Movies 2011: Out of the Past

When Super 8 came out in June, it was as if it left a portal open behind it: every few weeks, it seemed, a new movie would be enthusiastically described as the kind of throwback adventure movie Steven Spielberg would have directed, or at least produced, back in the ’80s. Super 8 had a British equivalent in Attack the Block and a less sensitive one in Real Steel. In fact, Attack the Block recalled John Carpenter more than ET and Hugh Jackman’s dilemma was more like something out of a Michael Bay movie than one of Spielberg’s. Then again, Bay’s own Transformers, once conceived as a neo-Spielbergian action movie with heart, was this summer transformed, a franchise boasting a runway model.

Eighties nostalgia has been building for so long that it has threatened to turn into ’90s nostalgia. In 2011, it expanded to encompass a whole series of throwbacks to all sorts of time periods. The geeky cultural sifting of Quentin Tarantino has gone mainstream. This could be troubling, an expansion by definition self-limiting, based on a generation re-buying its favorite toys on eBay, but many of the year’s best films indulged in fascinatingly varied degrees of nostalgia, homage, and occasional skepticism.

Even if some viewers preferred the grittiness of Block or the amped-up stupidity of Steel, Super 8 is the real deal. Writer-director J.J. Abrams evokes Spielberg not just using late-’70s décor or a ton of lens flares (though they’re present, too), but also with a terrific ensemble of child actors and a sharply funny screenplay. Super 8 isn’t just a pleasure to watch, with its eerie imagery and eye-popping small-town destruction. It’s also a pleasure to listen to, owing of Abrams’ terrific dialogue.

Abrams obviously reveres Spielberg (a producer here, as well as on Real Steel), and he’s not afraid to riff on his inspiration, combining the wistfulness of E.T. with monster-movie menace. The result may not match the sheer emotional power of E.T. — Abrams can’t quite pull all of the emotional currents into a single cathartic moment, as Spielberg did — but it’s actually a lot better than most of the other movies it resembles (I’m looking at you, The Goonies).

At the end of the year, Spielberg himself offered two retro entries of his own, jumping back into the business of Being Steven Spielberg, three years and change after his semi-disappointing revival of Indiana Jones. The Adventures of Tintin was produced with cutting-edge technology, in this case, motion-capture animation that allows camera wizard Spielberg to engineer a dazzling one-take chase sequence with Looney Tunes timing, but uses its advancements to tell an old-fashioned yarn. Tintin‘s story has less weight than Hugo‘s — it’s basically a throwback to the Indy pictures, themselves dream-versions of the serials he loved as a boy — but Spielberg’s other 2011 entry, War Horse, aims for more gravitas while still recalling movies of yesterday.

With War Horse, Spielberg attempts to tell a World War I story without the gore or intensity of Saving Private Ryan, using instead the vistas of panoramic ’50s melodrama. He uses old-fashioned suggestion to evoke the violence of war, as in the devastating shot of horses rushing past German soldiers, their English riders suddenly, pointedly absent, and employs a naïve, boyish hero not so far removed from Tintin. Some reviewers fault War Horse for its sentiment and simplicity. Indeed, I was often more moved by its technique than the story itself. But the film’s retro trappings allow its earnestness to feel genuine rather than manipulative; it comes with the territory.

War Horse and Tintin aren’t Spielberg’s most essential movies, but even when he fails to reach the high-water marks of E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Minority Report (among others), he practices, more than ever, what his contemporary Martin Scorsese preaches in the more critically acclaimed Hugo. Scorsese reaches to the ’30s for a children’s adventure that becomes, as it did in Brian Selznick’s book, a paean to early film history, the magic of cinema, and preservation. The transition isn’t jarring, but rather elegant, like a curtain pulling up, as Scorsese glides from winding tracking shots and 3D train stations (as in Tintin, this retro fantasy is also high-tech) into a celebration of those illusions’ earliest relatives. The same alchemy is at work when Spielberg harnesses his 21st-century talents and technologies to compose a sequence as primal and immediate as the horse’s attempted escape from the trenches in War Horse.

