Kyle’s Top Ten of 2011
10. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
While generally I hate titles that purport the rising of some entity or another, this one was actually justified. This film did an amazing job of making a group of CGI, Mo-Capped apes come across as not only sympathetic, but far more compelling than any of the human beings involved. There are enough tiny nods and references to keep us fans of the original Planet of the Apes movies happy without being too inside, and even though it’s essentially a remake of the fourth film in that series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it can and does stand alone for those who have never heard of Caesar and company. When the apes inevitably rise toward the end of the film, it’s exciting and majestic and you find yourself truly cheering for the furry guys, even though it means you’re cheering for the fall of the planet of men.
A celebration of cinema history and a plea for film preservation disguised as a kids’ fantasy movie, but really what else would you expect from Martin Scorsese? It seemed pretty clear that they didn’t know how to market this film, but I unabashedly ate it up. Yes, it’s in 3D, but if it’s done correctly and with a sense of enhancing the story and not drawing attention away from it, I have no problem slapping on the stupid glasses. Of course I was skeptical, but before too long I was completely sucked in by the look and feel of everything and was impressed by the depth of field and the production design. It made me wonder what it must have been like to sit in those early theaters near the advent of the motion picture and marvel at the guy shooting the screen or the train pulling into the station. Hugo succeeds in rekindling the magic of the medium, which us jaded film snobs too often forget. It’s fun, it’s enchanting, it’s delightful, it’s about the love of the movies; what more could you want?
A great example of a director, in this case Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, taking what is a very pedestrian and by-the-numbers crime story and molding it into one of the most stylish and shockingly violent movies I’ve seen in quite a while. Ryan Gosling’s nameless driver doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t need to; his appearance, attitude, and actions all speak much, much louder. Drive invokes every lone tough guy we’ve ever seen and adds heaps of psychosis. This is a guy who can’t exist anywhere but in the brutal, 80s-inspired, crime-ridden Los Angeles of the film, and really shouldn’t even exist there. The soundtrack of incessant electro-pop sets the perfect mood for the engine-revving and skull-stomping that ensues throughout. It’d been a really long while since I’d seen a really good, grown-up crime movie that didn’t pull punches, and this was a refreshing, if utterly demented, return.
A biographical sports documentary about a late-80s Formula One car racer did not sound like something in which I’d be particularly interested, but I’m always happy when I’m wrong. Using nothing but existing footage and voice-over interviews, Asif Kapadia’s look at the life and career of Brazilian race driver Ayrton Senna is compelling, moving, exciting, and heartbreaking. We really feel as though we know Senna as we see his rise in the ranks of professional Grand Prix racing and his struggles with the politics and backstabbing inherent in the sport. This was a guy whose only goal was to drive as fast as humanly possible and he succeeded most of the time, despite the other factors that were trying to stop him at every step of the way. Car-mounted cameras from the real races allow the audience to see exactly what Senna saw and how dangerous and thrilling it all was. You really need to know nothing of any of the players involved nor the sport in which they participate to be completely enthralled and lost in the story, like a good documentary should, and when it reaches its sadly inevitable conclusion, it’s as moving and saddening as if it was all happening today, in real time.
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
There really is never a reason to remake a movie made not particularly long ago, but occasionally you get one that improves upon the original. David Fincher is a master director and watching his work is almost always a delight, but with this film he’s really in his wheelhouse. While the novel on which this film is based is the first part of a trilogy, I contend the film could be seen as the third part, following Fincher’s earlier Se7en and Zodiac, my two personal favorites of his. All three films are character studies posing as crime procedurals that feature truly awful and sadistic serial killers, and this is when Fincher’s at his best for me. Dragon Tattoo might be the darkest and most disturbing of the three, featuring several very graphic rape scenes and some pretty grisly violence, or implied violence, but it’s also an interesting story and has some really terrific performances. While I’m not entirely sure Rooney Mara improved upon Noomi Rapace’s original performance as the title character, she does a better job of capturing the underlying psychosis she has. By “underlying,” of course I mean “bubbling over.” As much as I didn’t want to like it, based solely on principle, I very much did. Even the ridiculously over-the-top and ultimately unnecessarily boisterous title sequence didn’t spoil the complete experience for me. Psychos + Fincher = Quality Entertainment.
5. Attack the Block
Alien invasion plots have really been done to death, but they’re also very easy to reinvigorate by slightly turning them on their ear. Joe Cornish managed that with this fun and interesting take on the genre. Pitting pitch-black alien beasts with neon glowing mouths against thuggish inner-city English youfs is about as different an approach as you can get, and yet the movie still has all the tension, gore, and gallows humor of the John Carpenter-esque sci-fi films which inspired it. The young, unknown cast of ruffians is really fun to watch and ably carries the action. At its heart, the film is a morality tale, with the bad deeds of the central character during the opening minutes causing all the chaos that later befalls him, his friends, and the tenement building (block) in which they live. The film also doesn’t go easy on the characters simply because they’re young people, which is surprising and commendable. Also, this is Cornish’s first film as a director, which is hugely impressive. Being friends/writing partners with Edgar Wright has rubbed off on him, but it’s also nice to see through Attack the Block’s cinematography and darker subject matter that Cornish has a style and outlook all his own. Very much looking forward to his further film career.
