”

Jodie Foster, “Carnage”

Best Supporting Actor

Albert Brooks, “Drive”

Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

Brad Pitt, “The Tree of Life”

Robert Forster, “The Descendants”

Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marylin”

Best Supporting Actress

Jessica Chastain, “The Tree of Life”

Carey Mulligan, “Shame”

Melanie Laurent, “Beginners”

Carey Mulligan, “Drive”

Kate Winslet, “Carnage”

Best Ensemble

“Drive”

“Tree of Life”

“A Dangerous Method”

“Melancholia”

“Hugo”

Original Screenplay

“The Tree of Life”

“Midnight in Paris”

“Shame”

“Beginners”

“Melancholia”

Adapted Screenplay

“Drive”

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”

“A Dangerous Method”

“Carnage”

“Hugo”

Best Television Programming

“Californication”

“George Harrison: Living in a Material World”

“Breaking Bad”

“Homeland”

“Too Big to Fail”

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“The Tree of Life” – 2011. Dir. Terrence Malick

With Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw and Sean Penn

“Guide us. To the end of time.”

    I was fortunate enough to see Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” today. Anything I could try and articulate about the film, would fail it in every way possible. I don’t know whether or not I’ll ever muster up the courage to write a review, or even my thoughts/interpretation of the film, but this is for sure: “The Tree of Life” is not only “the greatest movie ever made”, but – it is the most profound thing that I have ever seen.

“Sucker Punch” – 2011. Dir. Zack Snyder

 

With Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung with Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm and Scott Glenn

“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” – The Wise Man (Scott Glenn)

Zack Snyder’s latest (and original) film “Sucker Punch” has met critics with a lot of poor reviews and was beat in the box office by that “Whimpy Kid” movie. There are things I will never understand, and I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never fully understand them. Why are did all the Little Ceasar’s pull out of K-Mart. Why do you need to keep bamboo out of direct sunlight when in nature, it exists in direct sunlight, and if there is a God – why would he/she create something like Sarah Palin?

All these questions seem to have the same answer as to why critics hated “Sucker Punch”. I’m not quite sure what the answer exactly is, but all I know is that “Sucker Punch” is a pretty damn good movie with mind blowing visuals.

Is this film as epic as Snyder’s previous film “Watchmen”? Absolutely not. This film is disjointed and a little incoherent, which I think it’s supposed to be. There are five girls lead by Baby Doll (Browning), Sweet Pea (Cornish), Rocket (Malone), Blondie (Hudgen) and Amber (Chung) who are trying to escape a mental institution that’s run by the evil Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac).

The mysterious Dr. Vera Gorski (played by the ever so erotic Carla Gugino) essentially teaches the girls the escape into a world that their mind creates. Baby Doll, who accidentally killed her younger sister while trying to protect her from their molesting stepfather (Gerard Plunkett), just arrives at the asylum, and her evil stepfather pays Blue Jones a little extra to get her lobotomized by the High Roller (the ever so fucking cool and dashingly handsome Jon Hamm).

As Baby Doll escapes into her mind with the other girls, they are mentored by The Wise Man (Scott Glenn). The Wise Man tells Baby Doll that she needs to retain five items in order to successfully escape from the asylum.

Each time Baby Doll enters her dream sequence – she and her posse of badass chicks kick the shit out of whatever monsters/beasts lie in their path to achieve the item to escape. They need to act fast, because the High Roller is only three days away from his visit to lobotomize Baby Doll.

The dream sequences are where the film triumphs – although the opening of the film which shows us Baby Doll’s back story which is queued up to a contemporary version of “Sweet Dreams” is pretty spectacular. The dream sequences are so imaginative. It was very exciting to see what Snyder could concoct for his next dream sequence, waiting to see if he could out do the previous one.

Once again Snyder displays that his use of popular music is impeccable. He’s hitting Scorsese/Tarantino/PT Anderson status with his use of popular music to not carry a scene, but to reinforce the sheer awesomeness of it. The opening sequence of the film is amazing.

The group of girls are fine in the film. They serve the purpose that they were designed for – to look good and kick ass. None of them are distracting with poor acting skills, they play off one another well.


