Movies: A Year in Review (2011)

February 26, 2012

When 2011 began, it was highly discussed as the “year of sequels,” since it was reported to contain 27 sequels, the most in any calendar year. Of these sequels, there were movies we all looked forward to (The Muppets, Sherlock Holmes), movies that we didn’t want but expected there to be a sequel (The Hangover Part 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) and those movie franchises that just won’t go away no matter what (Scream 4, Fast Five, Final Destination 5). But what started as a year of continuing stories shifted gears as the months were ripped from the calendar. Eventually at the year’s end, 2011 will be known for a year of nostalgia.

There have been a number of films that explored the theme of nostalgia this year, the first being Rango. For those who have seen the film, you can sense how the creators of the animated feature plucked the styles from classic films such as Blazing Saddles, The Shakiest Gun in the West, Star Wars, and Apocalypse Now. It was a unique way to pay tribute to such classics with a quirky and unorthodox animated film. This is why Rango is one of my favorite films of the year and to no surprise, is nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Continuing with the theme of nostalgia, no other film hits it right on the head as much as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Warning, there are spoilers ahead. While the film dealt with the beauty of Paris and sort of plays out like a travel brochure to the world-famous city, Woody Allen shoves a hefty dose of nostalgia in the film as Owen Wilson finds himself unhappy in his current life and wishing he was living in the 1920’s. To his surprise, at the strike of midnight his dream comes true and he finds himself drinking with Ernest Hemingway and sharing a discussion with Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He falls in love with Adriana, but soon realizes he prefers the time period to the present when Adriana confesses she prefers the 1890’s. It’s a wonderful and clever tale with the fantasy of living in a different time period to escape the present.

Another film that was heavy on nostalgic style was Nicholas Refn’s Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Everything about this film screams “nostalgia” from the pink font of the title to the synth-heavy soundtrack. It’s also a tribute to car films such as Bullitt (1968). Other noted inspirations from Drive include The Day of the Locust, To Live and Die in L.A., Point Blank, and The Driver. Once you’ve seen Drive, you might mistaken it for a film from the 70’s.

There was a film I was anticipating since the announcement that it was being released: The Muppets. But what could they possibly have a movie about? It’s been 12 long years since the last Muppets film, but Jason Segel wisely exploited that and used it in the very self-aware, nostalgic film. While the film was full of typical Muppets fun, the one who really enjoyed it were the adults who remembered The Muppets Show. The film had dozens of clips from the show and even dealt with the story-line that the Muppets had to have a reunion to save their Muppet Theater. Let me just say one thing, there is nothing like hearing “Rainbow Connection.” It brings a tear to my eye every-time.

Martin Scorsese announced his first film to be filmed in 3-D, Hugo, and you can count on the legendary filmmaker to deliver a knock-out punch. Hugo wasn’t just an entertaining, PG-rated film about a boy in search for the right parts to fix an automaton so he could receive a message from his diseased father. It was also about the history of movies and the preservation of film. It was certainly a treat to see some of the earliest art-forms of film-making explored during the second half of Hugo. For those who aren’t familiar with this, the way Hugo dives into the process of films from the past is marvelous. There is certainly a magic that surrounds the entire film, and brilliant how Scorsese uses a new technology of 3-D to pay homage to the creation of imaginative film-making.

Finally, the last film I want to point out with an nostalgic influence is The Artist. This film with French actors and director, is a silent, black and white film that feels like it was shot from the 1930’s. It’s quite a bold move to release a film like this, with story-telling techniques that have become obsolete for so long. It’s also a wonder how it’s so damn good. The movie deals with the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, in contrary to what is being portrayed by releasing a b&w, silent film in 2011. But that’s the beauty in it all.

Another aspect about 2011 that stood out at the end of the year was the continuation of the rise of women in the movie industry. Two films epitomized how women have turned the corner and can compete with the male-dominated world: Bridesmaids and The Help. Both films feature great female ensemble casts, both have been critically acclaimed and have grossed impressive amounts of money. Bridesmaids shows how women can be as sleazy and funny as any group of men in a raunchy comedy. Comparisons to The Hangover were inevitable because of the insane success of both films, but in my opinion Bridesmaids was the stronger film.

As for The Help, this movie really surprised me in a good way. Boasting a very talented cast of Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain, The Help went on to win the SAG award for Best Ensemble. Without a doubt this was one of the most powerful films of the year, and can you believe there were barely any men involved. Who would’ve thought?

