Best of ’11

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.

3. MONEYBALL

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”.

Advertisements

Seeing things in a bad light

SUPER 8



A big reason we have darker projection today is because of 3D.  Here you’ll see exactly what to look for so you can avoid making the mistake of seeing a film that’s too dark.

Roger Ebert advises that if it happens you should ask for a refund.

This is in theory very strong advice. But in reality it’s much harder to do, especially when you are on a date. Date night films usually come on the heels of having a nice dinner somewhere. Then you lift up those arm rests, cozy up together, and try not to move too much for the next couple of hours.

Asking for a refund and leaving–which is a two part combination of raising your voice at the manager, then walking away–is more hassle than it’s worth. Even if your refund is in the same theater.

Your date will think you are inconsiderate, and a total a-hole.

So I waited until after the movie to complain. When I approached the manager, who I noticed looked too young to be managing anything, I asked him (calmly, respectfully) why the picture was a tad darker than usual. Knowing the answer ahead of time helps in these kinds of situations. It provides you with a tactical advantage, if he happens to give you a bullshit answer.

“Maybe that’s just the way they shot it,” he said.

My bullshit detection light turned on. I almost told him that it made perfect sense; the filmmakers spent $50-80 million dollars to make it look dark. Of course!

I had to check his badge again, just to verify that it was still the manager in front of me.

“I think it’s because of the 3D projector,” I replied.

“It’s not in 3D.”

“I know, but it’s still a Sony 3D projector you’re using. Haven’t you had any other complaints?”

“Nope. You’re the first one.”

Translation: I’m the crazy one.

I wanted to tell him this was the film’s opening day. It would be reasonable to assume I was the first to complain. But based on his reaction it seemed very clear he didn’t have a clue about my complaint. And what’s worse, he didn’t think it was interesting enough to check for himself. He just stood there, as if he had better things to be doing.

But I looked back at the exit doors, where my date was standing, and didn’t want to stretch her patience any further.  I turned back to the manager and thanked him for his time and left.

The next day, I saw the film again, in a theater I knew had better projection. Instead of feeling vindicated, I was bummed out. Why of all movies did I go see this one again? I never see movies twice in theaters. All of the little flaws of the film seemed to grow bigger. I knew Abrams was no Spielberg but this confirmed it.

There are brighter days at the theater ahead, but at ones that boast about their look and sound. The costs of a ticket are too expensive to take any risks. If the drive is ten minutes longer so be it.

Oscar predictions

The Oscars are this Sunday. I’ve played the voting game on Mubi, competing for $100,000. If you get them all right, you split the winnings with everyone else who gets them right.

So here’s my breakdown:

Actor in a Supporting Role – GEOFFREY RUSH, KING’S SPEECH

Actress in a Supporting Role – HELENA BONHAM CARTER, KING’S SPEECH

Adapted Screenplay – THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Original Screenplay – THE KING’S SPEECH

Original score for a Motion Picture – THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Original song for a Motion Picture – TOY STORY 3

Best Animated Film: TOY STORY 3

Art Direction: KING’S SPEECH

Cinematography: TRUE GRIT

Costume Design: KING’S SPEECH

Makeup: WOLFMAN

Sound Editing: INCEPTION

Sound Mixing: SOCIAL NETWORK

Visual Effects: INCEPTION

Best Documentary Feature: INSIDE JOB

Best Documentary Short: KILLING IN THE NAME

Best Film Editing: SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Foreign Film: BUITIFUL

Best Animated Short: DAY & NIGHT

Best Live Action Short: THE CONFESSION

Achievement in Directing: TOM HOOPER, KING’S SPEECH

Lead Actress: MICHELLE WILLIAMS, BLUE VALENTINE

Lead Actor: COLIN FIRTH, KING’S SPEECH

Best Motion Picture: KING’S SPEECH

I’m predicting a King’s Speech night. I think it helps if the Queen of England endorses the film.

A look back, part 2

TOP SEVEN UNDERRATED FILMS OF THE YEAR

Now that we have the top seven overrated films going into awards season, let’s look at the top 7 underrated performers. These are films I think deserve more consideration than they will probably get, especially once they hit Netflix, and the last remaining Blockbusters.

1) GOING THE DISTANCE – I don’t expect a lot from RomComs, especially when they star Justin Long. He’ll always be the “Apple Guy” to me, but here he finds himself in good company with co-star Drew Barrymore. Together they have a funny chemistry, and any relationship that begins in front of an old arcade machine gets a few extra points for originality. It also chronicles in more funny ways than I could imagine the painful parts of being in a long distance relationship.

