The trailer that got the most attention in 2011 was for Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with its powerful Trent Reznor/Karen O cover of classic Zeppelin. Smart, effective…and completely obvious. “I come from the land of the ice and snow,” yeah, we get.
For me, true artistry was found in the first trailer for Battle: Los Angeles. A serviceable if unremarkable sci-fi action movie, B:LA will be memorable for years to come mainly for this brilliant teaser featuring music from modern composer Johann Johannsson’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual.
Filmmakers, take note: this is how it’s done. Johannsson’s haunting, coldly alien sound elevates routine Michael Bey-esque clips into something both terrible and beautiful.
Hollywood is bashed - and rightly so - for an over-reliance on sequels, remakes and rebooted franchises. This year’s 7 highest grossing movies (worldwide, according to THR) were all sequels: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One), Fast Five, and The Hangover 2. Potter aside, that list makes me sad.
So let’s give credit where credit is due. Last year, two very different bands of misfits got franchise reboots well worth seeing: The Muppets and X-Men: First Class.
Jason Segal is clearly a lifelong Muppets fan. For my money, his clever update did Jim Henson proud, reminding us what makes these characters indelible for those of us who grew up with them.
Meanwhile, who would have dreamed Mad Men-plus-mutants would work so spectacularly? Sending the franchise back to it’s swinging ’60s Cold War origins was a stroke of genius. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender pull off the neat trick of evoking and surpassing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan’s performances as Professor X and Magneto.
Added bonus: putting the ubiquitous (and enormously talented) Fassbender on screen with Kevin Bacon as the villainous Sebastian Shaw automatically changes the game to “Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
2011 Honorable Mention: Best Middle Thrid of a Movie
"The Diary of Anne Frankenstein" is writer/director Adam Green’s contribution to the entertaining but uneven Chillerama. Set on the last night at bankrupt drive-in movie, the film offers three and a half movies-within-a-movie, of which “Diary” is by far the funniest.
Green is clearly a graduate of the Mel Brooks School of Hitler Humor (with a minor in Young Frankensteining). Joel David Moore (Avatar) sends it over the top, playing der Fuhrer with a gibberish German that would do Sid Caeser proud.
2011 Honorable Mention: Best First Third of a Movie
We Need To Talk About Kevin is impressive from the get go, from its bold, expressionistic use of color to its temporal fluidity. (Has any film ever relied so much on an actor’s hair style for narrative comprehensibility?) Tilda Swinton, in nearly every scene, is captivating as a strong-willed woman whose life is upended by her dark offspring.
Unfortunately, director Lynne Ramsay’s spell over me was broken when it came time to talk to Kevin. Played at different ages by Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, Kevin is such an obvious, cliched “bad seed” that the movie threatens to tip from serious drama to total kitsch.
The camera clearly loves Swinton, though I am hard pressed to think of a performance in which she elects to reflect it back. Crucially, I wish they had cast as her clueless husband someone who could match her intensity. Pairing John C. Reilly with Tilda Swinton is a bit like putting a beer jingle up against a Mahler symphony. I like to imagine John C. Reilly and George Clooney swapping roles in Kevin and The Descendants. In my mind (and perhaps in only in my mind), the switch betters both.
10 Movies Released Last Year That I Really Liked, 2011 Edition
The best (in alphabetical order):
The next best (ditto):
Attack the Block
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Midnight in Paris
Note: only 2011 theatrical & direct to DVD/VOD releases were considered.
As in the past (see 2008, 2009 and 2010), the last spot was a virtual coin flip. I liked but didn’t love Paris, just as I liked but didn’t love two other comedies, Bridesmaids and Young Adult. Paris gets the nod for doing for the City of Lights what Manhattan did for Manhattan. For that, and for the way Corey Stoll’s Hemmingway utterly steals the movie. (Corey who?Exactly.)
So much for the bottom. Up at the top, I think of Melancholia and Take Shelter as a matched set. Both use apocalyptic imagery as metaphors for mental illness, bipolar disorder in the former and schizophrenia in the latter. Von Trier’s film explores (predominantly but not uniquely) female anxieties around marriage, family, career and identity, while Nichols unpacks the stereotypically male fears of providing and protecting the family in this age of recession and foreclosure. For my money, no two films better capture life in 2011.
I’m tempted to pair up Senna and Rubber as well - the first a documentary about a Formula 1 driver and the other a postmodern tale about a killer car tire. But really, the two films could hardly be less alike. Senna tells the story of a pretty remarkable life in a truly remarkable way: without talking heads or voiceover. The filmmakers deliver an uplifting tale of a full if tragically short life relying on nothing more than TV coverage, home movies and breathtaking in-car race footage. No knowledge of or even interest in car racing is required to enjoy this great documentary.
As for Rubber, the less said the better - but be aware that there is another level to the film beyond what you see in the trailer. Madman director Quentin Dupieux is the antidote to tired, formulaic filmmaking.
Attack the Block was the best sci-fi film of the year and Stake Land my favorite horror film (think Zombieland meets The Road, but with feral vampires and crazy cultists).
Martha Marcy May Marlene could almost be considered a horror movie. It delivers a sense of inescapable dread as we peel back the layers of a young woman’s past in a rural cult and her present with her materialistic sister and brother-in-law. First time writer-director Sean Durkin is clearly one to watch, as is his star (and Olsen Twin sibling) Elizabeth Olsen.
I adore Scorsese for sneaking a primer on the history of film into a big budget, 3D holiday release, though I have some problems with the source material. (As with Super 8, I kept asking myself “why is the boy the star and the girl the sidekick?” Here are rare instance where Scorsese and J.J. Abrams could take a page from Robert Rodriguez.)
Drive could have made it into the first group, except it went off the rails for me after the over-the-top elevator fight. Sure Gosling’s “Driver” is a badass, but he’s not the goddamn Batman.
Overall, a pretty solid list, if not as strong as last year’s. That’s my top 10. What’s yours?
(Check back later this week for a few “honorable mentions,” including my favorite movie trailer of 2011.)