When 2011 was winding down, I was slightly disappointed at the fact that the year didn’t have that one movie that really “wowed” me. Last year, movies like Inception and The Social Network were two films that I will remember for the rest of my life. 2009 provided the best war movie (The Hurt Locker) in probably the past few decades, along with the biggest movie of all-time, Avatar. So what did 2011 have to offer? While I loved films like The Descendants and Drive, I’m unsure if they have the staying-power to really put 2011 on the charts of a fantastic year of film.

Well my question was answered when I finally made my way to watch A Separation. This foreign film is nominated for Best Foreign Language film, representing Iran, and blows every American film out of the water in 2011. Layered with conflict, realistic characters, and an unfamiliar setting, A Separation was a masterpiece that I could watch every single week for the next few years. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi has created one of the best family dramas that I have every watched. Blessed with such talented actors, especially Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi, the film jumped off the screen and made you question every problem that you have encountered in your own life. When that is accomplished, it just proves that these pieces of art are more than just a movie.

For a detailed analysis of the films broken down by each month, keep reading:

Now let’s turn the calendar back to January of 2011. Like every January, Oscar-worthy films clutter the theaters as acclaimed movies receive a wider release just in time for The Academy Awards. But there’s nothing like the releases of mindless films to counter the realistic, artsy, patience-testing films. In 2011, these films included The Green Hornet, The Dilemma, No Strings Attached, The Mechanic, and The Rite. And now you understand why I don’t look forward to films, typically until March.

February wasn’t much better. The disappointing part about the releases in February was the lack of a solid Valentine’s Day-style romantic comedy. I’m not saying I’m a fan of those chick-flick/rom-coms, but it helps when the romantic-comedy is at least watchable. This year we had Just Go With It starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. I’m happy to report that I have yet to watch that film, but I’m sure there were a few people who enjoyed it. Other than that, February held notable releases of The Roommate, I Am Number Four, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. It’s safe to say that I will never watch any of those films.

March is when movies start to pick up, and 2011 was no different. The first weekend of March showcased, in my opinion, the best animated feature of the year – Rango. It also had The Adjustment Bureau, the better-than-average sci-fi thriller starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Other notable releases in March include Limitless, Paul, and Sucker Punch.

April combined some highly entertaining films with some complete failures, making it a very uneven month for movies. Starting strong, we had the underrated horror film, Insidious, and the very good sci-fi thriller, Source Code. But then there were some stinkers, like the unfunny Your Highness, the unimpressive Water for Elephants, and the unnecessary sequels of Scream 4 and Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil. The big story of April was the incredible Fast Five, which opened to $86 million domestically and finished with a worldwide gross of about $626 million. Impressive indeed.

May unofficially begins the summer blockbuster movie season. Thor opened things up with a mediocre showing and then more sequels flooded the movie screens with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Hangover Part II, and Kung Fu Panda 2. But there was one bright spot through May and that was the phenomenon that was Bridesmaids. There was a lot of question marks surrounding this film, but the R-rated, raunchy comedy with an all-female cast stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.

June banged out a blockbuster film week-after-week with X-Men: First Class, Super 8, Green Lantern, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. As you can see and probably experienced, most of these films were all flash and no essence (except the surprisingly good X-Men prequel). In addition to that, Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life hit the theaters in America and left the majority of of viewers scratching their heads. This was the most abstract film I’ve seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

With July, there was more of the same nonsense, the month had the most anticipated film of the year: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Finally, after eight movies, the Harry Potter franchise concluded in epic fashion. Clearly, the buzz around Harry Potter overpowered the rest of the films in May, such as Horrible Bosses, Zookeeper, Captain America, Friends with Benefits, and Crazy, Stupid, Love.

In August, we had two very good films and a handful of awful ones. Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help both went on to receive critical acclaim and make a lot of money. But the rest of the month’s films failed to do so: Final Destination 5, The Change-Up, 30 Minutes or Less, Fright Night, Colombiana, The Debt, and Our Idiot Brother.

September is usually the month that preludes to awards season, which means more movies of higher quality are released. Warrior started the ball rolling with a very engaging and emotional sports film with two brothers who find themselves in a championship MMA match. The following weekend released Drive, a throw-back film, thick on style and violence starring Ryan Gosling. The end of September had the release of Moneyball, the baseball movie that had to do with a lot more than just baseball.

