The Best of 2011 so far

We’re a little more than half-way through the year and given the plethora of films I, Remington Smith, and writer co-hort Ben Creech, review, we thought it would be a good time to chat about our favorite films of the year so far.   Here’s that conversation:

Remington Smith: So, I’ve got several different categories in front of me and I was about to start with any dramas we saw that really stuck out before the summer, but other than stuff on DVD I don’t have much on my end.

Ben Creech: I was looking through some of my old reviews and Jane Eyre would kind of fit in the Drama category, even if it has to include the costume adjective.  I loved that movie, its out on DVD next week, and I said then that it was the best movie I’d seen all year

RS: Did that actually get a decent release this year or is a late 2010 release?

BC: No it’s this year, it was March or something.  It’s weird because Fassbender is actually in 6 projects in 2011, so its hard to keep tabs on his movies.

RS: Other than that, are there any other dramas that you can think of?  Because that definitely showcases how separated the seasons are in the U.S.:  Languishing Jan-March period, summer explosion, then Oscar bait.

BC: A lot of those Spring movies I didn’t see until they were out of DVD, so it’s a different category for me, but I’d throw The Lincoln Lawyer at the top of that list too.  Had I seen it in theatres I would have praised it through the roof.

RS: Let’s talk summer, then.  As we’re chatting we’re a little more than halfway through the year, which allows us to talk about the summer season that’s coming to a close.  I guess we should dive into our favorites of the blockbusters. Your list?

BC: Summer is golden.  Favorites would include X-Men: First Class, easily. I thought it gave some pathos to characters previously restrained by the 2-d archetypes they were portraying. Vaughn and Singer [X-Men: First Class director and producer, respectively] finally gave them all some real depth, which when combined with the no holds barred special effects made for a movie that was not just satisfying, it was exhilarating

Super 8 would be there too, mostly because I went in expecting something along the lines of E.T. – an alien movie with kids. Instead it was more like a kid movie with aliens, playing more in the same league as The Monster Squad and The Goonies.

The last bit of Super 8 is a little weird, but you never lose track of the kids, even if the setting and the alien open up room for criticism. And their movie over the credits is a nice touch

RS: That closing definitely sums up the joy of making movies and those days of hanging out with your friends as a kid.

Considering the summer really dropped with Thor, I was worried all of the superhero films might flop. Fortunately we not only got X-Men: First Class, but also Captain America.

It isn’t perfect, since it gets lost in the last hour with grindhouse-ish uberaction, but overall it’s one of the better Marvel films to come out since they started producing their films in house

Both First Class and Captain America didn’t lose focus of their character(s), which is why they work so well.

BC: See, I have yet to see Captain America, but I rather liked Thor. Thor wouldnt make a list, but I liked it enough to defend it a little.  The flow was weird, but I attributed that mostly to the fact that it, as well as The Incredible Hulk and what I expect of Captain America, are all origin stories so we can have a bad ass Avengers film next year.  I also applaud Marvel movies being proactive about intertextuality

RS: Thor was okay, but it just didn’t feel like there were any stakes.  Kenneth Branagh brings the grand Shakespearean element to the beginning, but after that it just kind of muddles around all the way to the post-credits scene

I think X-Men: First Class is also one of the first superhero films to come out that’s showcases the impact of The Dark Knight.

BC: I agree completely.

RS: Where the story is treated like a straight drama and the filmmakers don’t feel they have to wink at the camera.

BC: That’s actually a really great way to put it.  They are making a movie with “comic book” elements, not a comic book movie.  In the end the characters are just as valid.  The day will come, Remington, when an actor can win an Oscar for portraying a superhero.  Heath Ledger’s win for his portrayal of the Joker definitely shows that it’s a possibility for the hero in tights to win, and maybe even the film itself.

RS: I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s next year with The Dark Knight Rises.

BC: Hear, hear.

RS: Everyone, even the established Oscar system, loves Nolan’s work enough to possibly get a win out of it. Plus, as mentioned, actors are allowed to play it straight in the Nolan superhero universe, which allows stronger performances to shine through the tights

BC: After all, the Oscars changed the number of nominees because The Dark Knight was snubbed.

RS: Indeed. To shift a bit, I think the biggest summer surprise has got to be Rise of the Planet of the ApesRise had all the usual trappings of a weaker film: the studio kept shifting the date, the first trailer made it look like an incredibly unlikely ape-human showdown, and it was a prequel/sequel/re-make of a franchise I thought Tim Burton had killed ten years ago.

BC: All true.

RS: But here again, that film didn’t lose focus of its character, super-ape Caesar played by Andy Serkis, and it’s earned both critical and financial success for it.

Considering how often bad, brain-dead films get rewarded with buckets of money (Transformers 3), it’s good to see well thought out spectacle get rewarded.

