@ the Movies, 2011
Hollywood is bemoaning its annus horribilis - not because 2011 was such a bad year for movies, rather because film grosses - the bottom line in any industry - were down, way down.
Entertainment Weekly reported it this way: "All told, theatrical releases sold about $10.2 billion worth of tickets in 2011 (final numbers not yet available) at an average price of $7.96. (Ticket price via the National Association of Theatre Owners. Although, seriously, when was the last time anyone paid so little for a ticket?) That total marked a 3.5 percent drop from 2010, when the box office earned a yearly total of $10.6 billion, and attendance dipped by about 5 percent for the second year in a row. In fact, with 1.28 billion tickets sold, 2011 was the least-attended box office year since 1995."
Complicating matters is that of the top grossing films of the year, all but two (8h place "Thor" and 10th place "Captain America") are sequels. And even both those titles emerge from the growing list of Marvel superhero films - itself a franchise that comes to fruition next May when "The Avengers," with its multiple superheroes, hits theaters.
Making matters worse is that 3D, thought to be the savior in post- "Avatar" Hollywood, yielded less than expected results. With some 40+ films released in the format (only 5 were released in 2010), the concept that 3D was to save the moribund film industry quickly faded as a good chunk of audiences preferred to see 2D versions of 3D films at lower admission prices. Even as early as May, the New York Times was trumpeting with the headline, "3-D Starts to Fizzle, and Hollywood Frets," lamenting that a sure-fire title like Disney’s $400-million "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" "did poor 3-D business in North America."
"Audiences are very smart," Greg Foster, the president of Imax Filmed Entertainment told the Times. "When they smell something aspiring to be more than it is, they catch on very quickly."
Whether this 3D backlash is indicative of audiences having issues with the process or more reflective of audiences being more selective of their movie-going is still up for grabs. "We have disappointed our audience multiple times now, and because of that I think there is genuine distrust -- whereas a year and a half ago, there was genuine excitement, enthusiasm and reward for the first group of 3D films that actually delivered a quality experience," Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg said recently. (Katzenberg was one of 3Ds biggest supporters 18-months ago.) "Now that’s been seriously undermined. It’s not in any fashion, shape or form the demise of 3D, but until there are 3D experiences that exceed people’s expectations, it’s going to stay challenged. The audience has spoken, and they have spoken really loudly."
Okay, instead of making zillions of dollars, Hollywood only made billions of dollars. Finances aside, was 2011 a good year at the movies? Were there pleasant surprises? Breakthroughs? Gaffes? And what of independents, most of which were made for less than the catering budget for "New Year’s Eve?" Happily, there were plenty of good movies this year.
Below are my choices for the best and worst of the year, with links to three other EDGE critics - Kilian Melloy, Jake Mulroney and Kevin Langston - who weigh in on their choices. There will likely be more from other critics in the upcoming days.
Click here to read Kilian Melloy’s picks
Click here to read Jake Mulligan’s picks
Click here to read Kevin Langston’s picks
(Note: I chose not to choose titles made by my colleagues, but certainly concur about "Hugo," "Weekend," "Circumstance" and "Melancholia.")
Mitt Romney likes to say on the campaign trail that corporations are people, a notion only a one-percenter like Mittens would believe. You, though, began to understand his sensibility when watching writer/director J.C. Chandler’s tight, compelling thriller about the collapse of a Wall Street firm (like Lehman Brothers) in the fall of 2008. They do not go gently in that good night, instead purposely set out to dump "greatest pile of odiferous excrement in the history of capitalism" on unsuspecting customers, bringing the economy to a near collapse in the ensuing weeks. This story of greed and survival is told with a cool eye by Chandler, who seems to have studied the plays of David Mamet as a template. What Chandler does amazingly well is turn the 2008 financial crisis into something close to a Hitchcock thriller with the audience sympathetic to its very flawed characters. This is Mamet’s "Glengarry Glenn Ross" set in the world of Wall Street traders - a chilling morality tale with a top-notch cast: Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley are the newbies swimming with the sharks, who include a compelling Kevin Spacey in one of his best performances in years, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Simon Baker.
This French thriller, directed by Fred Cavayé, takes the classic Hitchcock scenario - a man wrongly accused of a crime - and turns it into a breathtaking chase drama which brings to mind the classic "Diva," but pumped-up on amphetamines. Cavayé’s "wrong man" is a nurse who happens upon the attempted murder of a suspected drug dealer in the hospital. He prevents it from happening, but soon finds his pregnant wife kidnapped and himself a police suspect. The complicated plot is pure B-movie action staged with upmost skill by this talented director. See this version before Hollywood remakes it in an American version.
