If there’s anything that may be said to stand out when it comes to movies this year, it’s decidedly nothing. In other words, a year with no big, splashy mega-hit, critically speaking. But in the continuing David And Goliath trend pitting Hollywood against the Indies, lots of smaller gems elbowing their way in.
At the same time, 2011 saw some peculiar entries. Including the Tea Party funded contender Atlas Shrugged, taunting the status quo with a Greed Is Fabulous mantra – and laced with topsy turvy Marxism extolling robber barons in mass rebellion. And a feature directed by a post-Soviet oil baron billionaire (The Gift To Stalin). While women were into raping guys an awful lot lately (Tyrannosaur, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Tabloid, The Abduction Of Zack Butterfield).
And in the Deja Vu category, there were no less than three movies taking a sentimental stroll down Hollywood memory lane (The Artist, Hugo, My Week With Marilyn), and three more engaged in similar time travel, obsessing about living in the past (Midnight In Paris, W.E., The Music Never Stopped).
TOP TEN LIST, PLUS ONE
The Descendants: George Clooney drops his macho movie star persona for sensitive and insecure, in this a richly rewarding, originally conceived, and at times even oddly humorous and exquisitely crafted dysfunctional family story. And anyone who has confronted major grief in the passing of a loved one on this planet, pretty much knows that Hollywood in most cases just doesn’t get it, and certainly in no way prepares you for the inevitable of what is to come. So what a strangely comforting surprise it is to encounter Alexander Payne’s film, which reveals warts and all, just how unimaginably awkward, turbulent and even surreal grieving can be. And in which Clooney continues to showcase his creative passion to move beyond celebrityhood on screen, and venture into risky roles in which his talents shine.
Drive: There’s no lack of the enormous impact of Hollywood on the popular imagination, especially when it comes to mass psychological identification with action heroes. But how about the impact on bottom feeder imaginations, of background players actually in these movies. Say, all those many stunt men, body doubles and extras, and any potential related illusions of righteous invincibility. The eerie and mystifying neo-noir Drive – in the person of a terrifying Ryan Gosling as a sort of 21th century Travis Bickle time traveling over from Taxi Driver – takes audiences out for a cruise along that very route, and to the seemingly darkest recesses of fueled fantasy and pathological daydreams. Directed by flamboyant Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy), Drive in its penetration of the American psyche both dazzles and disorients with its constant murky vehicular menace, that smoothly meshes with the story’s more psychopathic interior impulses. As double when not triple crosses ensue, resolved on occasion via mutual slashing and death by fork or assorted pizza implements.
50/50: Though some may feel uncomfortable with the notion of a cancer comedy in Jonathan Levine’s 50/50, when it comes to a potentially terminal diagnosis beyond the power of doctors to heal, sometimes laughter is indeed the best medicine. And as relayed with raw candor and blunt emotion uniquely through the eyes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s suddenly stricken young patient – and based on screenwriter Will Reiser’s own personal bout with the disease at the age of twenty-five – 50/50 gets it ruthlessly when not raucously right. And a fate softened by the constantly cheerful if not frequently over the top presence of his boisterous best friend, played by Seth Rogen. 50/50 spins eccentric humor out of savage heartbreak, and targets both the sick and supportive with equal opportunity satirical relish that taunts but never trivializes the human condition as universal borrowed time. And perhaps most astonishing of all, is the fortitude which Reiser drew from the outrageous humor of his best friend in real life. And that friend happened to be Seth Rogen.
Meet Monica Velour: Sex And The City’s Kim Cattrall continues to push boundaries and not shy away from embarrassment, as she challenges and inhabits the raw side of older female sexuality and degradation on screen. Cattrall burrows into her provocative role in Meet Monica Velour as a struggling single mom and stripper, in this self-described male feminist directed movie helmed by Keith Bearden. Dustin Ingram is Tobe, the goofy young hayseed outcast infatuated with Monica since bygone days in her porn prime. And there’s not a hint of lewd or lustful intentions – but plenty of saucy satire surrounding American culture’s sexual contradictions – in Tobe’s determined fantasy romantic courtship bypassing cougar labels.
Albert Nobbs: Glenn Close turns in a mesmerizing performance as a woman in 19th century Ireland determined to live her life covertly as a man – not out of any gender identity imperative, but to never again endure sexual violence from men. And as was not uncommon, to find employment under conditions of rampant poverty with most options closed to women. Through tragedy, tenderness and tears, girl bonding rules in under the radar relationships forged through hard times, and a delightfully rowdy performance turned in by co-star Janet McTeer. Under the astute direction of Rodrigo Garcia (Mother And Child), gender and class divisions collide and resonate, almost with a whisper.
The Conspirator: If the corporate media is notorious for reporting only what they deem politically or personally expedient – and other stuff, even if involving up to a million protesters at an event, never happened – the official historical record may be even worse. Take for instance, the military trial and execution by the feds for conspiracy in President Lincoln’s assassination of the first woman in history, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Mary who? Director Robert Redford has compiled with a commanding lean and masterful style, the many startling, substantially buried facts as they ensued back then. And connecting that historically deeply rooted urgency to round up scapegoats like Mary, in assembling the most unusual suspects during periods of national hysteria and sorrow, such as the current war on terror. And, while in a desperate national quest for closure, however irrational.
