My Top 20 Movies of 2011 – The List: Part 1
Here’s the previous post, with the stuff that didn’t make the cut. I hope you brought some Kendal Mint Cake, because you may be here a while. Aaaand, here we go…
I know what you’re thinking. Millard, you’re a sex-case. Any guy who actually enjoyed Sucker Punch has so little respect for women that they belong back in the seventies, leering over a fence at the dollybirds who live next door; a priapic Sid James whistling at bottoms as he rubs his semi against the washing line. You’re wrong, I say, but you won’t listen. No, Millard, you touch women in alleyways, hoof a kick at every vagina you see, and the only thing that stops you from deleting your Facebook account is the distant hope that someday one of your female friends will post low-quality bikini pictures from a Spanish holiday. It’s fine, you’ll just snip the husband out in Photoshop, after all, that’s what someone who enjoyed that piece of trash would do. And this, this is how you’re going to open your top twenty? With Sucker Punch? We waited a year for this shit, and this is how it starts?
Yeah, it is. And you’re right. Not about me being an alleyway-groper, but I’ll concede your second point. Sucker Punch really was little more than an excuse for crazy-hot women dressed like sluts to twirl and shoot their way through various outlandish action sequences. But my, what sequences they were! In the rush to over-analyse the rampant misogyny, everybody missed the best cinematic allegory of all, of having a character in a Zach Snyder movie stuck in the terrible helplessness of the ‘real’ world – whatever that may be – learn to survive by bridging to another reality via slow-motion and music. And those speed-tinkering, soundtrack booming Snyder moments were all in place; this was Alice in Wonderland filtered through nerd obsessions of video games, anime and hot chicks in cosplay, and set in that kind of Frank Miller world where there are only two types of girls; hookers, and girls who used to be hookers but got murdered into a corpse. A sexy corpse. Filmed against greenscreen with the actors shooting a million imaginary bullets at nothing, Sucker Punch works in its balls-out, embracing-the-silliness way, that the Star Wars prequels, for example, didn’t, with that glassy-eyed, super serious way of trying to earnestly emote terrible dialogue against a tennis ball on a stick.
Clockwork Nazis that let off gusts of steam when shot, Jena Malone in underwear designed by a pervert, giant mechs with pink bunny faces; yeah, Sucker Punch was just a great big visual festival, but fuck, was I ever just laying in the mud and joyously kicking my legs in the air until it was time to go home.
Surely every Bridesmaids review must touch on the ‘Who knew women could be funny?!’ cliché. They’re certainly not given much of an opportunity to prove otherwise. Sarah Millican giggling obnoxiously over every panel show has the TV booking quota filled for another year, while in Hollywood terms ‘comedy’ and ‘female’ generally means insipid Kate Hudson / Julia Roberts / Katherine Heigl trash, with everyone remaking that same awful romcom twenty times a year. Bridesmaids was given the tag of ‘Female Hangover’ by a lot of critics, but it really wasn’t. Other than being a ensemble piece, it’s really not that structurally different from most less acclaimed, more generic comedies. It goes down the accepted paths – main character finally deals with ‘growing up’ issues, best friends fall out, eventually reconcile having grown as people – it was just, you know, funny and any good.
Being a Judd Apatow production, of course it ran over two hours, but didn’t outstay its welcome like some of his stuff does, seemingly determined as he is to do ‘more’ than comedy by throwing in thirty minutes of unneeded drama, as if being funny isn’t a noble enough aspiration. They weren’t afraid to go lowbrow with it (“You’re really doing it, aren’t ya? You’re shitting in the street”), but without the joke simply being the fact that tee hee, a woman is saying dirty things out of her delicate lady-mouth. Melissa McCarthy’s standout performance is absolutely worthy of the recognition it received (because unattractive people are all weirdos, right?), I just wish there’d been more of The Office’s Ellie Kemper, who’s my televisual Megacrush. Sigh.
