Hide your children, send the old folks to the root cellar, and lock up your antique copies of Cahiers du Cinema, because the Movie Zombie is once again prowling the multiplexes, art-houses and second-run dumps of America in search of movies with heart, movies with soul, movies with guts, and movies with BRAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIINNNNNSSSSSS! And he's happy to report that in 2011, he saw quite a few pictures that possessed all of those attributes and then some. The Zombie had a busy year. He signed a contract with Michael Wiese Productions to complete the manuscript for a how-to book on screenwriting that he co-authored with the late great writer / director Dan O'Bannon (Alien, Total Recall); the revision is due in a few weeks' time, and with luck, the book will be on bookstore shelves nationwide before the year is out. He also wrote an essay for a forthcoming book on the films of Martin Scorsese, to be published by Arizona State University Press (publication date pending). His own screenplays have been busily making the rounds to various production companies great and small-in-size-only throughout the film industry. And, of course, he met a beautiful Zombette and set up tomb-keeping with her. But somehow, in the midst of all that, he managed to take in a by-no- means comprehensive, but still healthy helping of what Hollywood and the cinematic world at large had to offer in the last year, and below, for your enjoyment, is his (or should I say my) list of the ten best films of 2011.
An always necessary caveat about this list. As I am not a full-time film critic and my viewing habits are therefore restricted to what I can afford to take in at the theaters (and what I manage to see at the industry screenings, festivals and Q & As I do manage to make it to), there are always a number of fairly major releases that I do not get a chance to check out during the course of any given year. If you don't see a critically acclaimed major film on this list, there is every chance that I just haven't yet caught up with the picture (Hugo and The Artist are two well-reviewed films that I have not yet received the opportunity to see). And of course, there's also the chance that I saw the film in question and just wasn't as bowled over by it as everyone else seemed to be; the major example of that this year is probably the Cold War spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was admittedly well-acted and atmospheric, and which I might have liked quite well...had I been able to figure out anything that was happening on the screen. Even with these oversights, I've compiled what I feel is a nice lineup of what was best at the theaters this year.
But what's that old saying about the wheat and the chaff? Well, luckily, the chaff, for this viewer at least, wasn't nearly as thick on the ground as it was last year, when I was able to provide a complete Bottom Five list of the worst the movies had to offer. This year, I only feel the need to warn you away from one truly disastrous picture...and it pains me, because it's a film from the mind of some folks whose previous works I have, for the most part, greatly admired.
I am speaking of David Gordon Green's virtually laugh-free medieval fantasy-stoner comedy Your Highness. The usually reliably hilarious Danny McBride (who also co-wrote the "screenplay" with longtime collaborator Ben Best) and the often-impressive James Franco (who can at least write this off as his latest performance-art goof) headline a stultifying production in which the mere fact that men in chain mail are using the word "fuck" is meant to be inherently hilarious. And if you don't think it is, I'm sorry to say that none of the "jokes" in this film are going to make you laugh. Natalie Portman appears in one of the worst career moves ever for a just-Oscar-anointed actress, and the ever-more-popular Zooey Deschanel contributes some attractive cleavage and basically nothing else. Green's transformation from a creator of potent low-budget kitchen-sink dramas into a slacker-comedy helmsman is one of the more unusual career-evolution stories of recent years, but this attractively filmed but pointless waste of time can only count as a de-evolution. Maybe it's time for Green and his North Carolina Arts pals to put down the hash pipe and pick up a better screenplay than this.
Aaah...now that that unpleasantness is out of our system, let's get to the good stuff. Here are the Movie Zombie's top ten films of 2011...
10. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
The final film I saw theatrically in 2011 was also one of the year's best. For my money, Steven Spielberg's full-throttle adaptation of the legendary European adventure graphic novel series by Herge was the director's most purely entertaining picture since Jurassic Park. Spielberg, in partnership with producer Peter Jackson, took two of the most maligned technical gimmicks of recent big-budget blockbuster cinema, motion-capture performance technology and 3D, and through sheer force of skill, served up the best usage yet of both technologies that I've seen. Rather can exploiting 3D's hackier qualities by just constantly throwing stuff at his camera, Spielberg instead uses a restlessly moving image to marvelous effect, milking 3D's capacity to create illusions of depth for all its worth. The motion-capture is handled with equal shrewdness. Spielberg's mo-cap avatars are not aiming for creepily human-but-not realism, but instead to give Herge's fanciful original character designs flesh and weight, and the results, as with the almost-identical detectives Thompson and Thomson, are delightful to behold. (The work of the actors in bringing these characters to life is uniformly strong, with the stand-out, not surprisingly, being motion capture's main man, Andy Serkis, as the drunkenly heroic Captain Haddock.) Of course, it doesn't hurt that this is a classic old-school adventure flick in the Indiana Jones vein. Some critics have accused this picture of being merely a framework for a near-relentless series of kinetic set pieces. But they seem to have forgotten that Spielberg is better at kinetic set pieces than maybe any filmmaker who's ever lived, and here he serves up some doozies, from an exhilarating downhill chase in a flooding North African village to a climactic swordfight with towering construction cranes in place of cutlasses. The result was an exhilarating return to form for Spielberg the blockbuster maestro, and a reminder of why I fell in love with the movies in the first place.
Steve McQueen's near-impressionistic depiction of a few harrowing days in the life of a New York City sex addict was the year's most provocative film, and not just for sexual content that earned it an honestly justified NC-17 (in the strictest sense of the rating's definition, this film is in no way meant for children). But it's not the libido the film arouses. It's the mind. This is a picture that stirs thought and deep conversation, even argument; the Zombette and I are still in disagreement about the strange nature of the central character's relationship with his troubled, reckless younger sister. But we both agree that this film is piercing in its insights into the compulsive mind, as we watch a man on a classic addict's path, pursuing pleasure with an intensity that naturally results in nothing for him but pain. McQueen's brooding long takes, with numerous scenes running five minutes and beyond without a single edit, draw out the film's tension to almost unbearable levels, replicating the feeling of a life lived as a series of barely endurable interludes between orgasms. (Kudos to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Judy Becker, who create an ice-cold, Zen-minimalist New York that mirrors the bone-deep emotional deadness of the protagonist.) Carey Mulligan nails the bruised little girl within the would-be bohemian seductress, but this film would die without the right actor in the lead, and Michael Fassbender gives an Oscar-worthy performance. This is a man whose soul and mind have become unwitting slaves to his erotic compulsions, and Fassbender makes us feel his anguish with every weighted stare, every clipped word, and yes, every orgasm. No director asked more of his leading man this year than McQueen did of Fassbender. And no leading man delivered more, more brilliantly.
8. MARGIN CALL
Many films did great things in 2011, but only J.C. Chandor's debut feature as writer and director managed the impossible. Somehow, this film, chronicling a beleaguered Big Apple investment firm's murder-suicide pact with the unwitting American economy, actually gave a sympathetic human face to the monstrous media boogeymen we've come to know as "the 1%". Chandor structures his film like a thriller, as a rocket scientist turned investment guru (Zachary Quinto, who also co-produced) uncovers a financial discrepancy that threatens to bring down their entire firm...unless they're willing to peddle their soon-to-be-worthless stock to people likely to be ruined by the purchases. As the boardroom machinations that set this Machiavellian plan into motion unfold, you'll be amazed how much tension Chandor manages to wring out of men in suits and ties speaking to each other in measured tones in sterile, coolly lit boardrooms. Chandor's fiercely intelligent, scalpel-sharp screenplay avoids weighing the viewer down with facts and figures, instead telling you just enough about the calculations involved to allow you to understand the firm's gambit...and why it's corrupt. I learned a lot about how high finance works, absorbed some interesting details about the world in which these fatcats operate (because of the heavy number-crunching involved, many investment big shots apparently come from engineering backgrounds), and saw these people, who I'm used to seeing only in news footage as they're escorted from deposition rooms by lawyers, as individuals with hopes, fears and about-to-be-dashed dreams. Among an across-the-board solid cast including Penn Badgley, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci, the standouts are Jeremy Irons as a CEO who almost seems to believe what he's shoveling; Kevin Spacey as an office manager who knows what he's shoveling, too, and is becoming sickened by the decades of stench; and especially Paul Bettany as the office hotshot, a living, breathing embodiment of high-finance hustle...with all the buried insecurity and fear that implies.
