Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Charles Cassady Jr.'s Top Ten for 2011

By Charles Cassady, Jr.

Cyber-bullying being a major problem in US schools, I only felt I have to do my bit. Word reached me of the top-five-movies-of-the-year-2011 list compiled by the esteemed student newspaper of Case Western-Reserve University. If memory serves, it goes something like this:

(1)     CAPTAIN AMERICA
(2)     THOR
(3)     CAPTAIN AMERICA
(4)     GREEN LANTERN
(5)     Tie – CAPTAIN AMERICA and THOR

What can I say? The voice of young America speaks. Glad to know the future of our culture is in such good hands.

Okay, despite my sarcasm, maybe the Case kids are just warming us up for the global apocalypse in 2012, reminding us that if the world does end next year around this time, it will surely be a tragedy on a cosmic scale – except for contempo cinema. No great loss there. Unless you were counting on a Wolverine-Superman crossover, or the fourth/fifth attempt to get a Punisher feature right. Otherwise, stick a Mayan Calendar fork in Hollywood, it’s done. The art form has run its course.

I’ll tell you what really destroyed movies for me in 2011, and no, it wasn’t comic-book-adaptation saturation. While doing home chores (gotta make the place look good for imminent foreclosure) I listened to a book-on-tape of a classic work of literature I’d never actually read before, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (a superb unabridged reading by thespian Michael York, BTW).

I know it’s commonly assigned in schools – meaning only that the Cliffs Notes have been avidly perused/downloaded, by those very few Ohio kids who did any of the homework at all. So be patient, because I have to give you a recap to let you know where I’m coming from: Brave New World takes place in a darkly satirical – but not laff-riot satirical – anti-Utopian society of tomorrow, after a grievous series of planet-wide famines, plagues and natural-resource wars. Now, in the resulting, “improved” capitalist society Huxley imagines, the state is a sort of super-consumerist deal, run along the lines of an ultra-efficient giant factory. There is no unemployment; everyone is genetically engineered before test-tube birth for their predetermined slots in the job market. Families don’t exist; the corporate government takes care of you all the way. Marriage is unknown; free, uninhibited sex abounds, even among children (“erotic play,” it’s called). Legalized and widely encouraged drug abuse helps maintain a general sense of well-being. All of the above, plus some decent plastic surgery, keep everyone looking young and pretty until age 50 or 60 or so, when they abruptly and painlessly drop dead, their corpses immediately recycled for the phosphorous. And there’s no religion to cause any guilt or grief either, just a general veneration of auto magnate Henry Ford, as a secular Messiah on whose assembly-line methods this whole shebang is based.

Now, for decades Brave New World  was peddled as some sci-fi nightmare, like Orwell’s counterpart 1984. But as Mr. York’s perfect diction resounded in my ears, I thought, smeg! The reader is supposed to be horrified…but in 21st-century America’s post-9/11 no-jobs, no-future economy - no way. I’ll bet the vast majority of folks would go for the novel’s proposed type of existence in a heartbeat. Wall Street definitely would. Lots of shopping and spending, sex everywhere, no hangups, no war, no high-maintenance sons/daughters, no wrinkles, no worries…Just the drugs part alone would sell everyone on a Huxley/Ford ticket for President in 2012. Oh, and I’ll reckon Britney Spears would wish she spent a day or two in English class, just to rip off “erotic play” for a song title.

So what’s all this got to do with movies? Because in the intellectually blighted, consumerist world envisioned by Mr. Huxley, movies have evolved for the public “greater good” as well. They’re not movies any more, they’re “feelies,” in accord with the concept that future cinema-auditorium technology somehow allows FULL sensory experience of whatever the filmmakers are projecting onscreen: One can taste food, feel fabric, smell odors, etc. (Mr. Huxley is either too much the gentleman to go into the prospect of “feelie” pornography, or the free-sex concept makes pornography basically obsolete - all the more reason today’s conservatives would do anything they could to bring this world about). And the, uh, films that result from feeliemaking? Shallow trash, of course. Smarmy love stories and/or breakneck action-escapism, expertly calibrated for the broadest possible market. One Brave New World character, who ranks high in the ruling elite and actually possesses some taste, admits with slight melancholy that, yes, the feelies are vulgar sensationalism, but that such garbage is necessary as an opiate for the masses. 

