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.
Anti-Film School’s Academy Awards Coverage: The Best Picture Race
by Charles Beall
Throughout the next month, I will be contributing articles about the Oscar race this year. To start things off, let’s talk about the big race, Best Picture.
9 Best Picture nominees
When the Academy announced that there would be a new voting system to select a Best Picture nominee (a film has to have 5% of first place votes to gain a nomination), I aired on the side of skepticism. At first, when the Academy announced that there would be 10 nominees two years ago, I cried foul. This is the Academy Awards! Why would we sully it by letting in five other films? However, take a look at these ten films (the first five released in 2009 and the last five in 2010, respectively): District 9, The Blind Side, An Education, A Serious Man, Up, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, and Winter’s Bone. Aside from The Blind Side (total turd), these ten films are exceptional “unconventional” films that never would’ve been nominated if there were only five nominees. Sure they can’t win, but they definitely were deserving of a nomination for Best Picture. I decided that I liked this 10 Best Picture nominee system.
However, per the new Academy rules, there could be anywhere between five and ten nominees for the films of 2011. The movies that were to be nominated had to, as I stated, receive 5% of number one votes. So, with this complicated system, I assumed there would be between five and seven nominees. Yet, there were nine.
Here are the tiers these films fall into:
(Note: films with an * are films I have not seen yet. I can only give the impression I get from them, whereas the films I have seen, I can attempt to attest to why they were nominated.)
The Five– these would’ve been the five nominated films if there were only five nominees:
This is a film that has Oscar written all over it. A nostalgic look at Hollywood, a silent film in black and white, and a feel-good, original idea, this movie is the kind of warm hug Academy members like.
The Descendants is the tailor-made, quirky Fox Searchlight Oscar bait we’ve all come to expect, yet don’t let that detract from how great of a film it is. Alexander Payne is a wonderful filmmaker and this film, his first since the incredible Sideways, goes along with his theme of middle aged men “coming of age.” Anchored by a wonderful performance by George Clooney (I think he deserves the Oscar), The Descendants is worthy of the respect heaped upon it, and even though it oozes of “Oscar prestige,” it truly is a great American film
The Help is the type of crowd-pleasing hit that the Academy loves to recognize to show that it isn’t a bunch of out-of-touch, pretentious white people. I enjoyed The Help, yet I have some reservations about it. First, it is entertaining without being overly confident in itself; it doesn’t wear its message on its sleeve. We know that segregation in the South is a disgusting stain on our nation’s history, yet The Help doesn’t delve into how blatantly horrible it was to make the actions of the white people in the movie seem more noble than that of the Help. With that said, it almost does go off the deep end. Yes, it portrays the bravery of certain white women and certain African American women, but it comes off that without the white women, the Help would’ve never had their story told. The film teeters on that cliff, but the filmmakers realize that that is too easy of a plot device, so I commend them for not taking the easy route.
While I would’ve liked a more “intense” portrayal of racism in the South, The Help suffices for reaching such a wide audience. The film is honest and takes its time to develop its great characters. In a year with only five nominees, I wouldn’t have selected The Help; however, when there are ten spots, I think it is deserving as one of the ten nominees.
Hugo is a marvel and the best film I’ve seen this year. This love letter to film, imagination, and life is completely engulfing. As Scorsese’s first 3D film, he utilizes the technology to add, well, another dimension to the story. There are no gimmicks and you are literally immersed into a world that could only come out of careful planning and love of source material. I cannot praise this film enough, and in any year, this would be in the top five, if not number one spot. Hugo deserves all of its 11 Academy Award nominations.
Midnight in Paris
The Academy loves Woody Allen, which is ironic because Woody never shows up to the ceremony. However, if there is any comeback film for Allen after some flubs in years past, it is Midnight in Paris. This is such a cute, original movie that offers an escape for not only the main character, but for the entire audience. This is one of the best movies of the year and worthy of its four nominations.
The “honor-to-be-nominated” Crew– if there were five nominees, these wouldn’t have been nominated, but with the current voting system (and the former 10 nominee system), they are:
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s fifth feature film is a simply beautiful, undeniably maddening meditation on life. If there were only five nominees for Best Picture, this wouldn’t have been nominated (even though, I believe, he would’ve been nominated for Best Director-the Academy would oftentimes nominate a director whose film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture) but with the new system, it got in there. There is an almost cult-like following for this film and I was honestly surprised that it was nominated. It is a unique film, and this definitely “diversifies” the Academy’s canon of nominated films. It won’t take home the big prize, but it definitely has been honored with its 3 nominations.
