My Top 10 Movies of 2011 (January-August)
I meant to do this in June, the halfway point of the year, but I was scrambling with work, reviews, and prep for a week's vacation in Minnesota and never got around to it. The end of July passed, too, without an attempt. But the beginning of September is actually a good place for this. Awards season is starting, all the critics with inside knowledge are predicting the nominees before they've seen the films (and sometimes before we've heard of the films), and the first 8 months, the ones we just lived through, are dismissed as fun but inconsequential.
But not all were inconsequential.
Here are the movies from the first 8 months of the year I'm glad I saw:
10. Captain America: The First Avenger: Cap was my second-favorite Marvel character in the mid-1970s, after Spider-Man, and Joe Johnston and all of his screenwriters did Cap right. They improved upon him, as you need to do, since comic book origins were often pretty lame back then. They gave Steve Rogers a backstory here. They held so long on the skinny, asthmatic Steve Rogers (a mere blip in the comic books), that even when he turns into the real Chris Evans, muscles both huge and baby-smooth, we never lose sight of the scrappy, scrawny dude he was. Is. Only the ending of the movie is a misfire. Review excerpt:
Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it—because Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change? Worth an essay, one day.
9. Win Win: I think of quiet and calm, as with most of Tom McCarthy's movies, along with a touch of Hollywood (the winning Hollywood wrestling scenes), and an attempt at getting at the ordinary lives of folks in the middle of the global financial meltdown. What ethics will you give up in order to make financial ends meet? But McCarthy doesn't get it quite right: Review excerpt:
The ethical lapse is confronted personally but not penalized professionally, while the solution Mike feared in the beginning—getting a second job as a bartender—is the solution he embraces in the end. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending but there are Hollywood elements to it. The economic crisis in the film world means having to take a second job; the economic crisis in the real world means being unable to find the first.
8. Buck: The documentary isn't as good as its subject, Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer, and the ending is again a misfire. Why was the spoiled horse put down? What did Buck think of this? Why wasn't he interviewed about it? But Brannaman himself—the abused boy who becomes an empathetic communicator with animals most of us can't fathom—makes it all worthwhile. Excerpt:
He “starts” horses, he says, he doesn’t break them. His approach is discipline without punishment, empathy without sentimentality. Horse people come to his seminars skeptical and leave stunned. Their tough love doesn’t work. Their soft love doesn’t work. But Buck gets in the ring and in five minutes their horse is following him around like a dog. He takes an unfocused horse and focuses him. He takes a skittish horse and calms him. The advice he gives goes beyond horses.
7. Tabloid: A Love Story: The creepiness of Errol Morris' latest documentary hasn't left me. It's about some of the worst aspects of our modern culture. It's about a kind of massive self-delusion. It's also about the way female power diminishes with time and age and weight. Excerpt:
Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.
6. The Housemaid: The film begins in almost cinema verite fashion, becomes a sexy thriller, with the inevitable subsequent violence and death and search for revenge, and ends in almost David Lynchian fashion. But it's the sexiness, the heavy sexiness of the film, that has stayed with me. Excerpt:
We know what’s going to happen, of course. We’ve seen the poster—Eun-yi crouched before a bathtub, all bare legs and apron, something breathless in her face—and we’ve read the synopsis, full of words like “erotic” and “steamy.” That’s what draws us in. That’s why we’re in the audience. But those adjectives are slightly misleading. At a mountain resort, yes, Mr. Goh enters the servant quarters with a bottle of wine, demands Eun-yi reveal her body, feels her up, demands and receives oral sex. But nothing is particularly “steamy.” This is a cold thriller. It’s filmed cold, its people are cold, they live in a cold mansion. Dark blues and steel dominate. The first words in the movie, in fact, are “It’s cold, where should we go?” Only the revenge at the end is served hot.
5. The Trip: I saw this a month ago (two months ago?) but never wrote the review. Will soon. It's a documentary, but the fictional kind, a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” type of documentry, in which Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, on a road trip with a friend, Rob Brydon, played Rob Brydon. Coogan is the fussy, lonely egotist while Brydon is the friendly everyman—we get that at the get-go—but by the end it's Coogan we identify with. He may be a successful actor and star, and a prick, but there's this sense that life is passing him by and he'll never be able to do what he wants to do. Brydon keeps trotting out a popular character he does on the BBC, the “small man in a box.” That's Coogan. That's all of us.