When I was seven years old, my teacher, Mr. Saunders, worked all his lessons around the gnomes that lived at the bottom of his garden. Almost everything we did would be related to us in some way via the gnomes, and what they’d been up to, and he’d regularly fill us in on their continuing adventures. They all had names and quirks, and a social hierarchy with its own rules and intricacies; their own little structured world. Some of their words would be backwards, he told us, so instead of going to the pub, the gnomes had a little ‘bup’ inside the hedge, that they’d go and glug a pint in at the end of a hard gnome day. Gnomes being naturally curious, they asked after us when he went home in the evenings, and eventually, he brought one into class to meet everybody, in a bucket that he placed under his desk. Unfortunately, the gnome refused to stop being invisible and show himself, because of one child in the class who rudely didn’t believe in gnomes. I’m ashamed to say that child was me, the lone sceptic, ruining things for everyone. Although I eventually switched stances to firm gnome-believer, by then it was too late, and our innocences were finally shattered when a kid from the year above sneeringly broke the news about Mr. Saunders that “He’s lying. My brother had him three years ago, and at the end of term, he said the gnomes had all died in an explosion in his shed…” As an adult, I realise that Mr. Saunders was the greatest guy, fostering our imaginations five days a week, and I wonder if you could get away with something like that with the wised-up children of 2011. I’d like to think so.
Anyway, Troll Hunter evokes the magic of being that age, when things like gnomes or trolls were hiding in the world beyond your door. It’s not a kid’s film by any means, but shifting the mythologies of actual giant trolls who roam the hillsides to a grown-up setting makes for an awesome movie, and the troll-lore is kept totally storybook, with species names like Ringlefinch or Mountain King. Looks-wise, they’re like something from a bedtime story played entirely for real, and sinisterly comical, with multiple heads or bulbous noses that sniff out the blood of Christians, while the found footage gimmick adds to that sense of unreality in a real world. The human star of Troll Hunter is the chap of the title, a rumble-tumble, Quint-like figure, who marches in home-made armour, to lay bait under bridges. An American remake is due in 2014, but I don’t know how that will work outside of the distance, and pre-existing cultural folklore of Northern Europe, where there’s a still a belief in hidden races of beings. I mean, look at Björk. Maybe she’s crazy because she saw an elf or something.
Lucky McKee is known for films that really get under people’s skin, and not in the obvious Hostel-shock way, but with a special kind of lingering creepiness that takes a week’s worth of showers to scrub away. The Woman is McKee at his “Holy Christ, I feel like I’ve spent the day rubbing up against corpses” best. Unfortunately, most people, if they’ve heard about The Woman at all, will have only done so through the Youtube video from the Sundance premiere, of a livid audience member screaming about how the film should be burned, and the people who made it put in jail. I’m not saying it’s an understandable reaction, but if one movie this year was going to push someone’s buttons to the point of them shrieking in a spittle-flecked hallway, this would be it.
Angela Bettis, the Leo to McKee’s Scorsese is back, fabulous as ever, while Sean Bridgers, better known as the more jittery of Al Swearengen’s henchman in Deadwood, is the powerhouse centre around whom the members of his family revolve, strangely unmoved by his experiment for reasons that don’t become clear until late in the story. The women of the title, Pollyanna McIntosh, draws considerable empathy from a role that’s essentially a savage animal, chained full-frontal bollock-o in a barn, without even the ability to speak. One of the strengths of The Woman is the score, comprised of a one man, alt-rock soundtrack which sits surprisingly well with the visceral nature of the material. There are a number of sequences in the film that play like 3 minute pop videos, and they’re fucking fantastic. The last film that comes to mind with such a perfect blend of music and visuals is the similarly awesome World’s Greatest Dad, and as soon as it was over, I was rushing to IMDB to find out who was behind the chugging guitar.
While the father’s motivations are clear from the moment he lays eyes on the naked wild-woman of the woods, the gnawing, subtle undertone of The Woman, like the niggling feeling you’ve gone out and left the front door unlocked or the gas turned on, is how his family deal – or don’t – with what’s happening. There’s a strange sense of something unspoken, something other than fear, and once that is explained, in a moment you never see coming, the entire movie, the sins of the father, it’s all suddenly cast in a completely different light. Just watch it, and watch it twice. It’ll be a different movie the second time around, but you’ll still need a dozen showers.
