By Chris Lane
By Olivia Flores Alvarez
By Angelica Leicht
By Jef Rouner
By Jef With One F
By Jef With One F
By Marco Torres
It's been a big year in film, not that we'd ever expect our critics to agree on the best movies of 2011. Which is why for our year-end film issue, we're including two top 10 film lists — from Pete Vonder Haar and Karina Longworth. But that's not nearly all: This issue also features stories on the year in film graphics, how 3-D filmmaking has finally gone legit, and our people of the year — including Girl with the Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin. Also look for Longworth's essay on what she's looking forward to in 2012 — Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, anyone? — and check our expanded film-review section included in this issue, with our critics' takes on A Dangerous Method, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin and, of course, Dragon Tattoo.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
Houston Press film critic Pete Vonder Haar's top 10 movies of 2011.
It's a crazy time of year for Hollywood. The studios, in their haste to get as many films into "awards consideration" for the Oscars and other award-granting organizations, flood critics with screener DVDs and shove movies into qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. All because nobody ever remembers what came out last January. (Here's a reminder: The Green Hornet and Season of the Witch. At least in this case, the month of release has nothing to do with lack of nominations.)
But neither does it make a hell of a lot of sense to call Win Win, an admittedly splendid little film starring Paul Giamatti, one of the "best of 2011" when it doesn't go into wide release until March of next year. Maybe it's just me, but I suspect people would like to hear about the movies they might have had a snowball's chance of actually seeing during the year they're supposedly representing. So most of the movies on this list made an appearance in Houston during the last 12 months. If they didn't, a release date is included. Just in case you're not up to seeing Breaking Dawn: Part 1 for the 15th time.
1. TAKE SHELTER
Directed by Jeff Nichols
I was afraid to check this out for a long time. Since becoming a parent, my tolerance for movies about fathers and their endangered children is zilch, and I've seen enough of Michael Shannon to know that watching him play a father desperate to protect his daughter from impending catastrophe would hit really close to home. And it did. It's both a thoughtful examination of the terrors of mental illness and a powerful statement about the decay of modern society. Tough to sit through, but worth it.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Refn reintroduces suspense to cinema in a taut thriller that showcases Ryan Gosling's best performance since Half Nelson and a throwback '80s vibe that will please anyone who cut their teeth on Michael Mann and William Friedkin. And just between us, does anybody else think Gosling looks a lot like a young Peter Stormare? I think it's time to work on my prequel script for Fargo.
3. THE DESCENDANTS
Directed by Alexander Payne
Fun fact: George Clooney wanted to play the role of Jack in Sideways, but Alexander Payne thought he was too famous. I guess Payne was swayed by Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck in the meantime, and his decision to cast Clooney as Matt King was a sound one. Like his earlier films, The Descendants is primarily about the often-illusory nature of relationships and how difficult they can be to establish or repair. No explosions, no vampires, just one family's attempts to move on from tragedy.
4. THE ARTIST
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
A love letter to Hollywood's bygone Silent Era (by a bunch of French filmmakers, at that), The Artist is notable not only for its lack of dialogue, but for the obvious affection the filmmakers have for the institution of cinema. When was the last time you were engaged by a film with no "action" and almost no spoken words? A true pleasure to watch, and that Bérénice Bejo? Ooh la la.
Directed by Gavin O'Connor
This doesn't seem to be getting a lot of year-end love, and that's too bad. For while I won't lie and say the story is original (estranged brothers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton train separately for MMA tournament, the former under the tutelage of recovering alcoholic father Nick Nolte), you'll have a hard time resisting the Rocky-style climax and a standout performance by Nolte.
6. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
(Release Date: January 6)
I recently watched Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and it made me realize how accustomed we've become to the idea of spies as James Bond/Jason Bourne-style badasses, all krav maga and gadgets and high explosives. In reality, intelligence work is shadowy, yes, but meticulous and less a sprint than a marathon. Alfredson's adaptation of the John le Carré classic revisits a Cold War more concerned with forcing the audience to piece things together than blowing things up, all bolstered by standout performances by Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Who knew a movie about ape revolution would rely so heavily on themes of abandonment and loss? Or feature one of the year's best performances? No, I'm not talking about James Franco, who mostly phones in the role of Dr. Rodman, but rather Andy Serkis. The former Gollum's portrayal of Caesar is a triumph of modern visual effects and, more importantly, remarkably believable. Don't let the commercials fool you, Caesar doesn't start the movie as an enraged "insurgchimp" (sorry), and the way Serkis sells this character development with nothing but a motion capture suit and a head rig is something else.
8. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
(Release Date: January 27)
I won't lie and say this movie doesn't have flaws, but it's a must-see for Tilda Swinton's staggering performance as a mother coming to grips with the fact that she raised a monster. The supporting cast (John C. Reilly as her husband, Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin) is also solid, and the mixed use of flashbacks and present-day setting will be enough to confirm anyone's worst fears about raising kids: Sometimes it's out of your hands.
9. PROJECT NIM
Directed by James Marsh
Wait a minute...Planet of the Apes and a chimpanzee documentary make the top 10 in the same year? Charlton Heston was right! Actually, this fantastic doc (from the man who brought us the equally engrossing Man on Wire) deserves the recognition. Telling the story of a chimp raised as a human and what subsequently happens to him, Marsh lets his subjects speak for themselves. The results are, by turns, gripping, hilarious and heartbreaking. Nim holds a mirror up to humanity, and the reflection turns out to be pretty ugly.
Directed by Gore Verbinski
I know a lot of us have written off Johnny Depp, especially following Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, only about one and a half of which were non-tedious. So when I heard he was reuniting with Verbinski (director of the first three Pirates movies), my enthusiasm level could best be described as "muted." How surprising, then, to see this amusingly satirical send-up of everything from Chinatown to Don Quixote. I'm also a sucker for a Hunter Thompson reference.
Directed by Terrence Malick
Oh, Terrence. Your juxtaposition of human passion and failure with the vast indifference of nature has once again polarized the critical community. As for me, I can't deny the man's gifts, and The Tree of Life is a visual achievement unlike almost anything I've ever seen. And yet, somewhere in that 20-year gap between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Malick stopped being a "director" and became a "visionary," and his films — as narrative vehicles — have suffered for it, undeniably gorgeous as they are.
Karina Longworth on why you,ve never heard of her favorite movie of the year, plus nine more bests.
Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, is the best film of 2011. Chances are very, very good that you haven't seen it — or were even aware that it was something you could see. And right now, it isn't.
Written in 2003, shot in 2005, and mired in postproduction troubles and subsequent lawsuits, Margaret was not theatrically released until September of this year — and almost as soon as it arrived in theaters (very few theaters), it disappeared. A coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety, Margaret features Paquin — in the performance of the year — as Lisa, a Manhattan high-schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed actress single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive pursuit of retribution on behalf of the accident victim.
Margaret opened in Los Angeles on September 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. In many cities, it never opened at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle that it played anywhere.
So what happened? According to the Los Angeles Times, after spending years in the editing room and seeking counsel from friends such as Martin Scorsese (who called an early cut of Margaret "a masterpiece"), Lonergan was unable to produce a version that would, per his contractual obligation with Fox Searchlight, come in at under two and a half hours. Searchlight demanded that Lonergan turn in an edit in 2008; he gave them his director's cut, which was longer than the 149-minute film eventually released. Why did it take three years to get from the director's cut to this year's film? Financier Gary Gilbert and distributor Fox Searchlight sued each other and settled; then Gilbert sued Lonergan, a case that is due in court later this year.
Lonergan has given exactly one interview during all of this, to TIME's Mary Pols, and even that was monitored by his attorney due to the ongoing litigation. "I love this movie," he told Pols. "I have never worked harder or longer on anything in my professional life. It would mean everything to me if the film could at least have a fair chance at a life of its own."
Embracing the film and giving its cause some year-end awards momentum, some critics and bloggers are trying to provide that chance. (#teammargaret has become a bona fide Twitter meme.) But it's pretty clear that Fox Searchlight had and has no real incentive to spend energy or advertising dollars on Margaret, and when asked to explain why the film so quickly disappeared from theaters in the few major cities where it did open and why it failed to expand to other markets, Searchlight can fairly point to dismal box-office returns. (The film grossed a total of $46,495.) The argument against this, of course, is that the audience could hardly have shown up for a movie they didn't know existed. A film given a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release in a highly competitive market like New York or Los Angeles, deprived of the benefit of significant advertising or media coverage, might as well not be released at all.
