On our last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (episode #48, the one about Zombie Spielberg), William Bibbiani and I offered up our ten-best picks of the year. It was a fun episode, as our lists had few commonalities. We both listed The Tree of Life, and we both were much enamored of The Woman (which you should seriously seek out), but between the two of us, there were no more than four repeats. I think this reflects not only on our diverse tastes, but also speaks to the strength of 2011; there were no clear front-runners for the best film of the year. And while it’s nice to have a legitimate classic come around every once in a while, it can be kind of dull to constantly talk about, bring up, discuss, and analyze the single great film to come out of any given year. 2011 offered a great and diverse swath of films from around the world and across the genre spectrum. My own list included a Hollywood weepy like The Descendants, but also a British alien invasion flick Attack the Block. Each year, there’s going to be at least one oddball B-movie on my list. I came very close to listing the clunky and joyously trashy Drive Angry in my top 10.
Now here’s where I start making apologies in earnest. I am a film critic, and, as such, I see many, many films in any given year. This year, I saw over 100, which is most certainly above the national average. Some critics can see up to 300 new films in a year. And yet, despite our impressive track record, critics still manage to miss a good deal of films. Not just C-grade January releases either (I didn’t see The Rite, for instance, nor did I see the third Big Momma film), but some legitimately great awards-bait films. Bibbs listed Lynn Ramsay’s gut-wrenching family drama We Need to Talk About Kevin as the best film of the year, and it was one that I did not manage to see. I don’t doubt his claims, as I have seen Ramsay’s other two feature films to date (Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar), and loved them both. I can make excuses, and tell you tales about how it was only playing for a single week in one theater in Los Angeles, and how I was simply too busy with other jobs to make it on any of the seven nights it was playing, but I don’t want to bore you with the quotidian mechanics of a critic’s life.
Indeed, there were quite a large number of high-profile releases this year that, thanks to the usual interruptions of everyday life, that I didn’t get to see. Sure, I could talk eloquently about the smaller release Young Goethe in Love, but I have nary a peep to add to, say, New Year’s Eve.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will list here some of the films that I feel I ought to have seen in 2011, but didn’t. I will also offer a 100% unprofessional and insight-free commentary on each, and lay bare my ignorance of each of these films. Some of these films I’m glad I missed, but most I wish I could have gotten to. Mark my words, Bibbs and I will return in March, after the Awards season has died away in earnest, and we have (presumably) caught up on our viewing, and we will each offer up our amended Top 10 lists. Will that be “too late?” Is it ever too late to watch a great film?
I have not seen:
A DANGEROUS METHOD
David Cronenberg, the provocative and powerfully sexual Canadian director seems to jump back into his trademark twisted psychology with his portrait of the relationship between Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, and the woman who challenged them both. It looks to be more lurid than mannered, offering up multiple scenes of sexually explosive spanking. While I liked Cronenberg’s recent crime films Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, I prefer his earlier, edgier films (from about Videodrome to about Crash). Cronenberg often strayed into borderline surreal territory exploring the connection between mind and body, and how one can corrupt and mutate the other. He seems perfectly suited to a film about the sexual bouillabaisse created by Freud’s genital-obsessed theories. And, just to counter himself, he lets Jung talk about the more metaphysical concepts. Then there’s spanking.
The first high-profile film to receive an NC-17 rating in a few years, Steve McQueen’s Shame tells the tale of a quietly suffering sex addict, played by the steely and charming Michael Fassbender. Rather than putting him through any sort of typical melodramatic situation, McQueen, from what I have read, seems to dwell only on the mechanics of his sexual habits, and the gradual emotional nullification he intentionally puts himself through. I have read conflicting arguments on this one. Some say it’s a refreshingly adult film about how grown-ups deal with sex, and how physical intimacy can be wielded as a self-harming shield against real human connection. Others see it as high-falutin’ sexual finger-wagging and a quiet condemnation of any kind of sexual deviance (I know that the hero’s visit to a gay sex club is perhaps seen as a particularly dirty act). I cannot offer an argument either way. ‘Cause I still need to see the damn thing.
Another provocative film from the intentionally confrontational Lars Von Trier, Melancholia is structured as an elaborate and stylized end-of-the-world fantasy (a newly-discovered planet is found to be drifting toward Earth) which parallels the crippling depression being suffered by the film’s heroine, played by a much-hyped Kirsten Dunst. In his previous film, Antichrist, Von Trier plunged into the depths of the depressed mind with a hideously convincing anguish, replete with several scenes of extreme sexual violence, and a nihilistic message that left me aching. His newest seemed to take that anguish, but turn it into something more palatable, and less tinged with misogyny. Anything this ambitious is something I need to see. And I will. Someday.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Hollywood loves an ingénue. Oscar statuettes are often chucked enthusiastically at the person The Academy thinks will be The Next Big Thing. As a result, Gwyneth Paltrow has an Academy Award. The ingénue in question this year is either going to be the very good Shailene Woodley from The Descendants or the often-underrated Michelle Williams, who played Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. I can’t say from any perspective whether or not this film sheds any sort of important light on the Hollywood system, or how fame can corrupt a naïf, but I do want to see how Williams handles the mantle of such a notorious pop culture icon. I like Williams, and I have faith that she can, perhaps, turn Monroe into a relatable person. Or maybe not. Or maybe so. Oh why I don’t just see it already?
