Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 6, 2012

The best and worst movies of 2011

Film critics' picks focus on the elemental art of storytelling

Only two movies made it onto all the Weekly film critics' "best" lists for 2011, and they've got one thing in common: a focus on good old-fashioned storytelling.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" told its trench-coated tale without whiz-bang action or Bond braggadocio. Rather, said critic Tyler Hanley, it was an "intelligent and deliberate whodunit fueled by espionage, intrigue and thespian excellence."

And "The Artist" was no CGI blockbuster. In fact, it barely even had sound. Director Michel Hazanavicius paid tribute to 1920s silent films by making his own. That's a risky choice in 2011, but "The Artist" was a hit with Hanley and his Weekly cohorts Peter Canavese and Susan Tavernetti, who praised it as nostalgic, lively and charming with, of course, a captivating narrative.

Here are the trio's choices for the top 10 and worst five films of 2011. Hanley also chimes in with his annual picks for the best cinematic heroes and villains of the year.

Peter Canavese's top films

10. The Artist Just for kicks, there's Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," a transportive celebration of silent cinema and artistic endurance. Though capable of tongue-in-cheekiness, the film lives more comfortably in sentimental melodrama, and excels technically in its recreation (through photography and production design) of filmic composition circa 1927. It's also a lively performance piece for French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, whose work can't get lost in translation.

9. The Skin I Live In Pedro Almodovar's loose adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel "Tarantula" is certified crazy, a treasure of sick cinema. Antonio Banderas plays the disconcertingly dashing mad doctor, a plastic surgeon whose unhinged creativity knows no bounds (ethics? what ethics?). Almodovar gender-bends with the best of them, exploring with abandon sexual orientation, identity and taboos.

8. Margin Call The 2009 market crisis revisited, from within a representative tower of power. A fictional Wall Street investment bank becomes the proverbial canary in the coal mine and, as such, weathers a long, dark night of the soul in deciding how to parcel out its precious loyalty, to employees, clients and the American economy. Under the direction of breakthrough screenwriter J.C. Chandor, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci excel as morally elastic yet sympathetic executives.

7. The Interrupters Documentary filmmaker Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") turns his camera on "violence interrupters" working in Chicago's CeaseFire organization. James focuses on the efforts of three interrupters, former violent offenders now doing the noble work of swimming upstream in one of the nation's most violence-plagued communities. Though the change James observes is almost imperceptibly incremental, there's palpable hope in commitment to community.

6. The Mill and the Cross One of the year's most inspired creative excursions, "The Mill and the Cross" found Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski adapting Michael Francis Gibson's book about the genesis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary." Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel, Michael York his patron and Charlotte Rampling a local muse, but it's all about the imagery in this fascinating nay, mesmerizing look at the artistic process, rural life and fervent faith.

5. Nostalgia for the Light Patricio Guzman takes us with him on a creative leap in this moving documentary, which creatively conflates two searches for answers in Chile's Atacama Desert. The place's unique environmental conditions make it suitable for astronomical study; as scientists look up, widows and orphans dig down, in search of the remains of husbands and fathers "disappeared" by the Pinochet regime.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tomas Alfredson's commendable adaptation of John le Carre's celebrated espionage novel was among the year's smartest entertainments. Though it entirely eschews the action of a Bond or Bourne escapade, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has a fascinating central character in carefully measured career spy George Smiley, now embodied by the brilliant Gary Oldman.

3. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives As "The Tree of Life" did this year, "Uncle Boonmee" won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. And as select American audiences discovered in 2011, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film provided its own distinctive take on the big questions of life, the afterlife, history and memory, in a ghost story a far cry from "Paranormal Activity 3" (and, sadly, its box-office grosses).

2. Certified Copy There's nothing quite like a two-hander carried off by a pair of actors up for the challenge. Writer-director Abbas Kiarostami had a ringer in the always great Juliette Binoche, but gambled and won by casting opera singer (and first-time screen actor) William Shimell to go toe-to-toe with her. The film itself vigorously works itself into an intellectual tangle over the nature of long-term relationships, art and what constitutes real life (as opposed to our comfortable illusions).

1. The Tree of Life No studio release this year was more ambitious, emotional or elegant than Terrence Malick's searching epic about our place in a family, a town, a galaxy, the universe. Emmanuel Lubezki's innovative cinematography beautifully painted with light and shadow and color, while boy lead Hunter McCracken and screen parents Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain exquisitely navigated existential terrain. It has everything and the kitchen sink (and dinosaurs).