So, how about that Nic Cage, huh? At a certain point, soon after the Wicker Man edits hit Youtube, Nic Cage transcended his position as ‘pretty weird guy’ to become the icon of cinematic insanity. Imagine if you will, that Gary Busey was still getting the big roles; all Stonehenge-teeth and bellowed acronyms that make no sense; and in movies that got trailed on TV and opened big at the box office. That’s what’s happening here. Is Cage acknowledging and embracing his own madness? Like the Iron Sheik becoming a cartoon of himself as a springboard to an irony-laced reinvention? Or, like when the studios had some old time movie star with a penchant for murdering call girls, and finally got tired of sweeping the bodies under the rug, is Hollywood accepting that his natural Cageness cannot and should not be covered up any longer? Cage became a thing unto himself, where directors be all “just go be Nic Cage and we’ll roll” like some modern day Klaus Kinski, riding his craziness like a bucking bull, and pointing cameras at him to preserve it for the ages.
Whatever’s happening, Drive Angry is Nic Cage mashed down into a projector and spunked all over the screen in big, glorious spurts of movie jizz. Drive Angry is exactly how I want my Nic Cage. With the grim reaper giving chase, Cage’s John Milton escapes from hell – in a car, because you can get there with a SatNav I guess – to stop his granddaughter from being sacrificed by a Satanic cult. You might as well stick this one in the documentary pile, cos it’s just a regular day for Nic Fucking Cage, and I suspect I blinked and missed the “Based on a true story…” title. William Fitcher’s grim reaper-slash-‘the accountant’ is awesome, Amber Heard is so much more than a squealing damsel, and Billy Burke gives great ham as the cult’s leader, but this was one man’s movie, and that man was driving a massive car round in a circle really fast, while shooting at Devil worshippers who were on fire, and drinking beer out of a human skull.
It’s an exploitation flick that doesn’t so much embrace its own schlock, as autofellate for 100 glorious minutes, flipping a middle finger to anyone who throws a disgusted look because they’re trying to eat a big saveloy. Trust me, there’s plenty of room on this Top 20 for me to get all pretentious and arthouse, but Drive Angry had Nic Cage fucking a naked Charlotte Ross while shooting guys that were busting in and trying to cockblock by blowing his head off for Satan, and for that, and many other wacky, fabulous reasons, Drive Angry absolutely belongs on the list.
Thanks to the shitty, medieval bandwidth caps in the UK, I can’t keep up with Conan’s talk show anymore, which sucks because he’s one of my genuine heroes. His goodbye speech from NBC was incredibly inspiring, and it sometimes pops up like a ruler-welding nun to slap me down when I feel myself becoming too aggressively cynical. Yes, it’s all just showbiz, so in the grand scheme of things, what happens when a chat show gets moved to a different slot isn’t terribly important, but this is a world where Kim Kardashian probably tweets an update whenever she gets an itch in her labia, and anyway, Conan himself says that we shouldn’t feel bad for a guy that got to live his dream.
The clue to the content of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is in the title. With six months to fill, legally prohibited from television thanks to the NBC rift, Conan hit the road in a way that felt Muppet-esque in its gleeful “Let’s do a show!” haphazardness, with nobody knowing if the show would even work, let alone sell. But it does both, and it’s a joy to watch the creative process at work, as the show evolves as it rolls along. Tour documentaries usually promise demons and darkness, but there’s none of that here. Conan isn’t hoovering up coke or drunkenly forcing a sobbing, naked Andy Richter to back himself into a broom handle, until at least two feet of the wood is inside him. “Three, if you want to eat tonight…”
As a side-effect of the NBC fallout, Conan rocks up to the venues of America with a much grown, and wildly passionate fanbase, most with ginger foam beards and the desire to leap into his arms for a hug, or let him know just how sorry they are over what happened with Evil Jay Leno. Fresh in the radioactive fallout of the Late Night scandal-bomb, everywhere he goes, Conan’s met with Beatlemania shrieks, and crowds of people who just want to touch, to have their moment with him, their picture, their handshake. His mild irritation at a poorly organised backstage seeing him shake a thousand hands every exhausting night, while constantly fighting against losing his voice, is the darkest that Can’t Stop gets, yet he shakes every hand, laughs at every joke, and is equally gracious and funny with everyone that’s foisted towards him to play Coco for.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop also features, for my money, the (unintentionally) funniest scene of the year, when he’s asked by a large Latino family at a gas station if they might say a prayer for him. Sure, he says, ready to bid them farewell, but finding himself clamped to the window of a minivan, hand on hand, for excruciating minutes, as God is asked to help out poor Conan with everything from his health and the tour to his personal finances. Of course, he handles that situation with grace and humility, and I’m not ashamed to say that all those hooting, apoplectic crazies that chant his name and squeal for far too long over his opening monologues can count me right among with them. All the adoration is totally deserved. In a world of pricks, Conan’s not only a great guy, but a super funny, super inspiring one too. We love you, Uncle Coco! Ooh, ooh, and can I have a hug?!
