Milan Paurich’s Year-in-Review for Film

BY MILAN PAURICH | METRO MONTHLY ARTS WRITER

Whoever said “all good things come to those who wait” must have been talking about the 2011 movie year. Until September, I didn’t even think I’d find 10 worthy contenders for a best list. By year’s end I had the opposite problem. The goodies (“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Artist,” “A Separation,” et al) began raining down in such dizzying succession you needed an umbrella to keep from drowning.

For most of the year, the major topics of conversation were declining box office revenues/DVD sales, and the abject wretchedness of most studio product. It was no wonder audiences seemed to be turning their collective backs on Tinseltown. One “can’t-miss” movie after another (“Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides,” “Cars 2,” “Zookeeper,” ad nauseam) stumbled out of the gate and wound up seriously underperforming – at least domestically. (The international audience still appears to be suckers for Hollywood’s CGI-trumps-all 3-D extravaganzas.)

Whether the recent upsurge in quality fare (including David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and two instant classics from Steven Spielberg, “War Horse,” “The Adventures of Tintin”) will translate to an uptake in ticket sales for 2012 remains to be seen. Yet hope always springs eternal, right?

So without further ado, here’s how things stacked up for one inveterate cinephile who spent a good chunk of the past year furiously scribbling notes in the sacrosanct darkness of a movie theater.

THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2011

1. “Melancholia” (Lars von Trier). Eternal enfant terrible von Trier’s ecstatic, deeply felt and rapturously, transcendently beautiful vision of the End of Days moved and thrilled me like no other movie this year. As a bride stuck between a rock and a hard place (actually a falling planet), Kirsten Dunst gave the greatest female performance of 2011. (DVD release:  March 13th).

2. “The Tree of Life” (Terrence Malick). A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Malick (“Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line”) turned his quasi-autobiographical account of growing up in 1950’s small town Texas into a poetic meditation on the beginnings of the cosmos. (Now available on DVD.)

3. “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese). A valentine to the history – and artistry – of motion pictures. Truly one for the ages.

4.  “War Horse” (Steven Spielberg). Who said they don’t make ‘em like they used to? Classical Hollywood moviemaking, Spielberg-style.

5. “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne). Like Terrence Malick, Payne (“Sideways,” “About Schmidt”) doesn’t make a whole lot of movies, but when he does it’s always a celebratory occasion. His“ latest–the finest family dramedy since James L. Brooks‘ “Terms of Endearment”–was no exception.

6. “Midnight in Paris” (Woody Allen). Allen’s biggest box-office hit ever was also one of the finest, funniest movies of his 40-plus-year directing career. (Now available on DVD.)

7. “Drive” (Nicolas Winding Refn). This hypnotic, sleekly designed urban noir delivered the same jolt of uber-stylized adrenaline that Michael Mann routinely delivered back when he still was making great movies (“Heat,” “Thief,” “Manhunter”). An eclectic cast of marvelous actors (Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, et al) insured that it wasn’t all sizzle. (DVD release:  January 31st.)

8. “Moneyball” (Bennett Miller). The jock equivalent to “The Social Network” (both are breathlessly paced, brainy and stuffed to the gills with eminently quotable Aaron Sorkin dialogue) featured a career-high performance by Brad Pitt as former Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane. (DVD release:  January 10th.)

9. “Weekend” (Andrew Haigh). A gay “Brief Encounter” set in present-day England,  Haigh’s jewel of a film was perfectly scaled and beautifully acted by its two unknown leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New. The year’s best–and most touching–love story. (DVD release:  February.)

10. “Bellflower” (Evan Glodell). Made for $17,000 this stunningly original debut by writer, director, producer, star, co-editor and digital effects creator Glodell was an apocalyptic love-on-the-rocks fable of well-nigh cosmic proportions. (Now available on DVD.)

Runner’s-up (in no particular order): We Need to Talk About Kevin; A Dangerous Method; Crazy, Stupid, Love; J. Edgar; Martha Marcy May Marlene; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Mysteries of Lisbon; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Contagion; The Trip; The Skin I Live In; Take Shelter; The Artist; Young Adult; Margin Call; Margaret; The Adventures of Tintin; Project Nim; City of Life and Death; To Die Like a Man; The Future; A Separation; Poetry; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Coriolanus; We Bought a Zoo; The Ides of March; Le Quattro Volte; Film Socialisme; Tuesday After Christmas; Le Havre; The Sleeping Beauty; Pina; Aurora; Tabloid. The Myth of the American Sleepover, House of Pleasures.

