We are back for yet another round of “Films of the Decade,” taking on 2011 this time. Once again, I’ll be listing the films in no particular order, outline what makes it special to me and what continues to make it do so, along with what makes the film great. Lastly, I’ll include the films I missed and the ones that just missed the cut.
Midnight in Paris
My personal history with Woody Allen movies is pretty slim. I’ve seen a few of them (Match Point, Blue Jasmine, The Irrational Man, Scoop, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else), but none of the “classic” options (Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, Annie Hall). Well, save for Midnight in Paris, which, to my mind falls flatly in that category.
There is something eternally watchable about this movie, which was nominated for four Oscars (Picture, Director, Art Direction, winning for Original Screenplay) and features one of the all-time Woody-but-not performances from leading man Owen Wilson, who has just the right amount of awe and acceptance about the whole ordeal of the film.
Lately, it feels like when Allen tries to make movies about something IMPORTANT, he falls flat, but he works best when working in genres or when his concern is about a performance (Blue Jasmine) or a mood (Match Point, Midnight). Ostensibly the movie wants you to know that things might have looked better “back then,” but living in the past has its dangers — namely, that those things are over.
And even though the characters that aren’t people from the past are a little thinly drawn (see: Rachel McAdams’ fiancé character, who doesn’t have much to do), there is a sense of wonder to the entire film. And that, it seems to me, is ultimately the point.
This is a film that is also built more upon the feel of it more than what actually happens. Drive begins wistfully, meandering through the life of Ryan Gosling’s unnamed Driver, who does what his title suggests: he drives quite a bit.
There is a mother who lives in his apartment building, played with great care by Carey Mulligan, and her husband is in prison, so Gosling’s character takes it upon himself to take care of her and her young child. But when the husband returns, things begin to unfold quickly and dangerously.
And then the movie, which barely spoke above a whisper throughout much of its run time up to that point, loses its mind. All hell almost literally breaks lose, as the violence kicks into gear and Gosling’s Driver finds himself responsible for removing himself from a life threatening situation the only way he can.
It’s not a movie you can watch over and over again in the same way Midnight in Paris, and by comparison it actually is director Nicolas Winding Refn’s tamest movie, as the filmmaker would move into more intense and outrageous situations later in his career. This film’s relative success (it made over $76 million worldwide on a $15 million budget) allows Refn to continue to work, and to my mind, it’s still his best movie.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) of to this point was made up of movies that were intertwined by thin threads. But Captain America: The First Avenger was the first major indicator that there was actually a plan in place, and that the MCU was well on its way to being one of the most thoughtfully developed string of films in the history of movies.
It was also probably the first movie in the MCU where people stopped and realized that Marvel might actually be capable of making high quality films. Captain America also possesses the distinction of being the first film in the MCU that felt like a genre film of another era. What director Joe Johnston has here is essentially a World War II movie masquerading as a comic book romp. He didn’t avoid the origins of the character altogether by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a sense that The First Avenger exists in a world outside of movies like Iron Man and its sequel.
This feeling would dissipate through much of the MCU’s remaining movies in the years that followed, although films like the original Ant-Man, Thor: Raknarok, and even the sequel to The First Avenger subverted this argument a little bit.
In spite of all the financial gains of the MCU, not all of the movies have worked quite as well as others. Captain America: The First Avenger is not an example of that, and certainly ranks high among the MCU’s films, along with being a standout of 2011.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
File this under “Reboots We Didn’t Know We Wanted But Worked Anyway.”
I have watched most of the original Planet of the Apes films, and even saw the Tim Burton remake when it came out in theaters (this was before I knew better, I’m sorry). The original film is interesting, and has interesting things to say about race relations during the time it was made, a metaphor that went away with each successive (and worse) sequel. In all, there were four sequels to the original, each slightly less successful than the one before it, ending with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. There was also a television series that ran for 14 episodes in 1974, and an animated series (Return to the Planet of the Apes) that featured 15 episodes in 1975, and although the 2001 remake was financially successful, a sequel was never made.
Ten years later, this reboot, which sought to explain the origins of how the ape Caesar came to be how he was, was released, and set up what would become a successful and well-reviewed trilogy of films that both mimicked the original movie in terms of message as well as acclaim.
The key to this film’s success is the humanity of Caesar, as played by Andy Serkis via motion capture, and how as viewers we feel a connection to him early on the film. This is vital to the rest of the series working, too, but also allows the film to not hinge so much on the humans in the movie.
It also never places blame on humanity as a whole, suggesting that human/ape relationships and peace are possible, but not wanted by all. There are villains on both sides of the argument, an important element to making the movie work. Even if the plan wasn’t to continue the story, if this opening movie didn’t work as well as it did, it would have been difficult for them to consider moving forward toward the events of Planet of the Apes, a second remake of which feels slightly inevitable at this point.
