I know there are those who actually believe that 2011 has been a good year for movies. I can't agree with that -- nor it seems can most people. But there's always the chance that I've been forgetting something. With that in mind, I went over all the new films I've seen that impressed me enough to get the full five stars. This came up to five titles: The Illusionist, 13 Assassins, Incendies, Midnight in Paris and Point Blank. It's a point of debate as to whether The Illusionist can technically be counted as 2011, since it opened in limited release in 2010 -- and since I saw it in 2010. Incendies, on the other hand, counts, since it only opened enough to qualify for Oscar consideration in 2010. So I'll discount The Illusionist, but keep Incendies as a possible "Best of" contender.
It might seem obvious that the highest-rated films would be shoo-ins for a Ten Best list, which is what I'm ultimately aiming for. When I last addressed the state of film in 2011 quite a few things had not opened, but the only one I went five stars over was Point Blank. And that's a special kind of five stars, which is to say that the film is quite perfect for what it is, but it's not going to stick with me. I saw it twice and while I enjoyed it immensely both times, I don't feel Ten Best about it. I have to confess that the further away I get from Incendies, the less it stays with me, but it's still in the running. However, that leaves me with 13 Assassins and Midnight in Paris as certainties.
Dropping down to the four-and-a-half star titles, the results are a little brighter. I have 17 titles there. I'll knock it down to 16 personally, since I saw Mike Leigh's Another Year last year and was definitely considering it in 2010. The same is true of John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, so that lowers the number to 15. Of those, the ones that are still in the running are Tom McCarthy's Win Win (rather a dark horse), Richard Ayoade's Submarine, John Michael McDonagh's The Guard and the freshly added GusVan Sant film, Restless (which I like more with each passing day). So with that in mind, I have six fairly heavy contenders -- with Win Win likely to go by the wayside by year's end, and Restless being too recently seen to trust in its longevity.
I did finally catch up with Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, and while I wasn't as blown away by it as many have been, it would have gotten a firn four-and-a-half stars from me. Plus, four days after the fact, its impact has not lessened. Refn has a terrific touch with suspense, and he's created the first cinematic violence in years that I could say I found genuinely disturbing. (I'm still puzzling over whether or not the fact that Ryan Gosling nonchalantly wears the same blood-splattered jacket during the last 15-20 minutes of the movie is supposed to amuse me.) Refn's also got the sinister look of David Lynch down pat (the apartment building interiors would be fine in Blue Velvet), but he's somehow missing the sense of dread.
If you like, you can throw in 25 movies that got very respectable and generally respectful four-star ratings. But none of those are in the running for any kind of list with me. That, of course, means that, no, I haven't had a change of heart about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. I still admire the attempt at something that daunting, but I don't think it works except in bits and pieces. And, no, it's not the lack of a traditional narrative that bothers me. It's simply that it didn't strike a chord with me. I was rarely emotionally engaged by it.
Some movies I expected to be contenders were disappointments. I had high hopes for Another Earth, for example. Putting it mildly, I was disappointed. Based on Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), I was expecting much from Miranda July's The Future. While I can't say it was bad, I don't think it was great -- and I absolutely loathed the film on a visceral level. Others were solidly entertaining mainstream stuff that went in one eye and out the other. I enjoyed them well enough, but can't imagine ever feeling the desire to see them a second time. The only exception I can think of to that is James Wan's Insidious.That one I do want to see again. Something about it has genuinely stayed with me.
Looked at in an overall sense, I don't think it's fair to say that 2011 has been a bad year. It's simply been a year where genuine excitement has been lacking. That, at least is true from my perspective. Of course, what I'm hoping is that awards season -- which more or less begins this week with George Clooney's The Ides of March -- will bring about the excitement that's largely been missing. And, no, I don't mean the double dose of Spielberg -- The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, which come out within days of each other this December -- though that might prove interesting. There are other things, however, the prospects of which are tantalizing.
Does anyone remember Bruce Robinson, whose name you've been seeing on the trailer for The Rum Diary? He's been an actor (Asheville Film Society members just saw him as Alexei in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers from 1970) and he's been a writer (1984's The Killing Fields). But he's also been a filmmaker, making a cult name for himself with Withnail and I (1987) and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). Then Hollywood called and he made Jennifer Eight (1992) -- a credible mystery thriller that ran afoul of the studio (this is why it's unwise to go to Hollywood). The film was cut, necessitating a new -- and not very good -- ending. Naturally, the movie bombed. (I picked up a copy for five bucks in the WalMart dump bin.) Robinson took the heat, not Paramount. The Rum Diary marks his first film in 19 years as writer-director. We shall see.
We're also down for a new film from the always interesting Pedro Almodovar -- and not just any film either. First of all, it marks the first Almodovar picture to star Antonio Banderas since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in 1990. (If ever anyone's career needed a return to Almodovar, Banderas' career is the one.) That would be enough right there, but The Skin I Live In has all the appearances of being something of a departure for both Banderas and Almodovar. The trailer intrigues without telling you a whole lot, which is a good thing these days. Is it a horror film? A thriller? An Almodovarian soap opera writ large? Well, it appears that it may be all these things. I'm not sure it's possible to ask for more.
