The past Top Ten lists on The Film Yap suggested that 2011 wasn’t a great year for film. While compared to an amazing year in television, it’s bound to pale in comparison. I think 2011 is realized as a bad year for Hollywood. There is this fearsome trend where the studio movies are the most disappointing and forgettable. This isn’t some snooty “Studio bad, independent good!” rant, but a look in how we ought to change the way we find films.
Let’s compare it to television. If you just watched ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC you’ll find a lot of repetition in family dramas, sitcoms, and procedurals. A few can stand out like “Community” or “The Good Wife”, but for the most part nothing is too exciting. TV has evolved where there are cable networks that are going for a smaller, more select audience which can be bolder with what they are presenting. AMC produced “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”, FX made “Justified” and “Archer”, Showtime introduced “Homeland” and HBO created “Game of Thrones”, “Treme”, and “Boardwalk Empire.”
With movies, you can also find other channels besides the big studios to find a film. Plenty of people complain that because we live in Indiana we don’t get to see a lot of the great smaller films, but that’s not true anymore. The Landmark Theatre showed some fantastic documentaries and foreign films. We have plenty of wonderful film festivals like the Indianapolis International Film Festival and the Heartland Film Festival that always have a strong collection.
Also there are new resources. Some of my favorite films of the year were found through Netflix. I read some great reviews when they opened in New York or Chicago and then I was able to see them when they hit DVD. DVDs are not subjected to a movie theatre so anyone can experience great movies on a weekly basis. Most cable services provide OnDemand which allows you to watch a smaller theatrical film in your home for a low price. Invite a few friends over to watch it with you and if you divide it up you just watched a $12 movie for maybe $3.
As critics I think it’s our job to help you find more movies that you could love. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s good. (In fact my worst film of the year is an independent comedy.) It does allow you for a new opportunity. I would much rather watch a film that has the potential to be brilliant or awful than go and see a movie I’m sure will just be okay. January is notorious for having awful films that are dumped by the studios. Instead of wasting money on them, try renting some of the films highlighted by me and the rest of the Yappers. You’re reading this site because you love movies; trust us because so do we.
While in pain, it’s hard to figure out anything. Everything feels devastating and unconquerable. That confusion drives “Beginners” into a very personal area while remaining accessible to everyone. As Ewan McGreggor’s character tries to figure out what to do next after the death of father, he finds love. The pain doesn’t dissipate when he’s with her, but it is given certain context that allows him to maybe one day heal. All of the quirks of the film aren’t seen as a silly perspective to the world, but as a beacon to find those who see the issues in the same way. That vulnerability is hard to portray on film, but Mike Mills pulled it off without ever losing the audience’s sympathy.
“Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” are two films where two very realized character walk through some gorgeous locations and talk. They talk about philosophy and love while strengthen their own relationship. “Weekend” accomplishes a similar goal, but having the two men walk, talk and sleep together though their home in New York adds a different weight to their story. They aren’t on vacation away from all of their responsibilities; they’re in the middle of it all. All of issues of what is stopping them from being the men they want to be and having the life they want are confronting them at every moment. It’s not up to someone they met just a few days ago to save them, but then again…maybe it can be.
#8 – Bill Cunningham New York
Once again, this was a good year for documentaries. Plenty of established directors gave us an exciting new story, but this one came out of nowhere. Anyone who has seen me knows I’m not an expert on fashion. Yet like all sorts of expression, I’m fascinated by those who are passionate in it. Fashion is usually only reserved for the rich who are able to travel to Paris and spend five figures on a dress they’ll only wear once. Bill Cunningham doesn’t belong to that group. He is a man who lives in an apartment that is about to close down and wears the same outfits every day. His job at the Times has him go to the big fashion shows, but his real joy is riding his bike down the streets of New York to capture what regular people are wearing. A viewpoint like his is so fresh and heartwarming because he is able to champion the unique aspects of those who are never championed.
#7 – Certified Copy
I’m usually not a fan of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. His distance from this characters almost is portrayed as not being interested in them. “Certified Copy” was a complete reversal while still being a contradiction. An English author is in Italy to promote his latest book. In his book he argues the strength and value of a copy as opposed to the original. If you write a great joke and photocopy it, is the original piece of paper funnier? If you copy the Mona Lisa does it not create the same emotions when you look at it? The author decides to spend the day with a woman who came to his signing and they continue to argue this point. Then it gets a little nutty. At first we thought she was a stranger, but that may have been an illusion. Excitement rises from trying to solve this intellectual mystery while being completely charming through the leads romance (or anti-romance) and their search for what is real. Can’t wait to watch this again.
#6 – The Artist
I love silent films. This isn’t an attempt for me to rise to a new level of snobbiness. There was something crazy going on during those first few decades of filmmaking. With books and theatre, it seems obvious on how a story could be told but the cinema was like discovering a brand new world. Without sound, it’s even crazier. “The Artist” is a loving tribute to that time in what is the most accessible story of the year. It’s sweet and funny and lovable. The plot is very similar to “A Star is Born” and “Singin’ in the Rain” but jolted with a new level of creativity. The main character is an actor whose world seems to be more of a film than the ones he acts in. That means an average day can have wonder, excitement, surrealism, drama, and the greatest dog imaginable to light up the screen.