4. Bridesmaids: Funniest movie of the year. Hands down. My fear is that its success ($162 million, 9th-best box office of the year so far) will either lead to nothing, no new female-centered comedies, or they'll make dopey versions and then give up when they don't succeed. A reminder, Hollywood: The key to the comedy is in the relationships. I could watch, for example, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudoph riff over breakfast for an entire movie. “My Breakfast with Maya.” I'd pay to see that. Excerpt:
She’s her own worst enemy. She keeps going back to the wrong guy (Ted), keeps ignoring the right guy, Irish cop Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd). She loses her job, is forced to move home with her mother (Jill Clayburgh, the original unmarried woman), and winds up crying on the couch to Tom Hanks in “Castaway.” We’ve seen this kind of thing before yet it feels different here. It’s funnier, yes, but it also feels truer. The way people try to talk Annie out of her downward spiral and the way she doesn’t listen. There’s a scene where, after Rhodes encourages her to bake again, she does, she bakes a glorious cupcake, topped with all kinds of candied configurations. Then she stares at it on the counter, unhappily. Then she eats it, unhappily. Not because she wants the cupcake, one assumes, but because she doesn’t want to make the cupcake. Because baking isn’t satisfying what it used to satisfy.
3. Midnight in Paris: Welcome back, Woody. How I've missed you. There's a kind of love story here (with Marion Cotillard's character) and an anti-love story (with Rachel McAdams' character) but the true love is with art and literature; with things that matter in a world where little does. It's about finding your club—the people with whom you belong. And in Owen Wilson, Woody has finally found the protagonist best able to replace himself. Wilson is west-coast Woody. He's able to do Woody and still be himself. Excerpt:
It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.
2. Des hommes et des dieux: This 2010 Cesar winner for le meiuller film is a monastic movie that transcends the world. It's about the beginning of what feels like the fundamental battle of our time, extreme Islamism vs. the rest of us. It's also based upon a true story: a group of Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the mid-1990s, who are caught in a civil war between religious extremists and a corrupt government but refuse to leave. It has a humble, day-to-day feel, then somehow expands in an existential manner. Excerpt:
Luc (the great French actor Michael Lonsdale) is gentle with patients and impatient with government officials questioning his patients. “I’m not scared of death,” he tells Christian at one point; then adds with a smile, a touch of monastic jocularity perhaps: “I’m a free man.” In an early scene, he sits on a bench in the winter sun talking to a local girl about love. She wonders what it feels like, and we, or the romantics in us, suspect she’s in love. When he gives her a description of love that is both simple and beautiful—“Something inside you comes alive...” he says, “but you’re in turmoil, especially the first time”—she responds, No, she’s never felt that, and certainly not with the boy her parents want her to marry. “Oh, c’est ca,” Luc answers. She asks Luc if he’s ever been in love and he answers, yes, several times. “Then I experienced an even greater love and I answered that call. Sixty years ago.” It’s such a beautiful scene I didn’t want to leave it. It shows us not only how much these Christian monks are part of the life of this Muslim village but why. They don’t proselytize about Jesus’ love; they quietly demonstrate it.
1. The Tree of Life: The ending doesn't work but it's still the best movie of the year. That's how powerful the rest of it is. That's how grand Terrence Malick's ambition and vision is. For him, it's not enough to give us the tale of a boy growing up in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s, caught between the love of his mother and the demands of his father, caught between good and bad, between the way of grace and the way of nature. No, Malick has to bracket this story with the beginning and end of time. He has to give us the earth forming and life beginning and moving to land. He has to remind us, as he reminded us with the film's epigraph, of God's response to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Malick, who deals in immensity, wants to remind us of the immensity of those lines. And does. Excerpt:
When the father (Brad Pitt) returns, excited by his trips to China and Germany, things get worse. It’s a clash of the ways of nature. Jack sees his father flirting with a waitress, keeping the dollar bill just out of her grasp, and it’s like an earlier scene at school, where Jack had done the same with a pretty girl correcting his paper. He sees his father working under his jacked-up car, and he knows how easy it would be to kick the jack away. He actually looks around to see if anyone is watching. Even his prayers are now the way of nature rather than the way of grace: “Please, God, kill him. Let him die.” Then his father’s plant closes and his father returns diminished and the family is forced to move. The father calls Jack his sweet boy but Jack says, “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her.”
What about you? What did you see this year that was worth it?