My Top Movies of 2011 – Part 1
Finally, Millard, I hear you say. Finally, it’s here. It’s the annual Superbowl of Frantic Planet Dot Blog. The Wrestlemania. The season finale. All nerd-roads lead to here, to this moment, albeit with annoyingly frequent stops for toilet breaks because the last place only had urinals and we totally can’t go if someone might see us. In 2009, there was a Top 10. Last year, I opened with an also-rans piece, followed by the Top 10. This year, quality cinema was so bountiful, my round-up will be in three parts; this, and a Top 20. So settle in, you lucky dogs, because you’re mine for the next 10,000 or so words, as we begin by looking at the notable films, good and bad, that didn’t make 2011’s Top 20.
Although you won’t see it on mine, I’m expecting Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life to appear on a lot of Top 10s this year. Opening with an extraordinary series of images, almost reminiscent of the Cremaster Cycle but playing on a cosmic scale, it feels like it’s going to be something very special. Spectacular creation scenes, the writhing power of nature, both on vast landscapes and at a microscopic level; it’s completely hypnotic, and then… Tree of Life slowly and drearily falls apart, like wallpaper peeling from a widower’s lonely bedroom. It’s clear what Malick was trying to do, but for me, it didn’t click. Two hours of Brad Pitt being a lousy father through weird, vaguely-floaty camera angles that make you feel extra disconnected, watching through distant trees like the perennially setting sun that seems to be winking through the branches in every scene, and an ending that’s outright horrific in its saccharin overload; I wasn’t feeling it. But I’m glad Terrence Malick exists. It didn’t work, but he tried, he really did. Conversely, I’m guessing Tower Heist (which I haven’t seen, obviously) won’t crack many Top 10s this year.
In films that were a lot of fun, Tucker and Dale vs Evil was a riot. There’s really not a lot of places left to go with the whole meta-angle on horror. Scream, (with this year’s Scream 4 being a pile of shit) and the various imitators that followed in its wake mined the self-aware thing dry, while The Rise of Leslie Vernon flipped the cameras to the killer’s perspective. Tucker and Dale similarly set the killers up as the protagonists, but the kills by the two beleaguered, dungaree-sporting rednecks all come accidentally, at the hands of some inventive and gory slapstick. And for a film that has people tumbling into wood chippers, there’s a genuinely sweet core.
As we’re talking comedy, Paul was pretty good, there’s just something about these bigger studio comedies that make it harder for me to connect, compared to the likes of Shaun of the Dead. It’s not a huge complaint, and Paul was definitely better than Your Highness. “McBride, Franco and Portman? How can it miss?!” Well, it kinda did. Horrible Bosses was one of the better big comedies of the year, although went with the disappointingly lazy cliché of having the female boss’s horrible quality be her sex-crazed lunacy. Is there no other way to convey the batshitness of female characters then endowing them with vaginas that might as well be screaming “Feed me, Seymour!” and flailing towards you with writhing labic-tentacles? Cock-Obsessed Harpies are right up there with Vengeful Rape Victims in “must try harder when writing female roles.” Not to come over all Andrea Dworkin (because she’d hate that), but female characters should have more to offer your movie than what’s between their legs. My favourite comedy not to crack the top twenty was 30 Seconds or Less, with Danny McBride at his lovably prickish best, and Aziz Ansari walking away with every scene with that misplaced cockiness that’s such a joy in Parks and Rec. Plus, 30 Seconds or Less has the best last-second of any movie this year. Jackass 3.5 is an odd fit on any year-end list, being that it’s a straight to DVD quasi-sequel consisting of deleted scenes and interviews, but I love this stuff, and many of my biggest movie-laughs all year came from 3.5. The joy of the Jackass franchise, aside from guessing which animal will bite Pontius on the penis next, is the sense of camaraderie between the cast, so it’s going to make an odd rewatch following the death of Ryan Dunn.
Generally, jump cuts are just a lazy way of horror movies eliciting scares without bothering to inject that sense of creeping dread. The two great modern jump scares are in Signs and The Orphanage. Or were, until Insidious leapt out of a closet, with fifty of the greatest jumps ever, all in a single movie, and with such a terrifying sense of dread, that I was aching for days after watching, from being buckled in my seat, or pacing the room like a dog waiting for its violent master to return from the pub. Another cracking horror was Mother’s Day, a remake of the little-seen Troma film of the same name, which was relentless in the back and forth brutality, and with a fantastic performance from Rebecca De Mornay as the calculatingly unhinged mother of the title.