#5 – Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen remains one of the most fascinating directors working today. That said, I don’t like a large chunk of his movies. When someone makes a film a year, there can’t be only masterpieces. The past ten years with Allen has had best of both worlds where “Match Point” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona” ended up being wonderful while something like “Scoop” falls flat. “Midnight in Paris” is everything I want in a Woody Allen film. While remaining a largely comedic movie, he tackles some great points on the nature of nostalgia. It’s a subject I usually find very dull and self-indulgent but Allen looks at the full picture where there is beauty and loneliness attached to it. Being in Paris always looks like you’re living in a dream so Allen takes that a step further by turning it into a thing of pure magic where people can find their home through unconventional ways.
#4 – Hugo
Last year I did a speech about Martin Scorsese in Muncie because I discovered something new about the director. With films like “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” I thought he was always about the brute force, but it was his romanticism that encouraged me to rewatch his entire canon. Any interview with Scorsese can show you how much he adores film history, but it’s also seen through all of his movies. He rarely has direct film references, but instead he’s mixing styles and moods that inspired him from things he’s seen in order to make a pure by-product. “Hugo” has the most surface examples of that adoration. A young boy in a French train station goes on an emotional adventure that leads him to discover one of the greatest silent film innovators. If “The Artist” suggests that life is also a movie, “Hugo” says there is beauty in life that can be translated into a movie. This could easily become a family film classic, if only families go and see it.
#3 – Take Shelter
To me, the strength of a film is how much I think about it after it ends. The ones that stick with you are the ones that have power. All year I’ve been complaining that films are becoming to expensive which creates harmful limitations. “Take Shelter” shows the opposite can be true. Director Mike Nichols’ first film, “Shotgun Stories” was a raw look into the side of rivaling families. That only needed great actors and a working camera to pull off. “Take Shelter” needed a little more. The main character experiences dreams of pure horror and if those dreams don’t terrify the audience none of the emotional weight would resonate. Each one of those scenes isn’t scary because there’s a CGI monster, but they’re scary because it’s a CGI storm mixed with expert filmmaking. Schizophrenia, to me, is one of the most unnerving things imaginable because it means the reality you know is full of cracks. A rational man’s journey through this misery makes for some powerfully heartbreaking moments and a conclusion that doesn’t lessen anything that happened before it.
#2 – Drive
If I don’t write a theatrical review for The Film Yap, I try to put something up on my blog. Yet for “Drive” all I could come up with was “F*** yeah, Drive”. People in my life want to know what I thought of new releases and once again all I could say was “F*** yeah Drive.” I could easily break down all of the pieces of the puzzle. The cast is incredible; the style is smooth and vibrant; the story is simple yet fascinating; the song “A Real Hero” rocks in the context of the movie. All of that is just fine, but why this is a masterpiece of the genre is because how seamlessly it all blends together. Director Nicholas Winding Refn must be able to see across so many dimensions in order to know how it will all fit together even when the ideas seem ridiculous. (A silent driver in a scorpion jacket only listens to pop music in his car?) Everything worked. F*** yeah “Drive”.
#1 – The Tree of Life
There are so many films about religion and spirituality, which have caused me to question a decision the filmmakers decide to exclude. So often there are characters clamoring for their god to be left coldly on their own. Ingmar Bergman made a wonderful trilogy of this silence of God, but where are the other takes on the idea. In “The Tree of Life” I believe the movie goes through five stages of emotionally communication of a 1950s Texas family and their Lord. When they are at their lowest and they are begging for any sign of God, director Terrance Malick shows Him through a zillion steps back to show the whole scope of the story, traveling into the cosmos and the dawn of creation. Instead of being alone, there is hope even though all the pain and confusion. The film travels through time like a hymn with a journey of emotions over one of plot. It’s very challenging but it stretches what a film can be and the stories the medium can tell. One of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
I saw way too many films this year, but I still didn’t see all of them. The ones I wished I could have seen before writing this article were “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”, “Le Havre”, “The Interrupters”, “Jamie and Jessie are Not Together”, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, “A Separation”, “Tryannosaur” and “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas”.
The Rest of the List
11. Tabloid – The craziest movie of the year just happens to be true
12. Winnie the Pooh – Pure storytelling that matches the original spirit and humor
13. The Muppets – Flawed structure doesn’t matter when the intent is this magical.
14. Shame – Devastating and inventive
15. 13 Assassins – A samurai film that has the most creative action scenes of the year and the vilest villain imaginable.
16. The Future – Characters who would be seen as pathetic side characters try their best to find purpose in a very realistic present.
17. Poetry – A South Korean woman finds comfort in her poetry class as her brain starts to fade. Wonderful character study.
18. 50/50 – May have a simple story but the characters’ genuine heartache really makes this works.
19. Young Adult – Jason Reitman’s best film yet and Charlize Theron’s best performance yet. Will happily watch two more hours of her glaring at people.
20. Moneyball – One of my favorite tales of how innovative thinking should be encouraged even through the most rigid of environments.