Peter Canavese's pans

Sucker Punch Visually and aurally loud, plodding, repetitive and sexist, this Zack Snyder joint about abused female mental patients fantasizing then enacting revenge was the year's top endurance test and, hence, the year's worst movie.

I Am Number Four This teen sci-fi action flick was dull. Also tedious. Also tiresome and mundane. I Am Bored Times Four.

Conan the Barbarian "I live, I love, I slay. I am content." Yeah, Jason Momoa's Conan also squints, mumbles and cocks his eyebrow a lot. He makes Schwarzenegger look like Olivier.

Just Go With It Dear audience: I hate you stupid rubes. Here, have a turd. That'll be 11 bucks. The only laughing you will hear will be me on the way to the bank. Love, Adam Sandler.

Jack and Jill P.S. For my next Adam Sandler trick, I will enlist Al Pacino to play a horny version of himself chasing a woman I play in drag. Oh, America, is there nothing I can do to make you stay home?

Tyler Hanley's top films

10. Bridesmaids This hilarious R-rated offering from producer Judd Apatow and director Paul Feig gives the female of the species the same sort of unapologetic, buddy-based chuckler guys have gotten a dozen times over with films like "The Hangover." But it isn't fair to pigeonhole the flick based on gender, so I'll state it simply: "Bridesmaids" is the best comedy of 2011. "Saturday Night Live" standout Kristen Wiig shines in both writing and acting, while Melissa McCarthy is a revelation in delivering one of the year's most entertaining performances.

9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy James Bond meets "The Usual Suspects" in Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson's sharp adaptation of the 1974 John le Carre novel. Gary Oldman headlines a virtuoso cast that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch (if you don't recognize some of those names, don't worry you will soon enough). "Tinker" is an intelligent and deliberate whodunit fueled by espionage, intrigue and thespian excellence.

8. The Artist This clever homage to the silent-film era is one of the year's most fascinating pictures. Parisian auteur Michel Hazanavicius paints his "Artist" with a whimsical brush that is at once daring and nostalgic. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are perfectly cast in the lead roles, but the movie's unrivaled ingenuity is what truly sets it apart. Hazanavicius deserves a great deal of credit for directing a crowd-pleasing, black-and-white silent film while most studios are deciding which mindless 3D actioner to dump on indiscriminate viewers.

7. War Horse Steven Spielberg hops in the saddle again to helm this harrowing World War I epic. The production values are exemplary, from breathtaking cinematography to stitch-perfect costume design. Spielberg's ambitious and poignant family drama includes powerful messages about empathy and resilience that trump the picture's sometimes saccharine qualities. The movie's massive scope and diverse characters serve to remind us that "War Horse" is much more about the journey than the destination.

6. Midnight in Paris Present and past intertwine poetically in Woody Allen's romantic charmer. Allen's textured writing brings the audience into 1920s Paris with vivacious flair, and Owen Wilson wriggles free of comedic preconceptions in the leading role. "Midnight" lights up with gorgeous set design and costuming while Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll and Marion Cotillard sparkle in supporting roles. An imaginative fantasy for the artist in all of us.

5. Moneyball The unlikely pairing of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill helps drive the most insightful and compelling baseball-themed film since Robert Redford smashed the stadium lights with a homerun in "The Natural." Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 novel about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and his controversial approach to fielding a winning team on the cheap, "Moneyball" offers a vivid and witty glimpse into the business side of America's pastime. And Pitt's firecracker portrayal may earn the accomplished actor his first Academy Award.

4. The Descendants Writer/director Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt," "Sideways") strikes again with this smart and soulful dramedy. George Clooney is at his very best and impressive newcomer Shailene Woodley shines in a challenging role. "The Descendants" is deep and affecting, with humor and heartache flowing through the picture in waves. The lush Hawaiian landscape acts as a backdrop for Payne to touch on powerful themes such as love, death and family ties.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Pottermania hits a crescendo with this taut and thoughtful final chapter in the extraordinary "Harry Potter" film franchise. "Deathly Hallows: Part 2" caps the series with visual panache and emotional punch, and author J.K. Rowling's boy wizard gets the big-screen denouement he so richly deserves. The experience is both cathartic and melancholy for Potter fans a fitting finale to an unparalleled cinematic achievement.

