Lots of sad, tragic, scary, mystifying things happened in 2011.
A tsunami decimated Japan.
Steve Jobs, the lead singer from Warrant, various terrorist leaders and dictators, Duke Snider and Col. Potter all died.
Both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, on occasion, said things in public.
And quite horrifically, the much-anticipated The Hangover Part II turned out to be not such a good movie. In fact, it was quite the sucky film, stinking up theaters with a funk that you might still smell on your next trip to the local cinema.
That said, there were many, many, many films worse than The Hangover Part II in 2011. The bad far outweighed the good as we, the people, flocked to the theaters for an unending supply of mediocre superhero movies (The Green Lantern, The Green Hornet), fake "found-footage" cheapies (Paranormal Activity 3, Apollo 18), and wholly unfunny R-rated comedies (The Change-Up, Your Highness). The year's box-office Top 10 is littered with bad sequels (Pirates of the Caribbean: Johnny Depp, Will You Please Stop Participating in These Terrible Things; The Twilight Saga: Not as Bad as the Others ... but Still Pretty Bad).
An entire issue of the Tucson Weekly could be dedicated to the movies that blew this year—but there were some good to excellent movies as well. Below, ye shall find the 2011 picks by our critics, Bob Grimm and Colin Boyd, two men who were fortunate enough to see The Artist, and fortunate enough to survive Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Both are currently in grief counseling, dealing with the mediocrity that was The Hangover Part II. It's a fact that Bob bought a special pair of pants and new socks for the Hangover sequel premiere. He has since burned those pants, but not because they reminded him of The Hangover Part II. He just happens to think they made his ass look frumpy.
So here are the lists, with many of these films now available on home video, if you missed them in theaters. We know we can't prevent you from seeing The Hangover Part II. We know that particular viewing experience has probably already happened to you. We at the Tucson Weekly send you our deepest and most heartfelt condolences, and hope that no such Hangover sequel ever enters your eyes and ears again.
1. The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick makes films that are poetry, movies in which every second means something. Now that this, a film that is basically about everything, is out on video, I have friends trying to watch it. But they tend to want to pause the film to fix a snack or hit the bathroom. DON'T DO THAT! This movie must be experienced from start to finish uninterrupted (as most movies should), or you will cheapen its impact.
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are marvelous as two parents dealing with the loss of their son in the Vietnam War. Sean Penn is excellent in a present-day story as the brother who has grown up grieving that same loss. There's also the creation of the universe and dinosaurs in there, too.
It's ambitious; it succeeds in its ambitions; and it is beyond beautiful; This is an amazing cinematic achievement.
2. Drive: This was the year of The Gosling. This, Crazy, Stupid, Love. and The Ides of March all featured strong performances from Ryan Gosling, but this one contains the best performance of his career. Director Nicolas Winding Refn established himself as a name to be reckoned with (even though it's near impossible to remember it) with this moody, shocking film about a stunt driver who gets in all sorts of trouble. That trouble involves Albert Brooks with a knife, and you'll be surprised how scary that is.
3. Rango: Johnny Depp did wonderful voice work as a wayward pet lizard, accidentally dumped in the desert, who eventually becomes a hero to a water-starved town. I loved how trippy this animated gem was, especially when Clint Eastwood (sort of) showed up at the end driving a golf cart.
4. Take Shelter: Michael Shannon delivers the year's best performance as a man haunted by apocalyptic visions. Jessica Chastain delivers powerful work (she did that a lot in 2011) as his justifiably frightened wife.
5. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil: My favorite comedy of the year is also the year's best horror film. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk are hilarious as a couple of rednecks heading to their vacation home on a secluded lake, where college kids just happen to be camping. What happens is a very funny play on horror clichés, with Labine and Tudyk constantly bringing the funny.
6. We Need to Talk About Kevin: A nasty, nasty movie about a bad, bad kid and a mother (Tilda Swinton) who was dealt a really terrible hand. Swinton is phenomenal here, as is Ezra Miller as a kid who just doesn't get along with others. If you don't have children yet, you probably won't want to after seeing this.