Another thriller - this one combining sci-fi and contemporary politics with a touch of romance - is set largely on a Chicago-bound train that is about to be blown up by an unknown terrorist. To learn the identity of the bomber, an American soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) is transported back in time onto the train for its last eight minutes, each time getting closer to the terrorist’s identity as well as that of a young woman (Michelle Monaghan) who will soon perish in the attack. The film, directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, sounds preposterous, but has an undeniable pull, and unfolds with just the right mix of suspense, romance and, finally, emotional release. Gyllenhaal gives a performance of upmost charm and humor, and he’s ably assisted by Monaghan and Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright, as the military officials that oversee the project. Taut, accomplished and surprisingly touching, one of the year’s most overlooked films.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It seemed like a bad idea to remake Niels Arden Oplev’s critically lauded and commercially successful adaptation of the first installment in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Noomi Rapace became an overnight star as the punked-out, social outcast Lisbeth Salander? Yet as good as that film is, David Fincher does it one better with this superb version that has a breakthrough performance by Rooney Mara as Salander. Fincher, coming off the success of "The Social Network," returns to the crime genre he so ably explored in the past with "Se7en" and "Zodiac." Again, his film focuses on tracking down a serial killer - in this case a killer of Swedish women. That, though, is only part of the plot of Larsson’s complicated narrative, which has Salander teaming with discredited Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) in solving the disappearance of a teenage girl some forty years ago. Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian improve upon the Swedish film in many ways, making a taut, slick, grim crime melodrama that hopefully will set the stage for adapting the next two novels in Larsson’s trilogy (already filmed with Rapace for Swedish television and released in theaters throughout the world in 2010). This is one franchise deserving of a Hollywood treatment.
The Skin I Live In
There hasn’t been a Pedro Almodóvar film that divided critics as strongly as this mix of sci-fi and perverse romance. Some found it preposterous, lurid trash; others, though, were carried away by its story of revenge, medical experimentation and sexual passions told in a sleek, time-shifting narrative. Antonio Banderas plays a gifted surgeon who invents a new kind of skin that he transplants on a beautiful young woman, kept captive in his remote villa. What leads Banderas to do these experiments and the identity of his patient is the central mystery in this dark, lush and most peculiar melodrama. There isn’t a better stylist than Almodóvar working in film today and he stays on the top of his form in this remarkable horror film.
In the scramble for delegates that has been the long lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the Republican candidates for president have found a peculiar local chain much to their liking.
An a Dec. 26 article in the Los Angeles Times explains, the chain "has become the de facto stop for conservative candidates traversing the state." In part, it’s because there are Pizza Ranches in nearly every town with over 1,000 people. The chain, which was founded in Hull, Iowa, in 1981, has over 160 locations in the Plains and Upper Midwest states.
The restaurants have back rooms that are suitable for hosting political gatherings. "If there’s an event at the Pizza Ranch, nine times out of 10 it’s a political event," Craig Robinson, a local political blogger, told the Times. "They all seem more than willing to host any candidate coming through town."
Aside from its bizarre melding of a Western cowboy motif and pizza, the chain is a Christian based company. Their "mission/vision posters," prominently displayed, describes it as "To glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in." The chain will even prayer for you if you go to its website.
The Western thing might strike some as strange, considering pizza’s normal associations with its country of origin, Italy. As the Times describes it: "chairs with horseshoes on the back, bathrooms marked ’Cowboys’ and ’Cowgirls,’ crayons for the kids and murals of cowboys leading covered wagons past golden mountains."
The chain has come in for some controversy for being the platform for far-right evangelical local power broker Bob Vander Plaats’ using it as a venue for his own campaign to have the state reverse same-sex marriage. (Iowa remains the only state outside of the Northeast to have marriage equality.)
Local blog the Newton Independent points out that some Iowans are turned off by the blatant swing to the right. Potential patrons told the blogger, Peter Hussmann, "that his presence at the Pizza Ranch would dissuade them in the future from frequenting the establishment."
Sounds like a clean up-righteous establishment , right? Only one minor problem: This super-conservative, super- Christian restaurant mini-empire has dirty little secret in its closet. One of its two co-founders, Lawrence Vander Esch, who still lives in Hull, was sentenced in 2001 to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to fondling teenage male employees of the Pizza Ranch in Hull. According to blogger Aksarbent, Vander Esch persuaded the men them "to donate semen samples for a medical research project."
