[22 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We’re almost done. For critics and film people worldwide, the prickly PR push toward a general Best of consensus is well underway. Mailboxes are overflowing with “For Your Consideration” calls, screeners piling up like publicity messages in many email accounts. With several press circles preparing to announce who they believe deserves recognition for their work in 2011, minds throughout the media are trying to get a grip on what made their job so enjoyable over the last 11 months. Sure, the surge of last minute invitations and interview opportunities may change a few minds, but for the most part, those empowered to provide such perspective have been thinking on these things for weeks now.
For us, the final call is never made until all the suspects are in. However, we can recognize some reasons to be thankful this holiday season. Readers often forget that for every great experience in a darkened theater (or with a watermarked check disc), there are literally dozens of depressing dives into mediocrity. So when something good comes along, it’s not only worth celebrating but repeating ad nauseum. Sure, some of the titles mentioned below have been the subject of blog fever pitching since they first arrived on the scene. Still, when faced with an onrush of micromanaged junk, it’s hard not to go back and give props one more time.
So as you sit back bloated with turkey and all the famed fixings, as football fills your head with hard hitting happiness, take a moment to reflect on the movie season so far. While things can always change in the blink of a weekend, we know we will remain thankful for the following (in alphabetical order) come last legitimate call.
It’s deja-vu all over again. George Clooney and his amazing Up in the Air were unfairly robbed at the 2009 Oscars (it did have some mighty stiff competition, come to think of it). Maybe his luck will change in 2012 with this Alexander Payne helmed effort. One of the best films about family ever crafted, Clooney delivers a kind of Ordinary People for the permanent vacation set, a drama with clearly comic moments meant to meter out the tragedies on hand. Providing the kind of personal perspective and life overview uplift that only well crafted cinema can provide, it’s a sun drenched sensation.
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to show the rest of Hollywood how to handle its latest fad gadget - oh, and to deliver a mesmerizing illustration and explanation on the inherent magic in movies as well. In his first family film - and his first ever adventure into 3D - the iconic American auteur forges a motion picture puzzle box so dense and delightful that it will take many viewings to capture all its nutty nuances. From silent movies to physical comedy, strong dramatics and fictional film foundation flashbacks, Scorsese supplies “the stuff that dreams are made of” and then rediscovers a way to make it even more memorable.
Like Poltergeist given a nice post-millennial update (and a much better production value), the latest film from James Wan and Leigh Whannell is a brilliant filmic funhouse. It’s a ripping rollercoaster dark ride through a shocking, suspenseful set-up. Employing every terrific trick in the gloomy Gothic “gotcha” handbook, the duo who gave Jigsaw his initial bite deliver a sensational good time, an indirect audience participation project where screams solidify the viewer’s sense of involvement and (in)security. This creepy crowdpleaser was definitely the best thing about Spring 2011 because of the standard movie missive - it promised one thing…and delivered on it flawlessly.
From the divergent personalities - and make-up accenting same - to the surreal set pieces indicative of the horrors under a despotic regime, The Last Circus is simply amazing. It’s the kind of titanic tour de force you don’t see in today’s cookie cutter cinema. It’s all sparkling invention and sinister subtext. Indeed, when viewed through the veil of history, we are clearly seeing something akin to Renoir’s Rules of the Game, or perhaps more appropriate, a blackly comic Pasolini’s Salo. While not as sunny as the former or depraved as the latter, de la Iglesia is clearly commenting on the various factions fermenting under Franco’s thumb.
If you’re looking for clear cut answers to amazingly vile issues, don’t count on The Woman for clarification. It’s Dogtooth for the direct to DVD crowd. This is a movie made up of inferences and allusions, not explanations or outright claims. Instead of showing us the truth, instead of talking about incest, abuse, and other awful secrets, director Lucky McKee suggests. He never spells things out but simply leaves out the pile of letters and lets us put two and two together. As with the unseen creature just beneath the surface, our sullied imagination can concoct some pretty frightening stuff.
Not really tied because of their aesthetic value, but linked nonetheless thanks to the amazing work by the actors in the lead, these otherwise average films benefit tremendously from the casting choices made. In the former, Michelle Williams literally gets lost in the role of the tragic blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe. Not really an imitation, she manages something even more remarkable - she becomes the future fallen idol. As for Michael Shannon, he takes a tale of impending apocalyptic destruction and turns it inward, making it more about one man’s struggle with sanity than the end of the world. Both performances truly redefine their otherwise ordinary backdrops.
Rango reminds one of how special animation can be. It transports us to a place we’ve seen and experienced before and yet does so with a viewpoint so new and novel that it reinvests our always ripe cynicism with a fresh new coat of hope. It features flawless character design, dizzying narrative fun, a lot of brilliant voice work, and just enough nods to the studio standard type to remind us of why it was made in the first place. It’s a billon times better than any Shrek, more fun than a barrel of minions, and runs rings around Rio and its ill-conceived ilk.
As separate acts, as well written movements meant to completely undermine the state of organized religion today, Red State is mesmerizing. Smith, always known for his witty dialogue and complex screenplays, delivers one of his best here, a rant and anecdote based dissertation which argues for the evil inherent in belief, as well as the misunderstanding of same from the outside. This is no hyperbolic missive meant to paint all Christians as fanatics. Instead, Smith sets-up a situation (a radical sect that believes in literal interpretations of the Gospel, especially when it comes to homosexuality) and then slowly peels back the layers of hypocritical ludicrousness.
That groan you heard a few years back was Nerd Nation kvetching over the concept of another Apes movie. After all, Tim Burton’s bungling of the franchise nearly killed off the cinematic simian saga forever. Now, that cheer you hear is a studio (and sci-fi fanbase) reeling from an amazing, almost miraculous motion picture comeback. All kudos to director Rupert Wyatt for finding the humanity and horror in the standard story of Science playing God. Equally respect to actor Andy Serkis, who once again proved that motion capture technology can turn out an Oscar worthy performance
For all its Hustler by way of Heavy Metal sex fetishism and outrageous action excesses, Sucker Punch remains one of 2011’s grandest experiments (especially in the recently released “Director’s Cut” Blu-ray). Sure, it tried to mesh the Burly-Q with battle and overdid the grrrl power grunt, but this was an amazing visual feast filled with electrifying imagery and inspirations. Did the story make a lick of sense? Hell no! Could that be because of studio interference, suits mandating that movie’s musical (?) numbers be cut for the sake of audience sanity? Perhaps. Whatever the case, we will defend this pick to the death.