Monday, January 30, 2012

Like: Haywire

Between Haywire and Steven Soderbergh's last film, Contagion, one could posit that the director is very much in a period of genre exploration.  To an extent, he's always been this way.  Soderbergh tends to pick up 'typical' Hollywood fare (the heist film, the biopic) and generally finds a way to elevate it just beyond expectations. Yet, Contagion and Haywire feel quite different than the fun, high-kitsch aesthetic of something like the Oceans films.  There's a minimalist sleekness to each of them, a spartan nature that reads as an almost clinical dilution of a larger, showier affair.  Contagion and Haywire are each essentially B-movies that have been considered, shot, and polished as if they were aspiring for the art house. They lay out their bare-boned roots in such a confident, stylish manner that you dare not say, for example, that Haywire has a lot in common with your average Jason Statham actioner, or that Contagion is just another disaster flick.  Something about both films dismisses those ideas as ridiculous, even though they’re really quite true.

Haywire is a film practically custom-built for Gina Carano, a champion MMA fighter who -legend has it- Soderbergh caught on TV and immediately saw as a real-life action heroine.    Carano plays Mallory Kane, a highly skilled contracted operative who picks up government jobs deemed too dirty for actual agents.  After successfully completing a questionable job in Barcelona, she finds herself double crossed and on the run from her former co-workers.  Spy vs. spy, assassin vs. assassin; pretty much a whole lotta dudes trying to take down one very tough lady.  While Carano really isn’t much of an actress, all the film really demands of her is what she already has: mad stunt skills and a weirdly magnetic on-screen presence.  The rest just isn’t the point, so who cares if she sounds like the computer from Star Trek when she speaks her lines?  No one expects real pathos from Schwarzenegger, why ask for it from Carano the killing machine?  All she really needs to say is inherent in her irrepressible “I can take you” smirk, and when she’s on screen, particularly during fight sequences, you believe there’s no way anyone could beat her (physically or mentally).   Ewan McGregor shouldn’t even try.

Of course, McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, and –in a weird turn of events – Channing Tatum, pick up the bulk of the dramatic slack here.  It is their job to transform our schlocky B-movie into something more elegant than the sum of its parts.  They are the Bond girls (and M.) of our Gina Carano combat spectacular, serving as debonair eye candy for our girl with the golden right hook.  While all are situated firmly within their supporting roles, they’ve been smartly cast for the glib, sophisticated ferocity of their presence.  If they’d been used more, perhaps they could have elevated the film further away from its simplistic plot devices.  Instead, Soderbergh chooses to focus his camera and energies on Carano.  Depending on your point of view, this is fortunate or unfortunate.  There are ways in which the film suffers because of its insistence on devoting so much time to Mallory Kane, and for fans of action films Haywire may read as too quietly designed and acted to truly be gripping.  Yet, the grievances are also precisely what make this film stand out.  Carano and her character offer girls a more realistic, bad-ass action hero than most and Soderbergh has designed the film’s action sequences in a way that resists the bombastic, abrasive over-editing of others in its genre to give us combat that feels real.  Everything in Haywire is possible.  While the realm of the real isn’t always where we have the most fun, sometimes it’s really quite refreshing.      

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Guest Post: Don't Rain on Tryst's Parade

Our guest columnist and special fashion consultant Tryst is your one-woman guide to filmtastic styling, easy to spot on the sartorial street because of her excellent taste in tutus and expertise balancing in ridiculous footwear. With a degree in English and Biology, she is officially certified to make up both words and diseases, but prefers to make fashion judgments. While she does enjoy curling up on the couch with a movie and her English husband, she will be the first to tell you that pajamas belong on the inside…not outside…of your abode. 

As a musical fan, I am also a Barbra Streisand fan. When it comes to Barbra, I'm of the opinion that there isn’t a whole lot not to like. Yes, there have been many critiques made on her various performances but, then again, she has an extensive and impressive filmography. In addition to working as an actress, producer and director she is an obviously successful singer and composer, any of which is more than most can boast. However, these considerable talents were not what first enchanted me about Barbra...

I am fascinated by her nose. I know, not revolutionary, quite vain even, but there it is.

For a long time I was cripplingly self-conscious about my nose. The first time I noticed its largeness I was tramping about the mall with my family. I noticed a boy looking at me and, will now admit, I preened. Until…he told his friend I look like my brother and I was crushed. How could I look like a boy? And then it hit me, I share his large nose. That is the defining feature of my face and it is huge; not dainty and pretty like my sister’s but long with a small bump. This all may have been forgotten if my cousin had not added salt to the wound a few days later, telling me I looked prettier with my hair down because it makes my nose appear smaller. As a scrawny little girl trying to figure out how to be pretty I did what any sensible girl would do and spent pages upon pages in my diary agonizing about my plight vowing to have plastic surgery the moment I turned 18. 