Only the most media savvy remembered Joyce McKinney, a North Carolina woman who had her 15-minutes of fame in 1977. That came when she was said to have followed her Mormon lover to England and kidnapped him, holding him captive as a sex slave in a remote farmhouse. She was caught, convicted of kidnapping and became the darling of the British tabloids. With lines (taken from the court transcript) like "I would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose for the love of that man," how could it not? And the story didn’t end there for the former Miss Montana and documentary filmmaker Erroll Morris follows it through to today in this sensational (in every sense of the word) documentary. Bondage, porn, Mormonism, self-absorption and, lastly, cloned puppies are all part of this enormously entertaining documentary, which features a good deal of the real Ms. Kinney, a deluded, if captivating Scheherazade whose tales pre-date the Kardashians and are far more interesting.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
This is the real American Horror Story - a mesmerizing, hallucinatory journey into parenting, tragedy and guilt. No one suffers more eloquently than Tilda Swinton as the mother of a teen who commits a horrific crime. There really is little talk about Kevin at all in Lynne Ramsay’s artful, time-tripping narrative, which lets Swinton express her emotions through her facial expressions as if in a silent movie. She’s literally in every frame of this film and you can’t take your eyes off her. The film, adapted of a novel by Lionel Shriver, is the most sweepingly cinematic film of the year - not only because of Ramsay’s imaginative visuals, but because the combination of the elements - from Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score to Seamus McGarvey’s vivid cinematography. The film has the effect of a fevered nightmare.
Okay, fight movies are almost too clichéd to even be made. They live and die by a "Rocky"-like scenario. "Warrior," directed with superb grittiness by Gavin O’Connor, is filled with those clichés - actually, it embraces them and makes them work again with gripping force. Its story is out of central casting: two brothers, one an Iraqi war veteran, the other a struggling science teacher, are estranged, but come together as fighters in a mixed-martial arts championship match. How they get there has to do with a soon-to-be-foreclosed mortgage, an heroic act and an alcoholic father trying to win back his sons. It’s hokey, but O’Connor’s gritty style, punchy editing and a trio of great performances: Nick Nolte as the repentant dad, Joel Edgerton as the determined teacher and Tom Hardy - best of all - as the man still stricken by the separation of his parents. Hardy embodies smoldering rage with the finesse of the young Brando. The film looked like a real audience-winner, yet they didn’t come. Perhaps the way it undermined the conventions of the genre worked against its audience appeal. Who knows, but "Warrior" is the best Hollywood movie this year that nobody saw.
With all the retro-Hollywood attention being given Steven Spielberg’s excruciating crowd pleaser "War Horse," it’s easy to see how "The Help" was overlooked in the Old Hollywood department. Yet this is a tearjerker in the Hollywood tradition exemplified by the weepies of Douglas Sirk. What was once labeled "the women’s picture" re-invents itself in this story, taken from Kathryn Stockett’s hugely popular novel, about the relationship between the white gentry and their black servants in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1962. The story has a noble heroine - a long-suffering maid, a nasty, racist villainess and a noble white liberal wanting to tell the story of her growing up in a segregated society. Tate Taylor’s adaptation (he wrote and directed) feels authentic, and he has a great gift of working with actors. Controversy aside, "The Help" is distinguished for its superb acting ensemble, led by Olivia Spencer as Minny and Viola Davis as Abilene, the two most prominent maids. Spencer turns the easy-to-caricature Minnie into a heartfelt, appealing symbol of change, while Davis eloquently captures Aibilene’s seething rage and pain.
Dee Rees’ semi-autobiographical first feature was the breakthrough film at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and looks to be a gay indie favorite as it goes into wider release this month and next. Smartly written and leanly directed, the film tells the story of Alike (pronounced ah-LEE-kay), a 17-year old African-American coming of age and coming out. As she wrestles with coming out to her parents, who have issues of their own, she finds her first sexual experience with a most unlikely partner: the daughter of her conservative mom’s church friend. Rees film has a powerful authenticity both in its often humorous portrayal of Alike’s coming out process, and in its more serious climax. Newcomer Adepero Oduye makes a vivid debut as Alike - both volatile and tentative, she encompasses her character’s conflicting emotions with conviction.