7. Like Crazy: Felicity Jones shines as a British exchange student who falls in love with a furniture designer (Anton Yelchin) and starts having all kinds of visa problems. I just made it sound lame ... it's not. Jones and Yelchin will break your heart.
8. Moneyball: One of the best movies ever made about baseball—and you hardly ever see the sport played. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the man who put together a championship-level Oakland A's team with something like $50 and a box of crackers.
9. The Artist: An homage to silent films that is actually a silent film. This is a funny, touching and innovative piece of work, with a fun performance from Jean Dujardin.
10. Warrior: This one has drawn comparisons to the almighty original Rocky, and those comparisons are deserved. Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are brilliant and rousing as two brothers who take separate paths to a steel-cage-match tournament, while Nick Nolte burns the house down in an amazing performance as their father.
So that's the Top 10. The following 10 are the next best, leading up to 20. You probably would've figured that out without me telling you.
11. Source Code: Duncan Jones, son of Bowie, delivered a great follow-up to his already-classic Moon with this sophisticated piece of sci-fi starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who "mind-travels" into the body of a bombing victim. Jones is becoming a master of sci-fi with big brains.
12. The Iron Lady: I started thinking the best of Meryl Streep may be behind us, and then I saw this. She's incredible as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Incredible.
13. The Descendants: George Clooney and director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) prove a decent combination in this offbeat family drama/comedy about a man trying to relate to his daughters while his wife is in a coma.
14. Young Adult: Three cheers for Charlize Theron, who commits to playing one of the lousiest, most-repugnant people to hit the screen in decades. As Mavis, a former prom queen returning home and causing some major trouble with her ex (Patrick Wilson), she is just horrible—and it's perfect.
15. Melancholia: Kirsten Dunst is quite good in this apocalyptic meditation from crazy-as-all-heck director Lars von Trier. This is an interesting examination of how different people react to the end of the world. One of the year's more beautifully shot films.
16. A Dangerous Method: Keira Knightley is brilliant as a temporarily insane woman who has an affair with her psychiatrist—and that psychiatrist just happens to be Carl Jung (masterfully played by Michael Fassbender). Viggo Mortensen does an impressive turn as Sigmund Freud in this spellbinder from director David Cronenberg.
17. Super: I love Ellen Page in this wacky film about a depressed husband (Rainn Wilson) who decides to become a superhero and do battle with an evil drug-dealer (Kevin Bacon, kicking mortal ass). Page is perfect as Wilson's sidekick, Boltie.
18. Red State: Writer-director Kevin Smith took a big detour with this "horror" film about religious fanaticism and obtrusive governments. It's a detour well worth taking.
19. 13 Assassins: Takashi Miike's samurai movie, in which a small band of assassins faces off against an entire army, is totally bananas ... and totally great.
20. Hugo: It was between Martin Scorsese's first family film and Bridesmaids for the final slot. While Kristen Wiig and company got me laughing often, I have to go with Scorsese's beautiful train-station story. It's a stellar 3-D achievement, and its slow start is the only reason it isn't ranked higher on this list.
I seriously considered flipping the format this year, and doing the Top 20 lousy films, followed by the 10 best. You see, I had a much tougher time picking the 10 worst this year—because there were so many turds to choose from.
What was bad this year? Hmmm ... let's start with Madea's Big Happy Family; Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son; Sucker Punch; Larry Crowne; Paranormal Activity 3; In Time; Battle Los Angeles; Season of the Witch; Bad Teacher; The Way; Red Riding Hood; No Strings Attached; Dream House; The Smurfs; Restless; Spy Kids: All the Time in the World; The Roommate; Just Go With It; Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules; Shark Night 3D ... all bloody awful.
And yet there were at least 10 movies worse than the garbage listed above. And now I shall share those with you.
Please, before you read, put on some protective eye gear, and keep some hand sanitizer nearby, because these films are toxic, and the mere reading of their names in print could cause dysentery.
1. The Human Centipede 2: I didn't think there was any way my No. 2 film on this list could lose its place as the year's worst movie ... until I saw this. What started as an almost-funny sick joke in the first installment becomes an absolute abomination by the second.