What really bridges the film between its fantasy dream sequences and its stylization are the strong performances by the “heavies”. I have never really cared for Carla Gugino. I always resented the fact that she was just packed into a movie because she’s good looking and not afraid to take her clothes off. I was won over by her in “Watchmen” and this past season of “Californication” – and in “Sucker Punch” I thought she did a pretty damn good job. Her character is mysterious enough to where you can’t decide if she’s helping the girls or just another trap for them to get stuck in.

Oscar Isaac plays a pretty damn good bad guy. I haven’t seen him in anything prior to this film, so it was a treat for me to experience him for the first time. He’s very seedy, and very filthy – he seems like a character that should be one of Harvey Ketiel’s underlings in “Taxi Driver”.


I absolutely love the fact that Jon Hamm is in this film. To me, Jon Hamm very much has the look of a silver screen icon (which is probably due to the fact that he’s the star of “Mad Men”). He’s handsomely mysterious like Bogart was. His limited role in this film doesn’t show off any acting chops, but instead offers a small treat to seeing Hamm play a bad guy in a way cool movie. The one thing that I think is very, very interesting is his reaction shot towards the end of the film. If you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Scott Glenn is my biggest mancrush. Nough said. His character seems to be the perfect character for Liam Neeson to play, you know, the mentor. But since Neeson hit it big with “Taken”, he gets his own vehicles now. Glenn is cool in the film. He’s just that old badass who helps these girls wreak more havoc then you could possible imagine in this film. Glenn anchors the film.

I liked this movie very much, and I am surprised at the harsh reception and its underwhelming box office production. This may not be as good as I had hoped for. That being said, this movie really does kick ass.


Review: 8.5/10

“Life During Wartime” – 2009. Dir. Todd Solondz

With Allison Janey, Michael Lerner, Dylan Riley Snyder, Ally Sheedy, Shirley Henderson, Michael K. Williams with Paul Reubens with Charlotte Rampling and Ciaran Hinds

“I’m sorry I said you were shit and I was champagne.” – Andy (Paul Reubens)

Man, how does one even begin to review a Todd Solondz film? Better yet – how does one even begin to review a Todd Solondz film that’s a sequel to his masterpiece “Happiness”? “Life During Wartime” has to be one of the most imaginative and inventive sequels that I’ve seen. Most of the characters from “Happiness” do appear in this film, but the catch is this film has an entirely different cast.

As in “Happiness”, this film at its core revolves around three sisters who are all confused – and for that matter – are all fucked up. Joy (Shirley Henderson – Jane Adams in “Happiness”) is the “innocent” and “good natured” Joy who in reality does nothing but hurt people. She’s so dumb and “good natured” to realize what she’s actually doing.

While Joy married Allen, who has the most radical transformation between the frumpy Phillip Seymour Hoffman from “Happiness” to Michael K. Williams a scared black gangbangerish creeper in the new film, she has frequent visits from the deceased Andy (Paul Reubens – Jon Lovitz in “Happiness”) who had killed himself because Joy broke his heart.

Andy is very gentle at first, as Joy tells him how guilty she feels, how horrible she feels for breaking his heart – and then when Andy asks if she’d like to try again, she coldly shuts him down by insulting him and demeaning him.

Trish (Allison Janey – Cynthia Stevenson in “Happiness”) is struggling to find normality while she raises Timmy and Billy (who is off at college now) on her own, while her husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds – Dylan Walsh in “Happiness”) is just being released from prison for sexually molesting one of Billy’s friends when they were young boys.

Trish has begun dating Harvey Wiener (Michael Lerner – and yes, the name makes me laugh), who is a divorcee and as Trish calls him, “normal”. They’re relationship grows, but as Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) questions Trish more about his father – things become confused with Timmy and he assumes the role of man of the house.

Helen (Ally Sheedy – Lara Flynn Boyle in “Happiness”) is an introverted, alcoholic screen writer that is still a snide bitch, and very paranoid by her surroundings. Joy has always looked up to Helen, and always sought out her advice – which makes sense since Joy is just as snide and introverted.

