The Top 10 Movies of 2011 I Have Seen

The title says it all right there.  Yes, there are glaring omissions in this list, but that is only because I haven't seen some very obvious choices!  And how can I really plug something I haven't seen?  I'm dying to see THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and yes, I still plan on seeing THE ARTIST, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, THE DESCENDANTS, SHAME, etc etc., but as of the writing of this list I have not seen these, sadly.  But here goes, in no particular order!

dir. Steven Spielberg

Well, I saw this very recently so it is freshest in my mind, but it would probably kick off my list regardless.  I have been a huge fan of Tintin ever since elementary school, and when someone tries to take something you treasure so much and up-convert it into a Hollywood motion-captured animated 3-D movie, well I don't know about you, but it put me on edge.  But if there is one filmmaker out there who can do it well, it is Steven Spielberg (partnered with Peter Jackson).  The film they have created is so full of love and respect for the style, stories, and characters that Herge created so many decades ago.  From the first frame of the opening credits to the last iris-out on Snowy's (Milou's!) nose, I was completely captivated!  The credits are that wonderful Saul Bass inspired style that Spielberg also used in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN that befits a globe-trotter like Tintin, and from there to the first scene involving a portrait artist (looking awfully like Herge himself) I knew we were in good hands!  It is a tremendously beautiful film that again proves what a master filmmaker Spielberg is.  His use of 3D is so unobtrusive that I was able to sink into the film and just sit agog as he transported us across oceans and deserts.  The characters--Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Thompson, Thomson, Allan, Nestor, etc.--were all pitch perfect.  Of note, definitely, was Andy Serkis as Haddock, who after playing various apes and Gollum, has perfected the artistry of body- and facial-recognition acting.  His voicing was also perfect (I never thought of Haddock as a Scot--but it's perfect!), as were Jamie Bell as the boy reporter, and Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as the bumbling Interpol twosome Thompson/Thomson, and Daniel Craig as Sakaran.  Do yourself a favour and go and see this immediately!  I have so much more to say about this so expect a full write up in the days to come!

dir. Jeff Nichols

As my review earlier this year summed up--this is a fantastic film.  One of the best of the year.  The acting is as good as it gets, with Michael Shannon as the tormented Curtis, and Jessica Chastain as his baffled, yet determined wife Samantha.  Curtis, who begins having increasingly terrifying visions and dreams, believes a storm unlike any other is coming.  He sets about refurbishing his family's disused tornado shelter, much to the alarm of his family, friends, and employer.  Is the world ending, or is Curtis succumbing to mental illness?  This is a taut, tense, beautiful film, that left my head spinning after the semi-ambiguous ending which I loved.  Grab some popcorn and someone's hand to squeeze and watch this!  Thrilling filmmaking at its best.  Definite Oscar bait for the performances.

dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

I would be remiss to not include this fantastic modern take on the classic nameless protagonist (in this case a getaway driver) made popular by people like Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  Ryan Gosling stars as the wheel-man whose quiet, tough shell is cracked by oh-so-sweet damsel Cary Mulligan.  The Driver becomes so attached to her and her son that even once her (gentleman) thug husband returns from the clink, he vows to help and protect all of them, driving him to extreme violence and car chases.  Some found the violence too graphic (it was prettttty gnarly), the pacing too artsy, and the car chases too few, but I thought it was a perfect stylistic blend of 80s tackiness, Euro-poppiness, and urban-desolation.  This film's soundtrack and its cinematography is enough to make this a recommended movie, and an unquestionable (for me!) purchase when it comes out on Blu-Ray this January.  Great performances for all, especially a breakout one for newly-minted badass Albert Brooks.

