2011: Retrospective, Awards, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.1)

2010, as a cinematic year, left me somewhat cold. I distinctly remember having a difficult time choosing my annual top ten, for two reasons. One, this time last year I’d only seen about thirty-ish movies; that’s not a very wide range of movies to choose from, though I was certainly able to muster ten films I was happy with. Two, and much more importantly, 2010 didn’t really excite me all that much. Even the movies that did make the cut for me are mostly films that I don’t really feel any pressing need to revisit; apart from the Inceptions or Black Swans or Social Networks, 2010 for me is comprised of movies that are certainly very good, but not exciting in the way that a truly great film should be. With few significant films to serve as emotional tethers to the period, I came out of 2010 feeling a bit jaded, let down, and even a bit worn out.

However, where 2010 felt largely bereft of standouts and game-changers and generally invigorating cinema, 2011 has boasted an explosion in quality filmmaking that’s left me more enthusiastic about writing than ever. Veteran filmmakers released movies that rank among their best, or which challenge our conventions of what a movie can be, while new talents burst into theaters with works that singled them out as potentially great directors years down the line. Even the lighter side of cinema has plenty to write home about, as a number of directors yielded movies that make up for a lack of high purpose by being incredibly engaging and well-made. If there ever was a year to get motivated and inspired about blogging, it’s 2011.

Not that the year has been perfect; it’s had its share of chafe. But even bad films are often worth talking about, and the bad is so outweighed by the good that in the end it hardly matters. And hey, some of my best writing this year has been aimed at some of the year’s worst films– which just goes to show that even a terrible picture has worth in its own way.

Maybe my exuberance can be explained by the prevailing attitude of this year’s cinema. Where 2010 felt listless, cynical, and often despondent– with some exceptions– 2011 feels hopeful. Perhaps that’s somewhat corny, or even naive, but I think it’s true. Consider the rash of optimistic films like Hugo, The Muppets, 50/50, The Descendants— I’ll also allow for We Bought a Zoo, despite my major misgivings about it– or a film like Weekend, which plays firmly in reality but nonetheless ends on a note of hope for its characters. Hell, even Attack the Block keeps a bit of optimism for itself; I wouldn’t classify it among the aforementioned pictures but there’s no arguing that there’s something hopeful woven into its narrative. And I think when you experience all of that hope in film after film after film, it’s hard not to grow a bit hopeful yourself.

So here’s to 2011, a great year in cinema and a great year for A Constant Visual Feast. Now– to the list, yes?

This year I’m doing things a little differently; rather than just slap down my top ten, I’m going to talk about some side films of varying degrees of interest, because a movie can inform a cinematic year even if it’s not particularly good. (And also because negative criticism can be fun.) Not only that, but I’m expanding my top ten to a top fifteen! I didn’t know that we were allowed to do that sort of stuff, but Ebert’s got a top twenty, the writers at CHUD have top fifteens, and some other bloggers have followed that same model (culminating, in some cases, with a top thirty). If everyone else is doing it, then why can’t I? Let’s get started off with something completely new in the form of a trio of…

Awards:

Film we’ll be talking about for the rest of the decade: Tree of Life

I don’t think there’s really any way around this one; Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is the sort of grand, opulent, top-heavy art film that demands to be seen and must be discussed and seen over and over again to fully understand. I’ve only seen it once; I want to go back to it eventually, because it contains so much story and data and deploys both with such non-traditional, discrete, fleeting methods that one viewing just doesn’t do it proper justice. Maybe in nine years, when we’re back here talking about the best of the decade, I’ll look back on the film unfavorably; maybe I’ll celebrate it as a masterpiece and a new watershed classic in convention-defying filmmaking. Either way, Malick deserves a lot of praise for the film by virtue of it being so bold and so beautiful and so unknowable. We’ll see how it fares against the ravages of time.

Film that can’t really be called a film in good conscience: Red State

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith trying to do something other than make dick-and-fart jokes while smugly making callbacks to spheres of popular culture, but I’m not going to say that he gets an “A” for effort. Red State is an odious, sanctimonious, disheveled mess of a movie that frankly doesn’t earn that nomenclature or even justify its existence; rather than serve as a narrative, Red State simply inhabits the screen as an hour-and-a-half hate rant against the Westboro Baptist Church. Having a perspective and an intent as a filmmaker is valuable, of course, but cinema’s a narrative form. Storytelling is the purpose. Smith, here, completely forgets that or willfully eschews it outright for the purpose of smearing one of the most infamous hate groups in American, and while I fall on his side of the fence in this conversation, I cannot at all get behind his efforts here. Intentions aside, Red State is a disaster.