Baseball changed a decade ago when Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane reinvented the way major league baseball teams chose their players. Instead of the traditional method of scouting, Beane and his number-crunching assistant used a statistically-based method called Sabermetrics that allowed the under-funded Athletics to put together a competitive team in 2002. The team’s 20-game winning streak is the stuff of legend and it is rousingly captured in Bennett Miller’s first-rate baseball drama, which could be the best baseball movie ever. (Sorry "Field of Dreams.") At the heart of the film is Brad Pitt’s beautifully shaded performance as the eccentric Beane, whose combative manner and love of the game is brilliantly realized by the charming actor. He’s a dark horse for this year’s Oscar, but this, plus his performance as the Texan dad in "The Tree of Life," make him a real contender. With him is Jonah Hill in a very effective turn as his assistant - a chubby Yale graduate who makes for a most unlikely catalyst of change in the way baseball conducts its business.
Something of a magic trick of a movie, but what a trick! Word that French director Michel Hazanavicius’s film was something special trickled out of Cannes this past May when the film was rapturously received and its lead actor - Jean Dujardin - took home the Best Actor prize. What was the fuss about? Hazanavicius, a French director best-known for a series of popular spy comedies starring Dujardin, resurrected the silent movie for his comedy/drama about a fading action star (like Douglas Fairbanks) and a young starlet on the rise as Hollywood makes the transition to sound in the late 1920s. The film’s look is right out of the period (think "Sunrise"), but Hazananvicius’s sly direction and impeccable comic performances by Dujardin, as the action hero on the way down, and Berenice Bejo, as the rising star, make "The Artist" an absolute delight. Ludovic Bource’s expert music scoring (with a clever quote from Bernard Herrmann’s "Vertigo") add immeasurably to the success of this film. Pure pleasure.
And what of the worst?
New Year’s Eve
If the Devil were smart, he’d create a special place in hell where movie-lovers would have to spend eternity watching the films of Garry Marshall. His smarmy style was never better (worse) than in this star-clogged, episodic take on the annual Times Square debacle. It’s difficult to decide which subplot was the most unbearable: precious Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele being locked in an elevator (eek!); Jon Bon Jovi and Katherine Heigl’s burned romance; Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron’s maudlin quest to fulfill the mousey Pfeiffer’s New Year’s resolutions in a matter of hours; or Sarah Jessica Parker’s cloying single mom out to protect her daughter (Abigail Breslin) from her first kiss; but the winner has to be the one featuring Robert DeNiro as a man dying alone of cancer and Hilary Swank as his daughter. His dying wish is to see the ball drop for the last time; her job is to make sure that the ball drops. Is it any surprise they come together in the final moments of this emotionally fraudulent, truly depressing ensemble comedy. DeNiro gives the worst performance in his career, as do fellow Oscar-winners Swank and Halle Berry.
I Don’t Know Why She Does It
Sarah Jessica Parker again, this time the star in this feeble, feel-good comedy about a woman attempting to have it all - career and family. Parker’s comic style, which she perfected on the small screen, looks self-conscious when blown up 60 feet across. And her Carrie Bradshaw routine is old... old. What is meant to be a smart comedy about balancing family and career becomes one self-aggrandizing comic blunder. I don’t know why she still does it. Who made Sarah Jessica Parker a movie star anyway?
Something awful this way came in this inane contemporary take on a contemporary Jane Austen-lite scenario. A young lawyer dates a hunky colleague, only to lose him on their first date to her best friend - a self-absorbed party girl. Party girl and hunky lawyer plan to wed, that is until best friend sleeps with the hunk. Ginnifer Goodwin and hottie Colin Egglesfield play the dull, pretty cheating couple; John Krasinski channels Jimmy Stewart (poorly) as Goodwin’s best friend, and Kate Hudson adds a new grotesquerie to her continuing gallery of bad performances as the party girl/spurned fiancee. This was "Jersey Shore" for New York yuppies.
Did we really need a remake of "Footloose?" This version wasn’t even based on the dreary Broadway musical version, instead updated the original, moving the town from the Midwest to the Bible Belt. Dennis Quaid gives the worst performance of his career as the preacher who bans dancing from the town, driving the kids to have illegal raves in drive-in theaters (remember drive-in theaters?). In the Kevin Bacon role, newcomer Kenny Wormal plays the city kid that shakes things up with a come-and-go Boston accent. Sometimes a pretty face is not enough.
When will Nicholas Cage’s career hit bottom? And with this contrived, hyperactive thriller he’s bringing Nicole Kidman down with him. The pair play a couple in a troubled marriage that find themselves held hostage by a group of thugs out to get some diamonds locked away in a safe. One of the thieves is a juicy hunk (Cam Gigandet) who may or may not have had an affair with the unhappy Kidman. It is directed by Joel Schumacher in an appropriately manic style. At least he’s consistent - he directed last year’s worst movie - "Twelve" - and repeats the honor with this year’s.