Monday, January 2, 2012

Pete Roche's Top Ten for 2011

By Pete Roche

I always approach year-end and best-of lists with trepidation.  Film is art, after all, and I wouldn’t presume to tell people what the year’s “best” pictures were—because it isn’t for me to say.  Tastes are subjective, so there really are no right or wrong answers when polling someone on the matter.  Moreover, posting a year-end “best of” list might suggest to readers that the author has actually seen most—if not all—titles released during those months in order to fashion a comprehensive list that accounts for every movie, from small art house indie flicks to mega-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters. 

I most certainly haven’t seen ‘em all.  If I had, current buzz-worthy releases like THE DESCENDANTS, CARNAGE, THE ARTIST, and SHAME might very well have leapfrogged their way into my Top Ten.  I’d also have taken into consideration lower-budget, close-to-home titles like TAKE SHELTER and I LOVE YOU, CLEVELAND.  But since I can’t speak to (or for) movies I haven’t yet previewed, what follows is a list of personal favorites taken from the dozens of 2011 efforts I did check out. 

1. WARRIOR.  Imagine a ROCKY movie where instead of fighting some egotistical showoff or stoic, steroid-fueled Superman, the Italian Stallion’s got to square off against someone just like himself—another likeable underdog with his own valid, noble reasons for wanting to “go the distance.”  Now imagine if the two protagonists were brothers, and you’ve got the ingredients for some delicious drama—not to mention some hard-hitting action.  Two estranged brothers get the chance to make peace…by beating holy hell out of one another in a mixed martial arts tournament in Atlantic City.  Directed by Gavin O’Connor (whose  previous sports drama was 2004’s acclaimed hockey pic MIRACLE), this 130-minute production is heavy on pathos and well as punches, thanks to memorable performances from Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.  Down-on-his-luck high school physics teacher Brendan Conlon (Edgerton) decides to earn some quick cash by fighting in local parking-lot MMA matches—but his choice of moonlighting results in his being suspended from his day job.  With foreclosure looming, Brendan calls in a favor on an old training buddy to helm ready him for Sparta, a ferocious fighting tourney with a $5 million purse.  But what Brendan doesn’t know is that his long-lost Marine Corps brother, Tommy (Hardy), has returned to Pittsburgh, having deserted the military after a friendly-fire accident killed a comrade.  Tommy calls on their recovering alcoholic father (Nolte) to train him for Sparta so he can give most (if not all) his winnings to his dead friend’s family.  But cold, reclusive Tommy warns Paddy it’s all business; he doesn’t care that the father who once hit on him has traded the bottle for Jesus Christ.  Brendan forgives Paddy when his prodigal old man extends an olive branch, but he doesn’t trust his father enough to let him meet the granddaughters.  He trains vigorously while under suspension, especially after his wife gives her approval, utilizing classical music to help him relax and focus. 

Comparisons with ROCKY, RAGING BULL, THE WRESTLER, and THE FIGHTER are unavoidable with this sort of picture—but WARRIOR ups the narrative ante by pitting protagonists against one another rather than wrapping the story around a single athlete or team.  When the inevitable cage match showdown arrives, it’s a brawl you want neither man to lose.  Or win.  Despite occasional glimpses of formula boxing movies past, WARRIOR triumphs with complex, yet convincing, characters who transcend stereotypes.  Although older brother Brendan is portrayed as the “good” guy for most of the film, there’s more to Tommy than his broiling, primal rage—even if his preferred modes of communication are insults and uppercuts.

The MMA fight scenes feel authentic (granted, I don’t watch wrestling or martial arts on television and didn't know what the hell all those hoodies with the "Tapout" logo were about until I saw this) and feature cameos from real-life stars like Kurt Angle and Erik Apple.  It also helps that the brothers utilize completely different combat styles.  Brendan is tall but not especially powerful; he relies on kicks and Jujitsu holds to force his opponents’ submission.  Conversely, ox-like Tommy prefers knocking foes unconscious with a single well-timed punch—after which he storms from cage without fanfare.  WARRIOR strikes the perfect balance of brains and brawn / balls, and if the climactic cage fights provide an entry way for kids to the works of Melville and Beethoven, so be it.

