2011 FILMS

THE 84TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
2012 Oscar Picks and Predictions

Yes, yes, we all know the Oscars don't really matter. The whole idea of competitive awards for artistic achievement is a little dicey to begin with, and the Academy Awards broadcast is just a self-congratulatory Hollywood wankfest, in which they get nearly everything wrong. (This is, after all, the body that incorrectly deemed How Green Was My Valley a better film than Citizen Kane, Ordinary People a better movie than Raging Bull, and that Crash was in any way better than being hit repeatedly in the skull with a ball-peen hammer.)

And who the hell remembers who won anyway? Pop quiz: who won Best Actress last year? No cheating now, but I'll give you some context: it was the year that The King's Speech—a perfectly pleasant, artistically uninspired crowd-pleaser—won Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Director (Tom Hooper). It missed the sweep of the Big Five, however, when Helena Bonham Carter lost the Best Actress Oscar to…

If you answered, "Who is Natalie Portman," you either remember Black Swan way better than I do, or you cheated, or you're my freakish mother who never forgets a useless piece of trivia. (Or maybe you're Natalie Portman herself. In which case: Hi, Natalie. Loved you in Beautiful Girls. Congratulations on your Oscar last year. Please choose better movies.)

Besides, by this point we're just sick to death of all of it. When I was a kid, the Oscars were the one night of the year when we could see all these famous and beautiful people dressed up in one place, but cable television changed all of that. By this point in the year we've already seen Christopher Plummer win a Golden Globe, a Screen Actor's Guild Award, a Critic's Choice Award, a BAFTA, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and a Motor Trend Car of the Year Award. We know he's going to win the Oscar, and, by this point, we just don't care—especially since we know that we're going to have to sit through a four-hour endurance test just to see him win another statue for what must be, by now, an increasingly tacky mantle.

So, haters, I hear you: the Oscars are too long, utterly predictable, scandalously commercial, culturally insignificant, and almost guaranteed to be—as they are every year—a gigantic disappointment.

But you know what, Sachean Littlefeather? I could give a rat's ass: I still like 'em. Continue reading

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ALBERT NOBBS (2011)

Directed by Rodrigo García

Warning: Contains mild spoilers.

I must confess that I went into Albert Nobbs with the lowest of expectations. It is a film that is served terribly by its publicity campaign—the woeful trailer, with its sappy theme song and overall tone of drawing-room comedy—had me referring to it disdainfully as "Dragtown Abbey" or "Albert Knobless." I almost certainly would have avoided the film altogether if it hadn't represented three of the remaining items in my annual Oscar Nomination Scavenger Hunt (Best Actress nominee Glenn Close, Best Supporting Actress nominee Janet McTeer, and Best Achievement in Makeup.)

However (though I still can't quite recommend it) Albert Nobbs turns out to be a far more interesting—and darker—movie than it appeared to be. Based on a novella by the early-20th century Irish writer George Moore, the titual character (Close) is a woman passing as a man in turn-of-the-century Dublin. (And no—just to get the inevitable criticism out of the way—Close gives a fine performance, but does not make a very convincing man. Let us just assume that it would have occured to very few people in turn-of-the-century Dublin to even be suspicious of this elfin, effeminate man, and leave it at that.) Albert has been working as a man for more than 20 years, and for several years has been a waiter at Morrison's Hotel, run by the morally-compromised Mrs. Moore (Serena Brabazon). Albert—and here I should mention that I shall follow Moore's novella and refer to Albert with female pronouns—has been miserly saving her wages and tips towards the purchase of a tobacconist's shop: somewhere, she says, where a woman can work behind the counter.

Albert has no personal relationships: her desperate need to hide her own identity, and some horrible experiences in her youth, have led her to create an emotionally autonomous life for herself. This solitary existence, however, is challenged by the arrival at the hotel of housepainter Hubert Page (McTeer), who is assigned to share Albert's bed and thus discovers her secret. Quickly, however, Albert learns that Mr. Page is also a woman passing as a man, and is herself happily married to a woman. The idea takes root in Albert for the first time that she does not necessarily have to spend her life alone, and so she sets her sights on Helen Dawes (Mia Wasikowska), a young maid having an affair with a loutish handyman named Joe (Aaron Johnson). When Helen and Joe decide to exploit Albert's interest and squeeze some money out of her, a strangely dark love triangle ensues. Continue reading

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EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011)

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Exceedingly phony and insufferably cloying, Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close begs the question: ten years after the events of September 11, 2001, are we ready as a nation to turn our collective trauma into simpering schmaltz?