BC: It is. I’m so used to scoffing at box office reports, as most films that make the list are between trash and tolerable trash, that when something great does well, it makes me reconsider good movies’ ability to make money.

I’ve been dying to see it, but plan to love it.  For me, the big surprise of the summer was Midnight in Paris.  It made some bank for itself, too, and stands, I think, as one of the very best to come out this year.

One of the things that is striking to me about this year is that I can’t see many of my present favorites of the year so far surviving the onslaught of brilliant movies that are on their way this fall, but Midnight in Paris is one of the few that has the stones to make it

It’s pretty close to being perfect for the category that it is in. I can think of no way to improve it and it’s Allen’s best in decades.

RS: It’s definitely one of my favorite comedies of the year. It’s heresy to say this, but I haven’t seen any of Woody Allen’s classics. My only interaction with Allen before Midnight in Paris was Vicky Christina Barcelona and I didn’t think I would like Allen after that. Then Midnight in Paris comes along and is ridiculously delightful.

I also want to give a shout out to two films that are quite different: Rango and Fast Five.

BC: Fast Five?

RS: Rango might be easier to justify since it was an animated western for adults.  It’s also the first animated film from Industrial Light and Magic (ILM, George Lucas’ special effects company) and given the work they did visually and the script they had to guide it, they could give Pixar a run for their money.

BC: I saw Rango and loved it, especially the insane amount of detail in the animation. This is the year for another film to take the Best Animated Film Oscar, for sure, but I think Spielberg has the Ace in his sleeve.

I had too many doubts about Fast Five to give it half a chance.

RS: The Fast the Furious films are all quite dumb in varying degrees, but, depending on which installment you’re watching, it’s one of the few franchises that does a lot of its special effects practically, without going crazy with CGI.

BC: Hmm, I havent seen the original since before I cared, but that’s a valid point. I could see revisiting them with that in mind.

RS:  After watching the Fast Five trailer I saw it looking for some great action and that’s what I got. The story, characters and dialogue are actually okay (a vast improvement from some of the other films) which makes you feel less guilty for wanting to see a movie just for some explosions.

Films like Transformers spend way too much time reminding you that it’s a terrible film before the action starts, so it’s not worth it. But Fast Five didn’t get in the way of its best feature – cars messing things up and a ridiculous wall smashing fight between Vin Diesel and The Rock. Also, one of the worst parts in the trailer for the film was not actually in the movie, so thank God for small graces. The film isn’t great, but I guess it was just surprising that it wasn’t totally terrible.

RS: I’m going to go off the beaten path and also toss a shout-out to The Batman Complex:

RS: Re-framing Batman as a psycho whose escapades as the Dark Knight were implanted via inception from Cobb is just fascinating. It’s quite impressive to see how the editor weaved different narrative elements from The Machinist, The Dark Knight, Inception, and even Shutter Island to make one of the most interesting psychological mash-ups of the Batman I’ve ever seen. I would give my left arm to see this movie.

BC: It was pretty awesome, I agree.  I should also give a shout-out to something just outside of cinematic territory – Mildred Pierce.  At 5 hours, it seems to be Todd Haynes’ (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) masterpiece. It follows a woman who is simply trying to survive in the Great Depression, and her relationship with various men and her daughter over the course of about 8 years or so.

She opens up her own restaurant to be her own woman, but her daughter is under the impression that they should be upper class, which sort of throws a wrench into the machine. To her, her mother shouldn’t be working, but to Mildred, she kicked out her cheating husband, and has to find a way to live.

What we end up with feels like the total portrait of a woman, all of her insecurities and pleasures, all of her doubts and beliefs. But also her relationship with her daughter, the voice of what society expects of her, and how she reacts to that.

It is a commanding performance by everyone involved, including Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pierce, but to try and describe Kate Winslet’s performance would be nearly impossible. It was vulnerable, yet strong, profound, yet germane.  It was the perfect performance.

It aired as a mini-series on HBO, so it will never be seen theatrically, but in spite of this, its scope is beyond that of most movies.

RS: It’s interesting to see more of those mini-series tales being released with Carlos and now Mildred Pierce.

BC: It’s a nice medium for filmmakers who wish they could have more time in their movie to tell a bigger story.  Studios demand at most 3 hours or so, and if the movies longer, you just have to cut it down.

RS: It’s good to see that it’s becoming a viable option for longer form storytelling

BC: Yeah, I agree. A friend told me that the HBO series Game of Thrones was better than Lord of the Rings (the books, of which he is an enormous fan).  Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and The Walking Dead are practically cinematic television shows.

A couple of foreign films to add to the list: Certified Copy and 13 Assassins.  With Certified Copy, we get a movie that is frustrating and beguiling, but behind its intertwined mysteries is a great deal of truth.

I mean, once you get in the minds of the characters, they interact on multiple planes simultaneously, capturing in under two hours every permutation of the possible status of a relationship.