THE 10 WORST FILMS OF 2011

1. “A Serbian Film.” The most reprehensible thing about this nauseating slice of “extreme” European cinema was how woozily pretentious and simple-minded it was. Naturally it picked up a cult following, thanks largely to Netflix’s refusal to stock it.

2. “The Green Lantern.” In a year rife with pointless and pedestrian comic book/super hero movies (“Thor” anyone?), this laughably inept 3-D catastrophe came across like a Travolta-less remake of “Battlefield Earth.”

3. “The Killer Elite.” Some good actors (including Clive Owen, Jason Statham and Robert DeNiro) were stranded in this incoherent wasteland of an action flick that made so little sense you’d swear they were making it up as they went along.

4. “The Three Musketeers.” Pretty much what you’d expect if the hack (Paul W.S. Anderson) responsible for the wretched “Resident Evil” franchise ever got his hands on Alexandre Dumas‘ swashbuckling perennial. In ho-hum 3-D, no less.

5. “Priest.” Director Scott Stewart seems to be cornering the market on laughably lugubrious Biblical-themed horror/sci-fi flicks. His 2011 edition was even worse than last year’s (“Legion”) thanks to the inclusion of some headache-inducing 3-D.

6. “I Melt With You.” I have no idea what good actors like Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe and Christian McKay (the Big O in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles”) were doing in this repulsive, off-putting, thoroughly depressing Sundance alum about four boyhood pals reuniting to make good on an adolescent suicide pact. “M*A*S*H” had it wrong. In this clunker, suicide is painful (to watch anyway) indeed.

7. “Something Borrowed.” Yes, there were worse romantic comedies this year (hello, “New Year’s Eve”). But this May stinker deserves 10-worst ignominy for wasting the talents of such likable rom-com ringers as Ginnifer Goodwin and John Krasinski on a witless, predictable script that wouldn’t pass muster as a Fox Family cable flick.

8. “Mars Needs Moms.” At a reported cost of $150-million plus, Disney’s ugly-looking, utterly charmless performance-capture 3-D ‘toon was the year’s biggest box-office disaster.

9. “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” The film where “Super Size Me” auteur Morgan  Spurlock officially ran out of ideas. And lost whatever remaining audience he had left in the process.

10. “Attack the Block.” What hath Edgar Wright wrought? The cultish “Shaun of the Dead”/”Hot Fuzz” director executive produced this slapdash alien-invasion-in-the-hood comedy which fanboys (and most critics) adored despite the fact that more than half the dialogue was virtually incomprehensible to non-Brit ears.

Milan’s Screening Room

NOBODY DOES IT BETTER…THAN HBO: Besides their usual bounty of terrific weekly series (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Enlightened,” “Game of Thrones,” “Bored to Death,” etc.), HBO served up some of their best original movies/documentaries ever in 2011. Todd Haynes’ spectacular “Mildred Pierce” miniseries would have handily topped my best list if it had been eligible. And “Cinema Verite” (by husband-and-wife directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini of “American Splendor” fame), Martin Scorsese’s remarkable three-and-a-half hour George Harrison doc “Living in the Material World” and “Searching for Bobby Fischer” were equally memorable.

WHO SAID MOVIES HAD TO MAKE SENSE TO BE GOOD? Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals,” Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame?” and Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” didn’t make a lick of sense on a narrative level. Yet their drop-dead gorgeous visuals made them some of the most yummy eye candy of the year.

WHO SAID MOVIES HAD TO MAKE SENSE TO BE NEAR-GREAT? “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a classy adaptation of the 1970’s John le Carre spy novel, was virtually impossible to follow on a scene-by-scene basis, yet a killer cast (including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy) and Tomas (“Let the Right One In”) Alfredson’s effortlessly elegant direction made obfuscation part of the fun.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: Last year I opined that kid-lit derived “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was so much unexpected fun that I hoped it would turn into a new kidflick franchise. Unfortunately, “Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules” was so lazy and uninspired it made me want to eat my words.