2. The Beaver: We all know that Mel Gibson is a nutbag, so this stupid film in which he plays a depressed man acting out through a beaver puppet comes off as more of a documentary than a fictional narrative. And I hated the stupid accent he used for the puppet. I wanted to burn that puppet in a fire and revoke Gibson's SAG card. Asshole.
3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: The latest Sept. 11 movie is the worst one yet, focusing on an obnoxious kid (Thomas Horn) on a quest to find the lock for a key that his father (Tom Hanks) left behind after dying on Sept. 11. Horn is just impossible to watch, and the plotting of this thing is deplorable. It wastes decent performances by Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
4. Jack and Jill: You wouldn't know it from my reviews for his movies in the last eight years or so, but I used to be a big Adam Sandler fan. Even though I have written this simple fact here, I will deny it in person. Ask me if I was a fan, and I shall deny Sandler's name three times before the rooster crows twice.
5. Immortals: A cheap-looking costume pageant starring a very uninteresting actor named Henry Cavill. Let's look at the Internet Movie DataBase and see what this dull bastard is doing in the future, so we can avoid it.
Oh, shit ... he's the next Superman.
6. Mr. Popper's Penguins: Jim Carrey plays second fiddle to penguin crap here. No film this year better represented the decline of a mega-career.
Fun Movie Trivia Note: Actor Michael Keaton also experienced a major career decline after acting in the vicinity of penguin feces during Batman Returns, assuming that Danny DeVito did indeed take a dump at some moment during the production.
7. Dolphin Tale: A dolphin loses its tail and is nursed back to health by Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman in a funny hat, Ashley Judd wearing clothes, and yet another obnoxious child actor.
8. J. Edgar: When Clint Eastwood makes a bad movie, he makes a bad movie. The usually reliable Leonardo DiCaprio is miscast as the title character, who turns out to be a whiny bitch buried in pounds of horrible latex and a bad dress.
9. Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Like those that preceded it in the series, this is a painful mess with Michael Bay at his very worst. Let's put Michael Bay in a space capsule, send him for a nice trip around the dark side of the moon, and mysteriously lose contact with him.
10. Cars 2: The mighty Pixar finally made a total stinker with this follow-up to the mildly amusing original about talking autos. When Larry the Cable Guy has your film's best lines, you are in severe trouble.
I'm quite glad 2011 is behind us. There is no way in hell this young year could possibly be worse. For starters, we will get the first of the Hobbit films, Christopher Nolan's conclusion to his Batman trilogy, a reboot of Spider-Man that looks promising, and no Transformers movies.
There will also be new films from Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick (The reclusive director is suddenly a filmmaking machine!), Paul Thomas Anderson, Spielberg (The man never rests!), Ridley Scott (his return to the Alien universe, Prometheus), and a little guy named Tarantino!
Just looking at this list of prospective films lets me know that the healing can begin.
If you needed a time capsule to store all that was truly great about 2011 at the movies, a small moving box ought to do it. Not that the previous several years were astounding, but at least you had more to talk about.
For all the good 2011 brought us, it's mostly this or that—a memorable performance, a cool scene, a great ensemble in the service of an OK script. Not too many films put it all together. Different, sure. Solid, absolutely. But first ballot Hall-of-Famers? Nope.
The Artist: If there is one 2011 film that seems destined to pop up in montages years from now, it's The Artist. Admittedly, that is a rather dismissive way to talk about a likely Best Picture winner, but director Michel Hazanavicius has created a film that works as well in the little moments as it does as a whole. Of all the films on this list, it probably has the most to recommend it: classic storytelling, a sense of poetry onscreen, and those intangible qualities all great films have when they just shouldn't be that great. While everyone else is busy going deep, here's simplicity in beautiful packaging.
Don't be overwhelmed by the black-and-white silent-film business: Those things are merely the architecture. The Artist is as lovely as could be, and the perfect reminder that the best movies, above anything else, tell their stories in unique and unforgettable ways. They don't always need 3-D or afflictions or existentialism to move the needle.
Beginners: Every so often, audiences don't get around to seeing a smaller film or even hearing about it until it's too late. That could be the case with Beginners. It's starting to pop up on a lot of lists like this, and it will hopefully get the attention it deserves. It's a humane portrayal of humanity at its most complex and vulnerable. Christopher Plummer ought to win the Supporting Actor Oscar.