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, PART 1
This was one of the most financially successful films of the year, and seems to finally fulfill the sexual fantasies of scores of 13-year-old girls by finally allowing the impossibly handsome vampire Edward Cullen finally (and, from what I hear violently) bed his teenage paramour Bella Swan. Then there’s a dangerous pregnancy of some kind, which results in a scene of cannibalism that, from how I’ve heard it described, wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a Cronenberg film. It’s not my job to necessarily reflect the tastes of the mainstream, and this film looks – to be perfectly frank – kind of horrible, but, in order to at least feel kind of relevant, perhaps I should see some of the more popular claptrap that Hollywood has to offer, just so I can stay in the pop culture game. I have seen the first of the Twilight films, and found it to be dull, plodding, and a little too permissive in allowing teenage girls to indulge in impossible, death-laced romance fantasies. Despite the presence of director Bill Condon, I don’t really expect this fourth film to be any better. But, as I say, sometimes I feel like I need to be up on my sh*t.
Of Jason Reitman’s films, I think I liked his breakout, Thank You for Smoking, the best. I, like most critics, was fond of Juno, although I didn’t lose my head over it the way, say, Roger Ebert did. Screenwriter Diablo Cody seems to have a knack for exploring the teenage ethos, and how bitchy teenage girls can serve as demonic destroyers, and can only be combatted with wit and dismissal. This new film seems to be Cody and Reitman’s exploration of that wicked teenage girl all grown up. A film about arrested adolescence as explored through a sultry Charlize Theron? Sign me up. I do hope to make a comment. I have heard more than one critic (including Mr. Bibbiani) claim that it is empty and poorly-structure claptrap. Oh, to confirm or to deny that.
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS and INTO THE ABYSS
I love Werner Herzog. His insightful looks into the extremes of human consciousness have, even when they’re not entirely successful, been entirely fascinating. How is it that he released two films over the course of 2011, and I missed them both? I saw the remake of Fright Night, but not these. Sigh. Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores some often-closed millennia-old caverns depicting artwork made by human beings back when the species was still new. Into the Abyss is a quiet examination of men on death row in America. Herzog doesn’t make fluff. He will, with courage and forthright artistic integrity, solider through any number of extreme topics. I fully intend to catch up on these two. I feel bad for not supporting them in theaters when I had the chance. Herzog should be encouraged at every turn. The man’s a badass.
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Centuries too late, Albus Dumbledore came to the conclusion that Hogwarts sorts its students into houses at too early an age. After over a century of filmmaking I finally came to a similar conclusion: we write our Top Ten lists, already as arbitrary a practice as can be conceived, way too early, sometimes even before the end of the year. We don’t have enough perspective by that point to acknowledge which films have staying power, which withstand closer scrutiny, and which might be better or worse than originally perceived. As I’ve said before, time is the greatest critic of all. It decides for posterity which movies, books, comic books and so forth will have a lasting cultural and artistic impact. So picking out the best films of a year without a little time for context is folly, but it’s in my job description. I’m stuck with it.
Like Witney said, we’ll be back in March with our probably significantly updated lists. Last year I hesitantly called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World the best film of 2010 in late December, only to realize in March that the actual best film of the year – by far – was a sci-fi anime movie called Summer Wars, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). The film takes place in the near future, when the only major scientific development (that we don’t already have) has been in the field of social networking. Literally every aspect of our daily lives is connected to that Cloud everyone keeps talking about. A sentient, chaotic computer virus is released into the internet that threatens to destroy mankind. But the film takes place over a weekend at a family retreat in rural Japan, where a young boy unwittingly involved in the disaster has to find a way to make things right using his laptop, and hiding his secret from the extended family of his love interest. Summer Wars balances exhilarating avatar-based action with tender, personal comedy, and in the end turns out to actually support the ability of social networking to unite humanity. It makes David Fincher’s The Social Network seems almost trite in comparison, taking as it does the long-view of programs like Facebook, and the social impact they’re going to have as they evolve in unexpected ways. It’s brilliant, and I wasn’t able to tell anyone about it when I was “supposed to” because… Sigh… I hadn’t seen it by late December.
That said, every one of the films on my own Top Ten of 2011 list is a film I stand by, adore, and encourage you to see, even if it doesn’t make my final cut. I received some vaguely critical comments about the list from people pointing out that there were a lot of independent releases and not terribly many films our readers had actually seen. I was aware of this, and in an attempt to alleviate matters I had already written and auto-published an article for the next day listing The Ten Most Entertaining Films of the Year, regardless of artistic quality. That’s where you find your Thors and Captain Americas and Adventures of Tintins. Great movies, the lot of them. But I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with Fast Five and We Need to Talk About Kevin any day. One of them is an absolute delight. The other is a unique and insightful look at an under-observed aspect of human nature that captivates as it simultaneously challenges your preconceived notions of maternity. Doesn’t sound as fun? Okay, I’ll cop to that. Better? Yes.
But enough quibbling, here are some of the films I missed in 2011 that I suspect might break into my Top Ten when I revisit this nonsense in March. Witney covered a few – Shame, My Week with Marilyn and Melancholia among them – so I’ll focus on some other supposedly great flicks I have yet to find time to consume. Incidentally, since recording the most recent podcast I finally had a chance to see Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, and it’s a splendidly acted little drama that didn’t impress me all that much, and wouldn’t have changed a thing on my list. I’ll talk about it at greater length on next week’s episode.
Oren Moverman’s directorial debut, The Messenger, was an incredibly acted drama about a wounded soldier who returns home with a new assignment: informing families that their sons, daughters, wives and/or husbands have been killed in Iraq. A little Oscar bait-y, but also uncompromisingly emotional and a splendid look at an aspect of the conflict that Fox News tends to whitewash. His new film, Rampart, is the story of a corrupt cop – played by The Messenger’s Woody Harrelson – suffering the slings and arrows of a brutality scandal. It looks a little like The Shield: The Movie, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The Shield ruled. Woody Harrelson rules too. I can’t wait to check this one out.
At another end of the spectrum entirely lies Arthur Christmas, the latest film from Aardman Animation, the folks who brought you Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. Put simply, if we didn’t have a Pixar, Aardman would be our Pixar. They don’t put out movies often enough – although Pirates: A Band of Misfits is due out in just a few months, and is one of my most-anticipated films of 2012 – so I was supremely bummed that the only chances I had to see Arthur Christmas were scuttled because they were also the only chances I had to see arguably more-pressing films like A Dangerous Method and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film tells the story of Santa’s son, Arthur, who has to step up to the plate in a 24-inspired version of the holiday myth which reimagines Saint Nick’s yearly duties as a super-spy endeavor. All the previews looked smart and hilarious. I’m still kicking myself over this. I hope I get the chance to see it before next fall, when Christmas movies are usually released on DVD even if they came out over a year ago.
I had no desire to see Bad Teacher whatsoever, because the trailer looked pretty damned grim. Oh, I get it… She’s a bad teacher. So we get to see Cameron Diaz do things teachers don’t normally do, like be anti-social and smoke pot. I’ve known way too many teachers to consider that unusual, but everyone I’ve talked to claims that Bad Teacher was actually a very funny film. In a year when only three comedies made any kind of impression on me – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Muppets and Bridesmaids – the thought that I’ve missed a good one feels like a bigger deal than it normally would. I’ll be checking this one out in the near future.
SHARK NIGHT 3D
Not a major contender for the Top Ten list? Maybe, but then again I’ve never been averse to hailing B-movie schlock if it’s really good B-movie schlock. Shark Night 3D didn’t get great reviews, when it was reviewed at all (it wasn’t even screened for critics), but I consider the film’s director David R. Ellis one of the best and most underrated genre directors working today after such fine films as Final Destination 2, Snakes on a Plane and Cellular, which I consider a much more interesting cinematic exercise than most critics. I’m sure it’s not much, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a damned fine time at the movies. I hope it stands up to his other films, because if it does it might at least warrant an honorable mention in March.
Kevin Smith is a better director than most people give him credit for. Not an inspired director, certainly, but a fine storyteller when he’s working with material he cares about, particularly in recent years. So I was bummed that I still haven’t had a chance to watch Red State, his first horror movie, about a conservative religious group whose hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve heard that it’s an amazing film, I’ve heard that it’s crap, and I’ve heard everything in between. Overtly political films haven’t done much for me this year, and Red State promises nothing if not an utterly biased liberal horror parable, so I could go in any direction with this one. But I feel Red State at least deserves to be seen to be appreciated, condemned, or at least dismissed as an exercise. Time will tell.
One of the weirder movie concepts in a while, Rubber tells the story of a tire. Like, one of the ones on your car. It develops psychic powers and kills people. It’s supposed to be very good. I don’t doubt it. How I haven’t seen it yet baffles me. It sounds like a script idea I’d have come up with myself, which, if you’ve ever read any of my scripts, could be considered a backhanded compliment I suppose. Whatever. It sounds supremely weird and it’s right at the top of my “Whoops” list.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
The most overtly artsy film on my list is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a tearjerker about a young boy coping with the death of his father in the 9/11 attacks by trying to solve a mystery his dad left behind. There’s a key, but they don’t know what it unlocks, so he travels through a still-reeling New York City trying to figure it out. Damn, that sounds insufferable, and I’ve heard that it very well might be. But it’s from director Stephen Daldry, a director with an impressive distinction: every single feature film he’s directed has been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. He’s three for three so far, and while his best film is still his first – Billy Elliot – it makes Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close feel like required viewing. Can he go for four? I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks when the Oscars are announced.