While September was very strong, October took a step back with the quality of films released. The opening weekend had The Ides of March and Real Steel, both solid films for completely different audiences. The rest of the month were mainly of the horror genre such as The Thing and Paranormal Activity 3. Oh, and once again Johnny Depp starred in a bad film (The Rum Diary).

In November, awards season was in full throttle. The releases of J. Edgar, The Descendants, Hugo, and The Artist were all in the same month, and there’s no coincidence that these films will collect a fair share of Oscar nominations. Also in November, there were the releases of Jack and Jill (in contention for the worst film of the year), Happy Feet Two, Immortals, and Tower Heist.

And finally we have December. Like the other months, this had some gems and some awful films. The good: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Young Adult, Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The bad: New Year’s Eve, The Sitter, Alvin and the Chipmunks Chipwrecked, The Darkest Hour.

Overall, despite plenty of naysayers, 2011 was a very good year in movies. And even though the year was cluttered with nostalgic films, that didn’t mean films didn’t make any progress. If anything, 2011 kept pressing on that there are new and exciting things to come in the movie industry, but at the same time you cannot forget the history of how we got to where we are now.


The First Seven Minutes of Drive

January 31, 2012

I got this off of the /Film blog and had to post this myself. Drive was my second favorite film of 2011 and this opening sequence was definitely one of the reasons why I loved the film so much. Just within these opening scenes, you can feel the style and the tone of the film, plus witnessing incredible Ryan Gosling playing the most bad-ass character in his career. If you haven’t seen the film yet, check out the clip below and pick up the DVD or Blu-ray.

Top Films of 2011

January 27, 2012

So here it is, my ten favorite movies of 2011. Overall, the films of 2011 were very good, but not great. There were plenty of films that stood out as being better than average, but the year lacked that one or two films that you would really remember as being “the movie of 2011.” If I had to pick one, it might go to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, just because it marked the end of the franchise. If not, then possible 2011 will be remembered for releasing the polarizing, abstract film The Tree of Life by Terrance Malick. But neither of those films cracked my Top Ten List.

1.  A Separation

My favorite film of 2011 wasn’t a product of the incredible movie industry in America. A Separation is an Iranian drama set in modern day and focuses on a family with many tough decisions to make. First and foremost, does the family leave the difficult living standards of Iran to provide their young daughter a better future? The parents both want to, but the father is caring for his elderly father with Alzheimer’s. To admit that this is the least of their future problems displays how powerful this film becomes. A Separation is one of the best family-drama films I have ever watched and is the best film of 2011.

2.  The Descendants

This film had something that no other film I watched had: complexity. Most of the best films of the year were fairly simple and straight-forward, but not The Descendants. There were layers upon layers of conflict and consequences, and incredible depth within each character. George Clooney gave arguably his best performance to date, and newcomer Shailene Woodley complimented his performance very well. This is just a story about a normal family going through a lot of shit, and as a viewer you hope they can remain intact at the end. A brilliant film by Alexander Payne.

3.  Drive

This might be the most memorable film of the year, in my opinion. Everything about this movie screams “style” all over the place, from Gosling’s metallic, silver jacket to the stoic, unknown character with the credits of “Driver.” There is so much explained with so little dialogue. Also, this film contains one of my favorite scenes of the year: the elevator scene.

4.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

There’s no surprise that a David Fincher film would appear on my list. I was excited when this film was released and the film definitely met my expectations. Mara Rooney’s Lisbeth Salander took the world by storm and she has Fincher to thank for that. The 158 minute run-time breezed by, thanks to Steve Zaillian. Overall, this was a disturbing thriller that wrapped my mind around one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever seen on the screen. I can’t wait for the sequels.

5.  Midnight in Paris

This actually might be my favorite film of the year, but ended up being fourth simply because there were better movies, imo. But what a joy it was to watch Woody Allen’s love poem to Paris. While I’m not a big Owen Wilson fan, he fit the part perfectly with his boy-ish charm and the way he wandered around the city like a lost puppy. Oh, and there’s what a fantasy aspect about the film that was the biggest surprise for me of the year. This was well done all-around.

6.  The Help

The Help does a lot of things right and was one of the two surprises of the year with a female ensemble cast (the other was Bridesmaids). The reason why this film is on my list instead of Bridesmaids is because there is a lot more meaning and power behind The Help than the raunchy-comedy. The Help features some of the best female performances of 2011 featuring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Emma Stone. In a male-driven industry, it’s quite a feat what The Help accomplished as a movie.

