Blue Jasmine (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Since 2007’s unremarkable crime drama Cassandra’s Dream and 2008’s sultry love triangle Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen has reverted back to making cutesier dramedies like Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the superb Midnight in Paris, and To Rome with Love. Now well into his seventies, Allen continues to make one movie a year to keep busy. In 2012, he snagged an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the enchanting Midnight in Paris, a win that you’d think he would have ended his career on, but he continues to push forward. I’ll be honest, I really worried that Midnight in Paris might be the last great film of Allen’s career, but I’m so pleased to say that the persistent writer-director blindsided me with Blue Jasmine, a stinging art-house portrait of a woman who had everything and ended up with nothing. With most of the comedy dropped, Allen builds to a climax that is sure to freeze you in your seat for a solid few minutes. Blue Jasmine is already a sobering slap, but it is made all the more captivating by a devastating Cate Blanchett, who will certainly have her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars.
Blue Jasmine begins with Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco in the wake of a nasty divorce and a financial scandal that led to her wealthy husband, Hal (played by Alec Baldwin), committing suicide. Broke, angry, and alone, Jasmine shacks up with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), with whom she shares a rocky relationship. In the past, Hal let Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (played by Andrew Dice Clay), in on a faulty investment deal that left the couple broke. As Jasmine tries to compose herself and restart her life, she meets a wealthy California Congressman Dwight Westlake (played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. The two quickly fall in love and plan to marry, but Jasmine’s dark past comes back to haunt her. Meanwhile, Ginger, who is set to marry the big-hearted grease monkey Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale), strikes up a romance with seemingly nice-guy Al (played by Louis C.K.), who has a secret of his own.
Based upon Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blue Jasmine initially comes on like a typical Allen film. Blanchett’s character is presented as a nervy and neurotic mess looking for any ear that will listen to her spew her tragic life story. She flies first-class even though she doesn’t have a penny to her name and she constantly reminds her modest sister that Uncle Sam took everything from her, even her precious furs. When she lays eyes on where she will be staying, she fights back vomiting and musters the thinnest compliment imaginable. When her angst becomes too overwhelming, she rushes for a bottle of vodka, pops a Xanax, and starts mumbling to herself about her lavish past with a philandering millionaire who showered her with expensive gifts to blind her to his unfaithfulness. She makes the viewer cringe as she scoffs at Chili, who she views as a loose cannon deadbeat who will never be able to provide for Ginger, even though Chili desperately tries to be as warm to Jasmine as he can. At times, you almost get the sense that Allen is concealing the really brutal stuff behind a romantic comedy/midlife crisis mask, but we are never entirely sure how vicious this is going to get. Even though she is highly unlikeable and about as self-absorbed and pretentious as you can get, we still oddly root for Jasmine to get her life back together and find love. It’s hard to find a scene in Blue Jasmine that doesn’t have Jasmine herself a red-faced, withering mess fighting off the creepy advancements of a dentist and Chili’s buddies and throwing a pity party.
The true power of Blue Jasmine rests on the slender shoulders of Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of her career as the equally pathetic and detestable Jasmine. Watching her try to go from swanky socialite to receptionist with absolutely no skills to get by is gripping every step of the way. You hate her when Allen flashes back and shows her blowing off the beaming Ginger and Augie as they pop by New York for a visit and you stand behind her hope as she lingers by the telephone waiting for the dashing Dwight to call her up. There is something admirable in her attempt to finish school and learn how to use a computer, but this drive is done in by the shallow possibly of returning to the life of luxury with Dwight. Hawkins gives a big-hearted performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister who is constantly being berated by Jasmine over her job, living conditions, and choice of men. You really have to pat Ginger on the back for her kindness, especially when it is revealed that Jasmine barely acknowledged her existence when she was living high in New York. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Chili, Ginger’s rough-around-the-edges fiancé who tries to kid with Jasmine, but always ends up in a war of words with the fallen queen. Louis C.K. turns up as a lovable stereo installer who just can’t seem to get enough of the bubbly Ginger. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is a nice upper-class gentleman with big dreams, but even his soft personality isn’t immune to the lies that Jasmine is spinning. Explicit comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives a dramatic performance as Ginger’s ruined ex-husband, Augie, who fell into some money and was then taken for a ride by Hal. Recent Allen regular Alec Baldwin gives a soft-spoken performance as the crooked philistine businessman Hal who is seen running around on Jasmine mostly in flashbacks.