There is also the matter of reception. Margaret is a divisive movie, and not all critics are boosting it. The New York Times's A.O. Scott wrote that in Margaret's second half, "the sense that anything is really at stake, or that anything even makes sense, dwindles before your eyes." This is not a totally inaccurate assessment of the film — though I would say it's a willful rejection of the film's deliberate climate of confusion. When I called Margaret "a remarkable mess of a movie" in my own review, I didn't mean that as a pejorative. Lonergan's 185-page shooting script, which has been making the rounds online, suggests that the distracted nature of the film is not a product of the tough edit, but of an intentional aesthetic. The theatrically released cut, while not fully faithful to Lonergan's script, seems remarkably faithful to his script's spirit.
If Margaret is a mess, it only makes us conscious of the messiness that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives. Maybe it's imperfect; maybe it's not for everyone. Maybe nothing worth paying attention to is. I hope that you get a chance to judge for yourself.
If Margaret is unequivocally my choice for the film of the year, after that, it gets complicated. As I went through the annual end-of-year process of catch-up, re-evaluation and revision, my top five films solidified — and roughly 30 films took turns occupying the remaining five slots. In the end, all things being equal, I went with the titles that gave me the most pure pleasure as a filmgoer.
Kenneth Lonergan, United States
The sheer beauty and personal depth of Lars von Trier's triangle of depression, anxiety and cosmic apocalypse has been well documented. What has been overlooked, I think — and what pushes Melancholia into masterpiece realm, for me — is its subversion of Hollywood's two primary currencies: the special-effects epic and, in the casting of Kirsten Dunst as von Trier's alter ego, the celebrity confessional.
3. MEEK'S CUTOFF
Kelly Reichardt, United States
Has a better American film about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation since the start of the downturn other than Kelly Reichardt's gorgeously unsettling Oregon Trail tale been made? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.
4. THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick, United States
Even if the reach of Terrence Malick's infinite loop exceeds its grasp, that reach is unprecedented. At Cannes, it was tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia — Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars's Dogme dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death and the mysteries of the universe, the two films defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between one another.
5. THE ARBOR
Clio Barnard, United Kingdom
Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, Clio Barnard's hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging to tell the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind is also the most innovative — not a small feat in a year that also brought the archival super-edit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
6. A SEPARATION
Asghar Farhadi, Iran
A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Asghar Farhadi's Berlinale winner, about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran, is all the more impressive as an implicit — but, in an incredible feat of footwork, never direct — critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.
Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark
The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.
Steven Soderbergh, United States
A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Steven Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail-biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.
9. THE FUTURE
Miranda July, United States
The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded Miranda July's second feature — a deeply personal and fully unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi and filmed performance art — only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.
Bennett Miller, United States
Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, though as a faithful follower of the Dodgers — whose 2011 season offered a gripping seesaw of tragedy and triumph — I hardly needed to go looking for baseball drama elsewhere. Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis's bestseller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal ration that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.
The following films (listed alphabetically) almost made the cut: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Beginners, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, A Dangerous Method, Dragonslayer, Fast Five, Go Go Tales, House of Pleasures, Jane Eyre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Love Exposure, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mysteries of Lisbon, Rubber, Silver Bullets, Take Shelter, The Trip, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Winnie the Pooh.
THE OLD MEN AND 3-D
Transcending the gimmick in 2011.
BY ERIC HYNES
It was 1952 in Haddon Township, New Jersey, and five-year-old Steven Spielberg was bummed about The Greatest Show on Earth, the first movie he saw in a theater. "I wanted to see three-dimensional characters, and all this was was flat shadows, flat surfaces," he once told biographer Joseph McBride. Little Spielberg had expected a real circus, with live elephants and clowns. "I was disappointed in everything after that." A year later in Manhattan, ten-year-old Martin Scorsese got Spielberg's wish: He witnessed André de Toth's House of Wax in stereoscopic 3-D. "The sense of depth took me into another universe," he recently told the Guardian.
Nearly 60 years later, both directors have finally released their first 3-D films (The Adventures of Tintin and Hugo, respectively), as have two German contemporaries: Wim Wenders (Pina) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Going in and out of fashion for decades, but always the domain of money-grubbing blockbusters and projectile-hurling genre pictures, 3-D came of age in 2011 thanks to these four artistically accomplished films. But more importantly, the format seems to have re-energized these auteurs to make what the besieged movie business might need most: impassioned and ambitiously personal movies.