I’m listening to this, and I think, feelies, huh? Shallow high-tech sensationalism for lifelong cud-chewing consumer-units? Sounds like most all the comic-book formulaic, digitally edited, MTV-fast semi-CGI junk that’s playing in the movie theaters of 2011. In  “Real3D,” don’t forget. 

So that’s what helped me turn my back on mainstream cinema in 2011. And thus, I wasn’t even paying much attention when the latest Transformers movie came out. That feelie was this summer? I thought it was due for next summer, silly me. I was even a little bit proud of myself it got right past me. Same goes for CAPTAIN AMERICA and THOR (sorry Case), and there was something whose name I forget that co-starred Julie Roberts and “Cleveland’s own” Tom Hanks. I was wondering why Hanks was reappearing on all the talk shows; seemed a little late for TOY STORY 3 shilling.

The question now begs itself, why should you read a top-ten movies-of-2011 list from a guy so sick of 2011 movies? Well, some good ones still came to my notice, usually indie documentaries. And if they caught my jaded attention, perhaps they will give you a long-overdue treat as well. Or not.

1. STRONGMAN – I haven’t had the pleasure of watching TV’s "Jersey Shore"; can it possibly be this good? No. The verite documentary follows the private angst, love and losses of Stan `Stanless Steel' Pleskun, a burly “strength performer,” working a circuit of Garden State private parties, street fairs and TV shows, bending metal with his bare hands, doing kinda-motivational speaking, and wondering when it’s all going to add up to some kind of success in life. Finally, here’s a big guy with big muscles whose angst really captivates and holds you, and he doesn’t need a cape, Batcave or Silver Surfboard to keep you interested in him. After I gave this movie a big thumbs-up on the blog an acquaintance of Stan’s wrote us to thank me for actually seeing the movie and writing an original opinion, not just copying off a previous review, which warmed my heart to no end. Doesn’t take much these days to flatter your way into a top spot in my Top Ten; it’s just the luck of you all reading this that filmmaker Zachary Levy did such a great job regardless.

2. WIN WIN –  With so many Not Another Jock Movie dramas coming around, I never thought I’d be transfixed by a tale of high-school wrestling. But this one did it beautifully, mainly because the sport (which is NOT photographed in all that slo-mo/closeup/bullet-time/epic stuff, for once) is just an incidental to a fine dramedy about shady lawyer-coach Paul Giamatti in the midst of running an unethical scam who finds his household stuck with a troubled boy (the terrific Alex Schaffer) who happens to be a grappling prodigy. A great cast of newcomers and veterans alike, but I especially enjoyed the presence of Burt Young cementing a relationship between this and ROCKY (the first one, the good one).

3. THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE: SAINT MISBEHAVING – Expect hot-air election-year talk about character, service, leadership and all that. For a real example look up this joyous portrait of 1960s counterculture icon Wavy Gravy (Hugh Romney), an actor/performance artist dating back to the Lenny Bruce days, who founded a successful commune that coordinated Woodstock, went on medical-relief missions deep behind the Iron Curtain and continues to do nonviolent social-justice protests, fundraiser concerts and an all-inclusive summer camp for kids. Along with his wife of six decades (hear that, Hollywood/Washington?) Wavy Gravy seems to be the best of unfaded flower-power idealism.

4. BUCK – More than one person told me I just had to watch this, and it lived up to their excited praise. It’s a ride-along with authentic cowboy and trick-lasso artist Buck Brannaman, who, after an abused childhood, found a calling in life putting on exhibitions of uncanny horsemanship, using trust and gentle persuasion to soothe animals that are too often subjected to punishment and harsh discipline – rather like Buck was in his early life. Along with THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE this is a piece of nonfiction filmmaking that gives you the sense that the world would be a measurably better place if everyone saw it.