BEST MOVIE NOBODY SAW: “Margaret,” Kenneth Lonergan’s years-in-the-making follow-up to “You Can Count on Me,” grossed a pitiful $50,000 during its truncated theatrical release despite some of the most ecstatic reviews of the year.

BIGGER IS BETTER: At four-and-a-half glorious hours, the late Raul Ruiz’s “Mysteries of Lisbon” was the “most” movie of the year, and one of the greatest.

(WITH APOLOGIES TO LLOYD BENSTEN.) “‘PARIAH,’ YOU’RE NO ‘PRECIOUS:’” In the hopes that it might turn out to be another “Precious,” Focus Features acquired distribution rights to this dreary slice of urban teenage life at last January’s Sundance Film Festival. After the movie elicited zero traction on the year-end awards circuit, I bet they’re regretting that decision.

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO (AKA “LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD”): In “Bellwether,” a cuckolded boyfriend goes medieval and takes “Road Warrior”-style revenge on the ex who did him wrong.

BEST JAMES BOND MOVIE MINUS 007: “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

STICK A FORK IN IT, IT’S DONE: Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to try resuscitating a franchise that had been lying dormant for more than a decade after all (“Scream 4”).

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT AND I FEEL FINE: Some of the year’s best movies literally (“Melancholia,” “Take Shelter,” “Contagion” and “Kaboom”) or metaphorically (Wall Street crash drama “Margin Call”) portrayed the destruction of the planet. Just call it a sign of the times.

NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER: The “Harry Potter” series finally concluded last summer with “Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of the series’ dullest and most underwhelming installments.

PROOF THAT HOLLYWOOD STILL KNOWS HOW TO MAKE GREAT ROMANTIC COMEDIES: “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” So much better than the Gap.

PROOF THAT THEY DON’T: “New Year’s Eve;” “Something Borrowed;” “The Dilemma;” “Just Go With It;” “Arthur 2.0;” “From Prada to Nada;” “Jumping the Broom;” “Love, Wedding, Marriage;” “Waiting for Forever;” “Monogamy;” “Ceremony;” “happythankyoumoreplease;” “Larry Crowne;” “Monte Carlo;” “I Don’t Know How She Does It;” “Swinging With the Finkels;” “What’s Your Number?”

HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN: “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR: Viggo Mortensen proved to be the screen’s definitive Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s enthralling Freud/Jung buddy flick, “A Dangerous Method.”

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: Method actress supreme Michelle Williams gave it the old college try, but her one-dimensional portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn” was utterly lacking in the effervescent sensuality that was Monroe’s most defining characteristic.

TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION: Miss Wyoming and the Mormon missionary in Errol Morris’ “Tabloid.”

MONKEY SHINES: “Project Nim” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The year’s hairiest – and most provocative – double-feature.

BEST MOVIES I SAW AT THE 2008 (AND 2009) TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL THAT FINALLY (IF BARELY) OPENED IN 2011: “The Other Woman;” “A Summer in Genoa.”

WHEN DID EVERYBODY START HATING PENGUINS? Neither “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” or “Happy Feet 2” found much of a theatrical audience, a far cry from the mid-‘00s when anything penguin-y (“March of the Penguins,” “Happy Feet 1”) elicited Pavlovian oohs-and-aahs from kiddies and adults alike and raked in beacoup box-office bucks.

PAGING CHRISTOPHER GUEST: Those doggone adorable Jack Russell Terriers in “Beginners” (Cosmo) and “The Artist” (Uggie) were truly “Best in Show.”

YEAH TO THE NAG: Joey, the equine star of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” deserves his very own animal Oscar for the most uncanny four-legged performance since the noble beast of burden in Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar.”

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED: After three mostly terrible movies, Fox’s “X-Men” franchise finally got it right with June prequel “First Class,” the most stylish and entertaining entry in the 11-year series to date.

COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: After more than a decade in the wilderness (his last good film was 2000‘s “Almost Famous”), Cameron Crowe rebounded with two winners this year:  the rousing rockumentary “Pearl Jam Twenty” and December’s “We Bought a Zoo.”

EMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: Thanks in large measure to the wonderful performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep, J. Edger Hoover and Margaret Thatcher both came across as less monstrous than they probably were in “J. Edgar” and “The Iron Lady.”

HIS WICKED, WICKED WAYS: In “The Devil’s Double,” Dominic Cooper’s wildly charismatic dual performance as scion of satan Uday Hussein and his body double, Latif Yahic, didn’t skimp on the Iraqi bad boy’s cruelty and savagery, but was so seductive you would have followed him (Cooper, not Hussein) anywhere.

FURTHER EVIDENCE THAT VANESSA REDGRAVE IS GOD: “Coriolanus” and “Anonymous.”

LEAST OBJECTIONABLE TWEENER BAIT: October’s “Footloose” remake was like a solid Broadway revival of a beloved musical. The surprises were minimal, but everybody did their job really, really well.

BEST DUELING ROBOT MOVIE: “Transformers:  Dark of the Moon.”

LAMEST DUELING ROBOT MOVIE: “Real Steel.”

“BAD” CAN SOMETIMES BE GOOD: Cameron Diaz was a certifiable hoot in Jake Kasdan’s raucous “Bad Teacher.”

…SO CAN “HORRIBLE:” As the titular bosses-from-Hades in “Horrible Bosses,” Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston were delightfully, uproariously venal.

WHO KNEW THAT SEX COULD BE SO BORING? “Shame,” director Steve (“Hunger”) McQueen’s latest art gallery installation disguised as a movie, made sex addiction seem as dull as watching paint dry.

SCARIEST 3-D SUCCESS STORY: Last fall’s alarmingly lucrative 3-D retro-fitted re-release of Disney’s “The Lion King” has spawned an alarming new Mouse House trend. Already announced are 3-D re-releases of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Monsters Inc.” What’s next? “The Fox and the Hound,” “Oliver and Company” and “The Black Cauldron”? Enough already.

TEABAGGERS ARE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY: “Atlas Shrugged:  Part 1” and “Sarah Palin:  The Undefeated.”

A STAR IS BORN (THIS YEAR’S MODEL): In 2001, stunningly gifted, beauteous newcomer Jessica Chastain wowed critics and audiences in one film after another (“The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “The Debt,” “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “Coriolanus”). I can’t wait to see what she does/where she goes next.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MANDY MOORE? The lovely Moore is a gifted singer and actress, yet she continues to evince the absolute worst taste in material. This year alone she starred in two of the most cringe-inducing rom-coms in recent screen history (“Swinging With the Finkels” and “Love, Wedding, Marriage”). If Doris Day–Moore’s logical antecedent–had this much trouble finding decent scripts, she would have never met Rock Hudson. Or sang “Que Sera, Sera” in Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

ADAM SANDLER MEET AL PACINO: In Sandler’s loosey-goosey “Jack and Jill,” the former Michael Corleone gave – are you sitting down? – his best, most purely enjoyable screen performance in years.

MOVIE YOU’D MOST LIKE TO ACCIDENTALLY DISCOVER ON CABLE 5, 10 OR 25 YEARS FROM NOW: Like Nora Ephron’s irresistible Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-coms (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle”), Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” was as warm and comforting as a toasty blanket you wrap yourself up in on a cold winter’s day.

IT SUCKS TO BE RYAN REYNOLDS: Reynolds had a truly abysmal year. As if toplining “The Green Lantern” wasn’t humiliating enough, Reynolds also costarred in August’s profoundly unfunny “The Change-Up” which single-handedly killed the R-rated comedy revival “Bridesmaids” launched in May. Adding insult to injury, Reynolds’ long-shelved labor of love indie “Fireflies in the Garden” finally got released on a handful of screens where it died a quick and merciful death.

IT’S GREAT TO BE STEVEN SPIELBERG: In December, Spielberg directed two wonderful movies that opened within days of each other. Besides being the first performance-capture ‘toon with real soul, “The Adventures of Tintin” was arguably Spielberg’s best pure adventure movie since “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And “War Horse,” the director’s personal best since 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can,” instantly joined the ranks of his all-time greats.

BEST COMIC BOOK/SUPER HERO MOVIE: Michel Gondry and Seth Rogen’s impishly amusing “Green Hornet” was just what the movie doc ordered to shake off the January blues.

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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