Lars von Trier made a horse's rectum of himself at Cannes with his extremely odd -- decidedly ill-advised and probably deliberately provocative -- remarks about Hitler. It then comes as no surprise, I guess, but it's still a bit startling to see the trailer for Melancholia and hear Wagner (the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde) on the soundtrack. (Apparently, this isn't just the trailer. It seems to be in the film, too.) Maybe it is the Wagner -- or maybe it's Kirsten Dunst doing Millais' "Ophelia," or maybe it's the overall tone of the trailer, but I'm very intrigued by this one. And I'm not particularly fond of von Trier as a rule.
Generally, I can take children's movies or leave them -- often as not, I'd rather leave them, though there have certainly been exceptions. Worse than that is 3D, which I've quite simply had enough of. That said -- and knowing absolutely nothing about the source material -- I am pretty jazzed to see Hugo. The trailer -- at least in glorious 2D -- is certainly interesting. The real interest, of course, lies in seeing what Martin Scorsese does with both a children's story and with 3D. (Yes, that does mean I'll seek this one out in the dreaded 3D process.) The cast (though many may be little more than cameos) -- Johnny Depp, Chloe-Grace Moretz, Michael Pitt, Jude Law, Christiopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone -- ought to be able to support Asa Butterfield (Nanny McPhee Returns) in the title role.
And what of Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist? I am completely unfamiliar with Hazanavicius, but the trailer for this looks -- well, pretty amazing. That anyone would make a black-and-white silent movie in 2011 is enough to get me into a theater by itself, but this looks like a classic movie buff's dream come true. In the space of a two minute trailer, I lost count of the film's visual references -- though I know they ranged from W.S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man (1934) to Ken Russell's Valentino (1977). The story is clearly a combination of A Star Is Born (1937) -- or What Price Hollywood (1932) -- and various star tragedies of the coming of sound, though it appears to operate on the basis of a Valentino-like star, and Valentino died before the talkies had become an issue. This could be amazing. What worries me is that it's coming from the Weinsteins -- and who knows what they'll do with it as concerns marketing?
We also have a new David Cronenberg movie on the horizon -- A Dangerous Method starring Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and Keira Knightley as patient Sabrina Spielrein, with whom Jung has a complex romantic relationship. Cronenberg has been many things over the years, but he's never been uninteresting (and, yes, I am including M. Butterfly in that statement). This, however, looks somewhat out of the ordinary for Cronenberg -- assuming that there is such a thing as "ordinary" Cronenberg, and there may not be. The fact that Nick Schager in his Slant Magazine review says it "plays not unlike a Merchant Ivory-ish version of Rabid" is nothing if not intriguing in itself.
Roman Polanski also has a new film, Carnage. This one is based on a play called God of Carnage -- a four-person thing. Here the four are Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. It's about two sets of parents who decide to get together to discuss -- in a calm, rational, civilized manner -- the situation of their sons having been in a schoolyard fight. Not surprisingly, the veneer of civility only goes so far. In its favor is a tight running time (79 minutes) and the fact that no one does claustrophobic like Polanski. That said, the last time Polanski worked from a play was Death and the Maiden (1994), which is one of my least favorite of his films. We'll see. But since this is from Sony Pictures Classics and it doesn't come out till Dec. 16, my guess is that it'll be 2012 before it makes it here.
Stephen Daldry brings us Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on Christmas Day. Well, at least that's its limited release date and it probably doesn't mean Asheville. Now, I've liked all of Daldry's films a lot -- though I think The Hours (2002) is easily his best work. It's on the strength of Daldry as director that I'm interested in this film. Ordinarilly, I'm skeptical of things starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (though I have liked both on occasion). And then there's to studio plot description: "Oskar (Thomas Horn) is convinced that his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, has left a final message for him hidden somewhere in the city. Feeling disconnected from his grieving mother (Sandra Bullock) and driven by a relentlessly active mind that refuses to believe in things that can't be observed, Oskar begins searching New York City for the lock that fits a mysterious key he found in his father's closet. His journey through the five boroughs takes him beyond his own loss to a greater understanding of the observable world around him." That just doesn't have my name written all over it. Oh, let's face it -- my name is nowhere near it. But there's Daldry directing -- and the supporting cast includes Viola Davis, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright, all of whom I like. So ...
This is by no means all. I'm even interested to see what Clint Eastwood does with J. Edgar, though I know that Eastwood's style isn't usually to my liking, so I'm not quite on the excited level there. And there are things that have doubtless escaped my notice, but there's enough on its way that I am not quite to the point of writing 2011 off at this point. I think I'm expecting the most out of The Skin I Live In or A Dangerous Method, but I have a suspicion that the wild card this year will be The Artist.