Dragged, Kicking and Screaming to Answer Year-End/Best of 2011 Questions
I am not a fan of year-end lists. They are entirely reductive and self-congratulatory.
However the text below was triggered by another critic, Examiner.com’s Jason Roestel, who asked me to contribute to his year-end piece. So this is a version that fixes as many grammatical errors as I originally had, as well as some significant bonuses that do not appear in Jason’s article. The questions are numbered in the order Jason asked them in.
Drive is the perfect synthesis of everything Michael Mann and Walter Hill did well in the early-mid 1980s (such as in The Warriors, Thief, Manhunter, Streets of Fire, The Driver, and the great Southern Comfort) in terms of visual style and crisp editing, and none of their faults. Hill was weak on backstory and character, more worried about having us judge a hero based on his actions than understanding why he behaved that way. Mann’s films were generally humorless, with perpetually agitated loner protagonists who exist primarily to be agitated loners. Director Nicolas Winding Refn solved all of these problems in Drive by not worrying about dumbing anything down and letting the inexpressiveness of the hero become the joke, letting Albert Brooks play off that silence. And then there’s Ron Perlman, with his permanently etched Joker-face, who is both Brooks’ foil and the one who is arrogant enough to put together such a ridiculous plan that ends up with Gosling turning on him. The car chases are of course exceptional, the best since To Live and Die in LA, and Refn knew which directors to steal from at the right time: That exceptional elevator sequence, with the surreal moment where Gosling and Mulligan get their own personal lighting is right out of Buffalo ’66, when Christina Ricci dances at a bowling alley in the middle of a lane, and is given her own totally unmotivated spotlight.
I could just copy and paste the opening paragraphs of my review for The Reflecting Skin where I go on and on about why Sucker Punch was such an agonizing experience. But I didn’t write a review for the film originally because it felt like piling on, and unlike a lot of critics, I don’t get any pleasure out of piling on. Also, I hate when people do what I just did, which is to align themselves against every other theoretical critic just so they can seem like a lone ranger. “Everyone else hated this particular movie, but I had the wisdom to find the redeeming factors that make me more perceptive than everyone else on the planet and simultaneously a rebel.” Of course, so many critics do this that the person who is taking a stand against or for whatever film ends up being just as generic and groupthinky as the fantasy critics that they claim to decry. All this has nothing to do with Sucker Punch, and is probably pretty unprofessional of me to go on and on about what I hate about people who hate things just to prove that they’re not the boring middlebrow person that they are. Continuing in that unprofessional vein, while I could easily detail the nonsensical and headache inducing material that made up Sucker Punch, I’m just going to offer up my immediate and totally classless initial reaction to the movie.
“It’s pretty clear that the Scott Glenn part is supposed to be David Carradine. But I bet Snyder hired Glenn because David Carradine killed himself rather than appear in Sucker Punch.”
The Skin I Live In, which is Pedro Almodovar’s uncredited premaquel to his own Talk to Her. First, he pulls the same trick of putting all of his focus into the first 40 minutes, set-up a small B story, and then flash forward several years, turn the B story into the A story, and dropping the original A story completely. [Try to say that needlessly convoluted sentence one time fast.] But more importantly, all credit must be given to Almodovar for making me sympathize with a rapist in Talk to Her, but I’m not sure any amount of kudos is enough to congratulate him on making me sympathize with two different rapists at the same time in The Skin I Live In, sometimes even when one is being raped by the other.
Another Earth was such a calm film compared to the very similar and histrionic Melancholia, and without any attempt by the director to rub our noses in the lives of insufferable rich people. Another Earth was the rare sci-fi film that only incidentally had science in it, and was more worried about characters than gimmicks. It was like watching a pro remake Primer, and even making the technical explanations semi-coherent. Plus, the male lead, Thomas Mapother, looks just like Eli Manning.
The camera operator in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I’m not saying this to be contrarian. I mean, it was the best “ape in a sweater” movie I saw that week. No, I truly laughed through the entire screening. It wasn’t just the plot holes that got to me (so James Franco hasn’t moved that bottle of smart formula in his fridge in 5 years? Even though a woman moved into his home and no doubt cleaned him up?), it was that this camera operator was ahead of everyone else on set and overly anticipated where the CGI would be added later. The camera seemed to know where the apes would end up, not following them, but beating them to the spot. It was a nagging technical issue that I would generally ignore, but it was so prevalent that I started to imagine him bored on the set while the complicated effects shots are being put together, tuning out and drifting into his own world, which is why he kept starting the shot long before anyone called action.
Last year I said that Margaret was the movie I was looking forward to. Of course, since I saw a rough cut at a test screening back in 2006, I’ve been saying that every year since then, as nothing in the last 5 years has approached the ambition and combative nature of Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay, nor been as challenging and enraging. And since the movie was buried by Fox Searchlight (my original newspaper review from 2008 ended with their phone number, pleading with the reader to badger them into releasing the film) and got a spite release in a compromised version put together by the producer so he could use its failure as evidence in a lawsuit against Lonergan, amongst other vastly complicated legal issues, only critics have really been able to see this highly flawed masterpiece.
An extra bonus for those who have read this far: Here is an argument I took part in back in 2006, when a critic decided to review the obviously unfinished 3 hour version of Margaret that we had watched. In the thread, I oh-so-cleverly posted under the pseudonym Allen. I admit to acting in a rather immature fashion, but Mr. Davis broke the golden rule of never reviewing a movie in the rough cut stage. Now, the site where his original review appeared is long gone (re-imagined as AwardsCircuit.com) but it still remains on IMDB right here. In case the review gets deleted by an interested party, here is a screenshot of the review.