dir. Martin Scorsese

Many master filmmakers tried their hands at 3D this year, and if Spielberg is number one, then Scorsese is definitely a close second.  I'm still on the fence with 3D for all the obvious reasons (cost, brightness, you have to wear glasses, the inferrence that a "normal" "2D" movie is lacking something), but these two filmmakers have demonstrated what is possible.  The key, as Spielberg showed us, is basically to make a fantastic, beautiful film, that just happens to be in 3D.  It shouldn't distract.  And despite how counter-intuitive it might seem to make a comic strip 3D, bringing something "2D" like Tintin to life works.  Scorsese's application of it is interesting in an entirely different way.  While most of HUGO could work perfectly viewed non-3D, it was absolutely fascinating to see the real Méliès and Lumière Bros. films from the late 1890s brought to life in colour and 3D (A Train Entering the Station in 3D might emulate for some how an audience allegedly reacted in 1895).  It was a staggering, stunning, reach across a century of film, tying us to them, akin, to me, of that mindblowing transition in Kubrick's 2001 from prehistoric bone to satellite--you know the one.  If Spielberg's film is a tribute to Saturday afternoon adventure serial nostalgia (and possibly recompense for INDIANA JONES 4), then Scorsese's film is an ode to film, all films, especially the origins.  Scorsese is not only paying homage to this pioneers, but also bowing deeply in respect to all who have come before him, after him, and have ever been touched by the magic of cinema.  The sequence in the library where Hugo and Isabelle review the previous years of film history gave me goosebumps.  I'm serious!  Seeing Buster Keaton in 3D was too much to handle!  In a good way.

dir. Joe Wright

I had a feeling I would like this film, but I must say it really exceeded any expectations I had!  As I wrote in my blurb about this earlier this year, the action movie world is overrun with protagonists on the run who can do everything and outsmart everyone (Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, Batman even), but HANNA was smart and original.  I found parts to be very reminiscent of Tom Tykwer's RUN LOLA RUN, and Wright's direction was fresh and exciting in a genre that is oversaturated with cliche and convention.  Saoirse Ronan as the pale but capable character of title was wonderful, and the strong supporting cast of Eric Bana as her secret agent father, Cate Blanchette as a CIA black-ops woman (channeling George W. Bush--I know, but it works!), and many other familiar faces: Jason Flemyng, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams.  I also loved the Chemical Brothers' soundtrack which drove the film across continents and through subway stations and cargo ports.  Highly recommended.  Local fun-fact: the script was written by Seth Lochhead, a Nanaimo native and VFS student.

dir. John Madden

Here is another great film (that I wrote about earlier this year) that came out of the proverbial woodwork and impressed me.  If nothing else, 2011 was the year of Jessica Chastain, who starred in no less than 7 films released in the calendar year, including TAKE SHELTER and Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE.  She, her publicist, and her agent must be incredibly smart people because in the span of less than a year they have made her a household name with some serious street cred.  And I would not be surprised come Oscar time if she was nominated more than once.  Chastain is America's answer to Kate Winslet and for her a bright future I do see.  Now: THE DEBT.  An exciting, thrilling film about three Mossad agents hunting for an infamous Nazi doctor, that jumps back and forth across decades, from Cold War era Berlin to modern day Israel and beyond.  What impressed me, aside from the captivating performances, was the way director John Madden kept everything coherent.  It really is a testament to him (and his editor Alexander Berner) how I managed to keep track of three different characters, each portrayed by two actors in two different time periods without much trouble.  It didn't hurt that Madden also had, along with the aforementioned Chastain, some stalwart character actors: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds (pronounced "Keer-en"--he's Irish) as well as Jesper Christensen, as the creepy Doktor Bernhardt.  Thrown into the deep end with this talented pool of actors, is Sam Worthington who well proved his worthiness by playing the most mentally tortured of the young Mossad agents.  Worthington, who is most known for turns in action films such as AVATAR, TERMINATOR: SALVATION, and CLASH OF THE TITANS, shows that he has true actors grit, and was definitely a highlight in THE DEBT.