2. 50/50 The finest screenwriting of 2011 comes courtesy of this funny and heartfelt story about a young man confronting cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt deserves the Academy Award for his raw and riveting portrayal of Adam, the fledgling adult diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and given a 50/50 chance of survival. Like "The Descendants," "50/50" coaxes both laughs and tears from viewers, and Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick are superb in their supporting roles.

1. Hugo Mastermind director Martin Scorsese's longstanding affection for all things cinema is colorfully showcased in the enchanting "Hugo." Scorsese paints a rich tapestry in adapting the Brian Selznick novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," presenting a vibrant 1930s Paris with exceptional costuming, set design and cinematography. Family films are rarely crafted with such care and creative vision. Simply beautiful.

Tyler Hanley's pans

Arthur Peculiar funnyman Russell Brand picks the wrong economic climate to play an irresponsible, booze-guzzling spendthrift. The always excellent Helen Mirren gives the cast more thespian spark, but "Arthur" is a dud.

Conan the Barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger made 1982's "Conan" something of a cult classic. But this futile attempt to remake the franchise stumbles thanks to a silly plot, goofy costumes and glut of CGI-fueled nonsense.

Prom Borrowing liberally from the films of "Breakfast Club" scribe John Hughes makes this cheesy teen pleaser more imitation than inspiration. At least the title fits the plot and characters are about as one-dimensional as cardboard-cutout prom decorations.

Red Riding Hood The classic fairy tale gets a "Twilight"-inspired facelift with unflattering results. A hackneyed script and inexperienced acting make "Hood" feel like a mega-budget high school play even grandma would lambaste.

Sucker Punch Director Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead," "300") serves up a visual feast riddled with empty calories. Once the eye candy gets stale, viewers are left with the kind of vacant, achy sensation that can be brought on only by a real "Sucker Punch."

Susan Tavernetti's top films

10. Hugo Martin Scorsese could direct the phone book and make it interesting. Fortunately, Brian Selznick's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" gave the filmmaking maestro plenty of magical material about an orphan (Asa Butterfield) living in a Paris train station during the 1930s. Marrying 3D technology with Dante Ferretti's incredible production design provides eye candy galore. Although the story is too thin to support the movie's lengthy running time, lovers of film history will adore the tribute to early film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the power of imagination.

9. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol Brad Bird directs the fourth installment of the "Mission: Impossible" franchise as though it were "The Incredibles." Cartoon-like superheroes (led by Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt) perform death-defying feats at a breakneck pace and turn rogue agents to save the world from nuclear annihilation. An adrenaline rush laced with humor, the popcorn movie provides a big escapist bang for the buck.

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Director Tomas Alfredson focuses on the trench-coated veteran (Gary Oldman) of the British secret service known as "the Circus," who must find the Soviet mole within the organization. Subtlety and restraint characterize this adaptation of John le Carre's Cold War thriller. Shot with a grainy realism, the film depicts seemingly ordinary spies (including Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth) without a hint of James Bond swagger, as they engage in sing-alongs at holiday parties, talk about gathering information, and snatch a file or two.

7. War Horse "Saving War Horse Joey" might be an appropriate title for Steven Spielberg's World War I saga that tugs at the heartstrings and affirms traditional values. No one can direct a mainstream movie better. Janusz Kaminski's lensing and John Williams' score contribute to the epic grandeur, while the screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provides thematic heft and narrative drive. Drafted to serve in the Great War, the magnificent horse moves from master to master, allowing us to see the British, French and German perspectives and how a splendid creature can stop some humans from behaving like animals.

6. My Week With Marilyn Michelle Williams doesn't impersonate Marilyn Monroe as much as capture the essence of the 30-year-old screen goddess in an Oscar-worthy turn. From breathy whispers to self-aware winking and posing while "being her" for an adoring public, Williams shows her impressive range. Based on the memoirs of the late Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), then a smitten third assistant director on the set of Sir Laurence Olivier's "The Prince and the Showgirl," the breezy biopic chronicles his seven-day itch with the blonde legend. Brit Simon Curtis directs a fragile Marilyn as she tries to find the Method in the madness of working with British royalty (Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench).

5. Bill Cunningham New York On the documentary shortlist for the 2012 Oscars, Richard Press' profile of octogenarian Bill Cunningham bubbles with the subject's ebullient spirit. Ironically, the pioneer of the art of street-style photography has no personal sartorial flair unless a duct-taped poncho and a camera slung around his neck qualify. But the New York Times photographer and cultural anthropologist of fashion is fascinating, whether pedaling his Schwinn around Manhattan, shooting fashion-forward ordinary people, or musing about his principles and passion for his work.