Once I had cried myself out, I took to the magazines that were my pre-teen bible and discovered when one has a large nose you should never part your hair in the middle or wear your hair tied back any higher than the base of your neck. I immediately took to the mirror and started parting my hair on the side. To the exasperation of my mother, I stopped pulling my hair back from my face and became rather unkempt in my desire to hide my nose with my hair. All that changed when I saw Funny Girl on as a late night TV special. I watched a girl with a nose, a really noticeable nose, transform into a beautiful confident woman. Barbra had a similar issue to mine and yet she broke those cardinal rules. So I watched it again, and again. And then I started watching her other movies and decided maybe my nose isn’t so bad after all. Now, well, I just concentrate more on my fear of developing thunder thighs...
How to Get Funny Girl Hair:  

  1. 1. Spray roots with dry shampoo and then shake out the flakes with your fingers

2. Reserve one inch section along nape of neck and make a little bun, do the same with a one inch section that frames the face if you do not have bangs

3. Build volume around the face and the crown by back combing: lift a one inch section of hair straight up and using a fine tooth comb, comb hair from middle of strand to the root with rapid downward motions, then hairspray and repeat

4. Place socks (or loofah) just above the crown of your head (if using a loofah use a few bobby pins to secure it before next step)

5. Pull one inch sections of hair back away from the face and over the socks securing with bobby pins where the behind of the sock meets the scalp, make sure to use two pins per strand crossed in an x shape

6. Take out mini but at the top of the head and pin just behind the ear (this step is only necessary for those without bangs so you don’t end up looking to severe)

7. Take out mini bun at nape of neck and split into two section, braid each section

8. Take each braid and pin around head like a headband

9. Smooth flyaways with hairspray and a light touch and add any bobby pins where things feel insecure

Voila! you now have hair like Fanny Brice. For the pictures with this tutorial I used three socks so that I would have a really big pouf, however in the future I would probably use two socks or a loufa because the pouf is a little oddly shaped. I also did another hairstyle inspired by this with victory rolls.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Under 250: Warrior

While watching Tom Hardy snap and snarl and pace about in the cage like a man possessed, you will be overcome by a realization: that man is a badger.  It's alarming, actually, how thoroughly he seems to embody the animal, right down to the shape of his eyes and nose.  I hadn't noticed it before, but I can't unsee it now.  If they were to make a live-action adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, I would hope that they'd cast Hardy in his dashing Inception mode as Mr. Badger.  There would be no finer choice.  While that may not sound like a resounding endorsement of Warrior, in a way, it is.  The film follows the incongruously congruent paths of two estranged brothers as they train for an MMA tournament to win a large cash prize each of them desperately needs for very different reasons.  Hardy is the more brutish of the two. He's mysterious, snappish and anti-social where his brother (Joel Edgerton) is a struggling physics teacher and family man.  While the climactic moments of Warrior may be predictable at the outset, the lack of familial glue holding the Conlon brothers and their ex-alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) together adds a rogue element into what would be an otherwise textbook 'boxing'-type film.  Strong performances and excellent, lively fight choreography make Warrior an unquestionable success with a weirdly emotional wallop as your allegiances are built for each of the brothers, both of whom are wild card underdogs in their own right.

All-Time Top 10: The Best Picture Winners that Wowed Me

My parents were always Academy Awards haters.  Still are. It's not the idea of the Oscars themselves, but just that they don't like places where large egos are gathered with other large egos to pat one another on the back and smile falsely.  This, to them, is real fall of Rome shit.  I've heard these complaints as far back as I can recall, yet I also remember watching the ceremony even when I was quite young.  So, we can call my mom a red carpet apologist, perhaps.  If there had to be an excuse, it was probably chalked up to the gowns and her daughter's shared affinity for glittery objects.  Where was I going with this?  Oh, yeah, in middle school I started a love/hate relationship with the Oscars.  This was when I really remember having an opinion on who won or lost, even though my tastes then ran towards the Lost in Space movie.  Since then, the Oscars have managed to repeatedly disappoint me.  Every year.  I know they mean almost nothing, yet I can't help but revel in the pageantry, clip reel montages, and history behind them.  Even as I despise them, I love the conversations those complaints create.  Which is why I'm going to run through a series of personally slanted lists of Oscar hits, misses, and snubs, beginning with my 10 Favorite Best Picture winners.  

10.  Lawrence of Arabia (1962) / Rebecca (1940) 
 If you must know, Hitchcock's gothic adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's classic and our ultimate desert epic narrowly beat out Casablanca and My Fair Lady, the last of which I truly love.  The reason is that there's something about each film that seems to embody its individual genre so completely that the two become the gold standard. Rebecca was a lilting period romance that I found positively haunting in its first viewing and which, for a long while, pushed it to the top of my list of favorite Hitchcock films (a tough call).  Lawrence was a vast, luxe surprise of an epic in which music and visuals merged so perfectly I still hear the theme song when confronted with a desolate landscape.  