Born within four years of one another — bracketing the beginning and ending of the second World War — these four filmmakers discovered cinema in the 1950s, when postwar pop culture was exploding and diversifying, and television was threatening Hollywood's dominance (much as it's now threatened by the digital hydra). Spielberg, Scorsese and Wenders all grew up with TV and never knew a time when the cinema had the only screen in town. Raised in rural Bavaria free of mass media, Herzog knew no loyalties, either. Theirs was an era of appropriation and possibility (yes to TV, 3-D, rock and roll and Disney), and each, in his own way, came to feel entitled to his ambitions, whether it was taking a bicycle ride across the moon in E.T. or tugging a steamship up the side of a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. All four came of age during the new waves of the 1960s, and in the '70s helped chart a course of cinema for a generation. Now established, bankable veterans in their late '60s, they're in a position to do it again, seizing the latest industry trend not as a gimmick but an opportunity.
In Hugo, Scorsese uses 21st-century technology to honor 19th-century innovation, evoking the magic of early cinema via 3-D sleight of hand. He depicts 1920s Paris as a city of bygone fantasy, where details are period-specific but the camera can seemingly do anything it wants, such as careening through a crowded train station at jet speed, or placing Ben Kingsley in a Georges Méliès film. (Contrast Scorsese's provocative and productive anachronisms with Michel Hazanavicius's dead-ended exercise in fidelity, The Artist.) Consistent with Scorsese's career (as both filmmaker and film preservationist), Hugo celebrates cinema's past, argues for its enduring relevance and eagerly partakes of its evolving powers.
Although different in form and tone, Spielberg's Tintin also animates a fantastical past (vaguely 1930s) with contemporary tools. Like Scorsese's picture-book adaptation, Spielberg brings a two-dimensional source to three-dimensional life, yet Tintin retains its comic-strip look and feel. Clearly turned on by the elastic potential of motion-capture CGI, Spielberg outdoes his own live-action virtuosity (epitomized in several Raiders of the Lost Ark set pieces) without abandoning classic film framing or pacing. An epic long-take chase sequence through a winding Moroccan village is breathtaking because it mimics — rather than disregards — the daredevilry of physical action, craftily preserving a sense of danger even though, thanks to CGI, anything's technically possible. For all his intervening achievements — and despite Tintin's wearying relentlessness — it has been decades since a Spielberg film was this adventurous, this infectiously adolescent.
Of all four films, Wenders's Pina is most revelatory in its use of 3-D. Challenged to do justice to the late Pina Bausch's dance-theater choreography — to make a record of her intrinsically transient work and have it make sense as cinema — Wenders has created a documentary meditation on perception and sensation, reconsidering both physical and virtual/cinematic spaces by constantly reconfiguring our perspective on them. As the movement unfolds around us, sometimes we're on the floor, immersed and orbited; other times we're removed, peering at dancers in a cinematic doll's house.
As gifted as anyone of his generation at marrying form and feeling (Wings of Desire confidently combined a poetic elegy, a philosophical treatise and a sappy love story), Wenders endured years of rough footing until this major revival. The same can be said of Herzog, whose condescending, self-serving, self-parodic (and yes, occasionally entertaining) stentorian narration had corrupted much of his recent nonfiction work (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World). Outside of an audacious Herzogian coda, he's comparatively restrained in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, seemingly and appropriately awed by the 30,000-year-old cave paintings he ventures to capture. Unlike his American counterparts, Herzog maintains the integrity of his 2-D source — there's no making these pictures "come to life" via CGI — instead using the extra dimension to insert the audience into the cramped space of the cave, letting us marvel at these rediscovered masterpieces through his camera's eye.
Yet all four films, excluding perhaps Pina at times, function just fine in two dimensions, making what came of the technology less crucial than what the technology inspired (which can't be said for, say, Shark Night 3D). Each film feels like a reboot, like an unlikely renewal. Each is motivated by possibility, by wonder, by forms and effects unknown; each is a kind of adventure film. With the movie business as conservative and risk-averse as ever (or at least since 3-D was last a thing), it's gratifying to see these four directors — decorated vets who could easily rest on their good names or retire — spend Hollywood coin on passion projects. Even as the industry wrestles with anxieties old and new, they show how film can still revive itself and take us somewhere new.
PEOPLE OF THE YEAR
BY ERNEST HARDY, KARINA LONGWORTH AND MARK OLSEN
Some of our notables showed great courage this year, others are simply notorious, but all ten had a big impact in 2011.