With such a serious story, Allen tries to lighten the mood early on with some of his trademark dry wit. But by the last fifteen minutes of Blue Jasmine, he drops any attempt to cushion his blows and dishes out a one-two punch that sends Jasmine to the brink of madness. I must say, Allen unleashes a series of plot twists that catapult Blue Jasmine to the forefront of Allen’s massive body of work. I was left speechless, paralyzed, and most of all, I was thrilled to see Allen shrewdly serve up an ice-cold plate of reality to a character that just kept trying to turn a blind eye to it. Allen is ever careful in the way he allows these prickly twists to reveal themselves, a testament to his skills as a writer. Overall, in years past, Allen has said that he loathes reality and that he prefers the fantasy realm. With Blue Jasmine, Allen seems to have hardened and embraced the idea that there are some seriously crushing realities in the world and they can have some serious consequences. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece from a man in the twilight of his career and one of the best films I have seen in 2013 so far.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
by Steve Habrat
For those of you out there that just can’t turn down a quirky indie comedy, you have probably heard of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a philosophical “dramedy” that opts for subtle humor over hearty gross-out guffaws at every turn. Directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, the guys who brought us the surprise hit Cyrus back in 2010, Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a reasonably funny but oddly forgettable examination of one’s destiny and the symbols around them that leads them to their destiny. Mind you, it ponders life’s big questions with a giant joint dangling from its mouth. The film is certainly crafted for the art house crowd and the mumblecore fanatics, which is obvious when its oddball characters hit the stage, the familiar xylophone score kicks in, and the handheld camera begins bopping around, yet the film seems desperate to break away from its arty roots and catapult itself into the mainstream. This is especially apparent with the involvement of Jason Segel and Ed Helms, who are game enough for the project, but seem like they were recruited by the filmmakers to lure in fans of raunchier fare like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Hangover. These comedic giants are given plenty of time to shine and rest assured that they do, but they are overpowered by a bone dry subplot involving their widowed mother, who is searching for love after loss, and a severely off-key ending that nearly destroys everything.
Jeff (Played by Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old stoner that still lives in his widowed mother’s basement. He is unemployed, single, and spends the majority of his time searching for his destiny through random occurrences. He also passes time by overanalyzing the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs, which reinforces his bizarre belief system. One day, Jeff receives a phone call, which is just a wrong number, from someone asking for “Kevin.” Jeff immediately takes this as a sign and he begins searching for someone or something named “Kevin.” While on an errand for his mother, Sharon (Played by Susan Sarandon), Jeff spots a man wearing a jersey that reads “Kevin.” As he pursues this man, Jeff ends up bumping into his cocky older brother, Pat (Played by Ed Helms), who is struggling with his failing marriage. As Jeff and Pat bicker over their rocky relationship, the two spot Pat’s wife, Linda (Played by Judy Greer), with another man. Naturally, Jeff and Pat come to the conclusion that Linda is having an affair and decide to follow her. What their journey ultimately leads them to will change both of their lives forever. Meanwhile, the heartbroken and lonely Sharon finds herself getting strange messages from an office admirer.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home benefits from being grounded in the real world, a staple of these mumblecore films that have become increasing popular over the past few years. The Duplass brothers emphasize this realism with shaky hand held camerawork that finds them zooming in slightly to catch growing frustration on Linda’s face as Pat informs her that he blew all their money on a Porche or Pat’s deflating enthusiasm as Linda lays into him (Trust me when I say they use this little trick in nearly every scenen). After a while, I just found myself getting irritated with this camera technique and wished the brothers would drop it entirely. Then we have the down-to-earth characters, which are dealing with shockingly ordinary and relatable problems. Jeff is a lovable and free spirited stoner who really just needs a bit of a push to get his life together. He is withdrawn and does tend to be a socially awkward, but you get the impression that this is because he really doesn’t venture far from the comfort of his basement dwelling. His mother makes hollow threats to kick him out if he doesn’t waltz himself to the store and pick up a tube of wood glue, but as we get to know Sharon through her day, it is doubtful she will kick the dazed stoner to the curb. His dazed existence seems to be a paradise when compared to his brother’s life, which is spent barely recognizing her. When Linda lashes out at Pat, he sulks to the nearest Hooters to sip a few drinks and ramble on about his problems to whoever will pay attention to him. At times, Pat’s life seems to be more of a mess than he perpetually baked and lost brother.