2) FAIR GAME – Another political movie about the Bush administration? Yawn. Starring Sean Penn? Ohhh boy. I didn’t know who Valerie Plame was before I saw this, but you don’t need that information to enjoy what surprisingly flew under almost everybody’s radar, and which I will argue is one of the best political films in years. Penn plays who he usually plays – a leftist with an axe to grind. But he’s damn great at it. Naomi Watts has to elevate her game too, and together they show a marriage that’s tense but simultaneously respectful. The second half of the film really heats up and it becomes impossible to tear your eyes away.

3) EDGE OF DARKNESS – Mel Gibson’s return to the big screen after his long hiatus was not noticeable here. Gibson plays who he usually plays – a father with an axe to grind. One of my favorite scenes is a quiet one, where he shaves his face and pretends he’s talking to his daughter (who in the story is missing). Whenever I shave, that scene still comes to mind. Gibson is great when he’s going nuts, and he’s great when he’s just standing there in front of the mirror.

4) THE LAST EXORCISM – When it comes to endings, you either go big or go home. This movie goes big, and it’s not ashamed to do it. What starts as an interesting “faux” documentary about an exorcist helping a family turns into something so insanely retarded you can’t help but enjoy the ride. I like quiet, brooding scares in my movies. But after two hours of it, I’m ready to see some crazy shit. And this one delivers.

5) THE OTHER GUYS – This is one of those comedies you only need to see once to appreciate. I don’t like to gorge on Will Farrell, so once in awhile is good enough for me. Here he’s teamed up with Mark Wahlberg, who plays what he usually plays – a serious guy with an axe to grind. In this case, the axe is Will’s wife, played by the gorgeous Eva Mendes. This is a cop duo that works well, and I think it subverts enough of the conventions of the buddy cop comedy to feel like an original lampoon. Some criticized the film for following the conventions too closely, which made it less funny. Watch the opening scene with Sam Jackson and Dwayne Johnson and tell me there’s anything conventional about that.

6) EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – I was convinced this would get nominated for “best documentary” at the Oscars, and it still may. But the likelihood is not good, for reasons I don’t really know. I have heard this entire documentary was a completely made up account for the benefit of making a story that never existed in the first place. That could be the truth, and if it is, I fell for it hook, line and sinker the way Ebert fell for “I’m Not Here” or whatever that movie was about the actor turned rap star (I never saw it). But “Exit” does something amazing. It flips the script on us. About halfway through, it’s not a movie about a French graffiti artist anymore. It’s about what an asshole the guy is. Really entertaining, and even if it is completely fictional, who can fault Banksy for making something so enjoyable?

7) SHUTTER ISLAND – Some audiences didn’t like the twist. It was too telegraphed, they thought. And the first time I saw it, I called it even before Leo got off his boat. That being said, it’s not the twist that makes this so compelling and rich. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the originality. It’s the film history it wears on its sleeves. This was the film that motivated me to start this blog, which ultimately gave me the chance to become a professional film critic. I owe a lot to this movie. I really think it’s one of the best films of the decade, and I don’t believe anybody would really give it that much credit. So here I am, giving it its due.

***

There are always films I never get to see. “Enter the Void” is one of those that I do believe may have gotten onto this list. Something tells me “MacGruber” may have also landed here. It’s tough to really predict. And there are still plenty of “2010” films that have not been domestically released yet, so I can’t in good faith put them here and I can’t wait until February 2011 before I make these lists, either.

A look back

TOP SEVEN OVERRATED FILMS OF THE YEAR

It’s important to reflect on the year’s films and recognize the best ones. But usually that’s what the Oscars are for. I don’t always agree with the Oscars, and so it’s good to usually reserve lists like these until they recognize “the best” films of the year.

But a lot of good films won’t make it. And a lot of overhyped films will.

Here are seven.

1) INCEPTION – Lauded for its brilliant and effortless looking dream-within-a-dream structure, this film fails to impress upon reflection of its own logic. For instance, in a dream you can wake up if you commit suicide or die. Therefore death is not the worst case scenario. It’s limbo. But what happens when you die in limbo? The same thing that happens when you die in a dream. Apparently it’s more difficult to get out of limbo because it feels like reality. If building a city out of your memory is what constitutes reality. Here we have a third act shackled by inept “rules” of how dreams are supposed to work, and the arbitrary reasons you can’t leave them. The solutions presented to all these problems are created just as arbitrarily, manufactured for the sake of the plot. The stakes therefore, fail to draw our interest. And the action sequences look borrowed out of a badly generic James Bond movie.