Spielberg and Scorsese’s sense of inspiration and emotional impact are missing from The Artist, which may well emerge as this year’s Best Picture champion, having already won multiple awards. This black-and-white, mostly-silent homage to black-and-white silent movies has its share of delights — it’s wonderfully performed and perfectly light — but doesn’t have much on its mind beyond the reminder that black-and-white silent movies were often charming, and that this one’s homages and winks are, too. Its story of the fall of a silent actor intersecting with the rise of a sound-friendlier performer recalls Singin’ in the Rain, which itself was looking back several decades when it came out in 1952, with sweet bits of comedy in place of iconic musical numbers. Though it’s among the most acclaimed of 2011’s retro acts, The Artist feels the most like uncomplicated tribute.

More inventive recycling can be found in Gore Verbinski’s Rango, in which Western tropes, along with chunks of Chinatown, are repurposed for a story about finding identity, and in Drive, wherein ’70s thrillers and ’80s Michael Mann movies are revived with great style. With all of this golden-hued and/or neon-pink appreciation of the past, it was inevitable that smart filmmakers would cast a skeptical eye on it all.

Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult plays as a flipside, of sorts, to their warmly nostalgic first collaboration, Juno. That 2007 film was unusually attuned to the ways teenagers define themselves and decide who they are. It didn’t exactly romanticize the high school years so much as consider it an age full of possibility.

By contrast, Young Adult‘s anti-heroine Mavis Gehry (Charlize Theron, in one of the best performances of the year) dwells on teenage feeling as an adult without ever quite admitting to her nostalgia. In a nuanced twist, Mavis both resents and reveres her past, hating her hometown while obsessing over her teenage glories, particularly her relationship with Buddy (Patrick Wilson), whom she decides she must reclaim. She seems less fixated on her high school days in particular than the moment of her escape, which she has learned (or not, per the movie’s gloriously unredemptive conclusion) was not all she needed to move on to a happy life. Cody uses this point of view to show just how painful nostalgia, however unconventional, can be.

Woody Allen, of course, also addressed the dangers of spending too much time dwelling on the past, albeit with a gentler tone: his Midnight in Paris not only makes points about our collective tendency toward pining for the past –- especially a past we could never have experienced. In its sweetly throwaway style, the film also harkens back to the filmmaker’s own earlier work, from his ’80s comedy-dramas like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig to his concept-driven New Yorker stories.

Paris turned into one of Allen’s biggest hits ever, and other, more blatantly commercial movies tried (and usually succeeded) to wring cash out of a retro turn. In particular, a couple of franchises thought to be dead were revived by 20th Century Fox: X-Men: First Class regressed the saga’s story to the swinging-yet-paranoid early ’60s, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes recalled the sort of thoughtful yet exciting sci-fi that allowed the original series of movies to flourish. Both were among the year’s best entertainments.

Another franchise revival circled back to the ever-popular ’80s, and traded most nakedly on nostalgia: The Muppets, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s reintroduction of the popular Jim Henson characters. Though they’re perhaps over-conscious of those characters as ’80s artifacts — reflecting less of Kermit and Fozzie Bear’s history than Segel’s — the movie pulses with the joy of rediscovery, as well as the extra buzz of smart guys realizing their childhood dreams of playing with Muppets. (This is no small feat; think of the Simpsons writers over the past decade, who have doubtless found themselves ecstatic to work with their favorite characters, only to turn out spotty, earthbound episodes.)

It may seem like an odd choice for one of the best films of the year. But while it’s less virtuosic than Hugo or War Horse, The Muppets is irresistibly funny, sweet, and tuneful. It has the cheery ingenuousness of movies you may have loved as a kid. Super 8, The Muppets, and some of the other great movies of 2011 owe plenty to movies of the past. And they pull off a neat trick too: they’re as vivid and delightful as your memories of those movies.