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Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Best of 2011

The Top Films of 2011

When compiling a "best of the year list", I always have ten spots, but around 15-20 movies as some films fill multiple spots.  2011 has been a terrible year for mainstream films, with a few big surprises (Rise of the Planet of the ApesX-Men: First Class), but one of the best in a while for indies.  I have seen 75 releases so far, but the reason why so many of them end up on my list is because I only try to see those that are well-received, as I do not have the time or money to blow on the garbage.  So, without further ado, here are my top films of the year:

1.  The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius) - The Artist is the best film I have seen in years for so many reasons.  It is incredibly clever, has some great performances, and it is SILENT!!!  Director Hazanavicius has done his homework as he nails every aspect of silent filmmaking from the 4:3 aspect ratio to the credits over a shaky background to the camera angles.  The Artist may very well be the Best Picture Oscar-winner of 2011 and would truly be a worthy winner.

1. A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi) - One of the biggest surprises of the year,  the Iranian drama A Separation provoked the longest post-viewing discussion I've had in a while and is the one of the greatest films I have ever seen.  In the film, a woman wants to leave Iran for a better life for her daughter while her husband wants to stay to care for his father with Alzheimer's.  This causes the woman to want a divorce and that part of the story isn't even the half of it.  Nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, A Separation deserves both, hands down.  The characters are complex, as is the story, and writer/director/producer Asghar Farhadi makes a morally ambiguous and thrilling film out of humans being humans.  There are no governmental criticisms or religious overtones.  The film depicts modern-day Iran in a very different light than we get in the news.  Not everyone is a religious extremist out to nuke America.  The characters are everyday human beings and you will see people that you know in them.  Not one moment of this movie was boring, monotonous, or poorly acted.  In short, it was wall-to-wall perfection.

2.  Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese) - Hugo is a masterpiece by Scorsese and may very well be his best film. With this movie, Scorsese tells a wonderful story about a boy living in the walls of Paris' train station while still managing to throw in film history lessons.  With a bottomless budget and the best use of 3-D I have ever seen, Scorsese has triumphed again with this warm, wonderful gem.

3.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher) - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a completely unique vision of the novel of the same name by master director David Fincher (The Social NetworkSe7en).  By improving on both its source material and its Swedish predecessor and meeting my impossibly high expectations, this movie has accomplished a large feat.  Rooney Mara's performance is one of the top few that I have seen all year.

3. 50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine) - 50/50 is the story of a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets cancer and tries to beat it with the help of his friend (Seth Rogan). This movie really moved me with it's mix of searing honesty and laugh-out-loud humor. This movie never is disrespectful in it's blend of drama and humor and is elevated by amazing performances.

4. War Horse (Dir. Steven Spielberg) - War Horse is Steven Spielberg's homage to the past masters and melodramas and is beautiful.  The cinematography is superb and the battle scenes are incredibly realistic.  What really stood out to me is the anti-war message that the film conveyed.  Yes, we have all heard the story and seen it and its message before, but with Steven Spielberg rendering it via this drama, it is okay to see and hear it again.

4.  Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin) - Martha Marcy May Marlene is a gripping psychological thriller that is also the feature film debut of director Sean Durkin.  It follows a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen in a dynamite performance) who, after escaping from a cult, becomes increasingly paranoid that they are following her.  It is a smartly scripted, beautifully photographed film that impressed me from start to finish.

5. Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill) - Another Earth is a little-known drama about a young woman who, after killing an entire family (save for a man) in a car crash, decides to help out the man after another earth appears in the sky.  Made for $250,000, this movie really packs an emotional impact with its symbolism, gritty realism, and message.  I was floored after finishing this gem, as the ending left me speechless.

5.  Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris) - Tabloid follows Joyce McKinney, a woman who caused a scandal in the 1970s.  That is all that I'm going to tell you because if I told you more, I would be doing you a grave disservice.  Also, do not read any synopsis or look up McKinney as it would ruin much of the fun.  Tabloid was one of the most bizarre documentaries that I have ever seen and also one of the most entertaining.  Told entirely through interviews, Tabloid tells a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the insanity.
6.  Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier) - After director Lars von Trier's disastrous Cannes press conference that led to his being labeled a "persona non grata", it is a miracle that this movie survived.  It won Kirsten Dunst the Best Actress award at Cannes, and follows a depressed bride (Dunst) and her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) during the last few days before a rogue planet, Melancholia, crashes into Earth.  This movie is the most beautiful of the year and is also thought-provoking and heartbreaking.  The acting is phenomenal and it also features the year's best sequence: its prologue of the destruction of Earth set to Wagner's prelude to Tristen and Isolde.