dir. George Clooney

Almost everything Clooney touches turns to gold and when paired with it-person Ryan Gosling he is an unstoppable force.  Clooney's fourth directing effort is a slightly pessimistic, but surely realistic, look at the run-up to the primary election of one Democrat candidate.  Clooney plays said candidate, a seemingly idealistic and forward-thinking individual who is gathering momentum.  Gosling is his chief press manager, a master of spin, who also wouldn't mind rising in the ranks in his own way.  But when scandal inevitably shows its ugly face Gosling is forced to reassess his loyalties and goals.  Along with Clooney and Gosling, the cast is incredible: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, arguably the two best character actors out there, as competing campaign managers; Marisa Tomei as a crafty (read: devious) reporter; Evan Rachel Wood as a pretty and crucial intern; Jeffrey Wright as key senator weighing his options on who to throw his support behind.  THE IDES OF MARCH is a dark film, and as I mentioned fairly pessimistic, but it is a good portrayal of how politics is all about compromise, for better or for worse.

dir. Bennett Miller

Brad Pitt plays the MLB's Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Bean in this great drama about a total revolution in the way a sports team is managed.  With the help of talented young analyst Peter Brand, Beane starts seeing players, not as commodities to be worshipped, but rising and falling stocks, to be assessed almost purely on their statistics and performance projections.  Much to the dismay of an old-guard of baseball scouts, Beane sets about to turn his beloved Athletics around from a group of zeroes to a team of heroes by flouting the time-honoured traditional methods.  Pitt is great as Beane, but the real stand-out for me was Jonah Hill as Brand, the young analyst and recent college grad.  My one complaint is that I wanted to the film to centre more on the Jonah Hill character, I feel like he was the intriguing part of the story: like, what is his background?  Why is he so interested in the numbers of baseball?  Is he actually a genius?  But the Pitt character is the more obvious ingress for American audiences, a once over-hyped failed baseball prospect whose salvation lies in his success at managing a pro team.  America loves second-chance stories.  This is a great film that finally saw the day of light after a troubled pre-production progress.  At some parts it is even reminiscent of JERRY MAGUIRE in the sports-as-business sense, and that is a good thing.  Watch for Spike Jonze in a small role as Beane's ex-wife's new husband.

dir. Asif Kapadia

(NOTE: I just realized this film was officially released in 2010, but not in Canada until August 2011. But I am keeping it here because, well, this is my blog!)

2011 was a year of great documentaries--so I am told.  I am a huge fan of documentaries, but am ashamed to say that I saw a woefully small number of them.  Ones yet to be seen that have received much acclaim include THE INTERRUPTERS, THE CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS and INTO THE ABYSS (both by the prolific Werner Herzog), PINA (in 3D, by Wim Wenders--apparently stunning), and BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK to name a few.  Roger Ebert has a great list on his website.  I think 2012 will be a great year for documentary rentals.  But one fantastic documentary I did see was SENNA, about the legendary and ultimately tragic life of the great Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.  The passionately Brazillian Senna was one of those rare people to come along who could easily stand beside Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan, as an athlete who changed their sport forever.  Senna was a fearless race car driver, one who thrived in the rain, did not fear corners or crashes, and was determined to win no matter what, even if it meant running himself and/or his teammates or competitors off the track.  As a revered as he was for his bravery, he was also reviled for his ruthless and at times reckless driving style, not least by teammate and rival Alain "The Professor" Prost.  Despite his arrogance on the track, Senna sometimes displayed incredible humility and humanity: at a race in Belgium in 1992, Senna stopped his car and jumped out, risking his own life, to assist a driver who had crashed in front of him.  SENNA is a film that documents the driver's life, warts and all, in a way, I believe, that even someone who has never watched F1 in their life can enjoy.  It is also window into the glory days of Formula 1 in the 1980s when the cars were insanely powerful, lacked traction control, as well as many of the safety provisions drivers use today.  This is a captivating portrait of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating sports figures of recent history.