Six years of Saturday Night Live was threatening to calcify Kristen Wiig's brand of highly physical yet conceptual comedy of awkwardness. Turns out she was working on a second act all along: As co-writer and star of the summer blockbuster Bridesmaids, Wiig proved, first and foremost, that female-fronted comedy can fuel mainstream box office, which is, to date, nearly $170 million. She also proved that she can carry a film (and that she can write a career-changing role for co-star Melissa McCarthy). Next up for Wiig: a starring role in the indie drama Imogene, directed by American Splendor pair Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. (KL)
Sentenced to house arrest in his Tehran apartment and banned from filmmaking (his crime was allegedly planning to make a film about post-election unrest in Iran), writer/director Jafar Panahi collaborated with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who himself was just released from Evin Prison after three months in jail) to make This Is Not a Film, a video diary documenting a day in his life, his struggle to come to terms with his restrictive situation and reconcile his identity without breaking the law. This stunning "not-a-film" was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, which it did, to huge praise. The movie won't be released stateside until 2012, but Panahi's ongoing persecution and his remarkable act of resistance were the world cinema story of 2011. (KL)
Netflix began 2011 riding high on the popularity of its Watch Instantly service, the industry standard for legal movie streaming which the company offered as a "free" added benefit to all DVD-by-mail subscription plans. The first of a string of PR disasters came in July, when Netflix announced that subscribers would now have to pay for DVDs and streaming separately, amounting to as much as a 60 percent price hike for some customers. In an effort to quiet the public outcry, CEO Reed Hastings wrote a late-night blog post fashioned as an apology, explaining that he was spinning the DVD service into a new company, Qwikster, to justify the two charges. A month later, in response to further backlash, Hastings killed the Qwikster plan — but left the price hikes in place. With Netflix's stock price plummeting and subscribers fleeing, the 12-year-old company, a survivor of numerous tech and e-commerce bubbles that itself had a major hand in the death of Blockbuster, suddenly seemed to combine the worst of two worlds: the inexperience of a start-up with the cash-gouging hubris of a corporate titan. In a climate when companies are failing without such major fuck-ups, the impetuous Hastings presided over the Unnecessary Industry Meltdown of the year. (KL)
The "Cast" of The Interrupters
One would be hard pressed to find scenes in any drama this year with as much impact and resonance as those in Steve James's documentary The Interrupters. Following a group of former Chicago gang members who now act as intermediaries in disrupting street violence, the film approaches main subjects Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra not so much as heroes but as humans, capturing the ways each of them is trying to get right with the world. The film's straightforward style is immersive and overwhelming, overflowing with heartbreak, insight, startling access and hard-won uplift. After the legendary snub of his landmark Hoop Dreams, that James has again been left out of the race for the documentary Oscar only proves that category is in need of its own intervention. (MO)
After many rounds of layoffs at the company that bears his name and a failed 2010 bid to buy back Miramax, we can safely call 2011 Harvey's comeback, even though he has been here for years: Weinstein began 2011 by ending a nearly decade-long Oscar slump with a Best Picture win (and perhaps more controversially, a Best Director win) for The King's Speech. He was back to his old buying ways by Cannes, where he picked up current Best Picture frontrunner The Artist. And as distributor of both The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher) and My Week With Marilyn (Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe), he almost certainly stands to benefit from an expected impersonation race in the Best Actress field. The only thing missing from Weinstein's 2011 has been a media scandal. For that, we turn to... (KL)
If Weinstein is the mogul return-to-form story of the year, super-producer Rudin gets points for building on what was already a pretty great 2010, when both The Social Network and True Grit finished big with critics and audiences. This year, in addition to the Broadway smash The Book of Mormon and the three Rudin productions now vying in the year-end glory sweepstakes (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Moneyball), Rudin is also wrapped up in the season's three critical hullabaloos: the controversy surrounding the pitiful barely-release of the Rudin-produced film Margaret, the absence of Incredibly Loud screenings for most critics and The New Yorker's embargo-breaking review of David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo. While he has remained mum about Margaret, Rudin so publicly battled the embargo-defying critic David Denby that, while inside baseball to the extreme, the whole exchange could be seen as some kind of genius PR setup. Contrived or not, it worked, steering public opinion away from the journalist and toward the massive corporation (Sony) and some of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Net win? (KL)
Lars von Trier
Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a film that finds favor even with his legion of detractors, only to undermine his own achievement with a publicity gambit gone way wrong. Such was the case with Melancholia — a film that turns depression into a literal apocalypse as a meteor hurtles toward Earth — and the director's subsequent self-destruction in front of an international Cannes press corps that found him answering a question about aesthetics by tying himself into a rhetorical knot and then unraveling it with the world's worst punch line: "Okay, I'm a Nazi." A filmmaker of astonishing technical mastery in service of a prankster's impudence and a darkly vulnerable soul, von Trier is like his own mismatched-roommates sitcom all in one person — That's Our Lars! (MO)
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was received largely as a playful travelogue and nostalgia piece, a waxworks tour through the cultural history of Paris as Owen Wilson brushed shoulders with Zelda, F. Scott and Ernest, Gauguin and Degas. But Allen's sucker-punch is to conclude that rather than fetishize the past, one should cherish their present tense most of all. Coming from a man who still uses a manual typewriter, this was a counter-intuitively radical notion. And an unexpectedly popular one, leading to Allen's biggest box-office hit since 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters. (MO)
Writer-director Andrew Haigh's award-winning quasi-documentary Greek Pete completed its gay film festival run in 2009, then quietly vanished. No one could have predicted that his follow-up would win raves that most directors spend a lifetime chasing. Haigh's Weekend is a smart, erotic, melancholy chamber piece about what happens when a one-night stand between two British men stretches into a weekend of conversation, tackling everything from the soft homophobia of "enlightened" straight friends to the ways gay men cripple themselves in relationships. It swept awards at gay and mainstream film festivals around the world, won gushing reviews from mainstream outlets (it has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), grossed half a million dollars in extremely limited run and quietly but forcefully broadened the definition of what makes a romantic leading man. (EH)
He turned in flawless performances in four wildly different films this year, starring as the young Magneto in Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and spiritually hollow sex addict Brandon in Steve McQueen's art-house scold, Shame. The 34-year-old actor, who has been pegged the thinking cinephile's sex symbol, is still not a household name. Next year's roles in a Steven Soderbergh thriller and a Ridley Scott sci-fi should quickly fix that. (EH)
10 FOR 2012
BY KARINA LONGWORTH
We know — you're excited about The Dark Knight Rises. And The Avengers. And The Hunger Games. So are we. We're also excited about a lot of other movies whose marketing campaigns have not inundated us with white noise (yet). Allow us to suggest a few more films to put on your 2012 watch list.
Remember back in 2005, when George Lucas was making the press rounds to promote Revenge of the Sith, and he was all, "Now I can finally make those experimental movies I've been talking about making for 30 years but for whatever reason have never actually made"? Instead of following through with that promise/threat, he financed Red Tails, an action period piece about the Tuskegee Airmen starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. In development since the '80s, in production since 2009 under director Anthony Hemingway (Lucas reportedly directed reshoots himself due to Hemingway's Treme commitments) and set for release January 20, Red Tails will either benefit from or be overshadowed by Lucasfilm's other 2012 project, the 3-D re-releases of the Star Wars films, beginning with The Phantom Menace on February 10.
Soderbergh x 2
If Steven Soderbergh is still seriously considering a "sabbatical" from filmmaking, as he keeps threatening, it doesn't seem like it's going to start any time soon. As of right now, he has two directorial efforts due for release in 2012: Haywire (opening January 20), a tricky, kinetic action-mystery built around super-fox mixed martial artist Gina Carano, and Magic Mike (June 29), based on star Channing Tatum's pre-fame gig as a male stripper.
Spike Lee x Several
Although Red Hook Summer, an independently produced drama set in the titular Brooklyn neighborhood directed by and co-starring Spike Lee, was originally rumored to be a sequel to Do the Right Thing, reports have since surfaced that this is not technically the case — even if Lee does reprise his role as Mookie from his 1989 film. Either way, Summer's Sundance premiere in January will kick off a busy 2012 for Lee, who hasn't released a feature film since Miracle at St. Anna in 2008. He'll start shooting a Josh Brolin-starring remake of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy in March, and after that, will reportedly direct a biopic of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry for HBO starring Eddie Murphy, collaborating with Lee for the first time.
Damsels in Distress
With four years between dramatic features, Spike Lee has nothing on Whit Stillman, whose last directorial effort, The Last Days of Disco, was released in 1998. After more than a decade of aborted follow-ups and false starts, the Oscar-nominated writer-director (Metropolitan) is back with this quasi-musical about a group of girlfriends (including Greta Gerwig and Crazy, Stupid, Love co-star Analeigh Tipton) and their "distressing" boyfriends (including nouveau nighttime soap hunks Adam Brody of The O.C. and Hugo Becker of Gossip Girl). Similar to Stillman's previous deadpan deconstructions of group social life, but infused with a gleeful lunacy heretofore unknown in his films, Damsels is worth the wait.
