Most Underrated Overrated Film: Moneyball
It’s a strange pass we’ve come to when a critic feels the obligation to stick up for a major-studio film with one of the biggest movie stars in the world that received an almost universally positive reception. And yet the ease with which Moneyball has slipped out of sight and mind like many a prestige pic before it is a tad dispiriting, given that it has considerably more friction than most of its ilk. If the film is ultimately a traditional underdog sports flick (and a good one) traveling semi-incognito, it belies that familiarity with a truly interesting stylistic apparatus: stillness, elision, withholding, and above all, quiet. This is a film filled with dead air, an enveloping hush that makes almost every utterance an event—since every word spoken in the intensely competitive world the film depicts is, potentially, a revelation of weakness. If this echoless vacuum is more artificial construct than veristic portrait, it’s nevertheless a fascinating strategic choice—no less than Brad Pitt’s marvelous turn, which forgoes the tried-and-true standbys of the Big Star Performance and creates charisma from thorniness, mystification, and reticence. Misrepresent the real story though the film might (I wouldn’t know), in its overall air of curious abstraction that typical Hollywood sin almost seems permissible; and that this wondrous strange alchemy has occurred absent any fallback auteurist explanation (Bennett Miller?!) makes the fine final product all the more pleasurably confounding. —Andrew Tracy
Worst Homage: Super 8
In a film year mottled with love letters to the magic of movies and moviemaking (Hugo, The Artist), the chintziest, and most dispiritingly insincere, was this summertime homage to one of its own producers, Steven Spielberg. Set in an insultingly generic Wherever, Ohio, that could be a mash-up of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Muncie, Indiana, and the California suburbs of Poltergeist or E.T., Abrams’s expensive mock-up delivers diminished returns and not a single original feeling, idea, or even scrap of clever novelty. The story—a band of Goonies making an amateur zombie movie accidentally find themselves central players in an alien invasion—is a perfect opportunity for a filmmaker to revisit his adolescent fumblings and the naive discovery of his craft, so the blame must fall on Abrams for delivering such impersonal, factory-assembled product. It’s bad enough that the details are bland (example: as the alien-monster settles in, the dogs flee the town—they get it), but worse, even the fact of the main boy’s dead mother feels arbitrary. It’s a lazy way to skip from emotional point A to C here, as it was in The Descendants when obnoxious daughter’s friend Sid “reveals” that he’s fatherless, thus humanizing the crass dope (why can’t a person just be obnoxious?). For grownups who, like me, used to collaborate on bad backyard amateur movies, Super 8 should have been a treat, but it’s the same tender subject matter that makes its weird soullessness so disappointing. In terms of posing imitation, it’s equivalent to Drive, and it’s just as vapid. —Justin Stewart
Weirdest Homage: We Bought a Zoo
It’s just not possible that Cameron Crowe crafted the centerpiece sequence of We Bought a Zoo without thinking of Chris Marker’s 1962, Criterion-ratified sci-fi classic La Jetée: it’s a series of still photos that momentarily flickers to life after settling on an image of a sleeping woman, who opens her eyes. The question is: why? Is Crowe just staving off the boredom of his directorial assignment by inserting references to semi-obscure French art cinema? Did Matt Damon get a hot Netflix tip from his pal Steven Soderbergh and pass it on to the creative team? Are there other left-field homages to film history submerged in what appears to be a grueling family comedy peppered with Bon Iver musical cues and shots of monkeys slapping their foreheads in exasperation? Forget Mysteries of Lisbon: this is the onscreen enigma of the year. —Adam Nayman
Worst Ending to a Good Movie: Cave of Forgotten Dreams [Paraphrasing:] “And I vunder. Vut are ze alleegators tinking, az zey stare uf in ze distenz. Do ze albino alleegators tink about ze caife?” No, Werner. No, they don’t, so just give it a rest.
Best Ending to a Bad Movie: The Iron Lady It's hard to give Phyllida Lloyd credit for anything having to do with directing movies, but I must concede this: it takes some sly thinking to be able to guarantee audience applause at the end of this stinker, and she does it by giving credit (literally) where it’s due, closing her film with the words “Meryl Streep” appearing onscreen as our greatest living actress, buried under some very convincing aging makeup, waddles away from the camera. Bravo! Oh wait, never mind. —Chris Wisniewski
Enough Already, 2011 Award: The Artist
Back in our younger, more hopeful days we had a year-end feature titled Get Over It, a bit of sneering derisiveness aimed mostly at those bloated middlebrow productions that seem to descend in November and December and swoop back out, with the hearts of critics and often the American public temporarily in their talons. We took a stand, even if that meant puncturing the stray blimp that wandered into Reverse Shot Top Ten airspace. Then a funny thing happened. Movies got bad. Real bad. At that point, Get Over It seemed too mild a palliative for grappling with the likes of Babel, Life During Wartime, Juno, and their ilk, thus the meaner, leaner 11 Offenses column was born. Where once we merely rolled our eyes and sighed, now we would aim for the jugular!