Super 8 was a gigantic bundle of nostalgia. Nostalgia for childhood; the one you actually had, and the one you wished you did. Nostalgia for this movie, a movie you vaguely feel you already saw when you were a kid, and are rewatching now as an adult, years later, with the wonder flooding right back. Most of all, Super 8 brought nostalgia for those movies that are fucking magical, and make audiences of all ages feel like kids again, yearning to go and hunt out the adventure that’s out there somewhere, just waiting to be found.
A pure love letter to that kind of cinema, and the magic of film itself, Super 8 wore its heart on its sleeve, with the young movie geek angle reminiscent of the brilliant Son of Rambow. To make another comparison, it also made me think of Where the Wild Things Are, in that it’s partially a kid’s movie for adults. I probably shouldn’t spend the whole Super 8 review comparing it to other movies, but it was, one suspects deliberately so, a near-perfect emulation of those Adventuring Kids vs. The Man films that riddled the eighties, like Goonies or Explorers, that you really don’t get any more. Setting it in 1979 helped recreate that aura of being an eighties child who grew up watching the same films over and over on stretched-out VHS or on TV, films that had already been out for a few years with a weird distance of time and (to a Brit) suburban Americana. The group of kids had such great chemistry, with all the archetypes accounted for, and without ever dipping into stereotype, that I wished they’d stuck together more as we got into the final act; while their finished zombie film in the closing credits was more proof that the kind of idiots who leap out of their seats and put on their jackets the second we fade to black don’t deserve nice things.
Oh, and for the record, I didn’t notice enough lens flare for it to bother me or pull me out of the movie in the slightest, so stop going on about it, you pricks.
In the last few years, horror fans have been overrun with shitty, low budget zombie and vampire movies with but one goal during the writing process; finding a wacky setting in which to transpose the action. Stag nights, trailer parks, strip clubs where naked vamps get staked on the Viagra-juiced penis of a sweating businessman; so long as you’ve got a few gory kills locked down, that setting’s all you need. Similarly, just have two genre creatures facing off with each other in tiresome hipster pairings – Vampires vs. Pirate Ninjas! – don’t even sweat the need for story or characterisation! Well, Stake Land brings things back to basics, and I mean basics.
Stake Land is the movie The Road could have been, with the pairing of a boy, Martin, and his surrogate father figure, simply known throughout as Mister. Nature-scorched landscapes are the order of the day, with bare woodland that stretches on forever over leaf-strewn ground, and empty roads with nothing but dead cars and posters of the missing nailed to trees; victims of the vampirism that swept the world like the great plague. The dirty faces, ragged clothes, and itinerant towns of Stake Land are images that ring of those from the great depression, and in 2011, at times it feels like we’re in the brooding cinema of a different era. It’s super slow-burning, with nary a snappy, vamp-killing one-liner to be seen, and with the bleak minimalism of a Winter’s Bone. The religious angle is cranked right up. The end isn’t nigh, it’s now, as the Southern states are rife with tent revival cults of sackcloth-wearing rapists, waiting the return of Christ, who sent the vampires to smite the sinners. With Kelly McGillis’s nun, crucifixions, and rumours of roaming cannibals, this is pure end times stuff, and when the gang of two starts to fill out with new blood, it’s everything the honestly-pretty-dreadful Walking Dead mistakenly believes itself to be.
Though Mister and the boy “don’t talk history,” the backstory of humanity’s downfall is sketched in, with talk of Christian terrorists loading up planes with vampires and crashing them into cities. The film’s most exhilarating action sequence sees vampires being dropped onto a town out of a helicopter like bombs, although such an insane sentence unfairly paints Stake Land as a crazy action movie. It’s measured, downbeat, and though there are small moments of joy and hope, incredibly bleak, particularly in the final act. Everybody is so tired, it’s like the world herself has had enough, wanting nothing but to curl under the porch like an old dog and breathe her last; but in this quiet minimalist hell, you find the freshest, finest vampire movie for a great number of years.