5. THE HELP – Okay, I admit I didn’t see this civil-rights era drama. But a neighbor, who only goes to the movies once every three years (which is about appropriate, I’d estimate) said it was excellent and did full justice to Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel. Hey, would you rather I put CAPTAIN AMERICA here? I could have written some made-up or internet cut-and-past text (“I love how it gets away from the campy, silly Captain America of the 1960s and back to the original dark, brooding, psychotic Captain America of the 1930s and 40s”) and nobody would know.

6. THE BIG YEAR – Okay, I admit I didn’t see this birdwatching comedy-drama with Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black, based on a book by an Ohio author (not me, don’t get excited). But my wife saw it and said it was great. So I am putting it here, sue me. Hey, I could have put in THOR and written some made-up or internet cut-and-past text and nobody would know. Dig: “I love how it gets away from the campy, silly Thor of the 1960s and back to the original dark, brooding, psychotic Thor of the 1930s and 40s.” See how easy it is? Bet that kind of thing happens more than you know.

7. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT – Filmmaker Patricio Guzman transits the political and the scientific in a visual essay on the high-altitude Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the world’s driest climates, offering optimum conditions for astronomy and deep-space telescopes – and a prison compound where dissidents during the Pinochet regime were tortured and executed. Current magazine cover-girl Margaret Thatcher would not approve of this film; she always had a soft side for dictator Pinochet, but otherwise this is a poignant meditation on deep time, physics and human life, with some of the year’s most mind-blowing visuals, such as a stunning time-lapse of the Milky Way reeling in the skies over Atacama.

8. SUBMARINE – I’ll bet deep inside her dark, evil heart that burns with a secret desire to play She-Hulk or Spider-Woman for a megabucks Marvel epic (for which she’ll write/direct/design the poster art), Miranda July wishes she’d done this UK movie. Richard Ayoade’s witty, mannered and sly evocation of bittersweet teen love depicts a brainy but somewhat feckless Welsh schoolboy trying to come out of his armor-plated emotional shell (hence the title) during his parents’ marital crisis and a first affair with a previously unattainable classmate. It was done in association with Red Hour, Ben Stiller’s production company, which makes amends, to my way of thinking, for Red Hour’s backing of the torture-porn-y horror flick THE RUINS.

9. LOST BOHEMIACleveland, you might remember, bought into a trendy economic notion of the “rise of the creative classes,” that in an era of dire economic decline, we would be rescued by our artists, musicians, actors, choreographers,  filmmakers (filmmakers? Hah!) creating new industries. For a melancholy opposing viewpoint, watch this intimate chronicle of a unique artists colony that existed in a hidden apartment annex above Carnegie Hall in NYC – and which was achingly dismantled, suite by suite, over the past few years, as the Carnegie Hall Corporation, hungry for the bucks, heartlessly (and artlessly) renovated their dwellings into drab cubicle-filled business offices for rent, evicting many of the aged dancers and composers (and the documentarian who made this). The slow, on-camera death of something special like that doesn’t bode well for where the Occupy Wall Street movement is headed…

10. PRINCE OF BROADWAY – As an antidote to all the leviathan-budget epics with 24 separate scriptwriters doing dialogue and plot twists all run by mass-market focus groups for maximum action-figure sales, check out a well-done gritty DIY-improv drama, largely performed unscripted with a hand-held camera. An Armenian-Lebanese immigrant and his African-immigrant factotum run a small, illegal Manhattan boutique that sells counterfeit goods, their relationship shaken (and oddly strengthened) when an unwanted baby is dropped on them. If only Lars Von Trier’s “Dogme” digital-film movement, emphasizing naturalism and lack of artifice, had possessed something like real staying power, this would have been considered one of its achievements

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