While the Duplass brothers do a fine job making us root for the dysfunctional duo, it is their journey that really hits a few snags. The first problem comes from the subplot involving their mother and her office admirer. While it is sweet enough and it is easy to see what the directors are trying to do with it, this portion of the film just seems to be slowing the entire film down almost to a crawl. I found myself drifting out of this subplot entirely and then rolling my eyes at the quirky twist that the brothers throw in when the reveal the admirer. The other problem comes at the end of the film, which finds all the characters being brought together through a traffic jam and nasty accident. To be honest, the entire finale seems like it may have been borrowed from another film and just stuck on in the final days of production. It just seems absolutely ludicrous and far fetched. In addition to these lousy plot points, I was also unmoved by Saradon’s character, who spends most of her scenes jumping out of her cubicle chair to glance around the office to spot her admirer. Saradon’s presence seems to be a total waste and you get the impression that she may be coming to the exact same conclusion.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is never a bad movie. No, in fact it can actually be quite charming and strangely comforting, yet the way the Duplass brothers balance out the emotion and the laughs is strained. It is hard to hold it against them, mostly because they are still growing as filmmakers, but you’d think the involvement of Jason Reitman (Director of Juno, Up in the Air), who is on board as a producer, would have helped considering he has tackled some serious subject matter with a crooked smirk. Unfortunately, most of the film falls right in the middle, with some scenes working better than others and some not working at all. For you comedy junkies, the film is worth your time for the stellar performances from Segel and Helms, but it certainly finds them scaled back from their usual selves, something that might turn some viewers off the film. Overall, Jeff, Who Lives at Home tries to keep itself warm, light, and accessible, but it also wants to be a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life. Sadly, everything begins to clash, nothing gels, and the film leaves your memory the second you have walked away from it.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Up until yesterday, my favorite Wes Anderson film was 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the hilarious aquatic escapade that was one of Bill Murray’s finest hours. I think I may have a new number one pick. The hipster auteur’s latest quirky adventure Moonrise Kingdom could be his crowning achievement, one that has staggering amounts of feeling and emotion behind every single frame. If you were to just show someone Moonrise Kingdom without telling them who the director is, they would be able to figure it out at lightning speed just by the obsessive compulsive organization of every frame and the deadpan humor. This is perhaps Anderson’s most stylish film to date (yes, even more so than The Fantastic Mr. Fox), yet Anderson’s work has always been plagued by style threatening to overtake the narrative but not in Moonrise Kingdom. Along with screenwriter Roman Coppola (son of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola), Anderson crafts a fragile tribute to young love and innocence that will slowly take over you for the hour and forty minutes that it inhabits the movie screen. It is a love story that could only be told by Anderson himself and no one else.
Moonrise Kingdom begins on an island off the coast of New England in 1965, where twelve-year-old “Khaki Scout” orphan Sam Shakusky (Played by Jared Gilman) and forgotten bookworm Suzy Bishop (Played by Kara Hayward) have run off together into the thick wilderness. After waking up to discover that Sam has “flew the coop”, bumbling Scout Master Ward (Played by Edward Norton) quickly alerts island police Captain Sharp (Played by Bruce Willis), who puts together a ragtag search party that consists of Suzy’s parents, Mr. Bishop (Played by Bill Murray) and Mrs. Bishop (Played by Frances McDormand), and the rest of Ward’s “Khaki Scouts” to locate the two lovebirds. Sam and Suzy are quickly discovered and ripped away from each other, but the “Khaki Scouts” begin to suspect they have made a terrible mistake by helping the adults. They quickly draw up a plan that would reunite Sam and Suzy, taking them on an adventure of a lifetime. Their adventure threatens to turn deadly as a violent hurricane makes its way towards the island.