Like Margin Call, this is also a movie basically about statistics, but instead of making them silent assassins, Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis's best-selling 2003 book transforms them into redeemers of men. Brad Pitt, in an incandescent performance that makes the most of his megastar qualities, plays Billy Beane, a failed former baseball protege and general manager of the cellar-dwelling Oakland A's, who rattles the cage of the game's establishment when he throws out the decades-old rules of scouting and recruiting players, basing his new draft choices and signings on statistical calculations provided by an egghead economics whiz (Jonah Hill, in an easygoing, enjoyable performance). The A's are about to become the laughingstocks of baseball for reasons entirely besides their playing...and then, somehow, Billy's system begins to generate wins. This is mainstream Hollywood filmmaking at its best: smart, savvy about its milieu, full of genuine, good-spirited humor (Billy's meetings with his scouts, played by a group of old troupers so authentic I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most of them are real-life scouts), and at its best, heartwarming in unexpected ways. Billy Beane's story, as specific as it is to its time and world, is one that many of us can relate to, and the film is a beautifully observed portrait of a once-promising overachiever, hard past his sell-by date, looking, for just one time in his life, to be the long shot that actually wins big.
My feelings about Nicolas Winding Refn's ultra-stylish, diamond-hard crime thriller are more mixed than they are for any other film on this list. At moments, Refn's artsy directorial pretensions threaten to swamp the picture entirely, and my jury is still out on Ryan Gosling, who could be a chameleonic genius of an actor, or just a half-smiling handsome face, a puzzle without a solution. But when this film is on, its propulsive energy and brutal power thrill like nothing else I saw on the big screen this year. The result is arguably the finest film noir since L.A. Confidential. The plot here is nothing remarkable; the usual sort of deal about men on the criminal fringe, the women they love, and the money they cheat and kill each other for. What makes the film special is Refn's eye for detail, his feel for place and mood, and his one-of-a-kind handling of the standard-issue set pieces of the American crime picture. Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography glimmers with sensuality and menace, the shadowy locations in and around downtown L.A. recall classic noir atmosphere at its darkest, and it's all set to a moody, throbbing electronic score by the always-underrated Cliff Martinez. Refn's showpiece sequences, from an exhilarating opening getaway drive (shot entirely from inside the car) to a shocking head-stomping in a garage elevator, always come at the action from angles and attitudes that you'll never expect. Some viewers were entirely put off by the intensity of this film's surprisingly brutal violence (one friend of mine told me, "I have no idea how anyone can consider that art"), but if you can get on board with this film's wavelength, there's scarcely a wilder ride to be found. Among the cast, special mention must go to Albert Brooks, who, brilliantly cast against type as an underworld boss who's a deft hand with a razor, gives the year's best performance by a supporting actor.