Hugo: The unthinkable has happened: Martin Scorsese has made a great 3-D family film with no F-bombs. Or the mob. It's appropriate, too, that such a stirring love letter to cinema comes from Scorsese, who founded The Film Foundation in 1990 to fight for film preservation, a pivotal idea in this story. Seeing his passion for saving the foundations of film sneak its way into Hugo indicates just how much the subject means to Scorsese.
Margin Call: This film is the Glengarry Glen Ross of its time (even though that began as a stage play). It's got the right amount of world-weariness, a cast littered with able performers, and a crackerjack script with an undeniable rhythm all its own. Oh ... and Kevin Spacey is a glorified office manager in both films. Go figure.
Senna: The documentary of the year, but sadly, almost nobody saw it. Well, it did OK across the pond (and was nominated for a couple BAFTA awards, including editing, which is rare for a nonfiction film). It chronicles the life of late Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna and strings a story together in impeccable fashion. Built primarily out of footage from races 15 to 20 years ago, Senna is one of the most beautifully constructed two-hour edits of archival footage in history.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This works at a snail's pace compared to Bond and Bourne, but the thinking-man's spy caper is razor-sharp, capped by Gary Oldman's terrific, quiet performance. It also supports the notion that director Tomas Alfredson, who also made Let the Right One In, is the real deal. He's made two magnetic films without a lot of action, focusing on the quiet moments to seize us.
Moneyball: It's a sports movie about percentages, and somehow, it works. Brad Pitt deserves most of the credit, for both a solid outing onscreen and for fighting like hell to get the movie made. Jonah Hill delivers, too, adding a new wrinkle to his usual comedic performances.
There are a few 2011 movies like this or The Descendants (which is not omitted here accidentally) that are good at consensus-building—they're the movies a lot of people can agree on. The Help is in that category, too, albeit with an overachieving cast and an underachieving screenplay. But of those middle-of-the-road flicks that test well with focus groups, Moneyball has the most staying power.
The Guard: Remember In Bruges? It snuck into theaters in early 2008, and made about as much money as a barbershop quartet at Coachella, yet it still went on to get some awards attention for Colin Farrell's great performance and director Martin McDonagh's screenplay. The Guard doesn't fall far from the tree. It keeps Brendan Gleeson from that film, and was written and directed by McDonagh's brother. And it proudly flies the flag of filthy Irish profanity.
Take Shelter: Who would have thought that Chicken Little could turn out to be so dramatic? Michael Shannon plays paranoia to the hilt, and while the rest of his sleepy town goes about its business, he believes the world is days away from the end. It's one of those movie-dwarfing performances where you imagine the actor took the next year to decompress.
Tabloid: The great documentarian Errol Morris cheekily recounts a bizarre love story including an adult model, a handcuffed Mormon missionary, and the British gossip rags. If it were a joke, it would need a better punch line, but it's a story too unbelievable not to be true.
A NOTE ON ACTING
While not a lot of 2011 movies will stand the test of time, it was a fantastic year for actors, both established and new to us. Beyond those already named here, and the usual rank-and-file stars who deliver Oscar-worthy (or at least Oscar-nominated) work year after year, new names (or names we had often taken for granted) delivered some of the most-memorable portrayals of the year.
That list might as well begin with Jessica Chastain. A 30-ish redhead, Chastain transitioned from the New York stage by appearing in five films, most of them worth seeing, if only to chart her rise. Take Shelter is great, and much has been said of Tree of Life, although because of its origins-of-life and Sean Penn subplots, it's a little too esoteric to rise to the level of absolutely good. But Chastain was fantastic in The Debt, and equally impressive but totally different in The Help. If anybody used 2011 to show what she could do, it was Jessica Chastain.
While we're on the subject of The Help, that's an outstanding cast through and through, rare to see (and particularly admirable) for a studio film well outside of prestige season.