9. No Country for Old Men (2007)  
Though fellow contender There Will be Blood was my favorite in 2007, No Country for Old Men was at least an acceptable stand in that, weirdly, restored my faith in The Academy's ability to occasionally vote against public opinion and dig into the darkness.  The film itself was a striking piece of work that seems, with distance, only to take on more power, to grow in intensity and dwell parasitically in memory.

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
I just realized this list is all adaptations thus far.  As adaptations go, however, you can't hope for one much better than Cuckoo's Nest, with a devilishly young Jack Nicholson and a cast that embodies its characters so completely it's almost surprising when you remember just how many 'names' are locked up here.  Is it possible to make a film about the institutionalized without thinking of this one?  I vote no...

7. It Happened One Night (1934)
A bad ass, truly wonderful romantic comedy that manages to be as thoroughly amusing as it is charming.   Anyone who hates on modern rom coms without seeing the originals needs to watch and reevaluate their argument.  Gone with the Wind may be where Clark Gable gets the most play these days, and while watching him bicker with Vivien Leigh is great, Claudette Colbert has a leg up (or...out).

6. American Beauty (1999)
Maybe it came around at the right time when I was at the right age, but each time I've seen American Beauty it's only gotten better.  For all the ham-fisted symbolism and color coded art direction, the performances resonate, the photography is beautiful, and the story sucks you in to a melodramatic suburban world of desperation, malaise, and deep dark comedy.

5. Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Proof that America was so over the glorified ideas of war as soon as WWII was finished.  The quiet, anti-war statement to end all anti-war statements, The Best Years of Our Lives is an epic of emotional intensity and familial disquiet that sneaks up and sucker punches you 40-years before Oliver Stone thought he was showing us something new.

4. All About Eve (1950)
One of the all-time great Hollywood stories.  Once you've seen it, every backstage drama and struggling protege reads as a little more sinister, a little less original, and seriously lacking in Bette Davis. 

3. The Godfather pt. I and II  (1972/74)
Yes, I put them together. Yes, I think we can all agree that makes the most sense.  We grow up hearing talk of The Godfather.  If we're not shown them when we're young, the expectations grow to nearly impossible heights.  When I saw the films for the first time, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. I'd seen so many clips, heard so many references, and yet, when the time came, everything was richer and better than what it had seemed.  

2. The Sound of Music (1965)
I've likely said something along these lines before, but, when I was a kid I loved the superficial elements of The Sound of Music.  The first half with the kids, the puppet show, the singing, the dancing, and Julie Andrews. Now, I still love that, but I love everything else about the film too (except Maria's costumes).  What continually amazes me, with every repeat viewing, is the scope of this film.  Every scene is positively massive. The ceilings, the skies, the Alps all push at the edges of the screen with a cinematography that would make Powell and Pressburger envious.  Even when the sentiments are small, the movie is epic.  It is a war film, a sweeping romance, and a child's musical all at once.  It works. 

1. Annie Hall (1978)
Annie Hall beat Star Wars.  I mean, Star Wars. That movie is a symbol, basically, but a bittersweet comedy about a break-up beat it.  It's crazy, but I can't complain.  Annie Hall was a great call, and, rhyming aside, it was more revolutionary than anyone could have imagined at the time. It's a film that reads as honest, that's stylized in a way that's simplistically absurd and cleverly quirky, and most importantly, a movie that redesigned the talking comedy, staunchly rejected every fantastical notion on Hollywood romance and yet,  somehow, became more romantic by doing so. 

This is by no means a definitive list, so the question must be asked: what are your favorite Best Picture winners?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Which You Finally Join the Conversation...

Lynne Ramsay's elegant terror We Need to Talk About Kevin is finally trickling into a proper release in Chicago.  It cracked my top ten list for the year and I've done nothing but wail about the injustice of its Oscar shut-out (just let me rant and rave, it will pass), so I do hope that folks will try and check this movie out in its theatrical run.  If you need further prompting, however, you can check out the full review from the Chicago International Film Festival back in October here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mixtape: May I Kill Him?

In which we come from the land of the ice and snow and we need your help to catch a killer of women. Your help, because you're not quite like anyone else. Bring your drink, leave our knife.  Winter mood swings inspired by David Fincher's 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'.  Listen here or check out more of my film-based mixtapes on 8tracks.