Drive Angry was the best use of 3D yet (apart from Jackass 3D), and William Fichtner, as Satan’s accountant, gives a legitimately great performance. It also plays like a more consistently entertaining and ludicrous remake of Faster. The remake of The Mechanic was equally dumb and outrageous and blows the ending that is set up so well in the original Bronson film, but it’s the only hitman movie I’ve ever seen that has a “taking your puppy to a coffee shop” montage.
Bridesmaids is a lively, smart movie for about 20-25 minutes (I love that scene with Terry Crews as the trainer who berates Wiig and Rudolph for not paying to be in the class), before the absolute desperation of the puking/poop sequence kicks in which derails any good will the movie has built up. At that point the whole thing turns into a series of manufactured crises. 125 minutes on a lonely woman being overbearing? There hasn’t been such non-conflict in a movie since I Love You, Man. And Bridesmaids also continues the Apatow obsession that began with Step Brothers, 90′s nostalgia (it’s funny because it’s really Wilson Phillips singing?). Also, doesn’t the casting of the cop who becomes Wiig’s boyfriend reek of Jason Segal not being available? The only difference between them is the cop’s Irish accent.
Elle Fanning blows everyone else away in Super 8, Ellen Page is fantastic in Super, but Anna Paquin’s performance in Margaret is extraordinary in what is a very difficult part. She is required to be instantly unlikable and shallow, but we understand her immaturity and arrogance completely. Nobody writes shrill women better than Kenneth Lonergan, and Margaret has three of them (Jeannie Berlin, J. Smith-Cameron, and Paquin), all of whom avoid being shrews.
The best part of Drive’s opening is how focused it is. When Gosling lets the two criminals out of the car, the camera does not follow them, and for all we know, they got into a big shoot-out with the cops. But Gosling’s part of the job is done, and so, despite a natural temptation to resolve things, Refn stays with him.
The absolutely dreadful final scenes of The Debt, with totally unconvincing old man makeup, and a chase(!) between mostly incapacitated elderly people, finally concluding in a syringe-off.
Also, the best scene of the year is the very long seduction in Terri which closes the film. Totally outshines the mediocre movie it finds itself in.
The most I laughed was any scene in [Michael Rapaport’s surprisingly well made documentary] Beats, Rhymes & Life: The travels of A Tribe Called Quest when Phife passive aggressively responds to Q-Tip about his Phife’s diabetes. The moment when he’s in the hospital where he gauges whether the text message Q-Tip sends him is both long and detailed enough, is absolutely perfect.
This Ain’t The Simpsons XXX.
Amber Heard in Drive Angry seemed to have been scrubbed clean of any possible visual flaw.
In the summer of 2007, when Judd Apatow was the only influence that mattered in movie comedies (on the heels of Knocked Up and Superbad, as well as the last 4 Will Ferrell movies), the studios tried to copy what supposedly made Apatow so successful. The Ferrell/John C. Reilly vehicle Stepbrothers (produced by Apatow) became the template; Hire two actors who can improvise/creatively use profanity and have them make up scenes on the spot, regardless of how much sense they might make in the context of the film. Make references to the early 1990s. Throw in as many narrative and dialogue non-sequiturs as you can. Hope that the negative reviews pointing out the stop-start pacing and how repetitive everything is, is drowned out by the laughter in the theater during the first weekend. Move on.
And because these “trends” take a while to kick in, 2011 became the year we would see the results. However, because Apatow had fallen out of favor after the expensive flops of Funny People and Year One (not to mention the Apatow derivations flopping around in films like Observe and Report and the long-shelved 2009 production Your Highness), a new, cheaper source had to be found. So what are the biggest influences in movie comedies today? Why, it’s the two major sketch groups of the mid-1990s, The State and Upright Citizens Brigade. You’ll find members of these two troupes somehow involved in every comedy of the last few years, whether they’re on the writing staff (Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant), directing (Ken Marino, David Wain), or acting (Lennon, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser, etc.). It’s still the same formula of improvise and curse, then make a bizarre reference to something unrelated, jamming random scenes together with no sense of how they might fit in the overall picture, all shot in the newfangled visual look of all mid-budget comedies, where the only colors on screen are gold and purple, and everyone’s face looks flushed and splotchy, hence why I call it Splotchy-Vision.
The Bad Teacher who needed 30 Minutes or Less to get a Hall Pass for The Change-Up and went to Cedar Rapids with his Friends With Benefits to avoid their Horrible Bosses while in search of Our Idiot Brother who ended up at A Good Old Fashioned Orgy … Part II.
The avoidance of suggesting that every little coincidence between two films is somehow a trend.
Another Earth, as the characters are discovering that the suddenly visible planet is a virtual duplicate of Earth. The lead character has finagled her way into the house of the husband of a woman that she killed in a car accident under the guise of being a cleaning woman. Her initial bewilderment at the other planet and what her double is doing resulted in this perfect Blue Velvet-like line: “I wonder if I’m cleaning your house.”
The false crisis break-up scene on the roof of a building in Friends With Benefits is one of the most irritating scenes I can think of. Why Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis didn’t just walk off the set before it was shot is a mystery. Maybe they should have just requested that they improvise an A Capella version of that “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah” song from The Jetsons instead. It would have been more convincing.
And, as a tremendous bonus, here is a video of that very scene. For those unfamiliar with the film, you need to know that Kunis’ character likes to go to the top of tall buildings as a place to escape, as it’s the only place she can’t be reached on her cell phone. The rest is the standard romantic comedy contrivances of characters overhearing things they weren’t supposed to and girl pretending she just wants to be friends if she can’t have the guy as a boyfriend.
A director’s cut of Margaret. Also, whatever perfect nonsense Steven Soderbergh comes up with for Haywire.