A movie about math and baseball, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Brad Pitt. I haven’t seen it, but heard it is great. This is the Academy trying to be cool, I suppose.
Steven Spielberg. World War I. Epic. Is the Academy still sorry for snubbing Saving Private Ryan?
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close*
This smells Weinsteinesque (more on that later).
Harry Potter WAS NOT snubbed
Fans are crying foul on the “snub” of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 in the Best Picture race. Folks, there was no snub. This film did not deserve a nomination for Best Picture; it was the worst film in the franchise. Now, before you call me a death eater or a Slytherin, I urge you to do some soul searching and ask yourself if this really was the movie you thought it was.
Now, in defense of the Academy, they have opened their minds somewhat when it comes to films of different caliber. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, was nominated for 30 Academy Awards, winning 17 (including a clean sweep for The Return of the King). Yes, the Academy has been stingy on which films they nominate (fantasy/science fiction-wise), but The Lord of the Rings films were exceptional, bridging fanboy/girl devotion with a mass audience appeal. That isn’t to say the Harry Potter franchise didn’t do such a thing; it did, but not to the extent of respecting the source material in such a way that the LOTR filmmakers did.
Now, as I stated earlier, ask yourself if the final film really was that incredible. Take a look at both the entire final book and the penultimate film in the series. Both of these took their time developing both the story and the characters; the final film did not. There was a checklist of obligatory plot points to be filmed and they were done in such a rapid succession that one did not have time to emotionally process what was happening to the characters we have grown to love. The final LOTR film was 200 minutes. The final Harry Potter film was barely over two hours. With so much story left in the second half of the book, the filmmakers didn’t develop it into drama; they shot it and sent it off to 3D rendering.
Is the Harry Potter film series terrible? Absolutely not. I believe that for such a massive, original world that J.K. Rowling created, the filmmakers did a reasonably excellent job in adapting it for the big screen. However, after seven well-made films, the eighth just floundered, portraying itself as something that it was not and seducing loyal fans into thinking it was the best in the series.
Don’t hate on the Academy for this “snub.” There have been sequels that were nominated for Best Picture (and some that won) that were far more deserving than Part 2. True, The Return of the King won Best Picture for two reasons: it was a great film, but also the conclusion to a flawless motion picture trilogy. That is what gets rewarded by the Academy, not an “easy” sequel to an otherwise great film series.
“But The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture,” one might say. I know…I never said the Academy was perfect. However, there is a huge difference in an unworthy film getting nominated for Best Picture and an unworthy film not getting nominated for Best Picture. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 falls into the latter category.
In conclusion, it must be said that the Harry Potter film series, as a whole, stands as a landmark in motion picture history, and for that, both as a lover of the series and as a cinephile, I sing its praise.
What should’ve been the “ninth” and tenth films?
I put “ninth” in quotes because, while the 8 films that were expected or had a reasonable chance of being nominated for Best Picture were, the ninth film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was a shocker. There is a hardcore group of fans of this film, and while I have not yet seen it, I can tell you that it is one of the worst reviewed films of the past ten years (according to Rotten Tomatoes) to be nominated for Best Picture. So what happened?
As I stated earlier, the way the Academy has changed their voting rules over the last three award cycles allows films like Loud (and The Blind Side) to sneak in and nab a spot. What happened with Loud is that there were 5% of people who loved this movie so much that they put it as the number one spot on their ballot among the list of 300 plus eligible films from 2011. There is a great article from Entertainment Weekly that explains this whole system, and the link to that is right here: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/01/24/oscars-best-picture-why-nine-nominees/
So, now that you have your head wrapped around that, let us look at which films were “bumped off.” I believe that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Bridesmaids were bumped off by Loud. Some may argue that The Tree of Life also was a surprise, but with its devoted fanbase, I think it was always a shoo-in for a nod. As explained in that Entertainment Weekly Article, Tattoo and Bridesmaids were probably voters third or fourth pick for their favorites of the year, which would’ve helped in other years, but not this one. So, Academy members, if you find yourself passionate about a particular movie next year, make sure it gets your number one spot. If The Dark Knight Rises is as incredible as its predecessor, you know what to do.