  1. MELANCHOLIA.  Kirsten Dunst (SPIDER-MAN) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (ANTICHRIST) steal the show as troubled sisters in Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic tale about a rogue planet hurtling toward Earth.  But rather than focus on the cataclysm—a la ARMAGEDDON or DEEP IMPACT, the Danish director nudges his actresses front and center to highlight the relationship between the sisters—one (Dunst) a hopeless manic-depressive who can’t even survive her own wedding without succumbing to her demons, the other a panic-stricken worrywart who nags her astronomer husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and can’t console her son while destruction looms.  Dunst looks radiant in the film’s first “act,” but her Justine tests everyone’s patience at her wedding reception with her mood-swings and unpredictable behavior.  Gainsbourg dominates the second half, wherein her Clair frets over the pending planetary collision, sobbing frequently and stocking up on suicide pills while her typically morose sister takes it all in stride.  Von Trier’s images are memorable, if not haunting, and his use of classic music (Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde”) dramatically underscores the proceedings—almost all of which occurs at the picturesque Tjoloholme Castle in Sweden.  It’s a terrific, moving (and at times surreal) study in schizophrenia / depression, and the power of those afflicted to endure extreme situations if only because they’re already accustomed to expect the worst all the time.

  1. THE WAY.  Where Charlie “Warlock” Sheen had a less than stellar year, brother Emilio Estevez was “winning” with his touching film about the pilgrimage taken annually by thousands along the Camino de Santiago—a path stretching from southern France to Spain’s western shore.  Martin Sheen is terrific as ophthalmologist Tom Avery, a friendly but stuck-in-his ways doctor who whose spirituality begins and ends with golf.  But when his lust-for-life son Daniel dies just days into a trek on the Camino, Dr. Tom decides to finish the walk for him.  Carrying his son’s ashes on the journey, our protagonist bonds with a gluttonous Dutchman, an inquisitive Irish author, and a pretty—but troubled—Canadian divorcee. 

  1. DRIVE.  A homage to automobile-centric nihilist actioners of old like BULLITT and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, this dark but delightful gem from the director of BRONSON (Nicholas Winding Refn) recalls the work of Walter Hill and Michael Mann with images of neon-lighted city streets and the seedy characters living and dying in them.  Ryan Gosling is “The Driver,” a thirty-something L.A. stuntman and grease monkey who moonlights as an emotionally detached getaway driver for random thugs.  In a plot that borrows from Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMURAI, our antihero befriends a pretty young mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is newly sprung from prison—but in debt to mobsters for “protection money.”  Driver (who rarely speaks) tries to help his neighbors, his heart opening for Irene—but he finds himself on the run from a loan shark (Albert Brooks) and gangster (Ron Perlman) when after a botched pawn shop robbery.  Featuring 80’s flavored electronic pop by Cliff Martinez and tasteful use of Refn’s wide-angle lenses, DRIVE is a bloody noir masterpiece in the tradition of Scorsese, Coppola, and Tarantino.

  1. TREE OF LIFE.  I admittedly walked into Terrence Malick’s polarizing new film expecting to like it specifically because the director’s experimental, nonlinear, chop-editing style annoys so many.  And indeed TREE is as heavy on psychology as it is on random imagery, with the loose narrative centering on a middle-aged man’s memories of a troubled Texas childhood at the hands of a frustrated father sandwiched between sequences depicting the creation of the universe and the end of the world.  Viewers are left pondering the significance of a dinosaur that reconsiders stomping out the life of another in much the same way moviegoers scratched their heads over the monolith and “star child” in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY over forty years ago.  Brad Pitt and Sean Penn turn in memorable performances.  Pitt especially delivers as the struggling, heavy-handed inventor father who squelched musical talent for a more respectable career—only to wind up a disappointed disciplinarian patriarch to three boys.  Eldest son Jack is tested when middle brother Michael dies unexpectedly; the event becomes a tragic touchstone for both him and his brooding old man for the rest of their lives.  My advice to those who don’t understand what the ethereal we-all-meet-in-Heaven epilogue would be to stop thinking and start feeling.