6. The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar) - The Skin I Live In is the new film by Almodóvar and is kinky, disturbing, but thought-provoking fun. It tells the story of a plastic surgeon whose wife was burned in a car crash and how he tries to make an indestructible skin. He also keeps a woman in his basement as his prisoner/patient. This movie features Almodóvar's signature melodramatic twists and plot elements combined with sex and murder. It also features an especially interesting twist that makes this movie brilliant and gives the movie a whole new meaning. Antonio Banderas and Elana Anaya as doctor and patient/prisoner are excellent. 

6. The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne) - The Descendants is the first film in 7 years by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and it is about a Hawaiian land baron, Matt King (George Clooney), who tries to keep his family together after his wife falls into a coma.  This movie has everything from laughs to tears, and whatever is in between.  It deftly balances, like 50/50, its emotional moments and its humorous ones and is also a story that many will be able to relate to.  What elevates this movie above most others is the acting and the writing.  Clooney gives a stipped-down and emotionally raw performance.  He is not the fast-talking Michael Clayton of Michael Clayton or the charming Ryan Bingham of Up in the Air.  This could be Oscar gold.  The rest of the cast also give the movie their best effort and succeed.  The script is crisp and kept me guessing all of the way.  The attention to detail, though, is really astounding as the screenwriters incorporate Hawaiian cultural aspects and one particularly moving scene towards the end (I will not tell you what happens for fear that the impact will be lessened) that moved me to tears and adds significant depth.  The Descendants is a must-see for anyone and will surely be honored come Oscar night.

7. Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols) - Take Shelter is director Jeff Nichols' sophomore feature film that won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a thought-provoking drama with a powerful performance by Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon who plays Curtis LaForche, a man who builds a storm shelter in his backyard after having visions of apocalyptic storms.  Jessica Chastain plays his wife.  The question behind the movie is whether Curtis is crazy, or the rest of the world is for not listening to him.  Throughout the film, I was riveted watching Shannon and Chastain act up a storm (no pun intended) and thinking about the insights this movie lends to present-day society.  This film will most likely get no Oscar nominations (although it definitely deserves some), but do not dismiss it when it is released on DVD, it is fascinating.

8. Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) - Winner of the Best Director Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Drive is a unique thriller that follows an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who drives getaway cars at night.  Featuring an '80s Europop soundtrack and a very distinct filming style, Drive is a thrill to watch from beginning to end.  However, this is not a Fast and Furious movie.  It is extremely violent, but it does not have wall-to-wall action and car chases.  The few car chases that it does have are played very quietly which make this movie a breath of fresh air.  This is Ryan Gosling's performance of the year as he plays Driver with a quiet intensity and relatively few words.  Overall, Drive is unlike any movie I have ever seen, and will not be for everyone, but those who give it a chance will be amply rewarded. 

8. Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen) - Twenty-three-time Oscar-nominee Woody Allen has always been one of my favorite directors, but recently his films have not been up to par with those of his past work.  However, with Midnight in Paris, he is back.  Allen tells the story of Gil (Owen Wilson), a writer who, while on vacation with his fiancé (Rachel McAdams), gets swept off at midnight to go to 1920s Paris, the place of his dreams.  The magic flows throughout this movie and the cast is excellent, especially Owen Wilson channeling the whiny nebbish of Woody Allen while still injecting some of his charm and charisma into the role.  Allen throws some clever side jokes into the movie and never loses sight of the message that he is trying to convey.  Midnight in Paris is Allen's highest-grossing movie to date and ran at the theater for nearly seven months.  It is a truly magic movie that hopefully will mark the restart of a chain of excellent Woody Allen movies and absolutely deserves a place on my top 10 of the year.

9. Like Crazy (Dir. Drake Doremus) - Winner of the Sundance Film Festival Dramatic Grand Prize and the Dramatic Grand Prize for Acting (for Felicity Jones), Like Crazy is the a refreshingly honest romance movie.  It follows two college students, Jacob and Anna (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, respectively), as they fall in love.  However, Anna's student visa runs out, and she has to return to England, so the two try to do whatever it takes to stay together.  Shot on a $250,000 budget and almost completely improvised, this movie, like The Descendants, has moments that are beautifully done and emphasize the emotions without words.  This movie is like 2011s Blue Valentine, but less grueling, and is was a satisfying, realistic viewing experience.

10. Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen) - Shame is one of the most provocative (it is rated NC-17) and ambitious of the year depicting what happens when a sex-addict's (Michael Fassbender) self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him.  With a unique approach to the material, a phenomenal performance by Michael Fassbender, and scenes that will haunt you for months afterwards, Shame is a beautiful and different look at a very taboo subject.