So, that concludes my analysis of the Best Picture race for 2011. There will be more to come before and after the Academy Awards, so keep checking Anti-Film School for more updates.
Favorite Film of 2011… GO!
It is almost time to close the book on 2011 and it has been an interesting year at the movies. It has been a year heavy with nostalgia, superheroes, and lots of Steven Spielberg. With the lack of new reviews we have currently (We are working on it, guys! Trust me! The holidays have kept us very busy.), we want to know what film YOU guys loved in 2011. This isn’t our best of 2011 list, as there are still some films that we still need to see (Ahem! The Artist and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy! How about a wide release already!), but I tried to include the ones that recieved the most attention throughout the year. So get to voting and if you don’t see your favorite film in the poll, shoot us a comment! We love hearing from you.
Feature: The Magic of Woody Allen
by Steve Habrat
One theme that often appears in the films of Woody Allen is themes or use of the supernatural or fantasy. In multiple films, we get to see how he uses things ranging from extraterrestrials, ghosts, death, or magic. The interesting aspect is that he applies it to his very personal films, like Stardust Memories or he uses it in his funnier films like Love and Death. Allen has even gone as far as to play a magician in one of his more recent films. Through his use of these supernatural elements, he takes subjects that are very serious and with the use of the supernatural, he allows his audience to take the subjects in a lighter way. I think this is an interesting aspect to the work of Allen and how he applies the use of the supernatural. Through the use of fantasy, he brings almost a childlike awe to some of his films. He also makes some very important statements on important topics like death and even his own career.
During the teenage years of his life, Woody Allen did not seem to be particularly interested in the intellectual elements that fill his career and work today. Throughout this period, Allen spent long hours in his room practicing magic tricks. It was around this time as well that he started submitting jokes and he got himself noticed (Woody Allen Biography). In Stig Bjorkman’s book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, Allen states “It has been said, that if I have any one big theme in my movies, it’s got to do with the difference between reality and fantasy. It comes up very frequently in my films. I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality. And, you know, unfortunately it’s the only place where we can get a good steak dinner. I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema” (Bjorkman, 50). When you analyze what Allen’s films tend to be about, which is love, death and relationships, we can see that he is interested in making intellectually stimulating films that are not just special effects and mindless entertainment. It is interesting that someone who says that they hate reality would be interested in these specific topics. In many of his films including Play It Again, Sam, made in 1973, Love and Death, made in 1975, Stardust Memories, made in 1980, The Purple Rose of Cairo, made in 1985, Alice, made in 1990, The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, made in 2001, and Scoop, made in 2006, all have fantasy elements that I believe to be rather personal to Allen. When you break down what each of these films is trying to convey with its fantasy elements, it becomes much clearer.
Starting with Play it Again, Sam, Allen plays a film critic who has just gotten a divorce and is trying to move forward and find a new relationship with the help of his friends. Throughout the film, Allen goes into conversations and gets relationship advice from the apparition of Humphrey Bogart. What is interesting about the set up is the fact that Humphrey Bogart is in character as Rick Blaine, from Casablanca. When we go back and look at the quote from Allen when he says “I think it comes from my childhood, where I constantly escaped into cinema”, it becomes more obvious that this role that he has taken on may be more personal than one would imagine. He uses the Bograt apparition to try to find an answer to his relationship problems. Allen’s character begins living through the film to help him cope with the relationship that he has been involved in with the Diane Keaton character. The film even ends similarly to Casablanca, as he lets the love interest go, just as Rick Blaine does with the character Ingrid Bergman plays, Ilsa Lund.
As you continue to trace the development of Allen’s use of fantasy to escape reality, we arrive at his 1975 film, Love and Death. This time around, Allen does not use fantasy to escape relationship problems but rather to escape ideas of death. The film follows a cowardly Russian man, Boris, played by Allen, who gets enlisted into the Russian army after Napoleon’s troops try to invade. Soon Boris and his wife, Sonja, played by Diane Keaton, devise a plan to assassinate Napoleon. As the finale plays out, we realize that Boris is going to die. Throughout the film, Boris sees the apparition of death claiming souls. Death looks like the Grim Reaper only rather than wearing a black cloak, he wears an all white cloak. At the end of the film, the white-cloaked Death comes to claim Boris and as the film ends, we see Boris and Death dancing with each other as Death takes Boris’s soul to the afterlife. When one think of death, it is often a very serious topic and we would hardly believe that Death would appear cloaked in white. Once again, Allen tackles a very serious subject with fantasy and also with quite a bit of slapstick comedy in the film. He seems to address the serious topic of death by showing us a fantasy apparition that dances with its victims rather than just presenting a very depressing affair. This seems once again to be going along with the idea that Allen wants to tackle a serious topic but uses fantasy to analyze it. We obviously know that Death does not come for us in a cloak and carrying a sickle. It seems here that Allen is trying to comfort his own fears on death by trying to convince himself that death really is not a grim affair but rather something can be celebrated.
