December 30, 2011
The Best (and Worst) Films of 2011

The Best (and Worst) Films of 2011

Inasmuch as our cinema genuinely reflects the pervading mood of the times, it comes as no surprise that apocalyptic misery and darkly foreboding atmospherics factored mightily into this past year’s crop of films. Fortunately, there were also key points of light in an otherwise bleak tableau, from strong female comedy ensembles (Bridesmaids) to truly exhilarating action flicks (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol), there was just enough to offset the artistic desolation of powerful end-of-the-world visions (Melancholia) and the collective fear and misery of plaintive Oregon trail settlers in Indian country (Meek’s Cutoff). There might have been better overall years of film, but 2011 accurately echoed the fearful zeitgeist of its time.

The 15 Best Films of 2011

15. Captain America: The First Avenger
Maybe it is mostly in the details — Cap’s shield, the look of the Red Skull — but this summer blockbuster superhero romp actually is a hell of a lot of fun. Joe Johnston’s steady hand and attention to period detail allows the film to pass the initial smell test, which, in turn, allows the audience to buy into the whole regular-schmuck-turned-super-soldier story. Chris Evans also proves there’s at least a bit more to him than smug quips and bulging biceps.
Full Review

14. Win Win
The estimable Paul Giamatti might be the recognizable star of this indie jewel from Thomas McCarthy, but the real attraction is the screenplay from McCarthy and Joe Tiboni. It’s not every day you get to watch an essentially good man sliding on such an ethical slippery slope, but such is the taut and lighthearted tone of the screenplay, that you retain your empathy for the film’s embattled wrestling coach, even as you know he’s going to have to pay for his deceptions in the end if he wants to retain his soul. 
Full Review

13. Jane Eyre
An elegant, mannered adaption of the Charlotte Bronte novel, Cary Fukunaga’s film is certainly beautiful to look at with gorgeous cinematography from Adriano Goldman, but with it’s enormous, cold castles and mysterious, rolling hills, it also captures the eerie atmosphere of this early literary ghost story. Stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender (performing in the first entry of what was to become the Year of the Fassbender) are both in top form as well.
Full Review

12. The City of Life and Death
From the review: “Chuan Lu’s film, based, it must be said, on real soldiers and victims of the catastrophe, is graphic and visceral, as it almost has to be in order to touch on the very real horror visited upon the innocent men, women and children of Nanking. His handheld camera fixes on the expressions of the victorious soldiers and civilian victims in equal counts, daring you to turn away. And you will be tempted: the film, while never gratuitous, displays shootings, drowning, beheadings, many rapes, and, perhaps most sickeningly, the joyful expressions of the perpetrators as they inflict this horror on their fellow man.” 
Full Review

11. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Given the hellbent seriousness of the previous films in the series, Brad Bird’s stunt-filled action soiree is a hell of a lot more fun than you might have imagined. The secret is in the way the filmmakers keep pouring on the obstacles to put in the heroes’ path, never more effectively than the bravura middle section, set in Dubai, that features the tallest building in the world, faulty climbing gloves and a monster sandstorm. 
Full Review

10. Drive
Director Nicholas Winding Refn’s stock response when asked about his brutal film’s precedents is to say the enigmatic crime thriller was an homage to Pretty Woman. Still not sure I totally follow his logic, but nevertheless the resulting flick was a fan boy delight: an equal parts lyric and ruthless thriller with Ryan Gosling as a nameless driver of getaway cars and Albert Brooks as his conniving, sadistic adversary. 
Full Review

9. Into the Abyss
Werner Herzog’s peculiar meditation on capital murder takes its cues from its enigmatic director, who feels strongly against the death penalty, but isn’t afraid to make a film that shows something of the complexity of the issue. There is a procedural element to the film, but very little suspense as to the outcome, which enables the audience to focus instead on the very real pain and suffering of all involved in the process.
Full Review

8. The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius’ film gives itself an untold degree of difficulty — create an exciting and enthralling silent film for modern audiences utilizing the early cinema’s boxed-in aspect ratio and foggy black and white presentation — which makes its astounding success all the more mesmerizing. More than an homage, the film is so much fun, it almost singlehandedly revives a genre. 
Full Review

7. Bridesmaids
A comedy that works tirelessly for your attention, Kristen Wiig, who stars and co-wrote it, became one of the bust out stars of the summer based on her performance. Despite the potential chick-heavy premise, the movie thankfully avoids falling into Hollywood ‘female comedy’ schmaltz by sticking to its guns. The result is a film that’s just damn funny, regardless of your gender. 
Full Review

6. Melancholia
From the review: “You would be hard pressed to find a film with a greater contrast between its opening scene and its final one, but, that, too, is part of the point: In a world in which societal expectations and social mores are shown to be little more than paper lanterns, burning up in the atmosphere, the problems of a tiny planet filled with people don’t amount to terribly much.” 
Full Review

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dense and complex, this adaptation of the John le Carré spy thriller is evocative not just of the cold war and the espionage games super power governments play with one another, but also of the European ’70s era itself. A brilliant cast spearheaded by Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth helps to bring Tomas Alfredson’s vision to elegant life. 
Full Review