While all these actors (minus Michael Learner and Charlotte Rampling) are playing characters that have already been established, they bring their own to the role they’ve assumed. Aside from Allen being the most drastic transformation I felt that Ciaran Hinds take on Bill was much different from Dylan Walsh’s.

While the character of Bill is a child rapist, when Walsh played him he wasn’t menacing, and you somehow found a way to like him. With Hinds’ performance, I do “like” his character, but he is more menacing – particularly due to his physical appearance.

This film isn’t as visually disturbing as “Happiness”, it still is disturbing. Many events in the film are as uncomfortable as ever, but you still find away to laugh. Whether it be disbelieve in the events on screen, or a simple dialogue exchange Solondz has impeccable humor and comedic timing that he brings to his screenplays.

If you can decode the film enough, it’s a very interesting look at the human condition, and how forgiveness is a very powerful tool, and how we are all so misunderstood and so misguided through life. This film is not for everyone and for that matter; Todd Solondz’s films in general are not for everyone. While the ending of the first film had an almost heartwarming feel to it, Solondz pulls the rug from under our feet in “Life During Wartime” and breaks our hearts. Well, at least he broke mine. This is one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 9.5/10

“True Grit” – 2010. Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

With Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper, with Matt Damon and Josh Brolin

“What do you plan to do?”

“I aim to kill you in a minute.”

I’ve been exposed to John Wayne more than most of my generation. My Dad is obsessed with John Wayne, and I grew up watching “The Searchers”, “Red River”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, “Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Shootist”, “Rio Grand” and “True Grit”. “True Grit” was the film Wayne won his sole Best Actor Oscar, creating much fuss since Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were both nominated for “Midnight Cowboy”.

Anyone who considers “True Grit” a classic Wayne film is an idiot. The original “True Grit” is a bad film. Wayne is solid in it (though he did not deserve his Oscar for that film – it was a “career” Oscar). The supporting players of Glen Campbell who plays La Boeuf (Matt Damon in the current film) and Kim Darby who plays Mattie (played by Hailee Steifeld in the new film) are fucking terrible. So terrible they ruin the movie. The original is just a terrible, terrible film.

The new version of “True Grit” by Joel and Ethan Coen is their new masterpiece. Jeff Bridges plays our U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn who is an alcoholic, shoot first and ask questions later bad ass. New comer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, whose father is killed by ranch hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and Mattie enlists Cogburn to track Chaney down, and bring him to justice.

Matt Damon plays Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who has been on Chaney’s trail all the way from Texas (the film takes plays in Arkansas). Together Mattie, LaBoeuf and Cogburn trek into apache territory to bring back Chaney who they believe is running with a gang of bandits lead by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

The Coen Brothers deliver us another instant classic. They’ve flirted with making a western before, with their western noir films like “Raising Arizona”, “No Country for Old Men” and “Blood Simple”. This is a western that would have made John Ford and John Huston proud. This film stacks up against “Tombstone” and “Unforgiven” and is better than both of them, this film is great.

Aside from this seeming like a generic western, the Coen Brothers create this almost haunting “backwoods” western. It feels rough, looks rough – and isn’t very settling. It’s not a Hollywood western – it feels authentic.

Hailee Steinfeld is astounding in the film. She dominates the screen, and when she’s toe to toe with Bridges, or Damon, or Brolin – she holds her own, and holds her own well. She gives a command performance that needs to be recognized. She seems to be picking up steam in the Best Supporting Actress category, but she is the clear lead in the film. All the other characters are supporting to her because the story of “True Grit” is about Mattie, not Cogburn. She should really win Best Actress, but I doubt it’ll happen.

The role of Mattie Ross requires a performance of the highest caliber. She’s a strong and very independent girl. She is the heart and soul of the film. I almost think that this is a role that Ellen Page would have lobbied for really, really hard (if she did play the part of Mattie, it would make me hate such a perfect film).

Matt Damon gives a quality performance, and while it’s not his “best” performance it might just be my favorite. I like the fact that Damon is an A list star, and can pick and choose his roles – but he decided to take a backseat to Steinfeld and Bridges, that shows a plethora of character of Damon.