Award Season: 84th Academy Awards Nominations (Are Terrible)

The nominees for the 84th Academy Awards were announced early this morning, and I'm so absolutely frustrated by how god awful they are I could kick, like, everything in my path.  In an amazing year for film, listening to these nominations was akin to hearing a bad joke in poor taste at the worst possible time.  The Academy has basically proven once and for all that it's not the art they care about, it's keeping the public safe in a little box.  While several of the expected shoo-ins are present, and the round-up leans heavily on film nostalgia (with the movie-centric The Artist, Hugo, and My Week with Marilyn popping up repeatedly throughout), it also bends almost entirely in favor of films that played it safe and kept it happy and sappy.  As pleased as I am to see my own pick for #1 film of the year, The Tree of Life earn the recognition it deserves (but did not receive from the Globes), the fact that a film of that caliber is mentioned in the same breath as panned 9/11 emotional porn Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close makes the whole she-bang almost invalid.  Has there been a year in recent memory where a film with a 48% critical average on Rotten Tomatoes has managed to sneak into the Best Picture Category?  I mean, yikes.

Egregious snubs include: Acting snubs for Shame, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Young Adult and Tree of Life.  Technical awards for Melancholia, Tree of Life.  Barely a mention of Drive.  The complete absence of The Skin I Live In.  And, you know, I'm even surprised they didn't sneak in Leonardo DiCaprio...

The winners (if that means a damn thing) will be announced on Sunday, February 26th, when we will most certainly be continuing our liveblogging tradition and complaining about every little nuance we don't like.

Hit the jump for the full list...

Best Picture
The Artist
War Horse
The Descendants
The Tree of Life
Midnight in Paris
The Help
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life 

Best Actress
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn 

Best Actor
Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The 2012 Golden Globe Winners

During the Golden Globes I was all over the Twitter tweeting the usual inane reactions to the disappointing wins and celebrity back patting.  Is it just me, or have the Golden Globes really become quite deflated over the last few years?  I used to really enjoy this award show, but the last couple years have become so very tedious...

Highlights : Christopher Plummer's win, Homeland and Woody Allen recognition, George Clooney's bad jokes, Elton John's facial expressions, the obvious disdain of many for the winners...all caught on camera. 

Disappointments : Ricky Gervais behaving well, snubs for Rango, Midnight in Paris, Tilda Swinton, and Michael Fassbender. The lack of celebrity variety (how many times can we see Angelina Jolie?), Madonna's completely affected acceptance speech, the omnipresence of Piper Perabo (say what now?).  

And the winners were...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Late Night Trailers: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson just made my Memorial Day weekend plans for me. I have to go see Moonrise Kingdom.  Technically, I knew this already, but the first trailer for what was already one of my most anticipated movies of 2012 means I must now repeat it.  Co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola (who's set to return to directing this year himself), Moonrise is the tale of two twelve-year olds (newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) who fall in love and run away together into the wilds of New England in 1965 only to be pursued by the adults in their lives, all determined to find them before a brutal storm hits.  In typical Wes Anderson fashion, the trailer is scored beautifully, drips with dry humor, and looks absolutely perfect.  The Futura font may be gone, but Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman remain.  What we lack in typography, we make up for with the presence of Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, and Frances McDormand.  From the raw materials, I'd say we're looking at a possible new addition to the ever expanding list of favorite movies...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #26: Speed (1994)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.