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Sean Durkin’s psychological horror film features excellent performances and a superbly disturbing script, leaving all but the hints of things much to our unsettled imagination. Elizabeth Olsen proves herself to be a young actress well worth following in her own right beyond her famous siblings, and Durkin, who also wrote the screenplay, has hit a home run with his first at bat. A very impressive debut. 
Full Review

3. 13 Assassins
A masterful set-to in post-feudal Japan, Takashi Miike sets up his doomed-but-honorable Samurai in much the same way Kurosawa planted the seeds for the climax of The Seven Samurai. The epic ending battle — more than 30 minutes long by my unofficial count — is nothing short of exhilarating. 
Full Review

2. The Tree of Life
There are plenty of critics who found Terrence Malick’s thoughtful and evocative treatise on mortality and human consciousness to be a discombobulated bore. While it’s true the film’s narrative is shunt around an enormously complex and slow-paced visual essay, it’s not to say the movie lacks for a through-line. It’s just that the narrative arc is so broad and all-encompassing, it’s hard to get a handle on it. The film is not without its flaws (Sean Penn’s character is easily the least ambivalent and most out-of-place prop), but it does so much so overwhelmingly well, that you have to give it its due. It might not be a film you’ll watch over and over again, but it will stay with you like a found memory. 
Full Review

1. Meek’s Cutoff
Inscrutable and haunting, Kelly Reichardt’s film about a group of settlers trying to make it to Western Oregon by following a suspect guide across Native American lands manages to be both lyric and realistic. The ending turned off more than a few people, but one of the film’s many strengths is its refusal to tie anything up in a neat package for viewers.
Full Review

The Five Worst Films of 2011

5. Thor
No, it might not be quite on the same awful scale as the rest of this list, but in terms of wasted talent, this disappointingly turgid summer action flick from Kenneth Branagh took the dubious prize: A strong (though slumming) cast with such heavyweights as Natalie Portman, Stellen SkarsgardRene Russo and Anthony freaking Hopkins, are given damn all to do in this utter misfire. Thor himself, played by Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth, fares better than everyone else, but the inane script and CGI-a-thon effects left much to be desired. 
Full Review

4. The Hangover 2
Bored and listless, the filmmakers so neatly recapitulated the original break-out comedy — in frequent cases, even running the exact same jokes — filmgoers should have filed a class-action suit against the studio. Unfortunately, they didn’t (at least to our knowledge) and the bloody thing grossed $200 million in the U.S. alone, so you can expect to see part 3 (why not set it in New York!) sometime in 2014. Sigh. 
Full Review

3. Zookeeper
I know this is fish in a barrel, but I can’t let a list like this go without at least a mention of the unconscionable laziness behind this bland Kevin James laugh vehicle. There’s simplifying a script so it’s uncluttered, then there’s just taking the easy way out at every opportunity. Broad, dumb and excrutiatingly unfunny, this beast of a spectacle should have stayed inside its cage. 
Full Review

2. Larry Crowne
With an aging Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts trying entirely too desperately for a sprightly romance-challenged little comedy, it would have been up to a sparkling script to bail it out of trouble. Alas, the absolute waste of a script by Hanks and Mia Vardolos actually dooms it even further. Even now, six months later, I can’t believe Hanks, who wrote and directed the imminently watchable That Thing You Do back in 1996, could possibly have done this to himself. It’s like going from The Deer Hunter to Heaven’s Gate, only without the audaciousness. 
Full Review

1. Sucker Punch
Everything you can possibly hate in an entirely CGI-dominated presentation: trite, ridiculous script, horrific acting, boringly over-the-top “stunts” and action scenes that just leave you bored and despondent. Add to that mess the filmmaker’s conception of this film as any kind of subversive action critique, and you have your most excruciating cinematic experience of the year. 
Full Review

November 4, 2011
Speakeasy: Sean Durkin & Elizabeth Olsen

November 1, 2011
Watch My Movie: Elizabeth Olsen for 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

October 27, 2011
Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Dir. Sean Durkin
Score: 7.5

Consider the word ‘cult’ for a moment, then replace it with something softer, like ‘community,’ ‘idyll’ or ‘farm house.’ You might be able to conjure up images of trees, wooden barns, young people all living and working together in harmony, each with their own way of fitting into the group. What’s the harm in any of that? At least, right up until your leader says something along the lines of “Death is the most beautiful part of life.”

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has just escaped such a place, sneaking out in the early morning with a satchel and diving across the road into the woods, emerging sometime later at a diner in the nearby town. It’s not that she wasn’t followed — as she sits there, one of the other ‘family’ members comes to try and take her back — but, rather, there’s at least the idea that she’s free to make her own decisions. This is how Martha comes to stay with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her sister’s British husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), at their Connecticut lake rental for a couple of weeks. Martha is attempting to assimilate back into regular society after several years of living under the quietly demented hand of Patrick (John Hawkes, brilliant as ever), who keeps family members in line not with shouting and threats but with promises of bliss and harmony — and, of course, his constant sexual gratification. He’s the kind of leader made all the more creepy by the fact that he never has to raise his voice to get what he wants.

