Also, because the studios backload their prestige releases, 'tis the season for Oscar talk. Everyone with a key board and a modem pipes in on their opinions of the Awards season race, a pastime that has become so pervasive that it threatens to take the piss out of the ceremony itself. (Don't get me started. Don't even get me started.)
One could make the case that the problem with the Oscars is that, following all the build-up, the show can't possibly live up to the hype. Likewise, with SO much prognostication and advance handicapping, it is a shock that there are any surprises at all.
With that said, one should expect the Academy to zig when EVERYONE says it's going to zag. The voting process is arcane, producing results that don't always reflect the wishful thinking (and sentimental desires) of so many of the prophets.
That's why we watch, I suppose. And in fairness to those looking to handicap the horse race, it all counts as marketing for the movies themselves.
In a year that saw box office dip to a 16 year low, anything to pump up receipts is welcome.
As I look back on 2011, with the acknowledgement that my viewing list is far from complete, this feels like a solid year. When so many strong films and critical darlings failed to resonate with wider audiences, and in a year that lacked the record-breaking oomph of an Avatar or a Batman or an Iron Man, and where so many would-be blockbusters like Cowboys vs. Aliens stalled, the soft box office take should not come as a complete surprise.
Here are my reflections on my favorite films, as well as some notable and emerging trends in 2011—all presented in pairs that suggest karmic balance:
The Beginning & the End
Tree of Life and Melancholia
While the Mayans allegedly forecast and end to the world in 2012, and doomsday preacher Harold Camping called for the end of days in 2011, twice, this year is notable for a pair of films that bookend the existential experience—from the beginning to the end.
Terrence Malick's ethereal meditative tone poem is both a deeply personal reflection of childhood, and a contemplation on the origins of the universe itself, complete with extended sequences of space dust, primordial ooze, dinosaurs, and volcanoes. It's a hopeful, magical, and decidedly spiritual film. Cinema as transcendence.
Contrast Malick's optimistic reverence in Tree of Life with Lars von Trier's decidedly cold pessimism in Melancholia, in which the Danish provocateur (though the mouth of Kirsten Dunst's melancholy Justine) calls life on Earth, "evil," adding, "You don't have to grieve for it...nobody will miss it." In his dystopic fantasy, worlds collide. And all hope is gone.
Men of Muppets of Puppets of Men?
Muppets and The Beaver
Muppets proved an entertaining reboot of the dormant franchise (while I liked it and all, I expected more from the film...I very much look forward to future installments!) The best sequence in the film is this existential duet between Jason Segel and his Muppet brother (played in human form by "Big Banger" Jim Parsons) in which they contemplate the nature of their manhood (and muppethood.)
Contrast this with The Beaver, a film that received a surprising amount of positive buzz coming out of SXSW, but which was DOA at the box office.
No matter what one thinks of Mel Gibson—the truth is the film benefits from your distain for him—his raw performance here is a tour de force. In a just world, he'd be honored for it. Also unsung this year: deft handling by director Jodie Foster (where's the love for a strong woman director, hypocrites?) and a fresh, and surprising script by Kyle Killen.
The film really deserves another look:
(Turns out: Mel is a Puppet of a Man)
Dead Wives Club
We Bought a Zoo & The Descendants
Both Cameron Crowe and Alexander Payne return from their big screen hiatus with films about a husband confronting the death of his wife. In Alexander Payne's observant and wryly comic The Descendants, George Clooney is dealing with his comatose wife, news of her infidelity, and a prospective massive Hawaiian land deal that promises to make a fortune for his extended family. In Crowe's family friendlier, and heart-warmingly sappy We Bought a Zoo, widower Matt Damon takes the opposite tact: he sinks his inheritance (his "circus money") into a questionable land deal that involves sometime wild animals, enclosures, and Scarlet Johansson. It feels very old fashioned, in a Capra sort of way.
Both films feature terrific soundtracks, and strong supporting performances from all, including Payne alum Thomas Haden Church in Zoo and Robert Forster (who shares a birthday with Cameron Crowe) in The Descendants.
Drive Baby, Drive
30 Minutes or Less & Drive
Two films this year featured botched robberies by unwitting perps followed by fancy driving highly-stylized get-aways. 30 Minutes or Less, though often played for laughs, features stark violence and sinister undertones. It feels like something the Coen Brothers' might have made after Raising Arizona or Fargo or the Big Liebowski. By contrast, Drive, is neon cool and dark as noir. It feels like a lost Stanley Kubrick film from 1985.
Bonus: Drive's puppetmasters played by a venomous Albert Brooks vs. 30 Minutes' Danny McBride terrifying man child who puts the whole course of events in play .
Both films rank among the year's best.
There's Some Life In the Old Grey Lady, Yet
Bill Cunningham New York & Page One: Inside the New York Times
The New York Times was the subject of two intriguing films from 2011: Bill Cunningham New York, a portrait of the octogenarian Times fashion photographer that feels like a lost chapter of the Maysles' Grey Gardens and Page One: Inside the New York Times an expose of, an homage to and a swan song to the dying medium of print journalism.
Cunningham is a compelling subject. A living paradox who defies simple description, he defines fashion while being the least fashion conscious person around. Riding on his bike, from party to event, he is unassuming, cordial, and polite. The best in the world at what he does, he's a savant who has literally dedicated his life to the pursuit of beauty in fashion. Page One is at its best when trained on media columnist David Carr, who, like Cunningham, is a force of nature, a brilliant outcast who appears completely at home on this island of misfit toys that is the New York Times. A former cocaine addict and a single parent on welfare, Carr is sharp-witted, brilliant, relentless in pursuit of a story, and a staunch defender of the paper as an institution. Would that the Page One filmmakers had trimmed the fat and, followed the lead of Cunningham's chroniclers. As the media critic, a film about Carr IS a film about the New York Times. He observes: “If you work for the media long enough, eventually you’ll type your way back to your own doorstep.”
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