Three years after the disappointing Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen is back with a fresh character in another Larry Charles-directed comedy. At least, we think it's a comedy — in typical Baron Cohen fashion, details on The Dictator have been kept under wraps. In what would suggest some kind of a break from the prankish faux-documentary style of Borat and Brüno, Dictator features stars such as Anna Faris and Ben Kingsley playing characters other than themselves. The film is rumored to be based on Zabibah and the King, a romance novel set in eighth-century Iraq believed to have been secretly written by Saddam Hussein, but it also apparently takes place at least partially in modern-day New York? All will be revealed, we guess, on May 11.
Wes Anderson's first live-action film since The Darjeeling Limited and his first period piece, Moonrise Kingdom stars newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as 12-year-olds who fall in love and run away together. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand play some of the adults flummoxed by the young pair's disappearance. Although no U.S. premiere date has yet been set (Focus Features is releasing), the film is scheduled to open in mid May in France, so a Cannes slot seems like a good possibility.
Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to There Will Be Blood stars PTA regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a spiritual guru said to be inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Joaquin Phoenix co-stars as a Dodd follower, in his first post-I'm Still Here role. When the original financiers backed out of this long-percolating movie in 2010, the film was saved by Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison's daughter Megan Ellison, who has become a new Hollywood player, also investing in True Grit, Bridesmaids and upcoming films from Wong Kar-wai and Kathryn Bigelow. No specific release date has been set for Master, but a Weinstein Company spokesperson told us we can expect to see it in the fall of 2012. And speaking of Ellison and Bigelow...
Untitled Kathryn Bigelow Osama bin Laden project
The Hurt Locker was not just the first film directed by a woman to win Best Picture, but one of the lowest-grossing movies in history to do so — making it perhaps the only true underdog victor of the Hollywood popularity contest in decades. There's a cloud of secrecy around Bigelow's follow-up; its IMDb cast list is qualified as "rumored," and even its temporary working title is in dispute. What we do know is that the movie, apparently at one point entitled Kill bin Laden, has something to do with the hunt to find and kill the Al Qaeda leader; that it's Bigelow's second collaboration with Hurt Locker writer/producer Mark Boal; and that the release date has already been bumped from October 12, allegedly due to the filmmakers not wanting to be perceived as trying to influence the presidential elections. As of press time, the film is scheduled for release on December 19, 2012. Maybe.
This Is Forty
Another not-quite-a-sequel, Judd Apatow's fourth directorial effort focuses on the marriage of Pete and Debbie, the characters played by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann in Knocked Up. While a few actors from Apatow's 2007 hit are returning — including Charlyne Yi, Jason Segel and Apatow-Mann daughters Iris and Maude — the film also features a few high-profile newcomers to Apatovia, including Melissa McCarthy, Megan Fox and Albert Brooks playing the part of Rudd's dad. Originally scheduled for a summer 2012 release, Universal pushed Forty to December 21 so that the studio's Snow White and the Huntsman can beat that other Snow White movie, the Tarsem-directed Mirror, Mirror, to market by a month.
American indie film's most stalwart advocate for celluloid (he cut each of his previous, 16mm-shot features, Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, on an outdated flatbed machine), Andrew Bujalski is pulling a 180 with his next film. Computer Chess, a period piece set in 1980, was shot in Austin in September on modified video cameras from that era. Having partially crowd-sourced his financing through unitedstatesartists.org, Bujalski has been editing Chess this fall (yes, on a computer) with an eye toward a festival premiere in 2012.
J. Hoberman's favorites of 2011
The past 12 months brought a number of powerful, introspective, big-theme cine-statements, many of them by old masters (see below). Some pondered history — as well as its end. A few upended the old-fashioned movie-house paradigm. In recognition of the medium's ongoing mutation, my annual list is bookended by two such extra-theatrical projections.
Christian Marclay, U.K.
One of the most radical film-objects of the 21st century, Marclay's 24-hour found-footage assemblage — which screened in Boston, Los Angeles and New York this year — was not only a surprise art-world blockbuster but also, by making an overt spectacle out of time passing, reiterated Andrei Tarkovsky's assertion that cinema is essentially a form of temporal sculpture.