Sean Durkin’s film wisely keeps its opinions mostly to itself. This isn’t some kind of ‘Lifetime’ expose of all the cult clichés we’ve come to expect. It’s more of a psycho thriller, albeit with a defused and indirect payoff, something Polanski might have toyed with in-between Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Under her sister’s care, Martha, renamed Marcie May by Patrick (whose first order of business with new recruits is to give them new identities of his choosing), is seriously damaged goods, sleeping all the time, unable to differentiate between her present circumstances and those of the farm, and terrified that her former community members are out in the woods stalking her, much as they did to upstate New York homeowners when she was with them. Durkin uses a rush of metaphoric segues from past to present (jumping into water, or stirring a spoon in a glass), but otherwise keeps the atmosphere oddly dispassionate. We’re not sure if he means to suggest that Martha’s battered psyche can’t fully differentiate between the two, or if there is literally little difference, but either way, the faded, washed out colors and harsh contrast of the shadows maintain an atmosphere of oppression and fear.

Olsen, whom, after all, could have easily just thrown in with her wildly successful older sisters and had a lucrative career, is a revelation as the perpetually out-of-sorts Martha. Sweet and affable one second, sharp as razor wire the next, and haunted the whole while by what she saw — and did — on the farm, Olsen has the almost impossibly complicated task of creating a sympathetic protagonist who is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Like the film itself, we’re never quite sure what to make of her, and that’s exactly as the filmmakers would have it.

August 23, 2011
Feature: Five Observations on Interviewing Elizabeth Olsen During an Earthquake

1. Olsen, the younger sister of those adorable Olsen twins, knows an earthquake when she feels one. The 22-year-old California native instantly leapt up as soon as the first tremors hit. “That’s an earthquake,” she informed director Sean Durkin and me as the two of us were more or less just sitting there in blithe ignorance. She moved nervously over to the doors as if she might bolt the premises. “Shouldn’t we be in a doorway or something?” Durkin offered. “No,” she said, “that’s a myth.” Meanwhile, I looked out the window from the second floor of our Philadelphia hotel and thought everyone walking up and down the street seemed completely normal, which I announced to the two of them. I assumed it was something in the hotel itself (though, in retrospect, I have no idea what might make the entire place shake like that unless a tank was rolling through it, which should have probably given me equal pause), but, at the end of the interview, the publicist told us it was very much for real. To her continued credit, Olsen didn’t lord it over us that she was right. I suppose she really didn’t have to.

2. She attended a serious acting school! Yes, she was a student at NYC’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, not exactly the place for wannabe bubblegum pop divas. In short, this woman doesn’t just want to be rich and famous, as so many American actors are want to do, she wants to be an actual, honest-to-god actress. You get the sense she has carefully set up her career, not just fallen into a good thing. True, it helps to have world-famous icons as sisters (one would think), but it’s precisely because she could have so easily gone and been famous for something other than her work that her choices become more impressive. Also, it’s not like being related to such Paparazzi royalty doesn’t come with some significant downsides. After a screening and Q&A at a Philly theater last night, a fully grown man approached Olsen to tell her he was a huge fan of her sisters, only he was trembling so much when he said it you could imagine him fantasizing about putting their severed heads on special pink sparkly spikes in his den.  Yikes!

3. She chooses roles because she finds them interesting. Really. I mean, come on, by any measure she could have easily slid into a never ending series of romcoms and light, treacly dramadies (You Got That Right! or Christmas With the Grumps), but she has instead chosen, in two of her first film acting roles, to play characters whose grip on reality is highly challenged. First in Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s Silent House, and now, in Sean Durkin’s very good Martha Marcy May Marlene. True, she is taking on a lighter role for her next film (playing opposite Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener in Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Misunderstanding) but I wouldn’t take that to mean she’s going to starting ceding her career to a bunch of agents and professional management companies. After she made Silent House, she said she couldn’t stop crying at inappropriate moments for weeks afterward. I’m more than willing to cut her a little slack.

4. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene offered her a great role to play but it’s hardly a self-aggrandizing star vehicle. Her character is vacant, at times petulant, sometimes naïve, sometimes conniving but always eminently watchable. It doesn’t try to make her particularly attractive, emotionally or otherwise, and actually shows her to be more than a bit cruel at times. 

5. There’s nothing like a sudden, potentially life-changing emergency to draw attention to the weirdness of our lives. Talk about an unnatural construct: I was in the Sofitel conference room to speak to two people who made a fictional movie about fictional people, in order to record their answers and write an account of what it was like to speak with them. In the aftermath of the quake, we stood there for a moment, kind of staring at one another. If the earthquake had been devastating, if the building had shaken down to the ground, we could have been buried alive (or dead) in concrete slabs and steel girders, the last people we would ever have seen in this world. Instead, we were back in a conference room with a large, fancy wooden table in the center and comfortable chairs that were just barely askew. After a beat, we didn’t really have a choice. We sat back down, laughed nervously, and went back to the question I had just asked. To be human is to be in denial, at nearly all times. 

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