  1. MONEYBALL.  In his second unlikely appearance in my humble Ten Best list, Brad Pitt portrays Billy Beane, real-life general manager of the Oakland Athletics who in 2002 tries to rebuild his flagging baseball team using mathematic formulae to find untapped potential in cast-off players after his marquee stars are traded.  Picking up on the goofy, sabermetric code language used by Yale economics guru Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in the Cleveland Indians executive office, Beane recruits Brand in his bid to turn the odds in the A’s favor.  Along the way, they butt heads with coaches and scouts still bound by old-school thinking.  Beane’s also got to smooth things over with his estranged wife, if only to continue enjoyment of quality time with his young daughter.  Pitt wrings more comedy and pathos from the role than might be expected, making audiences root for his washed-up player-turned-manager.  It’s rare when a sports film focuses not on a player or team but a personality from the front office, and does so this effectively.  List MONEYBALL along with other great baseball films like THE NATURAL, FIELD OF DREAMS, BULL DURHAM, and THE ROOKIE.

  1. WIN WIN.  I don’t know anyone less interested in athletics than myself—yet here we have a third sports-related movie entry, this time about a down-and-out New Jersey lawyer (Paul Giamatti) who coaches wrestling at a local high school.  A harried father with two small girls, attorney Mike Flaherty capitalizes on a chance to supplement his income with client funds by telling a judge he’s putting senile Leo (Burt Young) in a local nursing home—when in actuality he’s pocketing the cash by letting the old man stay in his house.  Meanwhile, Leo’s troubled teenage grandson show up—and turns out to be a terrific wrestler.  Things look great for Mike until young Kyle’s fresh-from-rehab mother shows up, challenging custody of her son and his use of Leo’s money.  WIN WIN is heart-wrenching but funny, thanks to supporting roles from Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale—but succeeds primarily because it “feels” authentic.  It isn’t often we’re given a movie about a lawyer that isn’t wealthy and powerful, or whose judgment is clouded not by so much by greed as it is need.  Giamatti is brilliant as the rumpled, conscience-weary suburbanite trying to make ends meet—even when it means tending a bar as well as approaching the bench. 

  1. THE BEAVER.  Here’s another film about mental illness included among my ten faves.  Mel Gibson portrays depressed toy company CEO Walter Black, who after another unsuccessful suicide attempt uses a beaver puppet from a dumpster to create a new personality for himself—an enthusiastic, charming persona that might reconnect him with his estranged wife (Jodi Foster, who also directs) and two sons.  Young son Henry takes to his cheery new “father” immediately—but teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) distrusts the Beaver, even after Walter employs him to resurrect his failing business.  The Beaver makes magazine covers and appears on talk shows—but Walter’s wife grows tired of the alter-ego and longs for the return of her “true” husband and gets pissed after learning the puppet is not part of Walter’s psychiatrist-approved therapy.  Meanwhile, Porter ghost writes for a potential love interest at school (Jennifer Lawrence), who has a few secrets of her own.  I admired Foster’s willingness to tackle depression and schizophrenia in a “dramedy,” even if things get a little weird at the end.  Gibson is sensational as both the crestfallen father and jovial “Beaver” character—although it does help to go into the film without any of the actor’s personal baggage weighing you down.  Foster looks terrific, and her frazzled housewife earns sympathy easily; you want her to get Walter back but don’t want her to have to endure his hand-puppet emotional armor forever. 

  1. TROLLHUNTER.  Borrowing the “found footage” schtick that made BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY so popular, this Norwegian scare flick follows a team of student reporters investigating a series of mysterious bear killings in Norway.  Turns out their quarry, Hans, is a government operative tasked with ridding the country of trolls by blasting them with ultraviolet flashbulbs.  The documentarians learn the dead bears are just a ruse to cover the tracks of trolls like the Tosserlad, Ringlefinch, and Jotnar—and that officials are keen to keeping Norway’s troll problem secret.  It’s suspenseful, engaging, and a little ingenious.  