1. A DANGEROUS METHOD
David Cronenberg, Canada
Cronenberg's viscerally cerebral, historically scrupulous science-fiction romance teleports the viewer back to the birth of psychoanalysis. Europe's 20th century is the subject, given form by Sabina Spielrein (and Keira Knightley's electric performance). Consummate classical filmmaking, A Dangerous Method has an exaggerated Masterpiece Theatre patina that is regularly fissured by geysers of desire (as well as dreams and ideas) and ultimately blown away as Spielrein, Freud and Jung meet their respective fates.
Lars von Trier, Denmark
On any other day, this might have ranked first. Melancholia's first five minutes are like a formal invitation to the end of the world; the next two hours allow you to live through the run-up. We are all ultimately alone, and yet this thrillingly sad, beautiful movie dares to imagine (and insists we do as well) the one event that might bring us all together.
3. MYSTERIES OF LISBON
Ruiz, who died this summer after a nearly 50-year career, dramatizes every outrageous plot twist in a classic 19th-century novel with serene equanimity — treating the hopelessly old-fashioned as the new avant-garde. After some four hours, Mysteries cuts its own Gordian knot to wrap with a magnificent, looping closer that metaphorically conflates the end of literature, theater and cinema. The nothingness is Olympian.
Ionesco meets Jim Thompson: This murder mystery, shot vérité-style, is less a psychological case study than a philosophical treatise — or better, it's a case study as philosophical treatise in which the killer's identity is known, but his motives are not. Aurora dramatizes the Sartrean notion "shame of self," rooted in the recognition that we are "the object which the Other is looking at and judging." With Puiu playing the killer, the audience ponders the filmmaker looking at the protagonist who just happens to be himself.
5. SEEKING THE MONKEY KING
Ken Jacobs, U.S.
Shown twice as part of the New York Film Festival (and again at Zuccotti Park the night before the mayor and police broke the occupation), Jacobs's incantatory, hallucinated, apocalyptic screed is a deeply troubling combination of stunning abstract imagery and enraged political analysis.
6. TO DIE LIKE A MAN
João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal
Fado music makes something wistfully jaunty out of inconsolable loss, and so does this mysterious, fabulously sad fable about the final months of a fado-singing, pooch-pampering drag diva. Such a surplus of melodrama might have prompted an Almodóvarian frenzy, but Rodrigues is neither hysterical nor maudlin. To Die Like a Man is playful, unpredictable and incongruously verdant.
7. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
The acme of no-budget, Buddhist-animist, faux-naive, avant-pop magic neorealism is a movie in which conversing with the materialized spirits of the dead and watching the so-called living on TV exist on the same astral plane.
Martin Scorsese, U.S.
After decades in the business, Scorsese finally makes a kid's film, and it turns out to be the best Spielberg movie that Spielberg never made. Hugo is distinguished first of all by its genuinely dramatic use of 3-D and second by a cinephilia that has nothing to do with a belief in Hollywood happy endings.
9. J. EDGAR
Clint Eastwood, U.S.
Like most Eastwood productions, this densely woven historical tapestry is frugal and underlit; like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness. Just as Leo DiCaprio's Hoover is regularly accused of fabricating media stories and posing as a fictional hero, J. Edgar is a self-aware production, filled with its own textual signposts. (At a kidnapping trial, the word "nelly" leaps out of a courtroom display.) Dirty Harry turns himself inside out: The film even provides a near credible theory on Hoover's sexuality. It too might have been called "To Die Like a Man."
10. UNITED RED ARMY
The veteran Japanese pulp artist makes a new sort of horror movie — a grueling, engrossing three-hour account of Japan's insanely ideological New Left that faces the void with the prolonged, increasingly violent, ever more self-critical group sessions, staged in near-darkness and shown in close-up, wherein the clandestine Red Army tore itself apart.
Todd Haynes, U.S.
The most academic yet mass-culture-minded of U.S. indie directors, Haynes made a characteristically sidelong move toward the mainstream by treating James M. Cain's novel as epic domestic drama with intimations of historical tragedy. Haynes's HBO miniseries saga of unrequited star worship, terminal class envy, failed self-empowerment and self-immolating smother love is less a narrative than a fastidiously designed, endlessly resonant world that, harking back to Hollywood's last golden age, might have appeared in the disillusioned days of The Godfather or Chinatown.
A dozen runners-up: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Certified Copy, Film Socialisme, Le Havre, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek's Cutoff, Le Quattro Volte, Octubre, Super 8, Terri, Tuesday, After Christmas and Young Adult.