Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Is 2011 really that bad?

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

23 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Is 2011 really that bad?

  1. Xanadon't

    Great write up Ken. I’m more or less of your thinking when it comes to 2011. I’ve seen quite a few good movies, but great has been extremely elusive. I’ve found myself disappointed more often than not when leaving the theater, even if only slightly.

    And I can’t even claim the same level of fondness for Midnight in Paris that you and most others feel toward it. But I’d probably slip Beginners into the mix in its place. Something about that quiet little movie really stirred me, though I should start looking for its DVD release date and see what a second watch offers.

    I’m with you on 13 Assassins though and Tree of Life doesn’t have a spot on my list either. Luckily Drive does, no question. You mention Win,Win as an unlikely fringe contender, and I agree and would maybe include Everything Must Go along the same lines.

    Like you A Dangerous Method and The Skin I Live In excite me the most. I go into anything Cronenberg with a high level of anticipation. And as for Skin, I’m getting a bit of an Eyes Without a Face vibe that adds to my excitement. Parts of The Artist certainly look stunning, at least on a purely visual level. Guess we’ll see how much it satisfies otherwise.

    Okay, off to check out the trailer for Carnage. Your description along with the cast has me pretty well intrigued. Who knows, maybe Polanski will make my list two years in a row.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ve found myself disappointed more often than not when leaving the theater, even if only slightly.

    I think I’ve been less disappointed that simply not “transported.” I’ve rarely had that “Boy, did I love that movie” feeling this year.

    But I’d probably slip Beginners into the mix in its place.

    I so wanted to love that and I just didn’t quite.

  3. Orbit DVD

    I’ve been more excited about films this year than 2010. I loved SUPER, 13 ASSASSINS, MAN FROM NOWHERE, I SAW THE DEVIL, DRIVE, SUBMARINE, and WIN WIN.

    I have high hopes for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY by the director of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, Tomas Alfredson. Excellent cast.

  4. It’s been an OK year to date, but when I look at what’s on the horizon I get very excited indeed.

    I’m with Orbit on TTSS. The book’s sensational, the cast is the best since HARRY POTTER 7B and Alfredson is poised for greatness again after LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

    Not to mention two new Clooney pictures. I’ve had a great time with everything he’s directed and his presence as star is enough to get me in a movie theatre all by itself.

    And for us Aussies, DRIVE is still on the horizon, plus the chance to revisit MIDNIGHT IN PARIS when it opens here in a couple of weeks.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I loved SUPER, 13 ASSASSINS, MAN FROM NOWHERE, I SAW THE DEVIL, DRIVE, SUBMARINE, and WIN WIN.

    I liked Super and I Saw the Devil. I liked Drive and Win Win more. I loved 13 Assassins and Submarine. I never heard of Man from Nowhere.

  6. Big Al

    “I so wanted to love (Beginners) and I just didn’t quite.”

    And it seemed to stay on at the Fine Arts Theatre FOREVER (groan!), along with a slew of guilt-laden documentaries (double groan!), elbowing much better films off the screen for weeks, nay months!

    Win-Win, Midnight in Paris, The Guard and Another World (yes, I liked it, get over it!) made for a tolerable year for films at FTA, but PLEEEEASE, less of the sanctimoneous preaching already! If I want to hear that kind of whiny self-righteousness, I’ll go sit in the cold with the scruffy hippies “occupying” Pritchard Park.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Another World (yes, I liked it, get over it!)

    It doesn’t impact me one way or another whether you like it or not, but I think you mean Another Earth. Another World was a TV soap opera.

    but PLEEEEASE, less of the sanctimoneous preaching already! If I want to hear that kind of whiny self-righteousness, I’ll go sit in the cold with the scruffy hippies “occupying” Pritchard Park.

    I don’t do their booking.

  8. DrSerizawa

    As you stated in March, Ken, “The sobering thing about Drive Angry 3D is that I can—with a straight face and in complete seriousness—call it the best film of 2011 so far.”

    I don’t think the year has improved all that much. Sure there are some very good films. But few and far between. Carmike is still showing the last Potter which shows how slim the pickings are. It even picked up Midnight In Paris when it almost never books arty titles.

    Here’s hoping Oscar season improves things.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Carmike is still showing the last Potter which shows how slim the pickings are. It even picked up Midnight In Paris when it almost never books arty titles.

