It’s that time of year again where we make lists of movies we’ve seen and leave out the ones we haven’t but pretend like we saw those anyway.
Here’s a top five, since I can’t really commit to ten without having seen a lot of the movies now on awards lists.
5. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
I’ll never get this title right. It’s been the only roadblock to recommending the movie, though. Everything about it is impressive, and I’m not sure where to start. It’s about a girl who runs away from a cult and joins up with her older sister and her sister’s husband. She leaves one “family” for another, but can’t seem to reconcile what happened to her. There are flashbacks to her time at the “compound” which is actually a pretty legimate looking place you could hardly call a cult. It’s one of those “sustainable” places where people live off the land. Its leader is played by John Hawkes as a really tender villain. He will drug you, rape you, then sing you a song and try to make you fall in love with him. He seems like just the type of person who could start a cultish movement and get away with heinous sick, weird things that ruin other people’s lives.
This movie felt completely plausible and unpredictable. I can’t remember the last time I saw something that left me with so much anxiety about where it was heading. It felt like a really well done horror film.
It’s the debut of Elizabeth Olson, the third Olson sister, if you’re counting. It’s also the debut film for director Sean Durkin. Expect good things to come from both.
I also have a hard time comparing the film to any other. The closest genre I could compare it to would be the home-invasion thriller. But instead of a physical home invasion, it’s completely psychological.
4. THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN
Give Spielberg motion cap technology and about 170 million dollars, and he’ll do something amazing. When it comes to adventure films you can’t bet against the man. Here’s a high rollicking story filled with “derring-do” based on a comic almost no Americans have heard of. I knew of it when I was kid because there was a cartoon series on HBO, but obviously never picked up the comic books. No matter – it’s not a hard mythology to get behind. It’s about an intrepid red haired journalist and his dog. That’s really it. The rest is just adventure, adventure, and more adventure. I loved the epic sweep of this movie, taking us from place to place and doing it pretty smoothly. Even its flashbacks to swash-buckling pirates made total sense. I often hear the word “set piece” to describe action sequences in a movie. This movie is almost one giant set piece. Towards the end there’s a 3 minute set piece where the camera doesn’t cut away once. It’s painstakingly choreographed and perfectly executed, and it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve without mo-cap technology. Once you see that, you’ll understand what compelled Speilberg to finally embrace this technology. Because with The Beard, it has to be something special. And I think this is finally the movie that takes the technology to its highest level. It doesn’t hurt that the “uncanny valley” effect is gone here. Finally! No more dead doll eyes.
This is on a lot of best of lists and with good reason. Adapting books is hard. Adapting them when there’s no central main character can be especially hard. And when that book is about baseball statistics, what does that leave you with? This is a really compelling study about a game most of us love and some of us hate. I fall in the middle. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s like watching paint dry. A movie about baseball might be a turn off for you but fear not! This is about something bigger. It’s about the Davids of the world trying to outsmart the Goliaths, with less money.
I could see something like this getting a ton of awards around Oscar time. It seems like a perfect shoe-in for Best Screenplay, Best Film, Best Director. Who knows if that will happen. This is a pretty small movie playing its own version of moneyball against the bigger dramas this year.
I take that back. Apparently its budget was $50,000,000. You don’t put that kind of money into a movie about an Oakland A’s baseball manager. So they were definitely trying to swing for the awards fences. It’s kind of stupid they spent that much money on this, now that I think about it. That is some irony.
2. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I would have never expected this to be so good. If a movie has talking CGI monkeys I will never feel okay about its chances. But here was a talking CGI monkey movie where the characters make you feel sympathy for their cause. You end up siding with the monkeys, instead of the humans. In the past the monkeys have been the villains and the humans were the “lesser” species who had to fight to reclaim their future. But I like the direction this story took, which is the “origin” movie that eventually leads to all those sequels. This film is just creative and inventive enough to take the series in a completely new direction if they decide on doing that. And I’ll be on board the train.
1. THE DESCENDANTS
My favorite film of 2011. Granted there’s still a lot I haven’t seen, like Tree of Life, The Artist, and others.
And to be honest, I’ve never liked Alexander Payne’s movies. They were always crushingly depressing, even with their comedic undertones. Here, they are comedic overtones. Payne just seems to keep on getting better in the “is this a drama or is this a dark comedy” saga that he keeps playing out in each of his films.
The Descendants may be his bleakest yet in terms of subject matter, but it’s also his most realistic and I think least crushingly depressing. It’s the story of a man (George Clooney) who loses his wife to a boating accident (she’s in a coma) and is forced to take care of his two daughters. Then he learns his wife was cheating on him, and his feelings about her become incredibly confused.There’s also a subplot involving his stake in some Hawaiian land.
It’s not a comedy. But it’s honest, and that makes it okay for us to laugh in spite of all the strange and terrible things that plight this unique family. That is also what I really admired about the film. I felt like I was seeing a real family, not a movie family. For an example of a movie family, see the movie “Spanglish”.