Thor was the best of the summer’s big budget superhero-packed slate. I was so euphoric as the credits rolled, that I was convinced it’d have a top five placing by year’s end, but in hindsight, I just liked it a lot. By far the trickiest superhero adaptation to date, with space-Norse mythology that potentially could have been ridiculous as real sets, costumes and dialogue, Branagh’s luvvie sensibilities eased the transition beautifully. Captain America was similarly fun. My absolute favourite comic growing up, I was stretching out my pants like Mr. Fantastic as the opening credits rolled. While not great, it was solid enough (Is that what we’re aiming for now? Solid?), with Weaving’s Herzog-channelling Red Skull great heelish value, but never quite lived up to the note-perfect USO sections. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I always felt it was my destiny to write and direct the Cap movie. I even had the best DVD easter egg ready to go – a picture of me in the local paper, aged 12, in a home-made outfit, head-wings and all, punching the air with a cardboard shield. Unfortunately, when Samuel L. Jackson snuck into my school to recruit the young me for The Avengers, he was arrested for being a paedophile. (Fun fact: I got the shit kicked out of me three years after the newspaper photo, in an incident which began with catcalls of “Look, it’s that wanker who dressed like Captain America…”)
Green Lantern was nowhere near as bad as I’d heard, but growing up a Marvel kid, aside from the big two, DC’s characters weren’t shit to me, homie, so I could just sit back and enjoy Ryan Reynolds’ question-your-own-sexuality charisma without the need to yell “You’re ruining this! I’m going to sue!” every two minutes. X-Men: First Class was your typical Matthew Vaughn movie; solid and mostly entertaining, but nowhere near as good as it thinks it is, and as visually flat as a Xerox of a Romanian gymnast. First Class just about avoided that prequel need to backstory everything, like having a scene where James McAvoy falls out of a tree and loses all his hair like Duncan Goodhew.
I’d never seen any of the Fast and Furious films, but was lured into Fast and Furious 5 by the dinosaur-cocked masculinity of a Rock/Vin Diesel pairing, which was an enjoyable enough way to kill a couple of hours, while social networking horror, Panic Button, rekindled the massive crush I had on Scarlett Alice Johnson when she was in Eastenders. Everything Must Go was the last movie to get shunted down from the Top 20 onto the also-rans piece, which is lucky for all of us, because I’ve lost the notes I made at the time while screaming “Oh! This is definitely making my Top 10!” Yeah, I take notes sometimes. What of it? I had my growth spurt after the “There’s Captain America” incident, so you don’t want any of this. That’s right, keep walking.
Everyone knows I love me some Werner Herzog. He’s probably my third most utilized point of reference, after Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake and that night-vision video of Paris Hilton doin’ it. However, the sense of wonder at the amazing discovery in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams had worn off me a little after the first hour, maybe because there wasn’t enough of a sense of Werner himself, either in his ‘Ecstatic Truths’ or his actual presence. There are flashes of the way he sees the world and brings something out of people, in his questioning of a scientist revealing himself to be a circus performer in his previous life, but in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog felt a little too distant; observing, rather than shaping, the events (amazing as they were) of the film. In other documentaries, Knuckle‘s multi-generational look at the world of bare-knuckle gypsy fights, shot over the course of twelve years, is a thousand leagues above the other toot coming out of TV’s tiresome obsession with gawking at gypsies. With badly-tracked VHS footage of shirtless men brawling in fields, feuding families, and the strange code of respect that goes along with bashing each other’s mugs in, the highlight was the bizarre pro-wrestling style promos sent on video cassettes to rival families as fight-hype.
The fact that I’d totally forgotten Battle Los Angeles existed says most of what needs to be said about it; Cowboys and Aliens on the other hand, had a hellaciously exciting first act, which promptly dropped straight off the thrill-cliff into a pit filled with yawns. I’ve not read the comics, but there was an episodic nature to the pacing “We’re in an upside down boat! Now we’re with the old gang!”, which may have worked in a graphic novel, but didn’t translate to a movie. The last half hour was way more fun, though.