7.  Beginners

What first peaked my interest about this movie was the premise: a 75-year-old man admits he’s gay six months after his wife of 38 years passes away. What I didn’t expect was a delicate love story starring Ewan McGregor who was trying to put the past behind him to start over. There were so many small, quirky things I loved about this movie that made this such a gem to watch. Oh, and that Christopher Plummer guy was pretty damn good.

8.  The Artist

This is a joyful film from beginning to end, and the fact that it’s a black & white, silent film just makes it more impressive. The two lovely leads share great chemistry with each other in all of their scenes. I loved The Artist because not only is it a reminder and a tribute to how films were in the past, but it’s also a very heart-felt romantic-comedy.

9.  Like Crazy

Easily the most romantic film of the year, Like Crazy dealt with the ups and downs of young love trying to blossom into “happily ever after” through life’s many obstacles. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones are incredible throughout this highly-improved film. It’s this year’s Blue Valentine, but even more powerful.

10.  Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s first 3-D film shows his passion of the history of cinema and the importance of movie preservation. Aside from that, it’s a wonderfully imaginative film about a boy’s search to understand where he belongs. My favorite aspect about Hugo was when they explored the pioneers who realized you could capture dreams on screen. This was a very touching movie, but don’t mistake this for a children’s film.

11.  Moneyball

Moneyball is as much about baseball as The Social Network is about Facebook. With arguably the best dialogue in any film from 2011 (Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian), Moneyball showcases the business and aesthetic of the Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane. The film explores themes of social classes and thinking outside of the box to achieve a similar goal. Anchored by a great performance by Brad Pitt, this film is great entertainment.

12. Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

One of the more pleasant surprises of the year was the fourth installment of the spy/action franchise, Mission Impossible. Going in I was interested in Brad Bird’s live-action directorial debut. Leaving the theater, I was left with such an experience that no action film has impacted me aside from The Dark Knight. The pacing was tremendous and there was a perfect blend of action and comedy. This should be the standard that all action movies will be compared to. Yes, this film is that good. In addition, this film had one of my favorite scenes of the year: Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa.

Movie Review: Drive (2011)

September 20, 2011

Drive (2011)
100 minutes
Rated – R
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston

Grade:  A-

Drive is a movie that takes the word “deliberate” to another level. Everything about this film is done on purpose, from each spoken word of dialogue to the characters departing in slow motion. That’s not confusing how every movie is typically done purposely by the director’s intention, but Drive separates itself from that. Every rev of the engine and every bullet being fired from a gun makes you flinch. And Nicolas Winding Refn masters the feeling of tension with what seems like a never-ending silence before the surprise. The movie did all the little things right.

Starring Ryan Gosling as a stuntman/mechanic by day and a wheelman for robberies by night, he is the mysterious man that goes by no official name throughout the movie. His best friend is Shannon (Cranston) who has been by his side at the film shoots and the garage for years. Gosling’s character is one who never says something if he doesn’t have to. He never elaborates more than just the “yes” or “no” response. When asked what he does he says, “I drive.” Any intent you have to push further is diminished from his confident glare that his answer is all you need to know.

His life takes a turn when he gets to know his apartment floor neighbor, Irene (Mulligan). Their relationship is always uncertain because of his stoic presence and her situation mothering her son and waiting for her husband to be released from prison, but there’s no doubt that a passion is begging to break through between them. But when Irene’s husband comes home, everything changes.

The film has a very retro feel from the pink-script writing to the synth-heavy pop music from bands like College and Desire, which plays into the tone of the film and comparisons between Gosling and Steve McQueen. Albert Brooks also gives a nice performance in Drive as one of the more likable mobsters I can remember.

But this is a Ryan Gosling movie and he owns every scene. It’s surprising to marvel at his growth from films like The Notebook to Half Nelson and now this. Here, he lets his eyes do most of the talking and within a few scenes, I was struck with awe about his presence. His unknown past gives reason to some of the wildly surprising aspects to the film like his unexplained toughness and his inner-struggle to engage with other people. Gosling, the actor who has given beautiful performances before, gives his unnamed character so much life with so little.

For those who like cars, action, and violence, Drive is a movie for you. But this isn’t anything like those mainstream Fast and the Furious films. This is a well-crafted and deliberately-paced story directed by a talented man with an eye for suspense and a gifted cast of actors. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to enjoy one hell of a ride.

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