She has power he has power, they hate each other they love each other, its romantic, or not, its caring, or not, but at the end of the day, they are together, or they aren’t. And in there is every (romantic) relationship between two people.

All relationships go through stages like those, but also every relationship has a different give and take, a different balance of power. They don’t just capture all of the moods that a relationship might have over 20 years, but they seem to capture every person’s relationship as well.

RS: Sounds like a less sci-fi version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in some respects.  Just a very mature assessment of relationships.

BC: Thats a valid comparison, but whereas Eternal Sunshine is his image of her, here they are both the focus, it is more real (and due to he conceit, perhaps less) than eternal sunshine could be.

RS: I have yet to see 13 Assassins, but it’s on my Netflix Queue…

BC: 13 Assassins is as good as the Seven Samurai, if you take away the latter’s influence on the genre.

RS: Wow, that’s some high praise.

BC: The band of samurai undergo all of the emotional, gritty development that you would see in a non-genre road movie, they exist as archetypes like the seven samurai, but they are given souls, too. They have fears and doubts, they have reservations, but they also have nobility and pride and they take all of it into battle with them.

When you get to the final battle sequence, there is a shit ton of stylistic camera movements, bloody duels and stuff that you would expect to see, but it’s almost as if with every character you understand why they make a certain movement of their blade. You get inside each of the assassins. You feel their rage and passion, their certainty of place. You fight alongside them.

When they SPOILER ALERT are cut down, one by one, as they must, you cannot even see the end.  It fits squarely in the genre it represents, but it is cut from a whole new cloth.

RS: We mentioned Midnight in Paris earlier and there were a handful of other comedies that stuck out: Paul, despite being anemic without Edgar Wright’s direction (his stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz starred and wrote the script); Bridesmaids, a refreshing comedy from the female perspective that had a lot of heart to match its hilarity (not surprised since it was produced by 40 Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow).  And finally Crazy Stupid Love. Those last two just look like chick-flick nonsense, but they transcend their genre trappings.

BC: Having not yet seen the last, I can’t speak to it, but I had faith in it a long time ago. It’s just finding a time to go and confirm it. Bridemaids gets a strong agreement from me, not only is it the funniest movie of the year so far, the way in which it exceeded expectations was rather mindblowing. Another success for Apatow, without a doubt.

But with Paul, there is something a little different. When I saw it theatrically, I loved it to death. I was blown away by it. Yes, it lacked Wright’s direction, and it makes sense to criticize it for lacking that. But what it gained in exchange was Greg Mottola’s direction- filled with nostalgia, an American sense of landscape, and the end result of a film that feels incredibly personal. As if he had lived through something similar, at least

While Wright is far superior (to most directors, even), Mottola’s method was fine by me, and only felt jarring because it looked like it would be a Wright movie.

RS: Before I strike out on a blurb about various genre films of the year so far, anything else about summer?

BC: I don’t think so.  My reckoning of when a movie comes out can be warped, as has already been demonstrated, by how closely I follow festivals, and then how obsessively I watch DVDs. But I think that’s all for the summer.  Except to mention Of Gods and Men, I suppose, but I think my review can speak for it, as I’m not sure if it’s a summer film or from last year.

RS: Then I’ll go through a quick blurb on the horror/fantasy/sci-fi favorites of the year: Troll Hunter, Hanna, Hobo with a Shotgun, Super, Source Code, Drive Angry 3D, and Stake Land are all entertaining as hell in varying ways. Some are just great stories (Troll Hunter, Hanna), others are interesting character pieces (Super), intelligent (Source Code), fucked up awesomeness (Drive Angry 3D, Hobo with a Shotgun), or compelling dramas (Stake Land).

BC: Source Code wasn’t necessarily superior to Moon [Source Code director Duncan Jones’ first film], but it showed how little Jones dropped between his first and second features.  It remained impressively original, unlike any other movies that are coming out.

RS: I never really got that critical about Jones, but he’s really good at mining older sci-fi and re-introducing it.

BC:  Indeed.

RS: Though I still remain annoyed that Moon seemed to SPOILER ALERT hinge on the Replicant twist and I didn’t think he really added anything to the sci-fi genre. Whereas Source Code does have a touch of Quantum Leap (and totally acknowledged it by have Scott Bakula voice Gyllehaal’s father), but really does something different with it.  But I’m pretty lonely in my assessment of Moon.

BC: I still argue the Replicant point because in Moon, the clones are necessarily human, and not robots.

RS: Like I said, quite lonely [laughs].

I still have yet to see Another Earth or Attack the Block, which I predict will also make that list.

Rubber also belongs on there. What a weird cerebral movie.

BC: Another Earth without a doubt does. When I saw it at the Flyover Film Festival, my actual thought was that seeing this done with so little sort of put it in the same boat as The Tree of Life.  They seemed to me to be almost equivalent films.