4. Melancholia The sights and sounds of Lars von Trier's meditation on the parallels between the cosmos and a pair of moody sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) explode in an apocalypse wow. The visual imagery of the Danish writer-director demands attention, while the mounting depression and erratic behavior of the siblings earn it. As the planet Melancholia rushes on a collision course to Earth, you'll have ample time to contemplate what it all means.

3. The Descendants Alexander Payne delivers another smart movie about ordinary people grappling with crises large and small. George Clooney wears his vulnerability on his Hawaiian-shirt sleeve, playing the lawyer-husband-father whose life gets upended in rough surf. A small film with plenty to say about personal and civic responsibility, the character-driven piece balances deadpan comedy with heartfelt emotion and Hawaii emerges as an integral member of the ensemble cast.

2. Poetry Quiet and deeply humanistic, the multi-layered drama from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong focuses on a 66-year-old grandmother who learns how to see the world and find transcendence through her struggle to write a single poem. Yun Jung-hee's delicate performance draws you into her awakening, as she gradually discards traditional trappings to follow her own moral compass and use her own voice. The film rhythmically develops emotional power that resonates long after the credits roll.

1. The Artist Infectiously joyful and charming, this black-and-white love letter to the movies reminds us that cinema is a universal language no dialogue needed. French director Michel Hazanavicius proves that the best films cast a spell using the basics: lovable characters portrayed by fine actors, a captivating story and timeless themes. Debonair Jean Dujardin sparkles as the silent-film star who gives a girl (Berenice Bujo) with a dream her big break. The sight gags of the pre-talkie era are delightful. And just as refreshing is the film's generosity of spirit, as individuals lend helping hands rather than backstab for personal gain. When the sound era arrives in 1927, you'll wanna sing, wanna dance alongside the couple in the spotlight.

Note: Susan Tavernetti opted out of writing a pans list this year, as she was not assigned to review any films bad enough to qualify, she said.

Comments

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

It seems apparent that today's critics do not know what to do other than to play monkey see, monkey do with all the other critics, which leads to just pushing gruel and pabulum onto the unwary distracted moviegoers.

I see several movies in multiple lists that I think were faux efforts, put together by the democgraphic cutters and pasters in Hollywood, namely "Tree Of Life" and "The Descendents". Both were pretty bad, but whereas Descendents was watchable in a linear sort of way it was ridiculous in its trashing of the dying woman only telling the story through one point of view and of course they had to get George Clooney to tell that story. It was as bad as the other Clooney nonsense, "The Ides Of March" I wish I had had the idea to march away from the theater on the day I saw that dog.

The only movie I thought was new and interesting was "Paris At Midnight" which delighted all the people in the theater I saw it with, but even it was mostly an homage and apprecition of Woody Allen and must have provoked the interesting American Masters documentary on Woody which was better than just about all the movies that came out last year.

Movies are getting very bad as a general rule, they are more testbeds for psychological manipulation and advertising these days. There are some movies that are decent but very few, and of all the movies our critics are letting us down by treating most of them with anything but contempt.

We are lucky in Palo Alto to have a testbed of our own for looking at movies in a more notice the qualitifier, innocent way - namely the Stanford Theater. It is so much for me to go and see some of the best movies every made in a different time and have the difference impressed on my in a theater from the era as well.

But never fear, now we have 3D. :-(


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 6, 2012 at 11:30 am

HUGO was surprisingly good. I fully expected a children's film, but was surprised to find a sophisticated and well-made drama about a man who lost his way following the advent of film.

SUPER 8 was also surprisingly good. Although it was very reminiscent of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, it was more of a story of a boy who lost his mother and found his way through friendship and forgiveness in the face of adversity.

DRIVE was very good. In fact, it is the anti-FAST and FURIOUS. The story was thrilling and much deeper than most chase films. It is also amazing that Albert Brooks can play a mobster so very well!

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: 4, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, WAR HORSE and THE HELP were all surprisingly good as well.

If I had to put money on the film that critics from the Academy would choose, I think that they will embrace HUGO. It is the story of film-making as told by a master film maker (Martin Scorsese) embracing the best use of 3D thus far in cinema.