Honorable Mention (HM): A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg) - A Dangerous Method is a large departure from the usual Cronenberg films as it depicts the deterioration of the professional relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen in a career-best performance) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) over a mentally disturbed patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly).  It is a smart, well-acted, and well-written movie that may be too dry for those not interested in the psychologists.  I, however, am fascinated by 
them and was delighted to see these giants portrayed onscreen.  

HM: The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick) - Possibly the most polarizing film of 2011, Cannes Palm d'Or-winner The Tree of Life is either a beautiful and meditative view on life, the universe, and everything else, or a pretentious bore.  I found it to be the former.  Featuring gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and a powerful performance by Brad Pitt, this movie was challenging and, ultimately, very rewarding.

HM: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (Dir. David Yates) - I have always been a fan of the Harry Potter series, but have never loved any of the movies for many reasons which I will not discuss now.  However, with this final chapter in the series, director Yates and the entire cast have hit it out of the park.  This part has great acting, a fast pace, gorgeous visuals, and an emotionally resonant finale.  Bravo to everyone involved who has stayed with this series since 2001.   

HM. Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) - Jane Eyre is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel of the same name.  It stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and is a harsh new vision of the story.  What sets this movie apart from other period pieces is that it is not glamorous and shows what life in England was probably like in the early 19th Century.  Wasikowska and Fassbender are both great in their roles and Moira Buffini's script is crisp and quickly-paced.  Overall, what could have been a dry, big 
period piece turned out to be an electrifying film full of life with a unique take on a classic novel.

Monday, January 23, 2012

2011 Films Viewed

I mentioned yesterday that my Best of 2011 post was coming this weekend.  In order for you all to see the films that I chose from, you can see below all of the films that I have viewed from 2011.
What did you see in 2011?  Post comments below.

Cedar Rapids ***1/2
Source Code ***1/2
Win Win ***1/2
Hop **
Hobo With a Shotgun ***
Fast Five ***
Bridesmaids ***1/2
Cave of Forgotten Dreams *1/2
The Double Hour ***1/2
Midnight in Paris ****
Kung Fu Panda 2 **1/2
X-Men: First Class ***1/2
The Tree of Life ****
Super 8 **1/2
Horrible Bosses *1/2
Transformers: Dark of the Moon**1/2
TrollHunter **1/2
Crazy, Stupid, Love. ***
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ****
Tabloid ****
Rango ***1/2
The Guard ***
Beginners ***
Cowboys and Aliens **
The Devil's Double ***1/2
Rise of the Planet of the Apes ***1/2
Captain America: The First Avenger***
The Whistleblower ***
Friends With Benefits ***
Jane Eyre ****
Point Blank ***1/2
Our Idiot Brother ***1/2
Contagion ***
Warrior ***1/2
Drive ****
The Debt ***
Senna ***1/2
Moneyball ***1/2
50/50 ****
Sucker Punch *1/2
Melancholia ****
Take Shelter ****
The Ides of March ***
The Descendants ****
The Artist ****
The Skin I Live In ****
Paranormal Activity 3 *
Martha Marcy May Marlene ****
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil **1/2
Sleeping Beauty ***1/2
Puss in Boots ***
Like Crazy ****
Tower Heist *1/2
Immortals ***
My Week With Marilyn ***1/2
A Serbian Film ****
The Muppets ***
Hugo ****
Shame ****
J. Edgar **
Young Adult ****
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol ***1/2
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy **
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ****
Another Earth ****
Bellflower 0 stars
Margin Call ***1/2
Attack the Block ****
Submarine ***
War Horse ****
The Adventures of Tintin **1/2
A Dangerous Method ****
Carnage ***1/2
Pina ***1/2
A Separation ****
A Better Life ***1/2
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ***1/2
The Iron Lady **
Albert Nobbs ***
The Help ***
In Darkness ****

Carnage Review

Carnage Review
2011, 79 minutes
Rated R for language

Carnage takes place in one apartment with four actors and no physical carnage and is ten times more interesting and original than Haywire, a globe-trotting action movie with a large A-list cast and lots of physical carnage.  Polanski's Carnage stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly and follows two couples, Foster and Reilly; Winslet and Waltz, who bicker after a dispute between their sons.  The movie is very good in many respects, but has a few minor problems.  The greatest strength of the movie is the acting.  Foster and Reilly stand out, though there is no weak link.  Foster plays a upper-class liberal über-involved mother whose snide comments cause trouble.  She clearly has fun in her role and adds some great touches.  However, on some occasions, she takes the role too far and overacts.  However, this does not detract much from the character.