Anderson makes what could possibly be the most organized film of his career, every single shot done up to maddening perfection. A leaf is perfectly placed on the corner of a picnic blanket while a Tang can is tilted just right. Yet it is a lot of fun to spot the tiny details that he throws in to make it 1965, the Tang inclusion actually being the funniest one along with all the slouchy horn-rimmed glasses that obscure the eyes. Anderson finds a way to allow the whimsical composition to really compliment our misfit heroes, a magical frame to compliment the magical feeling that has wormed its way into their small hearts. Gilman and Hayward give some of the finest and most touching performances of the year so far, even more amazing because these are child actors. I was completely engrossed in their budding young love, chuckling over their first encounter, which takes place a year earlier in 1964, where Sam sneaks into the girls dressing room during a church play and demands to know what kind of bird Suzy is playing. She’s a raven, if you must know. Their connection is misunderstood by the melancholic adults that wander the island, all who are searching for some strand of happiness to shake them out of their funk. You will find yourself longing for the spark that these two kids find earlier on. They just understand each other from the first time their eyes lock. Hey, isn’t that what love is all about?
While Gilman and Hayward own every scene in Moonrise Kingdom, the adults do a fine job of keeping us engulfed in all the surreal dramatics. Norton seems right at home as Scout Master Ward, a lanky buffoon who stomps around his campsite spouting off camping tips to his “Khaki Scouts”, the best one being his questioning the shoddy construction of a dangerously high tree house (one of the film’s best jokes). Bruce Willis as the deflated Captain Sharp is a character that just longs for someone to share his time with in his cramped little trailer. He carries on an affair with Mrs. Bishop, who crushes his spirits even more when Mr. Bishop begins to suspect something is up. You’ll beam when he finally gets his moment to shine in the final moments of the film. It is such a nice change of pace to see Willis actually doing something more than running from explosions and firing a machine gun. Murray chews up his scenes as the preoccupied Mr. Bishop, a man who barely notices his own family until he suspects something odd going on between Sharp and Mrs. Bishop. McDormand is cold as Mrs. Bishop, an equally preoccupied and firm force in the Bishop household. She’s hilarious as she storms through the house bossing Suzy and her three younger brothers around with a bullhorn. Also keep an eye out for hilarious cameos from Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Schwartzman.
Moonrise Kingdom is brimming with an innocence that never seems to slip away. Suzy and Sam seem more comfortable dancing away on a secluded beach rather than attempting to get “fresh” with each other. It is almost paralyzing to the viewer when Sam and Suzy are separated and Social Services (Played by Tilda Swinton) shows up to have Sam carted off to an orphanage. It is devastating to see these two misfit children, who glow when they are in each other’s company, separated by a sea of frowning adults that don’t have a clue what happiness is. That is the exact message of Moonrise Kingdom, young love may be reckless, a bit irresponsible, but it knows what it wants and we can’t possibly fault it for that. Gloom and routine are for the adults! It is that longing to be young again that really hits hard in Moonrise Kingdom, making the older viewers walk away aching for an innocence that can never be obtained again. Overall, Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson’s masterwork, a flawless film that is warm, dreamy, and relentlessly funny, drenched in the sunrays of summer, feeling the wind in its hair, and relishing the sand between its toes. Moonrise Kingdom is one of the best films of 2012 so far.
