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.
by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!