No. No. A thousand times: no. What has happened this year? From J. Edgar to The Iron Lady, from The Help to Red Tails, movie makers seems intent on approaching very serious historical events in a way that just reinforces every pejorative definition of the adjective "Hollywood." Is there something about a suffering economy that makes the American people crave shallow, manipulative movies that let us pretend we're grappling with historically important subjects, and emotionally weighty subject matter, without actually having to do so? I understand that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but that's not what's happening here: these movies have little or no redeeming elements mixed in with their sickeningly sweet syrup: they are pure snake-oil being hawked with misleading and criminally exaggerated claims of importance.

Based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close takes the idea of making sense of the 9/11 attacks far too literally, embodying the quest for meaning in an 11-year-old boy named Oskar (newcomer Thomas Horn, handed an impossible role that could never be anything but annoying). Oskar has some unspecified disorder along the autism spectrum, and so his saintly father Thomas (Tom Hanks) arranges "reconnaissance expeditions" for him: complicated treasure hunts that force Oskar to go out into the city and engage with other human beings. After Thomas dies in the World Trade Center, Oskar finds a key in Thomas's closet in an envelope labeled "Black." Convinced that this is a message from his late father to undertake one final quest, Oskar goes in search of the key's owner, making a plan to visit—on foot—every single person named Black in the New York City area.

Excessively contrived and unforgivably twee, to call this set-up a "conceit" is an insult to conceits: it's simply preposterous. I spent most of the movie wanting to report Oskar's mother (Sandra Bullock) to child-protective services for apparently allowing her socially-disconnected son to wander the city alone talking to strangers. Fortunately, every single person in New York City named Black turns out to be a paragon of patience and virtue, all of whom are just unbearably touched by Oskar's quixotic quest for understanding.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close assembles an all-star cast in the service of this nonsense. Seen in flashbacks, the character of Oskar's father tests the very limits of Tom Hanks's "likable everyman" persona: his goodness starts to seem both intolerable and vaguely maniacal. Bullock actually gives the better performance as Oskar's depressed, slightly estranged mother, at least until the ridiculous machinations of the plot's third-act twist make her, too, seem like an unhinged parental psychopath. Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright portray two of the first—and most important—of the random people Oskar encounters: both are such good actors that I am growing increasingly tired of seeing them lend their weight to projects so unworthy of them. Continue reading

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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Spoiler Level: Low

Several years ago, I visited some friends just a few weeks after the birth of their first child. Haggard, exhausted, and pushed to the brink of breakdown by the sleep-deprivation that comes with a colicky infant, my friends described their initial experiences of parenthood with an unusual and heartbreaking candor. "We hate it," they said. "We've hated every second of it." Over the unrelenting screams of their new daughter—a sound that tortured me after five minutes, but with which they had been living for weeks—they expressed feelings that are almost certainly common, if seldom spoken aloud. "It feels like we've made the worst mistake of our lives," they said. "We want our old life back. Honestly, I think we'd smother her if we thought we could get away with it."

Their beautiful little girl has since, of course, become the greatest joy of their lives. That bad period did not last long, but while it lasted there were surely moments when they wondered what all new parents must wonder at one time or another: what if it never gets any better? It is one of those fears so painful and frightening—so threatening to a parent's essential morality and identity—that it can barely be acknowledged. What if I never love my child? What if it never loves me?

Motion pictures have long played on this fear, of course, usually in the form of horror movies like The Bad Seed, Rosemary's Baby, It's Alive, and The Omen. Rarely, however, has the subject been treated as seriously—and therefore as disturbingly—as in Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a 2011 film that is going into wider release this week.