2) WINTER’S BONE – It’s an authentic look at the Ozarks, through the point of a view of a girl who is searching for her meth-dealing father. This isn’t a bright, happy time at the movies. It’s a claustrophobic story caged in by its own preoccupation with its own “reality” that under more suited hands might actually be fun to watch. It ends with the girl finding a hand in a lake, something the Coen Brothers could probably make very entertaining. Great performances from newcomers, but the hype sent it to a place it never should have gone. It’s bleak and nothing worth seeing twice.

3) THE KILLER INSIDE ME – No person in his or her right mind could see a good crime film here. What I saw was an abuse of actors by a director who doesn’t know where the line of respectability is. Winterbottom should do a porn next.

4) SALT – Audiences were convinced of Angelina Jolie’s charm. They realized the grim truth after enduring “The Tourist”, but I found plenty of evidence here to suggest she shouldn’t be in any more action movies. Her adventurous spirit peaked with “Girl, Interrupted”. We thought it was acting. Turns out she’s really that crazy. If “Girl, Interrupted” were released today I don’t think anybody would see a breakthrough role. They’d see more of the same, which is what “Salt” was.

5) SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD – Fans of this movie probably enjoyed the comic book, too. That’s just a problem of seeing the forest from the trees. Here is one of the most prized geek films of 2010, and I think it should sit on the mantle next to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” or some other schlock. At its core, it’s about a lazy guy who doesn’t try to pick up the girl, it just sort of happens for him. Lots of effects, emphasizing visuals over story. Is this different from any other SFX heavy film? No. It’s just “based on a comic book” and caters to people like myself who played Super Mario growing up, so it’s off the hook. Not with me it’s not. Oh and the music sucks.

6) JACKASS 3D – At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the third installment of the beloved Jackass films. This is easily the worst of the lot, and I never expected it to make a run for the Oscars, and maybe it didn’t warrant any more scrutiny than it deserved, but I think the consensus here was that it was just another solid Jackass film. To me it felt like a lot of good stuff was left out. I doubt it’s in the upcoming Jackass 3.5. Rather I think it was an imagination breakdown. Tons of great skits were to be had, like the Midget fight in the bar. That was funny just to watch, and also funny on a conceptual level. Usually the Jackass team is good at combining heady funny with fart joke funny. This time out I just saw lots of ass and dick, and could have used more elaborate, thoughtful sketches.

7) UNSTOPPABLE – I have an idea. Get Denzel Washington the hell away from Tony Scott. Please! Every time I watch their films I feel like I’ve seen them before. It’s that feeling of deja vu (which may have been the only strong movie out of this tiresome duo). The editing and look pounds you over the head until you’re too dumb to notice it’s still happening. With their films they’ve been beating us with the tools and tricks for about 8 hours. Finally I think I understand what Andy Warhol was talking about. If I had the choice between Washington/Scott’s films, and that 8 hour New York skyline movie, I’d watch the one that doesn’t make me feel like jumping off the Empire State Building.

My favorite movie theater

Before I get down to the nasty business of talking about movies, let’s go visit one of my all-time favorite theaters. Usually theaters aren’t very memorable unless the seats are nice and they serve alcohol.

I’m attracted to the strange and unusual, and the surreal element of this theater makes it the #1 place to go see a movie.

It is outside of Boston, MA perched on a hill, elevated from the rest of the town below. I went on a cool autumn night so there wasn’t much light around. It’s surrounded by a lot of tall and dark spruces. There aren’t nearby shops so it feels isolated and removed.

Something about the idea of incorporating furniture into an Imax theater (or vice versa) was exciting to me. I could not wait to go in.

Looks like we’re in Bourbon Street.

You can’t have a pastiche of New Orleans without creepy life size mannequins all over the place.

There was a coat of fog in the air from the hidden smoke machines. Some faint jazz music drifted in the background.

Out of Bourbon Street and into the furniture showroom. Make no mistake about it, it’s the furniture that takes precedence over the theater. Most people were there to shop for couches.

The classic movie posters adorning the walls were a nice touch.

Those escalators take you up to the theater.

As you go up, both walls have cardboard cut outs of paparazzi taking pictures of you.  You’re hit with flashing lights and the feeling that you are a movie star at your own premiere.

Is it a bit hokey? Sure. But it’s real fun.

After we sat down the owner of Jordan’s appeared on the Imax screen to welcome us. He explained the seats we were in were called kick buckets. They KICK! during action sequences. We wore 3d glasses, but only for the previews. Then we took them off for the real movie. That’s just how they do things at Jordan’s.

Oh and one more thing….the owner of the theater looked a lot like this guy: