Thursday, 29 December 2011

The End of Year Catch Up - 2011 in Review (Part 1)

As someone who likes films from a variety of genres, countries and styles, I tend to bounce from one type to another quite frequently during the year and never really stay within one category for more than 3-4 movies in a row. Short of film festivals, there are two periods during the calendar year where this doesn't apply: the entire month of October when I delve deeper into Horror (one of my favourite genres) and then the last two months of the year where I focus on "catching up" with as much of the year's films as I possibly can.

So pretty much as soon as the teenage boys are smashing jack-o-lanterns on the street, I pull up my sleeves and start digging into the movies that many of my more regular theatre going friends have been debating about for months. Most of these films tend to be of the Hollywood variety, but I definitely pull in as many of the independent and foreign ones as I can in order to give me a clearer picture of 2011. I have no intention of watching everything - e.g. I simply have no interest in seeing The Help at this stage or many of the superhero films (though I may try to sneak Captain America in before the dawn of 2012) - but look forward to finally seeing some of the Summer blockbusters I missed as well as the first wave of serious Oscar contenders (OK, so I do try to hit the theatres a little bit during this stage). I usually start by getting up to speed on all the interesting non-horror stuff that was released in October and once that's done, the May releases start filtering through and we're off to the races. I'll still have missed some of the biggies by end of year, though, like A Separation, The Descendants, Hugo, Melancholia, Shame, Take Shelter, etc., but the first few months of 2012 should help rectify that.

One thing I did see in the theatres (again) during these last two months was my hands down favourite film of the year - Jean-Marc Vallee's outstanding Cafe De Flore. Of course, I had already proclaimed this my film of the year when I saw it back in September at TIFF, but I needed to see it again. And it was equally as enveloping and marvelous. I very much need to see it a third time and will indeed take care of that come January when it plays the Lightbox as part of Canada's Top Ten series. The 2nd visit certainly allowed me to pull together my interpretation of the film a bit better and since this was the theatrical run of the film, a few other people who missed it at the festival managed to see it and also had high praise. As a matter of fact, three of us had a long conversation documented on RowThree about it (spoilers abound, but if you've seen it we'd love you to read the back and forth - it was a lot of fun to do).

Other theatrical screenings were Moneyball, The Ides Of March and 50/50 - all of which I enjoyed more than I expected, but none of which really bowled me over. Moneyball had numerous great scenes (particularly that one trade completed within a few minutes via several back and forth phone calls) and provided some insight into maneuvers off the field, but it never quite gave me a cohesive whole. I didn't walk away from the movie fully understanding or embracing anything about the characters or the concepts of the film. I suppose that's partially to do with the real story, but if you can't quite generate much excitement via the all-time baseball winning streak, then you have a bit of a problem. However, both Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill gave what felt to be spot-on performances. The Ides Of March built slowly for me - not in a bad way, but in a very calculating standard political drama fashion. I was enjoying it, but was worried that it was simply hitting every single mark expected of it. Fortunately, it managed to change things up on me. Yes, it decided to go ahead with the "scandal with an intern" plot point, but the game playing of back room dealings and compromised campaign strategies was somewhat fascinating in the context of the story. Even though I was happy with the way things played out, I still felt a bit let down at the end though - as with Moneyball, I had nothing left to hang on to by the end. No characters and no ideology. Granted, that's likely part of the point (it's politics after all), but it made it difficult to embrace the film. 50/50 took its own unique arc for me - it didn't start well, but then slowly built it's way to a pretty satisfying and even emotional resolution. It wasn't until the Bryce Dallas Howard "bitchy girlfriend" was dispensed (did they really even need her character in the film at all?) that the relationship between the two best friends really started to build and once the Anna Kendrick character was introduced it started to gel and I became invested. All three of these ended up being overall solid movies, but with flaws that prevented them from being anything more than that.

So there was a short period of being uninspired by some 2011 offerings - until, that is, I saw The Interrupters. A full 6 months after the Hot Docs film festival was over, I came across the film in a pile of abandoned screeners on my shelf. At the time of the festival I wasn't overly aware of the film (though how a new Steve James documentary escaped my attention is beyond me), but it became apparent in the months that followed that it was making some big waves with a wide swath of people. I sadly missed a few theatrical screening opportunities and thought it might be awhile before I could see it, but then suddenly I had the damn thing in my hands. Even at a good chunk over 2 hours, I watched it that very night. As a result, I found I was in complete and utter agreement that the mechanism for creating the Best Documentary nominees for the Oscars is thoroughly broken. How could they possibly not even get this film to the short list? Through its three main protagonists (ie. Interrupters), we get both the personal stories and the broad scope of the issue. No easy answers are provided and all the story lines are left as various states of unfinished business, but I've rarely seen a clearer line drawn underscoring (at least some of) the root causes of inner city issues. And few scenes this year were more affecting than the one of the woman forgiving a young man for the terror he put her and her children through during a robbery. She pulls no punches regarding the danger to which he exposed her kids and has a ferocious look in her eye and sound to her voice as she reminds him of this, but then offers a hug in the end as she sees that he is trying to make amends. One of my favourite people on film all year.

If other recently viewed documentaries didn't quite reach those heights, they didn't exactly disappoint either. Errol Morris' Tabloid was as surprising, funny and deeply insightful as he's ever been. It didn't take long to figure out that I wasn't going to get the full truth to the story, but how could I pull myself away when each different version started to spin down separate rabbit holes? Werner Herzog's Into The Abyss was the least Herzog-ian thing I've seen from him in awhile and was probably more powerful (considering its subject matter of capital punishment) because of it. And Conan O'Brien's road show documentary (Conan O'Brien Can't Stop) was just plain fun - there was plenty of interesting behind the scenes stuff and insight into what it takes to be a "personality", but the biggest enjoyment was watching O'Brien do his best to entertain everyone around him (whether you think he's got issues or not is a separate point).

A variety of action movies also grabbed my attention. Super 8 and Attack The Block hit every action beat I wanted and then proceeded to fill in between them like Keith Moon. Super 8 will rank higher on my list at the end of the year than it likely deserves, but I can't deny the initial experience of seeing it on the couch with my 11 year-old and having him crouch, perch and lean into the screen. The French Point Blank was also top notch and wasted no time getting to the crux of its plot to drive the action - there's a full 70 minutes or so of constant thrust. It missed a beat here and there (some head-scratching decisions by a few characters pulled me out several times), but it far outpaces the generic thriller coming from the studios. You know, like Fast Five. Not a film I hated, but certainly one that eludes me. I keep hearing how they "finally got it right" with this one, but if that's the case I guess I can safely ignore the first 4 films (this was my first excursion into the "Fast" series). It provided several visceral thrills through its reasonable CGI, solid stunt work and descent into a universe that has no knowledge of Newton's Laws of Motion, but the characters are so blandly rendered that I couldn't care less who beat who and for what reason. Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and The Rock do not a compelling cast make. And were there other people in this movie? If so, give me one good reason to ask a single question about any of them. The flip side (and a film I initially shunted aside until hearing a few voices praise it) is Warrior. Though it runs too long, it invests you very strongly into its characters and THEN it throws you into the action - smoothly rendered, well-choreographed, non-CGI action. And I was fine with every "Rocky" rhythm the film used.

Normally I don't spend much effort on the standard romcoms - not because they're "chick flicks" (a terrible term I hope to see put to pasture one day), but because they seem not to stray more than a few millimeters from their prescribed paths and end up as truly forgettable. However, I found a few that made the hike pretty entertaining and even occasionally surprising. Crazy Stupid Love is far from perfect, but contains so many winning moments (and Emma Stone) that you can almost forgive the ones that flop. Friends With Benefits has some solid chemistry and some strong moments too, though it couldn't quite get past its far too obvious conclusion (not the mention the two flash mob scenes - yes, I said two). For my money, the most charming and surprising of the lot was Our Idiot Brother. Probably because it wasn't actually a romcom, but simply a sweet tale of a man who doesn't want to give up on the idea that he can put trust into humanity. Another winning example is Quebec's Starbuck (it shared runner-up spot - with A Separation - in the People's Choice Award voting at this year's TIFF). It resolves it's rather goofy premise of a man trying to get to know as many of the ~500 children his donated sperm have fathered far too neatly, but you end up being completely fine and happy with that. It's a unique skill that allows you to pull that off and apparently director Ken Scott possesses it. And then you have a film like One Day...Featuring naturally charismatic Anne Hathaway, handsome and charming Jim Sturgess (who was fantastic in last year's Heartless - reviewed here from Toronto After Dark 2010) and my lifetime crush Patricia Clarkson, it fails in every way at establishing a relationship between its two central characters. The film checks in on them once a year on the same day and never once did it feel like these two people should even be friends, let alone anything else. The ball was dropped early and then often. The emotional gut punch it tries to deliver towards the end therefore falls flat. Director Lone Scherfig seems to have lost a feel for the subtlety of character interaction since her wonderful Italian For Beginners a decade ago.

A few of the "smaller" movies I saw went after big ideas. A fine example is a set of films that use the "personal as apocalypse" (I've seen this phrase bandied about in several spots and I like how it nicely sums up some of these films). The finest example of the bunch for me was Another Earth which used the sci-fi premise of a duplicate Earth. It's been hidden all this time and has followed essentially the exact same path as the first Earth until it one day shows itself and severs that link - in particular how one young woman's life charts a very different course after she sees it. It's a wonderful example of taking a pure science fiction idea and using it for a far more personal redemption story. It goes without saying that you want more (because there's so much you can do with that concept), but certainly not if it would have sacrificed any of what we got. More difficult for me to consider was Bellflower. It has some of the flattest moments and line readings of the year, unlikeable characters and a strange mean streak about it that never settled well, but it also has a unique blown-out visual look, some solid scenes and a central idea that a single relationship breakup can feel like the end of the world. In the end, it couldn't get around its major flaws or shake some ugly attributes, but it left a bit of an impression. And then you have Miranda July's The Future. No doubt that its inherent quirk will be its most divisive attribute - many will see it as charming and honest while others will note a grating tweeness to it. And boy was that narrating cat grating (even if it did provide the emotional core of the film) - not because of the concept, but simply due to July's need to voice it in a high-pitched cutesy fashion that annoyed the begeezus out of me within seconds. But once again, its saving grace is a set of interesting concepts about waiting and planning for the future, but forgetting to live in the present. In particular the usage of one character's perceived ability to stop time which came into play once he had realized that not only was time slipping away from him, but so was what he had right in front of him. Taken at face value, though, the two central characters are rather pathetic.

More successful was Aaron Katz's Cold Weather - yet another personal character study hidden within a different genre (this time a crime mystery). The central character of Doug is perhaps not the most relatable guy in the world as he is somewhat adrift after giving up on his career/studies in forensic science and happily taking a menial job in an ice factory, but he's strangely likeable in his laid-back even keel approach. Though there are more than a few awkward pauses during conversations there are also plenty of obviously improvised character moments that flesh out realistic people trying to expand their fairly small worlds. For Doug, it takes a mystery surrounding his ex-girlfriend to light some fire under him and become more actively involved in the world and people around him. Another exceedingly strong relationship movie was Weekend - a film that has slowly but surely been making the rounds and gaining attention. It chronicles the weekend following what starts as a one night stand between Russ and Glen, but develops slowly into something bigger than either expect. What's terrific about the film is how it allows the conversations and moments between these two to build without any enforced plot points or grand emotional revelations. They get to their back stories and discuss some of their history (Russ not feeling completely at ease with being openly gay and Glen having lost a great deal of trust through a difficult previous relationship), but - even given the short amount of time the film covers - it feels like they did so very naturally. Not to mention engagingly. I'm not sure the amount of drug use in the film was really necessary, but it doesn't detract from where the characters end up.

Moving from small Indie to big Indie, the logical place to start is Beginners, the latest feature from Mike Mills. This time around it comes complete with a fantastic star cast who are - in a word - fantastic. Christopher Plummer is getting the lion's share of praise and it's well-deserved as he plays a man in his 70s who is just ready to begin his life anew when he finds out he won't have the time. His efforts to make the most of it seem to rub off on his son (played nicely by Ewan McGregor) as he courts the lovely Melanie Laurent. Many complaints stated that they wished Plummer's story had more to it, but as much as I enjoyed his section of the movie and understand the basic premise of that argument, I wouldn't actually want to miss out on any of the McGregor-Laurent relationship story. So I'm quite happy with the entirety of what Mills gave us. I was also reasonably happy with what we saw from Kevin Smith this year. Partially, that's due to very low expectations (I've never found his dialogue particularly fascinating), but I was surprised that Red State not only wasn't the easy-pickings, totally one-sided slam against Tea Party ideology that I expected, but managed some excitement, tension, surprises and even allowed shreds of, if not sympathy, at least humanity to pop-up among the religious zealots at the centre of its standoff. I'm no Kevin Smith expert, but it's easily one of my favourites of his films along with Zack And Miri Make A Porno. Kelly Reichardt also surprised me with Meek's Cutoff - not because of its wisp of a story, the totally convincing performance by Michelle Williams or its total immersion into the world of these settlers (all things I kind of figured I would get), but because of the beauty of the film. Granted, it's probably not hard to make some of that landscape pop like that on screen, but there were definitely several "Wow!" moments. It also provided beauty in its perfect ending. Though not quite perfect, J.C. Chandor's first foray into the world of feature filmmaking (Margin Call) certainly was an incredibly solid way to come out of the gates. Even though it's main plot thrust is a financial institution's concern over what a set of predictions means to its future viability, the film was still strangely fast-paced and nimble at getting the salient points across. Now let's see if next time out he can take real characters and flesh them out.

Of course, characters don't have to be human to still capture their audience's imagination. Say, for example, you were to use a bit of green felt to create a frog...OK, I have to admit that I'm very much a prime target for a movie like The Muppets. I watched Sesame Street during my early school years and transitioned easily to The Muppet Show, so was the movie simply a matter of pure nostalgia? I'm going to say No since it provides genuine feeling, laughs, several very good musical numbers and a whole whack of fun. And I'm pretty sure whether you're familiar with Beaker from the old TV show or not, any occurrence of him saying "Miii! Miii, miii, miii!" is still very funny. I'll grant every nit you can pick with the film (a story that fizzles somewhat, a few things that go nowhere and - oh dear lord - Chris Cooper's rap song), but there's just too much joy going on here. I refer you to my friend Corey's extraordinarily short yet on the nose review to sum up my case for the film. A less compelling film with non-human characters was Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, though through no fault of the apes. The animal scenes were quite well staged and yes, Andy Serkis brought empathy to Caesar. Unfortunately, I didn't like the approach of the plot (too many coincidences and stupid decisions by people who we're told aren't stupid) and really didn't care a bit about any human character. Actually, character is the wrong word. Shell might be better. And let's face it, I simply wanted more of the apes running amuck (I was surprised at how long it took that to take place given the raves for the film and the paucity of anything else of interest in the early going). Fright Night, on the other hand, spread out its action pretty well and gave its central non-human (Colin Farrell obviously having a grand old time in his vampire role) plenty of chances to cause havoc. David Tennant also seems to be having a whale of a time as a Las Vegas magician and vampire hunter, though he doesn't quite get enough of a chance in the script to get totally invested in the story. The film is fun and never really lagged, but it was always just a step behind for me. Part of it was the overuse of CGI that stilted most of the attacks, but it just didn't quite have a consistent sense of what it was. That's one thing Final Destination 5 didn't have to worry about since it's obvious what kind of movie it's meant to be. Unfortunately, it couldn't get anywhere near it. With its set of non-human humans (I know the series isn't about characters, but these were anti-characters - I couldn't even be happy when they died), the film saps the fun out of the "how is the next character going to die?" conceit. When they actually managed to build up some tension and the possibility of a real Rube Goldberg death trap (the gymnast scene), they flub it with a ridiculous end (the best you could do was to have her fall from 10 feet in the air and have that crush every bone in her body?). It also contained some of the worst CGI blood I've seen this side of goofy Japanese splatter films (which are supposed to have bad CGI blood). Small credit to a callback to the original Final Destination film, but I should have trusted my initial avoidance response.

Next up, some of my favourite moments of the year on film (from 2011 films as well as older).

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