Rubber I can’t speak to, really. I was watching it in a bar, and I actually walked out. It was definitely weird, but what I saw didn’t justify that weirdness.

RS: It’s intellectual wankery within a cheesy B-Movie setting, which makes it kind of interesting.

BC: I can accept that.

RS: Marwencol might be a hold over from 2010, but that’s one of the more compelling documentaries I’ve seen all year.

BC: It really is.  It’s both profound and infuriating. I watched it in the video store I work at, and I just got really pissed that we live in a place where things like that happen to people.

What he manages to create out of his pain is beautiful. But they way in which he struggles with accepting who he is, and the pain he received for trying to accept it, is for me what made the movie work.

RS: The guy’s candor is both attractive and uncomfortable. There’s no filter on the guy and his obsession with the miniature town lays out all of his feelings. Beautiful little film.

I think that’s a good segue to close on The Tree of Life, no? [Remington’s review of The Tree of Life here, Ben’s here]

BC: The Tree of Life continues to overwhelm me. On just the first layer, it gives us the whole experience of a boy over the course of a summer, but it also gives us his frustrations in adulthood with what his place is in the universe. The film shows us simultaneously that he is infinitesimal in comparison, and also enormous, as he contains us all. His experience is our experience, it is universal, and so it contains the universe.

The film is obviously hugely personal, and even though it may have some flaws in the editing department (and perhaps in the inclusion of those dinosaurs, which I’m still on the fence about), it seeks the highest form of truth, the real question that every person asks in their lifetime, “Why am I here?”

Sometimes the answer is religious, sometimes the question is, too. But this film doesn’t drown itself in religious theories. They are present, but never too much, they are crucial, but only as a cultural device. Because in the end taking answers from a priest is still from someone else, not from inside you. We must still find the answers for ourselves.

RS: Which is something I’m more than willing to applaud.

BC: Yes.

RS: The opening segments left me quite disconnected, but when it focuses on the family dynamic it had me for the rest of the film.

It’s been a pretty good year so far.  There’s obviously a lot of chaff to sort through, but in going through this list I’m pretty happy with what we’ve see, especially from the big budget stuff and the films going beyond their genres (or just playing in their genres really well).

BC: My opinion, frankly, is that we are at the beginning of something important. We have seen blockbusters now that are of better quality than any blockbusters over the last 20 years.  I don’t just mean one movie, I mean everything is better now. We are at the threshold of a new age of movies, a new decade of excellence.

When Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, de Palma, Penn, Frankenheimer, Friedkin, etal came to the scene in the 70’s they produced some of the greatest films that this country, and Hollywood, have ever seen. We are about to have another 70’s, another New Hollywood. Shit’s gonna be good again, consistently.

At least that’s what I hope will happen. The slate for next year already has me salivating, but before then we’ve got about 30 great films to get through.  For that I am not complaining.

RS:  Nolan’s rise as a big budget auteur definitely helps. Hopefully other studios will allow other artists to do something spectacular with big budget tools.

Drive is the film I’m most anticipating.  Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver who’s also the getaway man for bank heists, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising), it should be amazing.  Refn is a unique director, so I’m intrigued to see what he’ll do with this story.

If there’s one for you, which is it?

BC: Shame. Without a doubt

RS: Anything with Fassbender, count me in

BC: Anything with Fassbender that allows him to flex acting muscles like this one will, and its sure to be golden.

RS: Here’s to the rest of the year then – hope it ends with a bang

BC:  There’s a great slate of deserving Oscar nominees. Instead of this The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire stuff, we might get a film that truly deserves it this year (all of those had three or four nominees that I preferred to the film chosen).

RS: I don’t have a problem with The Hurt Locker winning, but The King’s Speech….ugh, why’d you have to bring that up.

[X-Men: First Class fan poster via]

-Remington Smith

2 responses to “The Best of 2011 so far

  1. My top 10 of the year thus far:
    1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
    2. The Tree of Life
    3. Meek’s Cutoff
    4. Cold Weather
    5. Paul
    6. Midnight in Paris
    7. Beginners
    8. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
    9. Lucky
    10. Another Earth

    Most anticipated for the rest of the year would be:
    1. Drive
    2. Shame
    (so I definitely agree with you guys there)
    3. The Ides of March
    4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
    5. Red State
    6. Moneyball
    7. Like Crazy
    8. Take Shelter
    9. A Dangerous Method
    10. Martha Marcy May Marlene

    There is still a LOT of awesome stuff it looks like for the rest of the year, but that top 6 on my list of favorites thus far is pretty strong for me as well, and if my top 3 change at all it will be because I saw a film I really loved.

  2. The Lincoln Lawyer, Certified Copy, The Tree of Life, and Harry Potter are at the top of my list.

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