Reilly plays her husband, a sweet man who tries to mediate the conversations and keep the peace.  In this role, Reilly is quiet, which is unusual for him because after showing up in Cedar Rapids in hilarious, over-the-top fashion, it is nice to see this side of him.  Reilly is becoming more of a serious actor appearing in films such as this and We Need to Talk About Kevin, as opposed to when he works with Will Ferrell.

Winslet is also very good in her role as a nice, even-tempered woman...until she gets a few drinks in her.  Waltz plays her detached, cellphone-addicted husband and pulls off a very good American accent.

Polanski and Reza's screenplay is sharp, keeping true to the play.  The gradual decline of manners in the characters is carefully shown and the alliances that the characters make with each other shifts throughout the course of the movie.  By the end, Polanski and Reza show, the adults are just as bad as the kids bickering about petty issues.  Though the bickering gets to be too much after a while, it is certainly never boring.

Polanski's direction is very tight keeping the one-apartment action always interesting and always choosing the right camera angle.  Polanski's camerawork is the perfect match for the claustrophobic setting as he really made me feel uncomfortable during the opening scenes when the couples try to make small talk.  I felt what the characters felt during the beginning.  As things gradually fall apart, the structure of the film loosens releasing the tension and making me feel at ease and tired of the characters as they were of each other.

Overall, Carnage is not a perfect film, but entertaining and well-acted nonetheless.  I would absolutely recommend that you see this if you want a short, snappy, and smart comedy.  Do not see this if you are expecting a raunchy, dumb comedy or don't want to think about the film afterwards.  I would definitely see this movie again once it is released on DVD.

-Joshua Handler

The Adventures of Tintin Quick Review

The Adventures of Tintin Quick Review
2011, 107 minutes
Rated PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking

The Adventures of Tintin is the other Steven Spielberg movie based on the classic comic by Hergé.  With an all-star cast, Peter Jackson producing, three great writers, and supposedly very good source material, this movie should have been better.  While not a bad movie, this movie misses greatness due to a lack of story.  The characters are thin and action replaces story.  The entire movie is complex action sequences that eventually grow tiring and bland.  It is too much of a good thing.  However, I will say, the climactic action centerpiece is spectacular. 

The motion-capture animation in the film is very realistic, but still has just the right amount of cartooniness.  John Williams' score is also solid.  I just wish that this movie had been more engaging and had more of a compelling story.  Like Haywire, it lacked spice, but this movie is way better than Haywire because it actually has reasons that make it semi-worth seeing.  

-Joshua Handler

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Hello Readers!

I know all of the other critics have been posting their top ten lists and I haven't.  I assure you it will come this upcoming weekend after I see A Separation, a film that has topped many top ten lists.  I have not seen such potential Oscar contenders as The HelpThe Iron Lady, Pariah, We Need to Talk About KevinAlbert Nobbs, and a few others, but I will see them within the next few weeks.  This week's screenings will be Act of Valor, Pina, and A Separation.  Thank you for the patience.


Haywire Quick Review

Haywire Quick Review
2012, 93 minutes
Rated R for some language

Haywire is the other new film by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Contagion) starring Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas.  It follows a Black Ops woman, Malory Kane (Carano), who, when betrayed, goes out for revenge.  Sounds interesting, right?  I was not expecting a great film, but I did expect a fun, action-packed thrill ride. I didn't get it.  This movie fails on nearly all levels, save for a nice score, and one great action scene towards the beginning.  Carano is a phenomenal martial artist, but she does not match that in the acting department.  Even Fassbender and the supporting cast don't deliver.  The script is poorly-written and is not original.  I don't always need originality, but this one literally adds nothing to the genre.  The action scenes, which are not exciting, have no music during them, making them bland.  Even the ending of the film and the reason for betrayal is dumb and uninteresting.  Overall, this film felt like an Indian dish without the curry: a base with no spice.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Margin Call Quick Review

Margin Call Quick Review
2011, 107 minutes
Rated R for language

Margin Call is an interesting, efficient, and smart feature film debut by J.C. Chandor that has an all-star cast including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy irons, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and many others.  It follows a law firm on the eve of the 2008 financial meltdown.  The pacing on the movie is tight, the acting from all is excellent, and the movie is never boring.  Though Margin Call is filled with recognizable actors, they feel right in their roles.  This is a good movie to simply sit down and watch if you want a solid piece of entertainment.  The only flaw of this movie, and it is a minor one, is that the film does not have a punch, but maybe it does not intend to.  Watch for writer/director J.C. Chandor because he can write a mean, lean, and intelligent film that anyone can watch and understand.  

-Joshua Handler