It’s a cliché now for people to complain about sequels being retreads of the original, but The Hangover Part II hits every single beat of the original, in exactly the same order, like it was created exclusively for audience members to yell out greatest hit requests at the screen. “Find the camera with the pictures of what happened! Woo!” It’s the movie equivalent of a Malibu Stacy with a new hat, except it’s the same hat, just someone drew a jizzing dick on it. There’s an improvised song about how fucked they are, Stu has the brainwave about where the missing friend is, and oh hey, there’s Mike Tyson again, for no reason. By the point Alan’s getting a monkey to fake-fellate an old man, just like the wanking gag in the first one, the sense of deja vu is so overwhelming, you’re looking around for Ned Ryerson. Bing! This time, the character turns in the final act didn’t ring true at all, and whereas the first one was rooted in a kind of reality, Hangover II goes so big, that the final denouement and noble speeches feel tacked on because it’s the end, and everything needs to get wrapped up. It’s possible to go bigger without going so outright wacky, but wacky was how they went, with Mr. Chow’s man-clit, and the lingering, swinging penises of Thai ladyboys, which probably make for a better experience in a packed theatre than on your own, in a room, looking at a lady’s big floppy cock. Not that Hangover II wasn’t funny, because it was, and despite all this, I enjoyed the shit out of it, but if they’re going to rip themselves off so hard, they should just go all Von Trier’s Five Obstructions and remake it another three times.
As I mentioned in last year’s go around, I really don’t see a lot of bad movies. Certainly, I steer clear of everything that’s an obvious bad fit with my tastes, so no One Day, but for some weird reason, possibly self-loathing, I should own up to watching Transformers 3. Firstly, why does Tyrese Gibson exist? He’s so indescribably bland, like the blank template you get at the start of a ‘create your character’ section on a video game. What’s he bringing to the table where someone’s got a script and utters the words, “You know who would be perfect for this role…” Stick a beanie on a crooked fence post, and you’re good to go. Tyrese solely exists to fill the token spot of “black guy” which is a whole stack of horribly damning indictments on Hollywood all at once.
The worst trend in action movies over the last decade, which is purely down to CG making these shots way too possible, is when they essentially become two hours of people narrowly missing stuff. Look at Roland Emmerich’s 2012. Actually, don’t. But to save you the bother, it’s literally 158 long, long minutes of planes that pull up just in time before the ground collapses, or speeding cars that swerve out of the way of falling bridges and skid around chasms at the last possible millisecond. Transformers 3 is filled with this shit; just a ton of running, ducking, and “Hoo boy, that was close!” Plus the robots are so overdesigned, you might as call it an adaptation of that toy where you draw the guy’s beard with iron filings and a magnet for all the physical sense you have of what’s actually going on. Michael Bay, if you want a quote for the DVD cover, here’s a freebie:
“If you love shapes hitting other shapes and spinning around in the air, Transformers 3 is the movie for you!”
We all knew Transformers 3 would be shit, and it was exactly what it set out to be, but for colossal misfire of the year, look no further than The Beaver.
“You know,” I thought, about twenty minutes in, “this isn’t too bad.” But then everything happens way too fast, both story-wise and emotionally, and suddenly there’s a puppet on the cover of Time Magazine and being interviewed on TV, and what could have worked as a smaller scale story of a family dealing with a mentally unwell father is now just a ridiculous panto. And if you’re a gamer, it’s impossible to take the maudlin depression storyline seriously when Gibson’s choice of beaver-voice is that one comedy voice everyone used in Saints Row 2 because it was so funny. The other half of the movie concentrates on a completely insipid and unconnected sub-plot. I don’t need a good reason to watch Jennifer Lawrence, but those scenes just served to add “hot, popular girl learns to love unpopular nerd” and “noble confessional speech” to the list of movie crimes by The Beaver. Compared to another 2011 movie tackling the same themes that did make the Top 20, The Beaver feels like a film about depression made by a bunch of silly, stupid babies. So much was made of crazy Mel’s tabloid-splattered outbursts, and would people give this movie a chance after hearing his freakouts, but the truth is, it wouldn’t matter if he was Skyping a deathbed Bill Cosby, wearing blackface and making monkey noises as he aggressively masturbated into his own mouth, because The Beaver still would have been the most heinous, ill-judged act Mel Gibson committed all year.
Next up, movies 20-through-11 of 2011. I’m sure numerologists, “OMG, it’s the 11th of the 11th 2011! Better mention it on Twitter! Hey it’s 12:12pm!”, are loving that shit. If anyone wants to guess at what’s going to be in the list, take a shot in the comments. As a hint, this year swings wildly between super pretentious, and audience-insultingly broad.