    Carmike rarely allows theater managers the flexibility to suggest things. In the 10 years I was with them, I saw them bend on this four times, so none of this has any feel for the local market to it. This odd — for them — move sounds like a desperate booker. My guess is that they’re in a competing theater situation where you are, i.e., there’s another nearby theater in another chain (or an independent) that they have to play an allocation game with. That’s the only reason I can think of that they still have Harry Potter, since it’s gone to second run houses now.

  10. Bil Al

    “It doesn’t impact me one way or another whether you like it or not…”

    In way of a pseudo-apology, let me state that my previous rant was NOT directed at Mr. Hanke per se but to the entire millieu of local film-criticism. I agreed with Mr. Hanke’s rating of the film as a 3-star, interesting-but-not-astonishing, film-fest-entry quality, but considering how inexpensively it was made, I thought it was of greater value than its’ cost. I certainly got my money’s worth.

    I also thought much of the criticism of its’ science was overblown when the film was clearly (to me, anyway) a human interest story that merely used a sci-fi pretext. My rant was a preemptive strike to the inevitable nit-picking of this decent, ift not excellent, film on the petty notions that it would not hold up to scrutiny from NASA (save that for “Apollo 18″).

    “I think that is what Ken is paid to do…To be cranky”

    The sanctimonious preaching I was referring to was not Ken’s “crankiness”, but that of the documentaries, which were in over-abundance this year. Being drowned in a wave of celluloid guilt and politics is what made 2011 a downer film year for me.

    Keep up the cranky. I’ll be more clear who I am aiming my rant at next time.

  11. Ken Hanke

    In way of a pseudo-apology, let me state that my previous rant was NOT directed at Mr. Hanke per se but to the entire millieu of local film-criticism.

    Assuming you mean that in a broad sense — incorporating local movie buffs who go see things other than Transformers — it seemed to me that opinion on the film was pretty much evenly split. As far as I know I’m the only local film critic who actually reviewed it.

    My problems with it, by the way, have nothing to do with its faulty science.

    The sanctimonious preaching I was referring to was not Ken’s “crankiness”, but that of the documentaries, which were in over-abundance this year. Being drowned in a wave of celluloid guilt and politics is what made 2011 a downer film year for me.

    Documentaries are always in over-abundance. (I balked at reviewing The Last Mountain because it would have been not just my third film on mountain-top removal — and I don’t downplay the importance of the issue here– but the third one on the same community.) That they are political — and generally liberal — in nature kind of goes with the territory.

  12. Big Al

    “…it seemed to me that opinion on the film was pretty much evenly split…My problems with it, by the way, have nothing to do with its faulty science.”

    And that is why my rant was addressed at the narrow-minded majority of the “nay” half which was so obsessed with the science while overlooking the human interest story, which was the true point of the film.

    What is a “Transformer?”

  13. DrSerizawa

    You’ve got to remember that SciFi movies by their nature attract criticism for bad science. It goes with the territory. A movie like Transformers however is a special exception because no one with a brain expects anything anything but crap from Michael Bay.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Almost all movies have some degree of bad something. There’s real real and movie real. Though I encountered a certain amount of “bad science” criticism about Another Earth — and I expect to see some of the same on Melancholia — most of the complaints centered on finding the movie…well, on the boring side. That was more where I was, too. And I went in knowing that it was going to be more about guilt and redemption than about this parallel planet. I think the problem was that I never cared much about the two main characters — that and the fact that my tolerance for depicting the mundane is limited.

  15. Ken Hanke

    This may alarm some, but after the press screening of Attack the Block (it opens next Friday finally) yesterday morning, I think there’s a very good chance that it may be in the finals for a Ten Best shot.

  16. Mike

    This may alarm some, but after the press screening of Attack the Block (it opens next Friday finally) yesterday morning, I think there’s a very good chance that it may be in the finals for a Ten Best shot.

    It’ll most likely make mine. Fantastic movie.

    The director (along with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) also co-wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s Tintin, raising my interest for that project considerably.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Coming up on three days since seeing the movie and my enthusiasm is as high or higher.

  18. Melissa

    I’m looking for Melancholia to be a strikingly cinematic film, though definitely art house. Yes, Lars Von Trier is controversial to say the least, by there is no denying he is beyond talented. This is probably the film I have been most anticipating for the year.

    And, Ken, why isn’t the incredible Straw Dogs on your list? Alexander Skarsgard spending a good deal of time hot, sweaty, beefy, and often shirtless certainly brightened my 2011 film going experience. LOL!

  19. Ken Hanke

    I’m not sure if you’re local, Melissa, but if you are Melancholia is slated to open here on Dec. 2.

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