  1. KILL THE IRISHMAN.  Jonathan Hensleigh helms this loose adaptation of Lyndhurst cop Rick Porrello’s Danny Greene biopic.  Ray Stevenson (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE) portrays Greene, the Celtic-minded criminal with a heart of gold who rose to fame on Cleveland’s shore in the late sixties.  Wresting control of the International Longshoreman’s Association, Greene taunted FBI officials by extorting and embezzling under their noses.  Val Kilmer plays a semi-sympathetic cop who uses Greene to get information about the Italian mafia, while Vincent D’Onofrio is John Nardi, Greene’s trusted labor racketeering partner.  Christopher Walken is delightful as Shandor Birns, who puts a contract on the Irishman after a falling out.  Only he didn’t count on his target soliciting the protection of St. Jude.  A tight script and talented cast thrust IRISHMAN into that small class of gangster pics that transcend the genre, like THE GODFATHER and CASINO.  It’s just a shame the film was shot in Detroit, which doubled for Cleveland before the tax abatement brought Hollywood back to town. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  I’m Cleveland Movie Blog’s unofficial go-to guy for “kid movies,” the one who takes the bullet for the team and previews toddler fare like CARS 2 and ZOOKEEPER because my own children are usually keen to see ‘em.  In the case of tripe like JUDY MOODY, it’s actually more like leaping on a grenade than taking a bullet—but no matter; we get the job done.  And kiddy pictures weren’t all bad in 2011.  RIO was a colorful, bird-brained cartoon about self-confidence (and conservationism).  RANGO was a clever chameleon take on Shane mythology, and the refreshingly short-but-sweet WINNIE THE POOH was a welcome return for Disney’s honey-hungry bear.  Dreamworks’ KUNG FU PANDA 2 was better than it had any right to be, and THE MUPPETS successfully introduced Kermit, Fozzie, and Animal to a whole new generation.   Heartwarming aquatic feel-good pics DOLPHIN TALE and SOUL SURFER made it safe for families to go back to the cinema without mom and dad feeling…er, HOODWINKED.  And while HARRY POTTER was never my cup of butterbeer, the final entry in the boy wizard franchise enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from muggles worldwide.    

Superheroes ruled the summer again, with THOR and GREEN LANTERN storming cinemas on behalf of Marvel and DC, respectively.  The legend of the hammer-wielding thunder god was a fun, if forgettable, set-up for the hirsute hero’s appearance in the forthcoming AVENGERS, while the latter was a flawed emerald escapade for Ryan Reynold’s Hal Jordan.  Comic book buffs were best served by X-MEN: FIRST CLASS—a reboot / fourth sequel few had high hopes for, but which acquitted itself uncannily thanks to breakout performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender and a whip-smart script that brought Professor X’s mutants back to the swinging sixties.  Elsewhere, Chris Evans wore the star-spangled tights of CAPTAIN AMERICA, owning the titular role in a way he couldn’t with FANTASTIC FOUR’s Johnny Storm / Human Torch. 

Caper movies were big in 2011, with FAST FIVE, UNKNOWN, THE NEXT THREE DAYS, and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL upping the ante for heist films, great escapes, and over-the-top espionage.  The mysteries unraveled in SOURCE CODE, LIMITLESS, and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU owed to small doses of science fiction, which made those outings much more fun than they might otherwise have been.

I missed REAL STEEL and ATTACK THE BLOCK—but SUPER 8 was a spirited tribute to Spielberg films of yore, even if the boy-from-broken-home-meets-space creature premise felt a little too familiar.  TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON and BATTLE: LA provided relentless, kinetic eye candy for the robots-and-reptile crowd, even if neither alien invasion movie was especially original.

1 comment:

  1. Haven't seen any of these except X babies which didn't really care for and Battle LA whichw as good and surprisingly well made and accurate.

    ReplyDelete

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