Last time out, I mentioned that The Social Network was likely not only the movie of 2010, but of the 2010 decade, too. Moneyball is on the list of top films of the decade as well, although it might be for entirely different reasons.
In a way, both films are about similar ideas: a man obsessed with one thing that he must accomplish. For Mark Zuckerburg, that was creating Facebook; for Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane, that is creating a championship caliber baseball team without having the money of top notch clubs.
Based on actual events, Moneyball works even for people who aren’t baseball fans, and that’s mostly because it’s not really a baseball movie. Sure, there’s baseball in it and the main character is the general manager of a baseball team, but the movie is really about Beane’s quest for greatness and what fueled him to need to get there in the first place.
The movie is a contemplative, introspective look at a job very few know anything about and only handfuls of people have ever experienced, so it’s important that the audience feel connected to the man more than the mission. Pitt’s performance falls in line with the overall tone of the film, as he never gets either too high or too low, and, combined with the haunting and perfect score by Mychael Danna, pulls the entire film together.
So while Moneyball is the showiest of films, it stands together in every way it needs to be, and features as one of the year’s, and decade’s, greatest cinematic achievements.
Alexander Payne is one of the more underrated filmmakers working today, of this much I am sure. The director of such instant classics as Election, Sideways, and Nebraska, has long been noticed by the more independent community and often by Oscar voters (he’s been personally nominated for six Oscars, winning twice for writing this movie and Sideways), but for the general public, he doesn’t seem to be anything special.
This is a shame, as he’s pretty consistently made high quality and interesting films, and gets fantastic work from actors across the board. He’s partially responsible for breakout of Paul Giamatti, the introduction of Reese Witherspoon, and showing the public there’s more to Will Forte than a SNL funnyman.
He also got one of the best performances of George Clooney’s career in this Oscar-nominated family drama about a man who is looking to connect with his daughters when his wife goes into a coma after a boating accident. The film centers on several elements, including a twist regarding his relationship with his wife, and some land owned by Clooney’s character’s family. Oh and the film is set in Hawaii, so the landscapes are breathtaking.
Payne’s film also introduced me to a new young actress named Shailene Woodley, who had been starring on television’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager for three years leading up to this film. Her performance here, as a teenager who felt cast aside by her mother and, in light of the events in the film, only finds herself more so when her father seeks to intervene. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination should have followed, as it was one of the best performances of the year.
Overall the movie is infinitely watchable, although in a different way from Midnight in Paris, as The Descendants is built entirely on the quality of its performances, which, especially from Clooney and Woodley, are wonderful across the board.
This is one of the most overlooked films of 2011, but easily one of my favorites. It is one of those movies that manages to find the fine line between comedy and drama and truly straddles it in ways that most movies cannot.
That’s mostly because all the actors, save for maybe Seth Rogen who was still trying to figure out how to tone it down at this point, know how to wield both parts of their arsenal, especially leading man Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who grew up as a comedian on Third Rock from The Sun, but clearly, based on this and other similarly styled films, understands the idea of nuanced performances.
So what 50/50 provides is a comical and honest look at what it looks like for Gordon-Levitt’s Adam to find out he has cancer at just 27-years-old, and how that impacts his relationships with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), his best friend (Rogen) and his mother (Anjelica Houston). There’s also a wonderful turn from Anna Kendrick as his hospital appointed psychologist, who might manage the tension between funny and painful better than anyone here.
The film was a moderate success, as it earned back its $8 million budget during its opening weekend and made almost $40 worldwide, but it’s the type of film that sadly doesn’t exist anymore, at least as far as theatrically released movies are concerned. But each watch is worth engaging with on various levels, and manages to grab the attention of the viewer each time. It’s one of my favorites of all time mostly because of how honest it feels throughout its run time.
And now for the conclusion of this blog:
Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached, Win Win, Like Crazy, The Other Woman, The Adjustment Bureau, Paul, Rango, Battle: Los Angeles, The Lincoln Lawyer, Source Code*, Attack the Block*, The Beaver, Thor, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class*, The Hangover: Part 2, Super 8, Bad Teacher, Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Larry Crowne, Horrible Bosses, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Cowboys and Aliens, Crazy, Stupid, Love*, One Day, The Help, The Ides of March, Contagion, Carnage, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Anonymous, Your Sister’s Sister, Goon, The Oranges, Jeff, Who Lives At Home, My Week With Marilyn, Hugo*, The Adventures of Tintin, In Time, J.Edgar, The Muppets, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol*, Young Adult, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo*, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, We Bought a Zoo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, War Horse
Didn’t see: Take Shelter, Margin Call, A Separation, Limitless, Jane Eyre, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Your Highness, Scream 4, Fast Five, Water for Elephants, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Artist, The Skin I Live In, Green Lantern, The Change Up, 30 Minutes or Less, Fright Night, Albert Nobbs, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Real Steel, Warrior, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Footloose, The Thing, The Rum Diary, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Darkest Hour, The Iron Lady