However, on a personal level, I think that the best film of 2011 was JANE EYRE. The story is timeless and the acting, sets, cinematography and suspense were mesmerizing. I just can't understand why this period film isn't receiving more love from critics. Yes, it is "slow" -- but no slower than other Oscar-winning films (see THE LAST EMPEROR, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, DANCES WITH WOLVES or OUT OF AFRICA).

I expect that we might one day watch some of these films at THE STANFORD THEATRE if we are lucky in our old age!


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 6, 2012 at 11:37 am

@ Anon:

Have you watched HUGO yet? I was pleasantly surprised. Not only is it a period piece from the first few decades of film (Paris circa 1931), but it is the ONLY film made in 3D where the 3D part of it didn't feel like a novelty. It also invoked the type of "heart" story that was common in the golden age of film.

Again, HUGO is NOT a kid's film. Although some kids might appreciate it, most younger kids would likely fidget throughout the film. However, adults and teenagers will enjoy this film immensely.


Posted by AMRW, a resident of another community
on Jan 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm

@Nayeli - you're sure surprised a lot!

I thought Super 8 was outstanding. A great young man coming-of-age story that even appealed to my 35 year old female self.

I also enjoyed Cedar Rapids. It has some very funny moments even though it didn't seem like it was marketed very well.

Insidious was a great horror movie this year. The premise was different than any other horror movie I've heard of. No spoilers here but it explored a side of paranormal activities that I've read about but never seen in a movie.

Bridesmaids was hilarious. Raunchy at times, but still hilarious.


Posted by David Lieberman, a resident of Professorville
on Jan 6, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Worst film of the year was Melancholia. In fact it is on my list of all-time stinkers. At the end, when the earth is destroyed I wanted to cheer. No more films by Lars von Trier, Bruno Dumont, Jean-Luc Godard and other masters of pretentious Euro-schlock.

Tree of Life was a close second. I spent the first half of the movie desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to stay awake and the second half desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to fall asleep.


Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 6, 2012 at 8:37 pm

@ AMRW:

Yeah, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed those films. In fact, my husband wiped some tears while watching HUGO. We both liked it even though it was nothing like what we expected.

@ David:

I have been told that people will either love or hate TREE OF LIFE. My husband very much liked Malick films (like THE NEW WORLD and THE THIN RED LINE) which have a different "pace" for storytelling. On the other hand, I find them incredibly boring and almost "preachy."

I won't watch MELANCHOLIA just because of the possibly racist and Nazi sympathizing director, Lars von Trier. Even if he was "joking" -- it was a terrible choice of a joke.


Posted by Slevy@ccsce.com, a resident of University South
on Jan 6, 2012 at 9:04 pm

We enjoyed Hugo. It is great story telling and the 3-D worked for me.

We also thoroughly enjoyed two films that the critics did not favor-- Midnight in Paris and Sherlock Holmes. Downey and Jude Law are fun to watch.

Looking forward to seeing The Artist.


Posted by buzzw, a resident of Southgate
on Jan 7, 2012 at 2:34 pm

without a doubt, the phrase of 2011, no contest, you will agree is ''horsing around'' (!)


Posted by Marvin Upshaw, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 7, 2012 at 4:46 pm

"The Descendants" was a very good film, very real. Don't underestimate it. "Bridesmaids" had some funn scenes, but not as funny as first "The Hangover". I walked out of "The Help" after the first 15 minutes, too contrived. Same went for "Ides of March". Wasn't interested in the characters and couldn't stand looking at that woman journalist.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:20 am

> Posted by David Lieberman,
> Tree of Life was a close second. I spent the first half of the movie
> desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to stay awake and the
> second half desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to fall asleep.

Your review was better than the movie. For me "Tree of Life" was
not only one of the worst movies I have ever seen, it was full or
pretension and vanity, and the critics, and the puppets on the
Internet pumped it up so full of hot air it must have been either
mass advertising and bribes or mass delusions.

I saw that movie on the day it came out at Palo Alto Square.
During the movie the sound kept going out but it was only
towards the end that people started complaining because the
movie was so ridiculous that people thought the sound going
out was part of the movie.

I am sure there were obtuse people in the theater that sat
entranced in the movie and never noticed it that still are
raving about how brilliant and innovative dropping the
soundtrack out like that was, and how a lesser director would
never have thought of anything like that.

I really disliked that movie, but even more I despise the
culture of clueless sycophants that sing the praises of
something they cannot even recognize except by the
external comments and cues they get from supposed
critics. Ugh.


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