When we type out our thoughts on Speed we have to type out our thoughts at 50 MPH otherwise whatever it is we’re typing on will explode and this means that there’s no room for punctuation or sentences or thinking or any of the usual crap that weighs us down or pushes the brakes or stops and scratches an itch and thinks that hey it’s been awhile since you washed your hands and it’s cold and flu season no matter what the weather tells you because here it’s still like fifty degrees and that’s really throwing us off and we haven’t had any sort of snow in weeks and sometimes we walk outside and we’re like this is what California must feel like except for it’s so dry that our noses bleed a little bit in the morning and all the squirrels are still obese because they’re supposed to be underground or in the trees or wherever it is that squirrels sleep to keep away from the harsh conditions of the world like the possibility that they could casually board a bus and have that bus be a moving wired explosive target for a deranged Dennis Hopper who is so angry all the time because wouldn’t you just figure that Dennis Hopper would be so angry all the time because he was totally Bowser not that long ago and so yeah he would be the wronged villain who decides to put a bomb on a bus in exchange for ransom and to get back at Keanu Reeves because someone has a master plan and you know that makes total sense and no it’s definitely not a product of the 90’s except for it definitely is and aren’t we lucky that Sandra Bullock is on board the bus to do that thing where she’s cute and out of place and quippy and can handle stunt driving like a pro on the circuit which was disappointing because I was kind
of hoping that her job was actually a bus driver because I feel like bus drivers don’t get enough play seeing as how they’re pretty much the sassiest people on the planet and control their shit like whoa and I don’t see them being too phased by this whole imma drive up a ramp and keep my cool at 50 MPH thing because SERIOUSLY if I were a bus driver in Los Angeles I’d be dying for the day that I could just floor that thing and fly into walls without worrying about the repercussions instead of the usual chug chug chug a block stop open doors close chug chug chug a block routine but hey that’s just me and when I ride a bus I spend the entire time thinking about what will happen when I get off the bus and when it is that I can get off the bus and what the hell is wrong with the people on the bus around me and in case of emergency what is my escape plan and you can see that I’m not good at public transportation which is why I have a car even though sometimes I don’t want to put gas in it and if I had been on the bus in Speed I probably would have done something fairly idiotic like leap from the bus as soon as I saw a grassy knoll and say to hell with the rest of the people on it because I’m cynical like that and if someone told me we had to stay about 50 mph or everyone would blow  and that someone was a terrorist who already put a bomb on the bus I wouldn’t trust that anything good could come of this so as long as I was already going to die I’d give a shot to living via leap and roll and I’d probably break some bones but I’d also probably clear the blast of a bus hurtling away from me at 50 mph so you know I might live so there’s that because there are only two places where Keanu Reeves has any kind of authority and neither or those places is on public transportation unless that transport is a ship moving through the matrix or a cat taking you to the devil and yes that is an obscure reference to Constantine because I was actually a big fan of that movie even though there’s a lot that’s not great about it because in addition to the bad there’s a fair amount of good like Transformers would probably be better if Tilda Swinton played Optimus Prime but she doesn’t so that’s why that doesn’t work and I’m not trying to give Keanu Reeves a hard time because really I like the guy and he has a definite time and place and he’s the grandmaster of saying woah in a way that truly resonates with dumbfounded wonder but even though I like Keanu there was definitely a reason why I avoided Speed and that reason is that it never ends but also we know how it’s going to end and the payoff is like nothing and I'm so like not into this this week and guys they're totally going to fall in love and totally going to kiss at a potentially inopportune moment and oh my god there's so much tension in every direction and oh my god someone died and look Dennis Hopper is like so crazy guys and 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Squalor: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The mystery of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's slug-paced timed release has been solved: John La Carre's thriller is an affair of art direction, a period piece that plays out in smoky rooms and drab suits, it's not the espionage tale its cut to appear as in the trailers. Everything about it feels condensed and phony, taking itself more seriously than it should, as though the Cold War were still going on and the stakes are still high. Gary Oldman, in a performance touted as revelatory, returns to his Dracula days and moves like a waxy vampire entombed in his mackintosh. His head barely moves, his every word is an act of precision, his hair is sculpted in a pale hump.  We expect him to either fall dead asleep or produce a razor blade and, in slow motion, lick it as he flips through files, staring into space as his active brain pieces together the story we've barely been told.  The basics are simple: we're reminded time and again that there's a mole right at the top of British intelligence.  Someone is a Soviet double agent, and our options are few.  From his position on the outside, Smiley (Oldman) must connect the dots before more secrets are leaked. Of course, these men aren't James Bond or Jason Bourne, they're square desk jockeys, bureaucratic pencil pushers who spend more time closed in a room than out in the field.
Thus, our adventures are limited, lived vicariously through outside parties in cutaways and subplots that are nothing if not confusing.  In Tinker Tailor, everyone appears to be feeling something, but the film never reveals quite what those things are.  Tinker Tailor is a complicated story. Once upon a time it was made into a BBC miniseries that went on hours past the runtime here. What this adaptation fails to do is compress the complications in a way that feels whole.  What is likely quite reasonable here becomes utterly convoluted, and the casting seems to confirm any suspicions we have at the start. Complicated background stories are dropped for nearly every character, and while their emotions read on their faces (they're all accomplished actors), we learn about as much as could be gleaned from a simple emoticon. To call anyone 'major' or 'minor' here would simply be a mincing of words.  Atmosphere is the star here.  Everyone else is bone dry.  Even the climax, when it occurs, feels underwhelming.
There isn't much else for me to say.  I'm afraid I can't write intelligibly on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  In a rare instance, I simply don't care to.  This happens sometimes.  This week it happened twice.  I saw this movie, then I read Richard Ford's The Sportswriter.  Both seem to be made for a certain type of middle aged dude and apart from style and moments of perception, offer little that speaks directly to me.   Tinker Tailor certainly isn't a bad film.  It has style to spare, moments of greatness, and will be loved intensely by some. Yet, for what it's worth, I was simply bored in a way I struggle to put into words.  Everything happened, but none of the on-screen events were particularly riveting.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wilde.Dash's 17 Best of 2011

My dark little heart fell in love at the movies this year.  Not for the first time, but for a span that will leave a mark. While it was in love, it marveled over everything.  There were questions of the cosmos, yes, there are always those, but there were other small movements, minute plays of light, and fleeting instances revealing something just below the surface.  Three dimensional dust motes over Paris, a late night drink with Dali, suburban bike rides at twilight, the star-crossed love of a misunderstood wizard, slow motion movements in the glow of a passing planet.  We gaped at everything, my heart and I, even the cracks and flaws became beautiful.  There was an artistry to these small apocalypses, these tearful depressions, and massacres.  The highs were high, the lows were low, but so many hit upon something almost sublime.  Though every poetry professor would flinch upon reading that word (the sublime is too impossible to achieve), there was something in so many films this year that pushed towards a greatness outside of the conventional.  Is that an overstatement?  I don't think so. 