Most disappointing movie of 2011: Bridesmaids


I know! I know! I should love this movie, but I just. Couldn’t. Laugh. At. It. There are times, frequently involving Melissa McCarthy and Jon Hamm, where Bridesmaids is hilarious, but in a comedy that’s hyped to be as gut-busting as the film’s adherents claim I don’t expect to laugh every once in a while. I expect to be on the verge of doubling over from busted ribs, gasping for breath, at almost all times. It’s not a dud, it’s not badly made, it’s not badly acted, but it’s not equipped to rouse guffaws from the depths of my belly. I wanted to like it, I did– I really did. But nothing’s worse than feeling underwhelmed after coming out of a movie you expect to be great.

And without further ado– the top fifteen begins.

15) The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: “Tintin is a film that’s packed with detail and information, not just cinematic Easter eggs for fans of the series but for everyone. Every frame is stuffed with innumerable components that really allow the world Spielberg has constructed here to breathe deeply while shuddering to life. He’s given us rich, vibrant filmmaking here, coupled with absolutely wonderful world-building that transports us both figuratively and literally as Tintin globe-trots from England to the Middle East and back again. Spielberg and Jackson fashion a vast playground in which to spin a narrative and stage action set piece after action set piece and never fail to populate any of them with countless elements which give the film  much-needed vitality.”

14) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 2: “…the entire series has just been one large build-up to this final two hour segment, and that the climaxes of each individual book in the saga are just part of the dramatic process. And, being perfectly honest, that’s exactly the case; everything that’s happened in the story since the first film, hell, the first novel, just served to lead audiences up to the triumphant final moments of the story. All of the tragedy, horror, laughter, love, and thrills brought us here. With Deathly Hallows p2 in the books, there’s a natural desire to look back over the novels and the movies in total and take in the whole scope of the combined franchises. Really, Harry Potter‘s success– as product and as art– can be attributed to how the people who set the books and movies in motion held the line, from J.K. Rowling, who put pen to paper more than a decade ago and created a worldwide literary phenomenon that hasn’t really been matched since, to Christopher Columbus, who couldn’t have known just how perfect his casting choices were at the time of the first movie’s production in 2001. Make no odds about it, it’s kind of incredible to reflect on how we got to Deathly Hallows II and thoroughly sobering to realize that after fourteen years, it’s all over, said and done.”

13) 50/50: “…as the picture progresses and Adam’s story is told, it’s quickly apparent that Levine isn’t interested in telling a straightforward tear-jerker meant to tug at heartstrings– instead, he’s mining humor out of his protagonist’s ordeal.  For all of its emotional thematic stuff, 50/50 is one of the funniest movies you may see in a theater this year, so long as you’re receptive to the blunt, crude, and unapologetic humor so central to the stylings of Goldberg and Rogen (who both produced the movie along with screenwriter Will Reiser, upon whose life the movie is loosely based), as well as the referentialism which defines so much of not only comedy of today but cinema as a whole (e.g. an absolutely devastating Total Recall reference). 50/50 never shies away from being vulgar (don’t ask Kyle what he really uses that razor for) but  there’s something refreshingly upfront about many of the film’s punchlines– whether they’re aimed at Adam’s cancer, his relationships, or anything else– and its general attitude as well. This is thoroughly human material; nothing here is sugarcoated or watered down, from the jokes to the raw emotional beats.”

12) Bellflower: “Between their anger and the film’s decidedly indie roots, Bellflower turns out to be something of an unexpected one-two punch. Glodell’s picture feels like a bizarre marriage between the mumblecore movement, distinguished by films like The Puffy Chair, and more disturbing low-budget shock cinema. For some, the coupling may be problematic; the film’s opening minutes forecast its violent finale, but in large part Bellflower functions as something of a stripped-down exercise in human romantics lovingly coated with an overlay of genre homage. Apart from occasional glimpses into the psyches of Aiden and Woodrow– windows of opportunity that continue pushing the film into darker territory– Bellflower‘s central love story renders it surprisingly sweet. As Glodell leads us into the film’s final 40 minutes, though, the rug is yanked from underneath us as Bellflower revels in getting its hands dirty.”

11) The Trip: “The Trip‘s primary, or perhaps ideal, audience may be comprised of frequent adherents of the Top Chef and aficionados of wry British wit. Michael Winterbottom’s film spends most of its time with its two stars, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, but the acclaimed director is playing loose enough here that he feels safe sneaking off to the kitchens of its high-dining establishments to depict the culinary process before revealing the fruits of the cooks’ labors as both comedians demonstrate a low propensity for articulate food criticism. In fact, I feel secure enough to allow for a hypothesis: if, while you are watching The Trip, you are not laughing, then you are salivating. Depending on which endeavor you’re more inclined toward, your mileage may vary in either category.”

Keep an eye out for part two of A Constant Visual Feast’s year-end wrap-up later this week!

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14 thoughts on “2011: Retrospective, Awards, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.1)

  1. Ahaha I can’t believe you disliked Bridesmaids! It was a good comedy, I thought although maybe a bit overrated, given the wild raves it got at the time. No doubt The Tree of Life will be the most impactful movie of the year when it’s all said and done.