You know who probably wrote William Shakespeare's plays? William Shakespeare. You know who made me not mind having that assumption debunked for two hours? Director Roland Emmerich, screenwriter John Orloff, and the marvelously talented cast and technical artisans behind the year's most unexpected, and unexpectedly absorbing, big-studio release. Orloff's witty and literate screenplay, a dramatization of a widely circulated theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare (the largely self-educated son of an illiterate glovemaker), may be ultimately untrustworthy as history, but that doesn't stop the film from drawing you in with its tantalizing combination of costume drama and conspiracy thriller. Rhys Ifans leads a exceptional cast as De Vere, a man whose patrician demeanor and high breeding mask the turbulent artistic soul within; it's Ifans's performance that ultimately lend the film surprising pathos, as he anatomizes a man trapped by the circumstances of his birth into granting the stewardship of his heart and mind's most glorious flights to another man. (I could fault the film's portrayal of Shakespeare as a libidinous near-alcoholic, but you can't knock Rafe Spall's bawdy embodiment of the role.) Emmerich's direction is the best he's done yet, and he's ably abetted by a top-notch technical team. You would hear no complaints from this Zombie if the film garnered Academy Awards for costume designer Lisy Christl, the talented art direction team led by production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel, and especially director of photography Anna Foerster, whose burnished-yet-sumptuous images deserve to make her the first woman ever to win a Best Cinematography Oscar.
4. THE TRIP
I have described the year's funniest comedy to friends as "northern English Sideways", and though it doesn't quite match that film's near-peerless combination of laughter and pathos, Michael Winterbottom's richly witty autumnal picaresque (edited to feature-film length from a six-hour BBC miniseries) is nevertheless a memorable creation in its own right. Steve Coogan, playing a self-absorbed-yet-arrogant British actor named "Steve Coogan", takes an eating tour of England's hilly, chilly north country, which he'll review for a popular magazine. Along for the ride is his friend "Rob Brydon", a charming-but-sometimes-insufferable comedian-impressionist played by comedian-impressionist Rob Brydon. As the men drive, drink and eat their way through the byways of upper Britannia, the film sneaks in plenty of sly commentary about the insecurity of the middle-aged male, the ever-fickle celebrity self-image, and the evolution of Michael Caine's voice through years of films, cigars and whiskey. These latter scenes, with Coogan and Brydon impersonating fellow actors from Schwarzenegger to Woody Allen, have made the rounds as popular out-of-context YouTube clips, but the film really deserves to be savored as a whole (and I'd like to check out the entire BBC series some time as well). Winterbottom's smooth, unobtrusive direction skillfully serves the performances of the actors, who, largely improvising, make the year's most outstanding onscreen duo. Brydon's impressions and non-sequiters garner huge laughs, and Coogan, in his inimitable way, wrings self-stinging sympathy from even the archest dialogue.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
I have a reputation amongst my friends, particularly those with fanboy inclinations, for being someone who hates "fun movies", as if the fact that I occasionally pay to see foreign films and documentaries on the big screen means I'm allergic to popcorn flicks. Honestly, the problem is that, at the end of the day, most blockbuster Hollywood product just doesn't do it for me. And then there was Captain America, a film I spent the second half of the year almost gratefully deploying whenever my friends hit me with their baseless "he hates fun" complaints. Because I defy you to find a more fun filmgoing experience from 2011 than Joe Johnston's rousing, colorful big-screen rendering of Marvel Comics' star-spangled super-soldier. Beautifully visualized and excitingly scored by Alan Silvestri (who also co-wrote the hilarious, USO-show-spoofing musical number "Star-Spangled Man" with Stephen Schwartz), this film brings the origin and adventures of the man with the high-flying shield to life with wit, speed, exhilarating action sequences, and a surprisingly sympathetic and likable lead in Chris Evans, who garnered much-deserved praise for making his hero all-American earnest without pushing the character's gumption into self-parody. The film is beautifully cast all around, with strong work from Tommy Lee Jones (as a gruff general whose every utterance had me laughing), Stanley Tucci (as the scientist whose special formula gives life to a superhero), and especially Hugo Weaving, who, buried under heavy prosthetics as the villainous Red Skull, gave us the year's most memorably hissable bad guy. Johnston, who won an Academy Award for his visual-effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a classic popcorn filmmaker in the Spielberg tradition (he was the man behind 2010's sorely underrated update of The Wolfman), and he delivers a film that looks great, moves like a rocket, and effortlessly, endlessly entertains. The Avengers, coming out this year, has its work cut out for it as far as I'm concerned, because from where I'm sitting, there's not likely to be any Avenger quite like The First Avenger.