Love & Squalor has been alive long enough for me to have gone through this listing process twice prior, and in both cases I've always had to reach to add the last couple.  This year, I narrowed the top 15 down from a starter list of over 30 worthy titles...not an easy task.  So many of the 30 from 2011 could have easily bumped out over half of my best of 2010 list, and because of that crazy stat, I decided that a 'good year' called for a small expansion of the top 15.  Here you will find my own subjective picks for the best 17 of 2011.

Certified Copy is a film about a relationship.  Whether that relationship is real or invented, however, is another story entirely.  Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) crosses language barriers and oceans with this tale of love and all its trappings.  Juliette Binoche puts in a solid, stripped down performance as a woman who we see attend a lecture by a renowned art historian (William Shimell), and who begins an interaction with him that is purposefully ambiguous.  The nuances of the emotions, the way the characters interact and unfold make for fascinating viewing. By the end we wonder whether what we saw was love or just an approximation (of course, the question can be further complicated by considering the fact these are actors playing characters acting), yet we find that the difference between authenticity and imitation might not matter after all.  

I opted to be a stickler and not include Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture on this list because of its 2010 theatrical release date.  By those standards...maybe The Trip shouldn't be on here either.  It's a film that's really an edited down version of an entire British series that aired in 2010, but since we aren't in the UK and The Trip did indeed get released in theaters stateside: I'M COUNTING IT, DAMMIT.  There's almost nothing to Michael Winterbottom's film.  It's a largely improvised series of restaurant touring interactions between Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan acting as versions of themselves, which is exactly what makes it pure comedic gold.  This is Tristram Shandy pt. II without literary pretensions.  Everything about it feels worn in, comfortable, and though it runs bittersweet, I find myself laughing hysterically.  In fact...I have it on again right now.  

It took a long time for me to get around to seeing this movie. Honestly: the screenings were just never timed in my favor.  I held off this list just long enough to fit it in, though, and I'm very glad I did.  The Skin I Live In surprised me tremendously.  This is Pedro Almodovar at his most restrained and austere.  Almodovar is an auteur whose films teeter on the brink of melodramas.  They're stories that feel ripped from soap operas and raised to the level of high art; pushing the typical to terrain that becomes twisted, sexually charged, and pitch black dressed up in vibrant primary colors.  With The Skin I Live In, Almodovar strips the glossy veneer from the wall and leaves us with something cold, meticulous, and, well, surgically precise.  It's a revenge drama with unclear motives, Cronenbergian body horror, and a labyrinthine set-up.  Who do we root for?  How deep does it go?  When we find out, well, it's place on this list becomes without question.  

The Descendants is equal parts coming of age and coming to terms, splitting its focus amongst the members of the King family.   The pieces are the stuff of melodrama and prime time soap operas: dying mother, single father, troubled teen, extramarital affairs, a sneaky dose of hidden wealth.  Yet, in Alexander Payne’s hands, they seem anything but.  The situation unfolds in unexpected ways. Father and eldest daughter team up, slowly becoming closer and closer in a colluded effort to close up Elizabeth’s unfinished business.  They embark on a quest, of sorts, for something intangible which only they know the motives behind.  On one day it’s revenge.  On another,  redemption.  Sometimes it’s selfless closure, other times it’s selfish rage.  Shailene Woodley is impressive here, tapping into a depth of uncertain angst and that perfectly complements George Clooney’s flailing eagerness to please.  Together they mark just one set of the film’s emotional contradictions, and the way the characters interact and intertwine with each other separates the film from dozens of others in its vein.  

The joy of Hanna is derived from a very base, guilty pleasure place.  A place where it doesn't matter whether the story holds up if the body count keeps rising, the jokes are well timed, and the adrenaline never ceases its flow.  Is Hanna a guilty pleasure?  In some ways.  But, you might never notice. Hanna is that a relentless, sparkling bit of entertainment.  It speeds by, ending seemingly before it's even begun, never drawing out its affairs or keeping its ADD viewers in one place for too long.  Here's the rare wall to wall action flick that never feels repetitive, is stocked with competent actors in odd little character roles, and which manages to give us not one, but two ladies who would be worthy foes for Kick-Ass's Hit Girl.    So, yeah, some might say it's a guilty pleasure.  I can see how it could fall into that categorization.  Sure. But you know what?  Fuck that noise.  Hanna is more than a damn cool, bass-pulsing flick about folks with guns.   It's a morally ambiguous Bourne for girls who are sick of watching movies with muscular action figure prototypes for leads and buxom, irrationally leather-clad chicks for heroines. 