The Damned (1969)
by Steve Habrat
There is much to behold and be repulsed at in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s erotic and melodramatic The Damned. Mirroring the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in a wealthy industrialist family, The Damned is an immensely profound film, slower than molasses and extremely homoerotic, certainly not a film for a mainstream viewer and only for a cinephile. At 155 minutes, Visconti puts quite a bit on our plate from the very beginning and does not hesitate to wear you out by attempting to keep up with everything that plays out in The Damned. It certainly had me at the brink of taking a time out half way through it to gather myself for the second act. A highly acclaimed film, The Damned is a hearty examination of what caused the Nazi party to cave in on itself, the perfidy, selfishness, corruption, and perversion that caused what was seen by many at the time as an unstoppable machine to rust and malfunction. As I watched The Damned, I became concerned with how all of these events were going to pay off and how they were going to affect me. On one hand, I was disturbed by the despicable nature of these monsters but on the other, I was saddened by their greed and deceit, their willingness to cut each other’s throats without blinking an eye.
The Damned introduces us to the members of the von Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who is now facing the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany. The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Played by Albrecht Schoenhals) calls a meeting on the night of the Reichstag fire to discuss the future of the family and their company. After a spat about doing business with the Nazi party, the Baron ends up murdered. The vice president of the family firm, Herbert Thalmann (Played by Umberto Orsini), who detests the Nazi party, is framed for the murder of the baron and he ends up fleeing the Gestapo. The uncouth SA officer Konstantin (Played by René Koldehoff) takes control of the family firm in the wake of the baron’s death. When Konstantin takes control, a battle begins within the family about who will get control over Konstantin. The showdown sucks in Konstantin’s disinterested son Gunther (Played by Renaud Verley), the scheming widow of the Baron’s only son Sophie (Played by Ingrid Thulin), Sophie’s new lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Played by Dirk Bogarde), and her sinister and pedophilic son Martin (Played by Helmut Berger). Playing the family members against each other is SS officer Aschenbach (Played by Helmut Griem), who is only interested in convincing the family to partner with the Nazi party so they can use them for weapons manufacturing.
The Damned is an epic film that is proficiently made and ends up being a soaring force. The cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is absolutely spectacular as they are largely working within a moody mansion where the family members lurk in the shadows and plot against one another. They approach the material with a soft focus, making the film seems like a bloody and ominous soap opera rather than a full-blown drama. The film should be shown in film school for it’s lighting, as it has to be some of the most dazzlingly lighting I have ever laid eyes on outside of an Ingmar Bergman film. At times, it resembles a film noir and then at times, it is lit in bright reds, indicating to the viewer that we are in a hellish nightmare. I also found the way that Visconti would suddenly push his camera in at his characters to be an interesting choice, one where he pushes the viewer right into the personal space of these vile individuals. At times, I wanted to be as far away from them as I possible could.
The Damned also features a legendary performance from Helmut Berger as the bisexual Martin, a frightening drug addicted pedophile that sexually assaults his mother and performs a dance routine in drag. A good majority of The Damned’s run time is shared with Martin and his decadent ways, the film becoming a faint study of a disturbed man in addition to the parallel that it already is. Yet even in all of his devilish ways, Martin is quite a sympathetic character due to the neglect he faces from his selfish mother. He is all but forgotten by the family and when he tries to express himself, he is met with eye rolling disgust from the conservative Baron, who is not very amused by his drag routine. Would things be different for Martin if he had someone genuinely accept and pay attention to him? Would he choose the path the he ultimately does? It’s possible and maybe some of his unforgivable actions would have been avoided. I have always been fascinated by films that force us to get inside the mind of the villain and The Damned ends up being one of those films, but Berger is so persuasive as Martin, allowing himself to get lost in the role, I really wanted out of his mind and to not have to look at his wicked eyes.
I will agree that The Damned is essential viewing for those who wish to study cinema or have a strong interest in the history of Nazi Germany. The film devises ways to work in real events, adding to the epic nature of the film. One scene places us right inside the “Night of the Long Knives,” which was when the SS massacred members of the SA, who were growing dissatisfied with Hitler . The way the scene plays out, heavy on the homoeroticism at first and then the slow build up to a flurry of bullets and death is a testament to how to properly mount tension within a motion picture. Next to Martin’s drag performance, it is one of the film’s highlight moments. The Damned, however, does begin to feel its length and those with a short attention span need to be warned before jumping into this. There are lots of extended conversations between tons of characters, making the task of keeping up with every scheme a real chore. I usually don’t have much of a problem sitting through long films but there were moments that were agonizing to endure. After the film ended, I realized that certain moments are agonizing because of their subject matter and depraved disposition, especially when Martin rapes his mother. The film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was released and it is certainly not difficult to see why. The film is still harrowing to this day, especially the sequences of implied pedophilia. The Damned is never monotonous but rather the subject matter itself weighs heavy on the viewer, as it should. No one ever said that mingling with the devil and his minions was a walk in the park, and that is just what The Damned forces us to do.
The Damned is now available on DVD.
The Best and Worst Films of 2011… And a Few Honorable Mentions
by Steve Habrat
Another year has come to a close and I know I will fondly remember 2011 as the year nostalgia ran rampant through cinema. We couldn’t get enough of the retro throwbacks that Hollywood dumped onto us! It touched horror (Insidious), superheroes (Captain America: The First Avenger), dramas (The Artist), thrillers (Drive), and even more than that. Many proclaimed that the year was lacking strong, well-made films that will live on but I have to disagree with those statements. I found 2011 to be a very good year for film with a number of wonderful films flickering across the silver screen. I will admit that, yes, the awards season was a bit dry with the usual awards tailored releases but one could make the argument that they were spread throughout the year. Hell, Spetember, which is usually the dumping ground for crappy movies, saw several great releases. So, my loyal readers, here is my picks for the 10 Best Films of 2011. I will follow the best with the honorable mentions and the 5 Worst Films of 2011.
10.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This Cold War thriller about a group of spies at the upper levels of British Intelligence trying to locate a Soviet mole that has apparently been walking among them for years is tense, paranoid, dry, and quietly threatening. With a discreet but brilliant performance from Gary Oldman and a slew of supporting acts not far behind (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy all give it 110%), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy becomes a film not about the mole but about the casualties of the Cold War. The casualties are the egos, careers, and lives of the men and women battling this war where accusations are fired instead of bullets. I remained on the fence about including this film in my Best of 2011 list but as the days pass, I find myself being squeezed tighter and tighter by its frosty grip.
9.) The Help
You know that chick flick that wasn’t Bridesmaids or Crazy Stupid Love (both awesome movies, by the way) that your girlfriend really wanted to see but you groused about going to? Yeah, The Help. It was really, really good and you missed out. The Help was a dazzling and patient film that was a cry for female camaraderie while never isolating the male viewer. It was a film about speaking your mind while opening up and listening to those around us. It was a film about unlikely friendships and cathartic confiding in one another. It was also a really great drama with moments of howling hilarity and stinging heartbreak. So yeah, that film you refused to see because it was just a “chick flick”? Yeah, you might want to see it because it happens to be a whole lot more than just for “chicks”. See it also for the show stopping performances from Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis.
Moneyball is to baseball what The Social Network was to Facebook. Featuring a crackling script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and top notch performances from Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as the number crunching Peter Brand, Moneyball is consistently engrossing. If you can’t get enough of the babble about how to properly recruit a player, you’ll be thrilled to watch a film about a man on a search to make concise and solid decisions yet has failed to make the best ones in his own life. Pitt throws himself into Beane and for the first time in quite a while, disappears completely in the skin of his character. Hill breaks from his funnyman typecast and delivers a brainy performance that will open up more doors for him in the future. Even if you are the furthest thing from a baseball fan, you will find yourself hanging on every word and every frame of Moneyball.
7.) War Horse
Steven Spielberg’s majestic and epic interpretation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book is a touching and traditional opus. The film is pure Spielberg, a feel good blockbuster that leaps across Europe spying on the regal horse Joey and the several lives that he touches as he navigates through war torn landscapes. The film is complimented with an extraordinary score from John Williams that will become just as iconic as his scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jaws. Whether you are jolted by the intense WWI battle sequences, marveling at the jaw-dropping cinematography, or still reeling from the barbed wire sequence, everyone can agree that War Horse is a cinematic triumph for, yes, all ages.