In 1980, Allen released the film Stardust Memories, which seems to be one of his more personal films. Stardust Memories follows the filmmaker Sandy Bates, played by Allen, who has recently been trying to make more artistic films rather than the humorous films that he was known for making. As a result of Bates making these more serious films, he has been losing or getting a lot of criticism from his fans. Throughout the film, we get several fantasy versus reality aspects that seem quite personal to Allen. Two notable scenes are one involving a young boy who looks slightly like Allen and a group of extraterrestrials that pay Sandy a visit. At one point, Bates is getting bombarded by questions from fans and press and at one point Bates looks through the crowd and sees a young boy with his mother. We notice that the boy has on a pair of glasses that are similar to what Allen himself wears as well as a cape. As Bates watches the boy, the boy suddenly flies up into the air without warning. The interesting thing about this particular scene as that it seems to suggest in terms of the theme of the film, that Bates just wants to go back to his childhood and start new. When he flies up into the sky, he seems to want to escape the crowd and go to a different place rather than take numerous questions and criticisms. This could also be alluding to Allen’s real life, in which he would like to escape all his criticisms and fly away. The other interesting scene comes when extraterrestrials visit Bates and tell him that they prefer his early funny films rather than his recent serious ones. Now we have to take into consideration that two years prior to the making of Stardust Memories, Allen released a film that seemed more serious than his previous work. That particular film was Interiors and it caused him to loose some of his audience, as he was known for making funny films rather than tackling very serious topics. This scene in the film seems to deal with some sort of anxiety that Allen had about people from all over the world being upset that he is making more serious films rather than funny ones. The aliens could represent people from another country that would be upset with the direction he is going with his work.
After Stardust Memories, Allen made a film in 1985 called The Purple Rose of Cairo. The film is about Cecilia, played by Mia Farrow, who is living during the Great Depression and is caught up in a bad marriage. She begins going to see a film at her local movie theater called The Purple Rose of Cairo to escape her lousy, everyday life. One day, one of the characters, Tom, played by Jeff Daniels, emerges from screen to be with Cecilia. This particular plot seems very reminiscent of what Allen would do during his childhood. The plot of the film feels very personal to Allen, as he would try to escape reality when he was younger by going to see films. The film implies that films create magic and that we can avoid dealing with bad relationships and problems at our work. As the film goes on, we learn that the actor who portrays Tom in the film, Gil, and the studio executives are all working to get Tom back into the film so the film can continue playing. At the end of the film, Cecilia, who is pursued by Gil and Tom, looses both men and instead of embracing reality, she slips right back into fantasy by going back to the movies.
Allen’s next film to continue the trend of people trying to escape reality with fantasy would be Alice, made in 1990. The film is about Alice, played by Mia Farrow, who is very wealthy and seems to have a loving family. Alice suffers from back pains and one day goes to an oriental herbal healer. He realizes that her back pain is stemming from more serious problems in her life. As the film moves on, we see Alice falling in love with another man. The oriental herbalist, Dr. Yang, gives Alice special herbs that give her magical powers. One of the herbs causes her to become invisible while one is a love potion that makes several men fall in love with her. At the end of the film, Alice decides that she wants to leave her husband, who is also having an affair, and try to reinvent her life. She decides to do work with Mother Theresa and devote her life to helping people less fortunate than her. Allen seems to be saying that through magic and fantasy, we can break away from our troubled mundane lives and start over. We can get away from our troubled love lives and do something for the better rather than just wasting our lives unhappily.