Myth of the American Sleepover is the rare teen movie that really gets it right.  Set at the end of a suburban summer it’s a crisscrossing, gentle, collective narrative that strings together the last rites of best friends and social cliques.  It’s a quiet film without the bottle smashing revelry and fits of hormonal hypersexuality we’ve come to expect from Hollywood’s take on high school.  What it captures instead is something surprisingly beautiful.  Myth dismantles notions of kids growing up too soon and instead reminds us of our own purity, how wonderful it was to ride a bike through a subdivision with a best friend at our side, to pedal at twilight, to travel in packs, to wander past a crush’s house hoping that they’ll be outside.  It’s the sort of melancholy you can’t help but smile at, even if something about it breaks your heart.  Everything feels important and urgent, as if somehow these kids (unknowns all) are aware that this is the end, that these days are coming to a close and that soon the time for Ouija boards and ghost stories will be over.

A crazy good debut for director T. Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen.  Martha Marcy May Marlene is an unnerving, haunting film.  In certain respects, it’s very much a ghost story.  Here, though, instead of literal specters, we have the shadows of a too recent post-traumatic past.  Martha is haunted by her memories in a way we can’t quite understand and are only shown in increasingly disturbing bits and pieces.  There's a palpable anxiety that winds the film further and further up until it reaches a point where we don't know what it is we want from it.  The happy ending?  The sad one?  We feel the way that Martha must: without any sense of where we should go from here.   

Deathly Hallows: Part II is a dark dream, a coming-of-age that's violent and unyielding for the characters involved, but dazzlingly beautiful for us.  David Yates has presented it as a contradiction, and somehow this feels right.  There are flaws, yes.  Little differences between book and film, little places where those not enamored may observe problems with pacing or wish were presented differently.  Mostly, though, Yates captures the pandemonium with a slow motion romanticism, a vision somewhere between our own perspective and Harry's. We want to spend time in this world, and Harry wants to prolong his stay.  Harry walks towards his sacrifices.  He quests like a knight errant.  Hogwarts is destroyed.  People die.  Countless people.  Child soldiers.  Yet, these things do not register.  We cannot see the destruction as folly because we're too closely aligned with Harry's point of view.  This is what must be done and, though Harry fights, in truth he resigned himself long ago. 

9. SHAME   
Shame is fueled by moments of frenzied angst.  It's deliberately over-the-top in quiet, unhappy ways that seem familiar.  Yet, while aspects of the film may seem to damn it to some sort categorization as a sensationalized tale of alienation and addiction, Michael Fassbender is fantastic here and capable of single-handedly elevating everything to another level.  The physicality of the performance is matched by an almost frightening ability to tap into the emotional depth of this damaged character.  As we watch Brandon, we find ourselves caring about him though he seems incapable of caring about himself.  We know that he should be repellent, that he is cold, distant, and partially inhuman.  Yet, Brandon is predatory in an odd way.  Fassbender takes what could be an empty shell and transforms him into a sympathetic man.  He is vulnerable, childlike, and awkward when he finds himself in the presence of someone he does care about. The sex acts themselves are shrouded in pain. 

I loved Midnight in Paris.  I loved it the way one loves a dessert that's just rich enough, a novel you find yourself tearing through in hours, or a dream so good you think about it through lunch time.  As a comedy it's an absolute delight, as a fantasy it's every literary nerd or Francophile's secret wish.  The dialogue, the interactions, the experience and bubbling excitement is so perfectly formed, so sparklingly clear that we identify with Gil (Owen Wilson) almost immediately whether we share his convictions or not. We're in awe, and we love what we're seeing as much as he does. Woody Allen is on his game here, stuffing each minute on screen with enough breezy charm and exacting wit that the result is something positively effortless. 

7. RANGO   
Rango makes me super happy.  I expected nothing from it and somehow wound up receiving a boatload of like, all the best things in the world.  Rango is an animated film that's nothing like your average storybook.  It's an animated film that doesn't bother with candy colored confections, 3D gimmicks, or the infantilization of the adult half of its audience.  It's wonderfully gutsy, gloriously verbose, supremely oddball, and never bothers playing down to the ten and unders.  You'd never know it from the cloying advertisements, but Rango is more than just talking animals in cowboy hats.  Much more.  It's a damn good revisionist Western just as much as it's a smart, surprisingly mature comedy.  