6.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director David Fincher’s frigid crime thriller that follows a disgraced liberal journalist and a punk rock hacker is a mature thrill ride that will leave you the viewer scarred. Refusing to pull any punches, Fincher’s take on Stieg Larsson’s source material is fully realized, confident, and just as unpredictable as its heroine Lisbeth Salander. Mara transforms herself into the troubled and prickly hacker while also making her extremely charismatic. Daniel Craig has fun as a man trying to repair what is left of both his dignity and his career. Just as graphic as you’ve heard (there is not one, but two squirm-inducing rape sequences), intense, and featuring the coolest opening credit sequence of any movie in 2011, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leaves you pinned to your seat. You will also never listen to Enya’s “Sail Away” the same way ever again.
5.) The Artist
The nostalgia of 2011 hit its peak with the silent French film The Artist, a vivacious film about a silent film actor facing the death of the silent film. The Artist proved that we do not need loud action sequences, explosions, or words, for that matter, to be deeply affected by a motion picture. It also stands as a tribute to artists themselves, who stand by the medium that they contribute to. The Artist thrilled us with haunting images, on point slapstick, and gooey gobs of cuteness. Good luck getting the performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo out of your head. You’ll also eat up all the affection that director Michel Hazanavicius bestows on every single frame. You’ll find yourself longing for a musical sequel and to relive the chemistry between the two leads. Trust me.
4.) The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s cosmic symphony of creation and evolution is so resplendently beautiful, it will practically drive you crazy. You’ll never forget the vivid swirls of the creation of the universe sequence or the crystal clear wonder in 1950’s suburbia. While the film is truly a work of art to gaze at, the film is made even stronger by the performances at the heart of it. Brad Pitt as a stern and cynical father who possesses an explosive temper will strike child-like fear into the viewer and Jessica Chastain as a naive and awe-struck housewife is graceful and inviting. The real beauty of The Tree of Life is in what you take away from the film. To me, Malick seems to simply be reminding us that life will throw some emotional curves at us, but don’t ever forget to stop and take in the glory around us.
3.) The Descendants
Paradise is not all its cracked up to be in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Matt King, a man whose wife is comatose from a boating accident and while she is in the hospital, he learns she was having an affair. Doleful and sporadically hilarious, The Descendants moved me beyond words and at times, is almost unwatchable due to the mental and emotional beatings that King takes. While Clooney steals the show, his troublemaker teenage daughter Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, is the life vest keeping King’s head above water. You’ll feel every blow that life dishes out to King but that is what makes The Descendants so emotionally raw, real, and just plain great.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s rough and tough thriller Drive has been wrongfully overlooked this awards season. It’s an unabashedly cool art house thrill ride that is one part homage to the 1980’s and one part existential tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky. Featuring moments of angelic tranquility and fits of nerve frying rage and unflinching gore, Drive dared to be different and all the more power to it. Featuring the one-two punch of Ryan Gosling’s loner, nameless Driver and the erratic brutality of Albert Brooks’ gangster Bernie Rose, Drive isn’t simply all muscle with nothing under the hood. The film boasts the coolest soundtrack of the year, features moments that are instant classics (the head stomping scene, the opening car chase), and is the epitome of badass, all while taking you for a ride you’ll never soon forget.
There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo where our child protagonists Hugo and Isabelle take a trip to the movies. Scorsese’s camera captures their wonderment, their gasping thrills, and their imaginations running wild all while they have smiles plastered across their faces. They are watching their dreams of adventure play out on a larger-than-life screen and they haven’t a care in the world. This is why I go to the movies. For two hours, I get to forget the outside world and I get to step into another, one where my dreams come alive and my imagination is at play. While Scorsese’s ultimate message is the call for film preservation, one I can stand behind, Hugo is alive with the love of cinema. If you are willing to immerse yourself in its glorious 3D universe that Scorsese meticulously creates, you will want to remain in the world along with Hugo and thrill as he darts around the 1930s train station that he calls home. A film that is tailored for film fans and film students a bit more than the casual moviegoer, Hugo is a love letter delicately written and magnificently composed by a living legend. Hugo is why I go to the movies.