In 2001, Allen released The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, which used the idea of magic at its core. The film follows CW Briggs, played by Allen, who is an insurance investigator and an efficiency expert named Betty Ann Fitzgerald. One evening, CW and Betty Ann are both put under a spell at a magic show and once they are under the spell, a crooked magician convinces them to go out and steal precious jewels and money for him. The interesting idea that stems from use of the supernatural in this film is while under the spell, both CW and Betty Ann confess feelings for each other but when they are not under the spell, they hate each other. Allen seems to be implying that with the help of fantasy and magic, we can fall in love with someone who is our complete opposite. It also seems to say that magic could revive love and make people happy in the world. This seems very personal in the same idea that in fantasy we can have exactly what we want. The film also seems very personal to Allen, as the film’s plot is based off a magician and a magic spell.
When we look back on how Allen spent his childhood, one of the ways was practicing magic in his bedroom. In 2006, Allen made Scoop, which follows a young journalism student, played by Scarlett Johansson who gets involved in a murder mystery along with a magician. Allen plays the magician and when we study his background, we can assume that this role may also be very personal to him. This seems like Allen is fantasizing about a career he wished he had. We also get the same fantasy and supernatural themes that showed themselves before in Allen’s previous works. We get death showing up and leading souls to the under world, only this time death wears black instead of white like it did in Love and Death. We also get an apparition who interacts with the main characters, which feels slightly similar to what we saw in Play It Again, Sam.
While Allen says that he prefers fantasy to reality, we also have the opposing idea that Allen is interested in making very serious works. He first started making funny films and then started gravitating towards more serious works of art. With films like Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, he does not incorporate elements of fantasy or the supernatural. Other serious filmmakers have obviously influenced Allen and I believe that we see the true Allen when he makes films with a fantasy element, even if it is very subtle rather than blatantly obvious.
Overall, I think it is important to monitor the elements of fantasy versus reality in the films of Woody Allen. I believe he conveys personal ideas when he adds this particular factor, as they show up in several of his more personal films. I hope to see more of these fantasy elements show up in Allen’s upcoming work and see what he has to say with them. I believe some of his most interesting works contain these elements of fantasy and I hope he keeps putting intellectual ideas behind his fantasies. For me, I prefer his supernatural work, but hey, that is just me.
Allen’s newest film, Midnight in Paris, deals with supernatural elements and will soon be added to this feature. It is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. See Anti-Film School’s review of it here.
Woody Allen on Woody Allen by Stig Bjorkman. Pg. 50
Midnight in Paris (2011)
An American couple, Gil and Inez (Owen Wilson, Wedding Crashers and Rachael McAdams, Sherlock Holmes) tag along with Inez’s parents on a business trip to Paris. While touring the sites, Gil considers moving to the city to reinvigorate his writing career and unexpectedly finds himself in 1920’s Paris, hobnobbing with artistic greats like Picasso and Fitzgerald. During Gil’s adventures through time, the film takes you on a comical and philosophical ride of catchy music, scenic shots of Paris, and truly colorful acting.
A lovely cross between Back to the Future and The Sun Also Rises (yes, I just paired those two titles), the movie mocks obnoxious pedantry and yet only delivers humor to those who understand its literary/historical jokes. As you laugh at the obvious portrayals of Hemingway and Dali (that you only get because you took that Modernism course sophomore year), you realize that Midnight in Paris is simultaneously a slap in the face to pseudo-intellectualism and a brilliant opportunity to stroke your own intellectual ego.
As with Woody Allen’s other recent films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, this movie allows the viewer to identify with different characters at different times, leaving you to wonder how you really feel about art and ex-patriotism. While the characters may seem almost stock (the aspiring writer, the Tea Party ass, the blonde American prep), you realize this is the beauty of Allen’s work: he proves that there is a reason some stereotypes exist. The film practically serves as a mirror for its audience, as I observed during the ending credits. “This was stupid,” the Abercrombie-wearing bro snapped as he stomped out of the theater, his sad-eyed girlfriend in tow (meanwhile, my own academic boyfriend proudly guffawed at the Bunuel jokes).
Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, Tron) stands out as the wine-swilling art history buffoon and Corey Stoll’s breakout Hemingway had me choking on my popcorn with laughter. Sincere performances by Wilson and Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose, Inception) make us question the beauty and terror of nostalgia, while the film’s magical realism unapologetically entertains. All in all, Midnight in Paris is a delightful evening stroll away from the summer’s exploding CGI cash cows, truly a walk in the park. Grade: A-