    As for your top 15, looking forward to the totality of it. Tintin was pretty good, definitely loads of entertainment although I thought the movie felt much longer than its runtime. Harry Potter was a great conclusion to the saga, it will probably be in my top 5 😉

    • I’m surprised too, but it really didn’t get much more than a bunch of chuckles and a few deep laughs out of me. What’s really a shame is that the skeleton of a good story is there– I could connect with the characters and I liked them. They simply weren’t funny, or as funny as I’d expect them to be. Too bad, because I think this could have been the decade’s Knocked Up.

      The Tree of Life really could end up being a major, period-defining masterpiece. But time will tell, for sure.

      I aim to get the rest of my list up on Friday, so stay tuned– I doubt it’ll disappoint. I think Harry Potter‘s inclusion here was inevitable, and Tintin really surprised and delighted me (though I do think it’s a bit exhausting, which is fine by me but a problem for others certainly).

  2. And so it begins.

    Why dont you post up that second half of that top 15 so I can do a little copy/paste? Hook a brother up!

    LOL

    There’s a couple of things I’d agree with you on. My list is only going to ten. I know that’s my choice, but I envy the elbow room you’;ve given yourself with 15 😀

    I couldnt even make it through Red State. I used my own fine print to exclude it from consideration and leave it off my list. LOL. 20 minutes in and I was like gaaahhhhdddd… And I could tell it was only getting worse from there.

    Tree of Life was… something, wasn’t it?

    • Full disclosure: the top 15 thing isn’t something I’m doing solely because other critics and film writers have given me ersatz permission to do so. I’m also doing it out of a degree of self-indulgence. Like the post says, I’ve seen many more films this year than last year and I kind of want to celebrate that.

      Red State is worth sitting through because it’s a great example of how not to approach making a movie.

      As for Tree of Life— yes. Very much so. It’s almost ineffable. Incredibly beautiful and very precisely crafted, but so hard to process.

  3. This is great so far. Amazingly, you might be the only other person to agree with me that Bridesmaids is the most overrated film of the year. Also, I hated Red State and loved The Tree of Life. So, kudos for those selections too. Look forward to your Top 10!

    • Red State should have stayed home. It’s loathsome. It’s not even a frigging movie.

      And it’s nice to get some support on Bridesmaids. I feel like a freak for not liking it! It’s uncomfortable being the only guy in the room who’s down on a movie like that.

  4. Meanwhile, I’ve seen many fewer films this year. Of 11-15, I’ve seen but one (take a wild guess), though I want to see at least 3 others (don’t care much about The Trip, though I’m not against it, either).

    Did you see Bridesmaids very early on or was it weeks of hype that killed it for you?

    I still need to see Red State as well, however flawed it may be.

    Yeah, I suck.

    • I’m guessing Harry Potter. Am I right? Am I right?!

      If you like British humor, you’ll like The Trip. I caught it on Instant, which has been an invaluable tool for me this year. Out of all of the films I’ve seen, sixteen have been through Netflix Instant. That’s huge. I would only have seen a slight increase in film viewing between this year and last if not for that, so if you’ve got Netflix…think about Instant. It’s really a life saver for film writers like you and I.

      I saw Bridesmaids very late, only a few weeks ago in fact. True story: I received an invite to catch it a couple of weeks prior to its release date, and I wonder if my opinion of it might have been different had I seen it either then (though I couldn’t, since it was at 3 in the afternoon on a Thursday) or sometime during its general release. We’ll never know, I guess.

      Yes, even watch Red State. It’s the sort of awful that needs to be seen.

      • Yes, Potter it is.

        I find that I love Netflix Instant more than I’m able to use it, if that makes sense. I have loads of movies in my queue, just not the time to watch them all. Not sure if I’ve watched a single 2011 release on there yet…

        Yeah, no surprise about Bridesmaids with ya there. The hype machine killed it for you. I saw it pretty early on and was still a bit let down – it just wasn’t that hilarious, and I didn’t care for their attempts at potty humor at all. Shitting on the street or in a sink isn’t funny, just stupid. It was endearing and charming at other times, though, so it’s overall a positive in my book.

        • Make use of Instant man! Like I’ve said above, it’s been a huge boon to me. Hope you find the time to get crackin’ on your queue, there’s a lot worth watching out there.

          Yeah, I actually kinda felt the same way about the food poisoning bit. I think girls get to do the gross-out thing just as much as men, and I wasn’t expecting totally highbrow humor, but I wouldn’t really have laughed at that if Bridesmaids had been about men. Agree on the endearing qualities of the film, which saved it for me, but it could have been much funnier.

  5. Pingback: G-S-T Year In Review – Andrew’s 2011 Wrap Up | GO, SEE, TALK!

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