A bigger individual story than Chastain's accumulated success might be the appearance of Elizabeth Olsen. She's the sister of Mary Kate and Ashley, and you'd think that would be enough to strip her of any credentials. But she excelled through some pretty intense scenes in Martha Marcy May Marlene, even though the film's ending is loopy, and a lot of her effort ultimately goes for naught. In the same film, you can find a disturbing villain played by John Hawkes. He was nominated for Winter's Bone last year, and under similar conditions, will be again this time around.
Michael Fassbender's brave work in Shame deserves recognition, too. Playing an addict is tricky business; it's easy to go too far. Playing a man addicted not just to sex but to anonymous sex, Fassbender remains enigmatic but never entirely unsympathetic. This guy is going to be one of the better actors of this decade, so get used to seeing him. More than likely, his career will follow a Christian Bale path. At least he can hope for something like that.
Demián Bichir may have provided us with the year's most-dignified performance in A Better Life. The timely immigration film certainly tells a predictable story, and the movie would not have stood out at all without Bichir's heartbreaking work as an illegal immigrant whose only other crime is wanting his son to have a chance to succeed in the land of opportunity.
Another great performance in a movie that came and went quickly was Nick Nolte's unconscious embodiment of a failed father and successful drunk, trying desperately to piece his fractured family together, in the mixed-martial-arts flick Warrior. Where has this intensity been since Cape Fear?
And Michelle Williams, who is already taken pretty seriously, showed her control and the depths of her vulnerability in My Week With Marilyn. The film shows not the Marilyn Monroe the cameras fell in love with, but the one we know now was never too far below the surface. It's tough business channeling someone like Monroe, but Williams was utterly perfect: charming, fragile, beautiful and sad.
Curiously enough, even though there are no ironclad all-time classics from 2011, there weren't as many repugnant, insipidly bad movies as you'd expect. Oh, there were bad movies, just not an endless parade of them. The worst films of the year are pretty easy to spot: If Adam Sandler's fingerprints are anywhere on them, they made the list.
Sandler starred in two particularly shitty comedies, Just Go With It and Jack and Jill, his first big comedy not to earn $100 million in entirely too long. For anyone else, that would be a bedrock-shifting miscue, but audiences still love Sandler, despite the fact that he hasn't been funny in more than a decade. Take it to the bank: Sandler will win Worst Actor and Worst Actress at the Razzies for Jack and Jill ... and that's with Taylor Lautner in the mix.
However, the worst film of the year was one that Sandler only produced. Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star is lazy, stupid, insulting, infuriating, infantile and unnecessary. The fact that its intention all along was to be a bad movie only makes it worse. Sandler blew about $10 million on this train wreck, because every charity in the world was apparently doing just fine.
Here's some additional perspective on Bucky Larson. A few years ago, Sandler's fellow Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers offended at least one-sixth of the world's population with The Love Guru, a film that forever set a new standard for bad comedies. In the bloopers that were shown over the final credits, Verne Troyer made a flub that made the whole cast and crew laugh. It was the biggest and maybe only laugh of the entire movie. When a mistake is funnier than anything you planned, you've made a bad comedy. Bucky Larson doesn't even reach that bar. There's no laugh anywhere, not even when you recognize Don Johnson.
Another easy target from 2011 was Atlas Shrugged. With Tea Party flames fanned on both sides of the political spectrum, this novel—long believed impossible to film—generated a fair amount of word of mouth, but not much else. It's terribly misguided and underfunded, as if Canadian television tried to adapt Ayn Rand's epic and thought the miniseries route would be too expensive. So every corner was cut, and the acting is monotonous, but it's still not as big of a boondoggle as it should be. Yes, that's the saving grace: There's room to be worse.
Still, the free market spoke, and nobody wanted to see it. Oh, irony ...
On a similarly conservative note, that Sarah Palin documentary you heard about was the worst "nonfiction" film of the year. It was called The Undefeated, and that should give you enough ammunition right there: Palin was defeated. That's why she's not vice president right now. It should be pointed out that Palin appears in archival footage and is not really aligned with this film (although if memory serves, she did promote it or go to a premiere or something). It should also be pointed out that this thing is pure maverick-y propaganda. Indeed, it functions as a two-hour campaign ad, so imagine how fun that is to sit through.
Also atrocious but not worth more ink: Conan the Barbarian, What's Your Number?, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Your Highness, and Priest.