Benefiting from a truly top-notch script by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball is to baseball as The Social Network was to Facebook. Brad Pitt truly fun to watch as Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s who’s goal is to make his team competitive with the bigger market teams using only the very limited budget they have. Jonah Hill is a very pleasant surprise as he holds his own as Pitt’s numbers-obsessed sidekick. The interplay between Pitt and Hill is very funny and you really get the sense that these two respect and enjoy working with each other, which you don’t often get, even in the best movies. The direction by Capote’s Bennett Miller is solid, if not particularly showy, but is aided greatly by cinematography by Wally Pfister, making a movie which is largely just people talking in rooms much more dynamic. Really it’s a movie about people doing math for two-plus hours, and yet it’s never boring. I would even submit the exhilaration felt during the climactic baseball game is slightly less than that felt in the scene in which Hill makes a deal over the phone. There are underdogs everywhere and we never tire of rooting for them.
3. 13 Assassins
No two ways about it; this movie kicks ass. Remaking a little-known samurai film from the 70s, Japanese director Takashi Miike offers his most accomplished work. Having seen some of Miike’s earlier, more messed up films, including Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu, as well as his bizarre genre mashup, Sukiyaki Western Django, I was completely unprepared for such an enthralling, grown-up movie. Telling the story of 13 rogue warriors who take it upon themselves to go on a suicide mission to kill a sadistic warlord, this film does what Miike’s other films could not and make us care about the characters and situations far more than the action and bloodshed. This does not discount the action or bloodshed in any way, though, believe me. Almost the entire last hour of the film depicts the assassins’ battle with the warlord’s seemingly infinite bodyguards and it is truly a sight to behold. It should be shown to anyone trying to direct any type of warfare, and even though it’s clearly a movie, the violence is so brutal and realistic that you feel every slash, slice, and stab. But in the best way. Clearly drawing inspiration from the climactic battle in The Seven Samurai, Miike manages not only to evoke Kurosawa, but to do him proud.
2. The Artist
I can’t think of a movie I’ve seen in quite a while more smile-inducing than this, and fitting that this is another movie about the early days of cinema. Whereas Hugo used the latest special effects and cameras to discuss the magic of early silent film, The Artist uses exactly what it’s depicting. Using the story of a 1920s Hollywood silent star afraid and unwilling to change with the advent of sound, Hazanavicius delivers one of the most innovative and interesting films to come out in ’11, and he does it by just making a black and white silent movie. The film sort of proves its lead character, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) right by making us care 100% about him and his circumstances and relationships completely through images. And even though the style of the film lends itself to more light or melodramatic fare, The Artist dares to get very heavy as Valentin spirals ever-further toward self destruction. Featuring wonderful supporting performances by James Cromwell, John Goodman, and a very well-trained little dog, the film rests solely on the shoulders of Dujardin and Berenice Bejo as up-and-coming talkie star, Peppy Miller. The two actors have palpable chemistry and a terrific screen presence. Hazanavicius, a French director known only marginally in the States, plays with the conventions of both silent and sound movies in telling his story, including a very impressive scene where Valentin has a nightmare about talkies. I can’t even describe how much I enjoyed this movie except to say, using the vernacular of the era in question, “It’s terrific!!”
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The spy thriller has been entirely dependent on James Bond of late and as entertaining as those movies often are, they lack the nuance or the reality of what espionage, especially during the Cold War, was actually like. Then, like a beacon of clandestine light, we get Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A semi-retired intelligence agent has to uncover which of four top men is a mole for the Soviet Union; it’s an incredibly simple plot, yet through that basic outline, we’re treated to perfectly subtle and layered depictions of men whose job it is to lie to each other. No one is trustworthy, and the deeper the investigation goes, the more sordid and persona things become. And what a cast! The cast list reads like a who’s who of British acting royalty, with the great and sadly underappreciated Gary Oldman acting his face off as the film’s central figure, the stoic and brilliant George Smiley. With nothing more than a simple glance, he conveys so much. In fact, one of the most thrilling sequences in the film involves Smiley doing nothing but thinking and then realizing a truth. The script is taut the characters well defined. Alfredson’s version of 1970s England is as bleak and dreary as the Cold War itself. This is one of the most satisfying, exciting, and intelligent films to come out in a good long while. I’ve already seen it twice and I’ll probably buy it the second it comes out and watch it again. I’m sure there’s something more to discover; lots going on at the Circus.