This film should really be higher on the list.  Unfortunately, I'm guilty of what the Academy will likely also be guilty of: downgrading it a little bit in favor of movies with, well, beating hearts.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is truly horrific.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (with Lynne Ramsay close by) has managed what should be a textbook example of how to achieve a character study through visuals.  Between McGarvey and Ramsay, food becomes a horrible fixation.  Consumption, disposability, and the gnashing of teeth are all conceived as violent acts.  The film is stained with crimson in every incarnation:  a gleeful food fight becomes the site of a symbolic martyrdom, paint and lipstick become unsettling objects, spilled wine is no less than creepy.   Everything works in a dirty synchronicity.  The actors themselves - Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, and the two other boys who play Kevin in his younger years (Jasper Newell and Rock Duer)- are stark canvases in high contrast black and white; pale, cool, each with their own devilish allure and reptilian gaze. 

Part art house, part grindhouse, all awesome. Drive is at once complicated and simplistically taut, bloodthirsty and beautiful, smart and mindless, slow even as it rapidly spirals out of control.  It's a contradiction and, in this cinematic landscape, an enigma: the ruthless actioner that does not resort to CGI, does not pander to the lowest common denominator, and which relies on our patience.  Ryan Gosling gives a great performance that speaks volumes without language, he's a 21st century man with no name, hero and villain both, and a cult figure for this generation.

An indie gem that somehow manages to take everything I might hold against it and transform it into something that makes me completely fall in love with all of the characters.  All that's too twee is rounded out by the echoes left by our own families, the marks made by depressed friends, and some smart performances by a trio of talented actors.  Beginners transcends its genetic makeup to become a film not solely for those post-ironic hipsters and adolescents in love with being in love, but for humans struggling to maintain that love and find themselves worthy of it. Beginners is essentially about the constant renewal of life, about it never being too late, but also about the impressions made on us by our families and our societies.  Oh, and Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor are really just great here...

What I love about Scorsese --and I mean love in a way that makes me really, really honestly thankful he's around --is his unbridled enthusiasm for film. He is a man clearly in love with his job, who has followed his own dreams and yet remains remarkably untouched by the fact that he is a vital part of the art form he's so fascinated by.  Scorsese is a true film fan and a certifiable movie scholar.  His enthusiasm is infectious, and he has the power to make us marvel, the storytelling ability to persuade us towards his way of seeing.  Hugo is an intricately imagined, exuberant incarnation of one man's passion told via another.  It celebrates the innovations of the past, the limitless imaginations of those bold pioneers, while simultaneously writing film's future in a gilded script that fills volume after persuasive volume with the case for film as pure vision.  Scorsese is a great filmmaker, and while Hugo may not be his greatest film dramatically, in raw feeling it is one of his best, and surely one of the closest to him.  Hugo is bound to inspire a whole new generation of creators who will seek out, eagerly, the material uncovered by the young protagonists here

This was the year of the universe.  Melancholia is planet and girl.   Where we begin with a shattering glimpse inside Justine (Kirsten Dunst), we find her crashing into the other life forms in her orbit,  eventually offering us a dark, profound treatise on the human condition.  We are fragile creatures, all of us, bound by powers far outside of our own control.  What makes us so frustrated with Justine is what makes Justine so frustrated with herself.  We feel for her, we know she cannot change willingly, that she’s locked inside and prisoner to the strength of her emotions.  Yet, we also feel for all of the characters, know that the same fate awaits each of them.   Justine changes, over the course of the film, from volatile presence to a sort of zen-prophet.   As the imagery expands in scope and scale, the intimacy, the peace of Justine and her family inches closer and closer.  The result is simply gorgeous, with frame after frame of imagery that weighs heavy with a meditative depth unlike anything we've seen from Lars Von Trier to this point. 

I'm not a religious person.  Like... at all.  Yet, when I watch The Tree of Life it unfolds as a viewing experience that feels rather like what the devout must must feel in church: they are small, existence is much larger.  Call me pretentious, call me elitist, but in my opinion, The Tree of Life is an incredibly important, remarkable cinematic achievement in any year. It's a class of its own, a hybrid less film than a poised, beautifully photographed attempt to capture the ways that our individual lives and deaths feel so big to us and yet are so infinitesimally small.  As we watch it we must forget traditional narrative, Tree of Life has no time for storytelling conventions.  Chronology does not matter in the spirit or the memory, and our understanding of the world is wrapped up with our knowledge of our personal histories.  Tree of Life attempts an experimental fiction, a cut-up method with sources pulled from religion, nature, individuality, and Americana. It's a million other cinematic moments, a gallery of photographs, a museum full of paintings, an anthology of poetry, a great work of literature, a symphony played by a full orchestra;  The Tree of Life is to be felt, not concretely understood.  

Honorable Mentions:  Another Earth, Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, Jane Eyre, Mildred Pierce (the HBO miniseries), Super 8, Tiny Furniture (not on the main list because its theatrical release was in 2010), Young Adult

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