– Crazy Stupid Love is a return to form for the romantic comedy genre.
– Midnight in Paris is a return to form for Woody Allen and is unapologetically charming.
– Thor, Captain American: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class were all stellar comic book offerings from Marvel Studios.
– Super 8 was a super cool retro action/science fiction film that fans of 1980s Spielberg gushed over. Myself included.
– The Adventures of Tintin was a rollicking nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark and stood as the best animated film of the year.
– Rango was quirky tribute to Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Sergio Leone.
– Insidious was a flawed but fun haunted house freak out.
– Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was the best and most nerve-racking action film of the year.
– 50/50 was at once hilarious and heartfelt. Be prepared to wipe away a few tears.
2011 also had its fair share of cinematic duds and man, were they disappointing. For my Worst Films of 2011, I chose not to go for the easy choices (Bucky Larson, Jack & Jill) and go for the films that had potentially but fell short of their expectations. These were the ones that hurt bad and were an immense challenge to sit through. These are the films you should have stayed far away from in 2011.
5.) Cowboys & Aliens
Not a downright awful movie but given the talent surrounding this science fiction/western mash up, it should have been a hell of a lot better and much more fun. Flat and one note, this clunker threw one lifeless action sequence after another at us, never once getting an “Ooooooh” or an “Ahhhhh” from its viewer. The aliens were also pretty lame looking too. Daniel Craig tries his hardest but he can’t save this one. Heck, not even a naked Olivia Wilde had the magic!
4.) Green Lantern
The only superhero outing from DC Comics this summer turned out to be a candy colored nightmare of trippy special effects and a cluttered script. Ryan Reynolds as the cosmic cop was also a pretty horrible choice on the part of the filmmakers. It didn’t help that Warner Brothers tried to make this the successor to the mega successful Batman franchise and they ended up marketing the film to death. Weird and with more shifts in tone than you could shake a green ring at, Green Lantern was headache inducing and laughable, with enough plot holes to fuel a dozen terrible blockbusters. If you don’t believe me, just watch the massive climax of this thing. You won’t believe your eyes.
3.) Breaking Dawn Pt. 1
America, don’t you feel the slightest bit of shame that this passes for pop culture in our country? The Twilight Saga struck again in 2011 and left countless girls and grown women (You all should know better) swooning over Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson yet again. With nothing resembling a plot, Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 existed for simply one reason: To cheat young girls and grown women out of ten bucks. And sadly, they flocked right to Lautner’s abs like moths to a light bulb. If you are not a part of the hysterical hype, you will want to bash your head against the wall while you watch this.
2.) The Hangover Part II
Before all the girls were robbed blind while hyperventilating over the sight of Lautner’s abs, bros everywhere were robbed blind while howling over the painfully unfunny jokes by Zach Galifinakis and his brutish wolf-pack. An unnecessary sequel that did nothing to elaborate on the mostly unfunny first installment, The Hangover Part II was offensive in almost every possible way. If you missed this while it was in theaters, don’t fret and certainly don’t go seeking it out. It seemed like near the end of its theatrical run, the film lost steam as many people started realizing that this was a flat out horrendous movie. Maybe there is a God. Seriously, folks, this is an ugly, ugly movie that should have never seen the light of day.
1.) Battle: Los Angeles
Bad doesn’t even scratch the surface of the vociferous, stupid, and aggravating Battle: Los Angeles. You couldn’t tell if this abomination was supposed to be the most expensive commercial for the Marines ever made or the unholy brainchild of a kid who watched District 9 too many times and was obsessed with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Whether you’re cringing over the eye-rolling dialogue, trying to decipher just what the hell is going on in the non-stop gun fights, or trying not burst out laughing when the film goes for the dramatic territory, one thing is for sure, Battle: Los Angeles was the worst thing Hollywood dumped on audiences in 2011! Avoid it like a plague.