There have been a huge flood of MMA movies since the UFC boom began in 2005, mostly straight to DVD, mostly fuck-awful, with horribly unrealistic fight choreography and cameos from fighters who can barely speak coherently in post-fight interviews, let alone from a script; but Warrior crushes the memories of those pretenders, like so many Marco Ruas footstomps. Yeah, I’m an MMA nerd, so my take on this film might be a little different to those who wouldn’t know Jonny “Bones” Jones if he back-elbowed them in the face and then orgasmically thanked Jesus for helping him do it.
Warrior is hugely intriguing from the get-go, with its duel protagonist set-up which throws all your Rocky expectations for a loop. Every sports movie, every underdog movie, shit, almost every movie, has you rooting for that one guy (who’s victorious 99% of the time). We know who we’re supposed to cheer on, and we definitely know who’s going to win. Not so with Warrior, which sets up a conflict in the audience that’s unfaltering even as the end credits are rolling. Are you for Tom Hardy’s heroic soldier, with his Nick Diaz-level grumpiness, or Joel “always looks like he just got done peering in a wasps nest” Edgerton’s gutsy family man? Even the compulsory training montage, a series of kinetic, frenetic split-screens of both guys, doesn’t let you forget that for one of these guys to win, the other has to lose.
Nick Nolte gives great grizzle, and he does a fabulous one here, lawnmower throated, intense, and in one particular scene, utterly heartbreaking. Old trainer, let alone reformed drunk, is another by-the-book cliché, but Nolte and the material elevate this far above the expected. The only real misstep was the viral Youtube angle, which is incredibly hackneyed at this point, and Warrior’s playing up to the media image of MMA as violent human cockfighting, with dudes beating on unconscious guys forever, and too many flash knockouts. My MMA-Nerd hat (“One-night tournament sanctioned by the athletic commission?!”) had to come off, with my Movie-Nerd hat in its stead, but it still gave me a powerful rock-on to see a two minute scene in a Hollywood movie of a guy applying a Kimura. I don’t know how the sheer amount of fight sequences played with regular folks, and the second half doesn’t quite match the stellar build-up of the first, but finally mixed martial arts has a movie for which to feel pride instead of embarrassment.
As an aside, you should probably avoid the BluRay for a first watch, because the cover is Planet of the Apes-spoilery in its “Hey, here’s pretty much the final frame of the movie. Enjoy!”
I remember when the terrible Butterfly Effect came out in 2004, everybody was all “That really messed with my head, man. I couldn’t sleep for days!”, having been forced to wonder where their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, might have ended up had, had they made different choices. Source Code inspires similar introspection, but (obviously) in an infinitely deeper, more interesting way; and without any unintentionally hilarious scenes of Jake Gyllenhaal waking up without any arms – well, not quite – or running down a hallway like an ape.
Duncan Jones is a nerd through and through, and I truly don’t mean that in the pejorative sense at all. Look, this is a blog, a blog about movies at that; we’re all nerds here. His emotional BAFTA acceptance speech, about how it took him a long time to find what he wanted to do in life, but finally, he’d discovered the thing he loved most in the world really hit home with me, having not written a word outside of the requirements of schoolwork until I hit 22, and instantly knowing that was all I’d ever want to do. Duncan Jones geek sensibilities come through in spades, with Source Code a classic high-concept, riffing on Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation and the theory of Quantum Immortality. It’s also familiar to the gamers among us as a real-life take on what goes on while you’re sat, barefoot and BO-stinking, at your console. Forced to re-do the same eight minutes over and over, until you get it right, you get just so far, fuck up, then reload for another crack, hopefully getting a little further each time. One more try, then I’ll go to bed. Or, if you’re Gyllenhaal’s doe-eyed, mysterious soldier, a bunch of people will die, for reals. There’s a deft skill to keeping what’s essentially an 8 minute scene done over a bunch of times fresh, each time Gyllenhaal reboots, and there are some huge emotional pay-offs, which isn’t easy when you’re dealing with far-out sci fi.
On the lines of harping on about myself, Source Code saw me toss out a script I’d written, which had similar themes of quantum suicide, and welding physics as an undo button, but if I’m gonna be theoretically usurped, I’d rather it was a director like Duncan Jones, who’s sure to always find a place on these lists, as long as he keeps making his thought-provoking, intelligent, wonderful movies.
Maybe in some other universe, he’s writing a blog about me.
Alright, next up, the Top 10. And please feel free to hammer the shit out of the share buttons and spread this piece around.