2. SOURCE CODE
Duncan Jones's time-and-mind-bending sci-fi thriller was far and away the year's best genre film. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a career military man who finds himself roped, against his will, into a bizarre experiment. A bomb has blown up a commuter train outside Chicago, and government scientists have managed to isolate the "source code", the eight-minute pattern of final memories stored in the brain of one of the train's dead passengers. Now, Gyllenhaal's psyche is being zapped back into the last eight minutes of a dead man's life, where he must use this all-too-brief timespan to track down and stop a terrorist, all while falling in love with the late passenger's sweetheart (played charmingly by Michelle Monaghan)...who just may be among the dead herself. Ben Ripley's strikingly complex and elegantly rendered script uses the mission's eight-minutes-only duration to whipsaw us between past and present, all the while stirring up provocative meditations on the nature of time, identity, and the limits of duty above and beyond the call. Jones's direction brilliantly teases out the story's raft of revelations and twists, keeping us always guessing and staying skillfully always just a step or two ahead of us. This is really Jones and Ripley's show, but the film nevertheless boasts a well-judged and likable lead performance by Gyllenhaal and nice supporting turns by Monaghan, the always-strong Vera Farmiga (as Gyllenhaal's mission commander) and Jeffrey Wright, suitably officious and subtly menacing as the scientist behind the source-code experiment. High praise as well to composer Chris Bacon's thunderous score and the dazzling editing work of Paul Hirsch. Normally I hate it when films blatantly set up a sequel. But when Ripley and Jones left the door open for one here, I was ready to walk right through it to find out where (and into who) Gyllenhaal was going next.
1. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
In my 101 Favorite Screenplays review of the 1973 comedy classic Sleeper, I crowned Woody Allen as my favorite screenwriter. At the end of the day, and looking over the entire span of his career, he's probably my favorite filmmaker, period. Thus, not surprisingly, the last few years have been tough ones for me, as I've seen Allen put forth films problematic (Hollywood Ending), forgettable (Cassandra's Dream), and just plain old at-the-end-of-the-day not that good (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion). And so, it gives me great pleasure to declare Allen's utterly charming comic fantasy, in which a sad-sack screenwriter (Owen Wilson) takes a magical journey back to the Lost Generation's City of Lights, the best film of 2011. Allen combines the love-letter-to-a-city romanticism of his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan with the reality-bending fantasy-fulfillment plot of 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo to create a shimmering love story tinged with humor, yearning, and honest, lived-in regret. Allen has marshaled a typically sensational cast to bring this delicate enchantment to life. Wilson invests his lovestruck struggling artist with pathos and wit while never once resorting to simply aping his director's mannerisms as so many other Allen leading men have done. Marion Cotillard, as Wilson's out-of-the-past love interest, is enigmatic and heartwarming in about equal measure; the fact that she's one of the world's most beautiful women is just icing on the cake. They're ably supported by Corey Stoll as a hilariously blustery Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as a subtly commanding Gertrude Stein, and Adrien Brody, who, if they gave out Best Supporting Actor Oscars for just one scene, would win it in a walk for his showstopping cameo as Salvador Dali. Darius Khondji's cinematography and Anne Seibel's art direction make Paris look better than it ever has onscreen, and the soundtrack is Allen's customary melange of elegant classical and period jazz, with the soprano sax of the great Sidney Bechet raising and lowering the curtain in inimitable fashion. This being Woody Allen, the ending this film serves up is bittersweet, never forgetting that we, after all, live in the real world. But it was bliss visiting Allen's fantasy Paris. And when it was all over, I just couldn't stop smiling.