Adapted from the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a difficult, discomforting film—and I mean that in the best possible way. Tilda Swinton gives a fascinating performance as Eva, a woman living in the aftermath of a shattering crime committed by her first-born child. Ramsay shows us Eva's life in the present—where she is little more than a haunted pariah in her community—but jumps backwards and forwards in time through her relationship with her son, Kevin. The disjointed, non-linear structure is more than a narrative device, for Eva barely exists in the present, and has no future: she is condemned to spend the rest of her life reliving the nightmare of her life before. Continue reading

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THE IRON LADY (2011)

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Spoiler Level: Low

Can a movie be offensively inoffensive? How about controversially non-controversial? Is it acceptable to be neutral about a polarizing figure, or are films about real people and true events obligated to take a stand one way or another?

These are interesting questions: unfortunately, they are far more interesting than anything in The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd's ridiculously toothless biopic about Margaret Thatcher. Written by Abi Morgan (who co-wrote the very different but similarly shallow Shame), The Iron Lady makes an excellent companion piece to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, in that it takes one of the most interesting (and, for my money, repellent) figures of the 20th century and utterly fails to do justice to either their crimes or their accomplishments. Meryl Streep's uncanny impersonation is a thing to behold, but if she had delivered it in a six-minute skit on Saturday Night Live it might have served a more commentative and courageous purpose.  Continue reading

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THE HELP (2011)
The Unenthusiastic Critic #8

As regular readers of this blog know, “The Unenthusiastic Critic” is my girlfriend, N., who normally sits down with me—under protest—to watch movies that I feel represent unforgivable gaps in her movie education. This week, however, we're departing from the format, as N. joins me to watch a recent release that neither of us has seen before.

The truth is, I was pretty unenthusiastic myself, and had deliberately avoided going to see The Help in theaters. But I'm an awards-show addict, and when The Help received several nominations—not just from the (notoriously dubious) Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but also from the more respectable Screen Actors Guild—I knew I was going to have to watch it. You see, I make it a point to see as many nominated films as possible, so that when they win awards they don't deserve I can rant about them with a clear conscience. This year, I had a strong feeling I'd want to throw a proper, well-justified fit if The Help should happen to win anything, and so I decided I'd have to give it a look.

And because I couldn't face it alone, and because I thought the perspective of an African-American woman might be helpful, I approached the one person on the planet I knew wanted to watch The Help even less than I did: my girlfriend.

"You have fun with that," she said. "I'm not watching that shit." (To be fair, this is what she always says whenever I suggest we watch something for this blog.)

Continue reading

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THE BEST FILMS OF 2011

Lists of this kind are really only useful for generating arguments. I've labeled this post "The Best Films of 2011," and I'm fairly arrogant in my opinions, but even I recognize that an arbitrary list of films, assembled according to criteria I would not be able to fully explain, is not definitive.

For one thing, I haven't seen everything. Every year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science generates an official "reminder list" of productions that are eligible for consideration in the main categories at the Oscars: there are 262 films on this year's list, and that doesn't even include documentaries. I managed to see just over 60 of those films, and have reviewed fewer than 30 since I began this site in April. (What can I say? I slacked off on my day job as much as I dared.)      Continue reading

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THE MOST OVERRATED FILMS OF 2011

Every year, when awards season rolls around, I follow the nominations and prizes the way other people obsess over March Madness brackets or Presidential primaries. And every year, I find myself asking one question over and over again:

Are you all sniffing glue? Continue reading

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WAR HORSE (2011)

Directed by Steven Spielberg


Spoiler Level: Low

I am occasionally accused of being a cynical bastard—and the accusation is not wholly without merit—but a cynical bastard could not have fallen so completely for the old-fashioned Hollywood charms of War Horse, the second—and far better—of the two Steven Spielberg films currently in theaters. In fact, War Horse seems almost specifically designed to counter my criticisms of The Adventures of Tintin, and to stave off any argument about whether Spielberg—unarguably at the height of his technical powers—has lost his ability to really move audiences. Epic, humane, and admirably unafraid of sentiment, War Horse is pure old-school family storytelling. If you'll surrender your own cynicism long enough to forgive an unavoidable movie-review cliché, it's the kind of movie they just don't make any more. Continue reading

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THE DESCENDANTS (2011)

Directed by Alexander Payne

In my rush to see and discuss as many films as possible before the end of 2011, I keep trying—and failing—to write short reviews. But, for once, I feel I can be succinct about The Descendants, the new George Clooney vehicle directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways).

I hated it. I really, really fucking hated it.

Is that enough? Do you need more?  Continue reading

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