dir. Paul Feig

BRIDESMAIDS is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long time!  It also turned me from a Kristen Wiig fan into a Kristen Wiig super-fan.  Her comic timing, I think, is the best there is, and she easily stands beside Amy Poehler and Tina Fey as one of the funniest female comedians working today.  Many also called this film a game-changer, proving a nearly all-female cast with a female-oriented story could entertain audiences of both genders.  It's a sad reality that in 2011 we are praising a successful film for being female-driven. In the hugely lucrative "gross-out comedy" genre the films are largely written, directed, produced, and starring young-to-middle-aged males with a target audience of young-to-middle-aged males (See: THE HANGOVER 1 & 2, HORRIBLE BOSSES, 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN etc. etc.).  BRIDESMAIDS was co-written by Wiig, and though she is the clear star, her band of friends form a formidable comic posse, including SNL's Maya Rudolph, The Office's Ellie Kemper, and a standout performance by the hilarious Melissa McCarthy as Megan, the bride's future-sister-in-law.  The few male roles in it were also marvelous: Chris O'Dowd as the handsome (and Irish?) police officer love-interest, and Jon Hamm as Wiig's awful and arrogant sometimes-lover.  Just writing about this makes me want to see this again!

So there you have it, ten great films from 2011.  Honourable mentions for being standouts in their genres go to:


Other films which I have not seen but I have either high hopes for and/or have much critical acclaim include:




It is a nice coincidence that I watched Jules Dassin's BRUTE FORCE today seeing as how yesterday would have been his 100th birthday, had he not died in March 2008.  Who is Jules Dassin you may ask?  Despite having a distinctly European sounding name, he was a talented American born filmmaker who made several very successful crime movies in the US in the 1940s--THE NAKED CITY, BRUTE FORCE, and THIEVES' HIGHWAY (I've yet to see this one)--before he was blacklisted in 1950.  He struggled to find work, and even after he went to Europe he had difficulty getting films made as American distributors threatened to boycott releasing any of his work.  His next film wasn't until 1955's excellent and influential (and French) heist film RIFIFI, said to have inspired modern films such as OCEANS 11.  It also informed his 1964 film TOPKAPI, which, when I caught the last half it on TV recently I noticed must definitely have influenced Brian de Palma in filming the CIA heist sequence in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE when Tom Cruise enters via the ceiling.

Director Jules Dassin
But today I am talking about BRUTE FORCE.  It is a 1947 noir prison film starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn (a Canadian!), as prisoner Collins and guard Captain Munsey, respectively.  As Collins and company prepare to make a prison break, the sadistic and tyrannical Captain Munsey is honing in on the meek Warden A.J. Barnes' job.  The Warden is on unofficial probation for being too lenient on his charges and should another incident occur, the Governor is going to dismiss him.  Munsey sees this as an opportunity, and lies in wait for Collins to execute his plan.

Burt Lancaster as Collins (far right), and his cellmates.
 Prison films are great locales for film noirs as they provide the right atmosphere and circumstances for some of the chief emotional motifs of noir: paranoia, pessimism, claustrophobia, and depravity.  We also have a huge cast of characters to attribute the whole spectrum of human conditions: bravery, cowardice, (dis)loyalty, insanity, brutality, and empathy.  As well as brotherhood; as the saying goes, "honor among thieves."  Despite differences in backgrounds and motives, all the prisoners have a common enemy, The Man, in this case Captain Munsey. 

Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey.
 It is also interesting watching an older prison drama.  Prison life has been rather white-washed in two senses, one, in a literal sense, most of the prisoners are white males (contrary to the massive number of African-Americans in prison in actuality), but also, two, this prison seems kind of cleaned up and humane.  Life seems to be relatively liveable with movies screened and plenty of different job details for inmates.  Five or six men crammed into a prison cell seem to be tolerable, and downright friendly with each other.  There are no drugs and hardly any violence between inmates--except the "accidental" death of one informant (a person who betrays his brothers).  So yeah, life seems fairly liveable here--that is until you're summoned to Munsey's office and he draws the blinds.