Barry Pepper portrays “Lucky” Ned Pepper, who Robert Duvall played in the original film. I’ve never liked when actors do impressions. Even when they play the same character in a franchise – notably DeNiro/Brando in the Godfather films, I think DeNiro made the role his own while showing homage to Brando – but I felt that Pepper does the best Robert Duvall impression I’ve ever seen, and he rocked the role.

Josh Brolin gives a standout backseat performance in this film, he’s such a remarkable actor. He gives a reserved and very surreal performance. He seems like a bumbling fool, but he hisses and sneers his lines of dialogue, its fun to watch. I can’t even believe that this is the same actor who played the “bad guy” in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” which came out a couple of months ago. I don’t know if Brolin is a method actor, but whatever method he does use works, and works incredibly well.

As for Jeff Bridges…

Okay look, if you know me, or frequent my blog, you all know that I have a bias for Jeff Bridges. I think he’s an incredible actor and one of the finest actors ever. But, I don’t let my bias get in the way of my thought process. The Dude is not my favorite Bridges performance, and I don’t think he should have won for “Crazy Heart”, Colin Firth should have for “A Single Man”.

This year it seems like Firth is going to win for “The King’s Speech”. I think Firth gives another incredible performance, and he’s amazing in “The King’s Speech”. But if he wins this year, I think he and Bridges should exchange Oscars, because Jeff Bridges gives the performance of the year. He is truly awe inspiring.

This really was a risky role for Bridges to take. First of all, he was playing a part that was made iconic by John Wayne, and the second was that he just got done playing a bloated over the hill cowboy in “Crazy Heart”. Not for one second does Bad Blake bleed into Rooster Cogburn. We watch Cogburn go through drunken stupors, sober up and even save the day. Bridges makes this role his own, with no help from anyone. Bridges is the fucking MAN!

The climactic shoot out at the end of the film literally had me tense and on the edge of my seat. I knew what was going to happen, I’d seen the original film many times, I knew what the story was, where it went and how it went, but I can’t tell you this enough, this film had sunken into me from the opening narration.

Rating: 9.5/10

“Black Swan” – 2010. Dir. Darren Aronofsky

With Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, with Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey.

“I was perfect…”

Coming from the pretty tame, “The Wrestler”, Darren Aronofsky is back doing what he does best; subjecting us to the dark side. His latest film stars Natalie Portman who has lead a very innocent and mundane life as a ballerina, who is in the new version of “Swan Lake” directed by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who had just fired his aging starlet Beth (Ryder) and brings in new talent Lily (Kunis). Thomas taps Nina (Portman) to play the Swan Queen, and the Black Swan. As Nina is pushed and pulled by her director Thomas and her mother Erica (Hershey) she begins to let go of her perfect innocence and discovers her dark side.

Watching Nina embrace her dark side is a beautifully painful showcase to witness. She tries to run from it, tries to make it stop, but she can’t. She’s lived the sweet and innocent life at the demand of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). She lives in a “princess room”, painted white and pink, and littered with teddy bears and unicorns. Her room, the bathroom – or for that matter any other room in the house (other than the tripled bolted front door) have no locks on them. When Nina needs privacy in the bathroom, she moves over the hamper that her 100lbs body can move against the door.


Her transformation starts at the pressuring and guidance of Leroy (Cassel), who demands Nina to unleash the black swan. Cassel is so good in this film, he’s a predator that lurks in the distance, and when he strikes, he strikes hard and strikes fast. He has piercing eyes, and a sharp jaw and a small mouth. When he delivers his lines of dialogue, he snips and snaps them. He is in complete control, and he knows it.

There is a scene later on in the film where Leroy has Nina over at his apartment. He tells her that they need to have a very close relationship, a very close bond – he begins asking her about her personal life and than her sex life and asks her to do homework and masturbate, to “unleash”. Leroy verbally molests her in this scene, and it’s terrifyingly erotic to witness.