The Music Never Stopped: The best movie about music this year by far, Jim Kohlberg’s loosely adapted biopic is drawn from the Dr. Oliver Sacks case study, The Last Hippie. Lou Taylor Pucci is Gabriel, the estranged son of a disapproving ex-marine dad, who fled home as a teen during the rebel ’60s. Found years later, homeless and disoriented from a benign brain tumor, Gabriel suffers from profound amnesia that leads him to believe he’s still living in the past. And an innovative therapist makes the surprising discovery that the emotional power of music from that moment in back time, including Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Steppenwolf, and Donovan, helps draw her patient into the present. The film also features three unreleased Dead songs.
3 Backyards: Long Island rocks for a change at the movies, in Eric Mendelssohn’s trilogy of solemn tales. It may not be the burb you’re more accustomed to, but that sense of place as viewed through a prism of both wonderment and despair, is intensified to nearly enchanted fable stature. Filmed around Northport, this Sundance Best Director winner is deep into the surrounding physical and human worlds alike. Also of note is Mendelsohn’s unique and resourceful method for collecting money and props to make this movie – through Pennysaver, what else – ads that solicited Northport locations, volunteers and extras. And ‘right down to a rusty garden shed, nautical themed knickknacks, and a frog in a terrarium.’ Along with their makeshift production office, courtesy of the first person to respond, Artie. Who offered them one of his booths for meetings, at his pizzeria on Main Street.
Red Shirley: This fascinating and charming Lou Reed documentary is a conversation with Reed’s amazingly vibrant and humorous one hundred year old cousin. During which the famed Velvet Underground performer momentarily steps out of the spotlight himself to defer to an unsung woman and her own rich buried history as a union activist and movement builder, during the dismal days of garment center sweatshops in 1930s NYC. With a keen grasp of the notion of oral history, Reed captures Shirley’s often sobering, at times frightening but never vanquished life story. Including arriving quite alone in Canada from Poland as a young girl, and later smuggled across the border into this country nearly a century ago with only her beloved mandolin and hand sewn pillow cases. Attired appropriately enough in a bright red dress, Shirley relates finding work in the grueling garment sweatshops, and eventually mobilizing the women seamstresses into the union movement – an activity which got her condemned by the bosses and reviled in the press as Red Shirley. But a name which she embraces with pride to this day.
The Price Of Sex: Bulgarian born investigative US filmmaker Mimi Chakarova went underground disguised as a sex slave for this harrowing documentary, to uncover what befell the post-Soviet women of her generation, kidnapped and sold in huge numbers into global sexual slavery. Chakarova takes it personally in this dangerous mission, and goes undercover as a sex slave to explore what happened to all those disappeared young women forced into the international sex trade and why, as she defiantly enters ‘the mouth of the wolf.’ She also exposes how governments actually profit from the perpetuation of sex trafficking, and probes the merchandising of young women as a major export under the post-Soviet new market economy. As the fearless filmmaker explores the illusory phenomenon of the good john vs. bad john; trafficking that is as much about class as sex with consumerist human commodification under capitalism; the camera as evidence of her own existence; and why she could not have *not* made this movie.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful. In this scathing documentary directed by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, lifelong Marine Sargent Jerry Ensminger of the ‘Poisoned Patriots,’ recounts his profound disappointment and rage directed at the US military. In his ongoing struggle against the Defense Department’s spin doctors and lawyers to come clean about the drinking water contamination and cover-up in collusion with corporations that left multiple cancer deaths and a dead children’s cemetery at Marine Camp Lejeune in its wake. Including Ensminger’s own daughter Janey, who succumbed to a rare type of leukemia there at the age of nine. And contamination that continues at over 130 military sites in the US today. Beyond heartbreaking are the scenes of afflicted Marine families and workers at Camp Lejeune giving testimony to an assembled corporate-biased panel, who seemingly couldn’t care less. And what the Tea Party and General Electric may have to do with all of this, but aren’t talking.
Special Dishonorable Mention:
‘Mommie Dearest’ Worst Screen Mom Of The Year Citation: Judi Dench in J. Edgar. Hoover’s worst trait in this Clint Eastwood affectionate portrait of the dreaded FBI honcho, seems to be eccentric pastimes on occasion. And if you want to say anything bad about him, go blame domineering Mom.
Opus Dei Takes The Missionary Position. So to speak. In funding and restaging the Spanish Civil War in There Be Dragons, with Franco’s fascists in league with the Catholic Church as the good guys this time around.
Snuff Movie Bad Taste Award: Hilary and company in dazzled spectator mode, assembled for a bizarre photo op at the premiere of the Osama Bin Laden Navy Seals action thriller. Popcorn and Jawbreakers, anyone?