BRUTE FORCE is a fantastic film, a riveting drama and prison break story that truly culminates in an explosive climax. In a way, it isn't a huge stretch to see why it may have come to the attention of the HUAAC and gotten Dassin blacklisted.  It is the story of one courageous young man, rising up with his oppressed brothers to overthrow the leader for the greater good; where the one sacrifices himself for the many.  But despite your ideological leanings, it is a really well made film, with excellent performances by Lancaster and Cronyn, as well as Charles Bickford as Gallagher, the prison's newspaper editor who has seen it all, and Art Smith as Dr. Walters, as the prison's doctor, and sometimes moral conscience.  Go find this at your local video store or library, Criterion has an excellent DVD of it out!



Happy Birthday Steven Spielberg!

On this day in 1946 Steven Spielberg was born!  Movies have never been the same!  Thanks for all the great pictures Mr. S!



Most people don't need any reminder to watch HOME ALONE around this time of year, but just in case you do, here is your reminder.  I watched it yesterday and it's still great.  The cast is great: Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, John Heard, etc., and this guy:

Ha ha ha.  That line always makes me laugh.

Happy holidays!

The 2011 "Cinescape"

The guts and the glory of 2011's films.


3 Things: THE MAID (2009)

THE MAID (2009)
Dir. Sebastian Silva

THE MAID (La Nana) is a Chilean film about a maid, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), the faithful servant, cleaner, nanny, and more-or-less family member of a wealthy Santiago family.  Raquel is getting on in her years.  Not senior by any means, but getting older, and is developing slight health troubles.  Despite Raquel's insistence, the matriarch of the family, Pilar (Claudia Celedon) decides it is probably time to hire a second woman to assist Raquel with her duties.  The trouble is, Raquel has been with the family for 23 years, and when an outsider comes in, Raquel is determined to hold on to both her position as an employee, but also as a pseudo member of the family.  She has dedicated so much of her life to raising the children in the family, and cooking and cleaning for everyone, she has a vested interest (not least an emotional one) of remaining the sole caretaker.  So when a new young woman is hired, Raquel gets territorial and fierce.  It is a funny, if not slightly darkly comic, film that ultimately is quite endearing.  Here are a few things I liked about it.

1. Catalina Saavedra as the maid.  She is great to watch.  Raquel the maid is so dedicated to the family and the house, it is kind of reminscent of that other film about domestic servitude, the fantastic THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.  It is a fascinating concept to me of that an employee, who despite not actually being a member of the family, knows more about the house, the procedures, the policies, and indeed about the family members than anyone else.  Raquel is one such person, who's life has become their life.  She moves around the house with comfort and confidence; it is her domain, and even though she didn't pay for it, in her own way she has command over it.  Saavedra's performance is wonderful, balancing Raquel's concern for herself with that of her responsibility to her employer.  She barely cracks a smile, but her face reveals so much about the feelings of her life choices of living with a pseudo-family.  She accepts her life of almost complete self-sacrifice to keep a modern family on the go, even if some of them may be completely ungrateful.

2. Have you ever seen a film from Chile?  I hadn't!  Another great reminder of the wonderful cinema that lies beyond the borders of North America.   It was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Golden Globes, and it won both Grand Jury and Special Jury prizes at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, for both director Sebastian Silva and actress Catalina Saavedra, and received many other international accolades.

3. It's an interesting glimpse inside contemporary South America, and the wealth disparity that continues to exist down there.  Without much of a middle-class, the lower class often work in direct servitude to the upper class.  But this is a look at a family that has bridged the class differences by having Raquel in their house as more than just an employee.

Bonus thing: Mariana Loyola as Lucy.  Her delicate performance as Lucy is so sweet to watch as she patiently tries to get to know Raquel and open her up to friendship.

Go find this at your local video store!


A Meeting of Icons

Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, in 1980.

"When Toho Studios couldn’t fulfill the budget demands of the film, American film directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola helped Akira Kurosawa by convincing 20th Century-Fox (still riding high after the success of Lucas’ Star Wars) to fund the remaining portion of the budget in exchange for Kagemusha’s international distribution rights." -Willy & Jonih