Natalie Portman gives one of the finest performances that I’ve ever seen. She gives an incredibly fragile and vulnerable performance. She’s the most delicate flower that I’ve ever seen, she’s been afflicted by her mother, and she’s being controlled by her director while exploring and reluctantly embracing her dark side.

You can’t help but love Nina. Seriously, you fall in love with her; watching her sit on the subway, cautiously minding her own business as she listens to her iPod, she softly graces the earlier frames of the film with much perfection and much poise. You can’t help but ache for her, as she is subtly degraded and humiliated by Vincent Cassel (who gives a bold performance – he’s such a fine actor).


Nina is such an incredible character. She is so sweet and harmless, but as her black swan grows – you become terrified of her. I can’t even imagine the emotional toll this took on Portman. Her black swan is awakened mainly through sexuality, mainly from Cassel, but with a lot of help from Lily (Mila Kunis) who share a soon to be infamous sex scene. Yes it’s erotic, and yes – it’s creepy.

Aronofsky has made one of the finest films that I have seen in a long, long time. While this film is hard to enjoy, you can’t help but marvel over what a tour-de-force this film is. This film grabs you from the beginning, and once the credits roll and the third act is accomplished, this film will leave a scar on your soul. It was perfect…


Rating: 10/10


Deep Cuts: “Naked Lunch” – 1991. Dir. David Cronenberg

With Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider

“What do you mean – “it’s a literary high?””

“It’s a Kafka high, you feel like a bug.”

 

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) is an exterminator whose “bug powder” also acts as a hallucinogenic drug that is becoming extremely rare and in demand. Lee’s wife Joan (Judy Davis) has become addicted, and has been skimming Lee’s bug powder from him, causing him to get in trouble at work, and causing his work to report him to the police. Lee gets arrested and he’s left in an interrogation room with a bug that begins to talk to him, the bug tells Lee that he’s a secret agent and a writer, and that he needs to get to “Interzone”.

I am a big fan of David Cronenberg, and due to the fact that Barnes and Noble was doing their 50% off Criterion Collection sale, I picked up “Naked Lunch” and watched last night. As a body of work, I think that Cronenberg has made very good films, and I think he’s a very good auteur – but as for “Naked Lunch”, it’s Cronenberg’s masterpiece.


This comes from the “unfilmable” novel by William S. Burroughs, and much of what takes place in the film took place in Burrough’s life. There is a scene early on in the film, where Lee tells his wife it’s time for the old William Tell trick. Joan puts a glass on top of her head, and Lee pulls out a pistol to shoot the glass off. Lee pulls the trigger and shoots Joan in the forehead – this event happened to Burroughs’ while he was living in Mexico and he fled to the United States – in the film Lee fleas to “Interzone”.

This film is built around paranoia and mystery, it’s very incoherent with its flow and intention and the film is the perfect metaphor about the writing process. As Lee dives further into the underground world of drugs and being a secret agent Cronenberg builds the paranoia which at times feel sort of Polanski-esq.


I’ve always felt that Cronenberg’s themes to his films is a central character that has to lead a dual life (whether he wants too or not), and from that dual life comes a lot of repercussions and struggles. In “Naked Lunch” Bill Lee deals with the dual life of first being an exterminator and second being this secret agent/writer.

Peter Weller is amazing in this film. I’ve always liked him since “Robocop”, and his stint on this season of “Dexter” displays the range he has as an actor. He brings this Humphrey Bogart style domineer and perspective to the role of Bill Lee. This is a character that we’ve seen before, but Weller puts his own unique style and brand on it. Weller is slowly making his way to becoming one of my favorite actors.


Roy Scheider (who I heart) plays Dr. Benway who Bill Lee goes to for help for his addiction to bug powder. Scheider has limited screen time but he is incredibly precise and effective in his small roll that should have earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

The film is a remarkable homage to pulp fiction. The set décor, consumes and especially the music are all musings of a film noir, and that era of film. The film feels a lot like “Chinatown” because it’s a merging of film and neo noir. As to where many feel that “Chinatown” is a perfect film, I feel that “Naked Lunch” is a perfect film.

Exterminate all rational thought.

Rating: 10/10