This little preamble is all by way of introducing a film that would have all-too perfectly fit the now-deceased Get Over It, yet is too mild to really constitute a true offense—The Artist. Consider the facts: its 100-minute running time is bloated by sixty. It plays fast and loose with silent film grammar (Guy Maddin must see Hazanavicius’s success and feel vindicated . . . or suicidal), being little more than a film made with the technology of today, set in an imagined yesterday, with no sound attached. And, when it concludes, you might find yourself wondering what it was all for, and come up resoundingly blank. Even with those three clear strikes against it, this mild production has been largely given a pass, walked off with serious critics awards, and one hyperventilating writer of some repute has even recently labeled it “elemental” (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water . . . The Artist!).
Well, enough already: The Artist is...perfectly acceptable, not much more. Sans Jean Dujardin’s delightful channeling of Rudolph Valentino’s swarthy sexiness and Gene Kelly’s winning, grinning physicality, the creeping sense of empty boredom that surrounds the whole thing would overwhelm, even with a hundred more reaction shots of Uggie the dog. Scan the site and you’ll quickly find—per the best Reverse Shot tradition of conversation and dialogue—that there’s a long, considered, glowing review of the film from our man in London, Julien Allen. Yet, even he isn’t reaching for the heavens to find the appropriate hosannahs to bestow upon this ultimately minor work. People, just let it win the Oscar and go home in peace. Stop asking it to bear the heavy weight of critical hopes and dreams. It deserves a lighter load. —Jeff Reichert
My Critical Faculties Are Gone Because I Just Peed My Pants Award: Insidious
Best Bad Sex: Margaret
Anna Paquin’s silhouetted deflowering by a hilariously laidback (and wannabe wise) Kieran Culkin was as mortifying as movies get, but Kenneth Lonergan never exploits his actors or the situation. We shudder—not because we’re repulsed, but because we’ve been there.
Worst Bad Sex: Shame
Steve McQueen’s parade of debasement climaxes when, following a gay backroom blowjob, lead cipher Brandon sinks even lower by engaging in a naughty three-way with two anonymous older woman. Legs are splayed, salads are tossed, teeth are gritted, and finally Brandon weeps during orgasm, the whole thing set to a score as plaintive as Platoon’s Adagio for Strings. It’s sex as flagellation, and it’s as pointless as anything in a Mel Gibson superproduction.
Best Good Sex: Weekend
Laurels to the apparently straight Tom Cullen and Chris New for diving into their gay lovemaking with such uninhibited, authentic brio. And even bigger kudos to director Andrew Haigh for so brilliantly structuring his film—we don’t see the one-night-stand that sets the two men’s romance in motion—so that Russell and Glen’s most explicit sex scene, when they fall into bed on their last night together, is the one we’ve rooted for the most.
Worst Good Sex: A Dangerous Method
Oh my, look at naughty Keira Knightley, almost spilling out of a corset while lashed to the headboard while Michael Fassbender, with his dapper little moustache and granny glasses, gives her some light taps on her bum. Knightley’s ecstatic expression wants us to believe she’s finally experiencing her masochistic fantasies, but Cronenberg’s self-consciously coy approach results in his usual cerebral yawn. —Michael Koresky
Worst Cosmic Meditation: Another Earth
In a year that saw divided cinephilic camps cheering as part of either Team Tree of Life or Team Melancholia in celebration of the big bang and end of the world, respectively, another cosmically minded movie went out with a whimper. I saw Another Earth via a free preview screening yet somehow still left the theater feeling had. The Sundance indie posits a planet identical to ours coming into view of Earth just in time to distract an intoxicated Rhoda behind the wheel. Lead and cowriter Brit Marling (hailed as the new It girl, clearly for her ridiculous good looks, though supposedly for her smarts) conveys her character’s emotional progression through hair stylishness alone (the better she gets, the better it looks). You just know that the girl, freshly released from prison after her stint for manslaughter, will attempt to insinuate herself into the life of John (William Mapother), the now-widowed-and-childless survivor of the accident and newly awakened from a coma, in a secret and self-punishing bid for redemption—in which the other Earth will of course play a part with its portent of second chances—and that, yes, the pained characters will ultimately fall into bed and something like love with one another before the truth inevitably comes out and tears it all asunder. As telegraphed and clichéd as that basic through-line already sounds, the devil lies in the details: like when we’re cued to find the two bonding over a game of Wii boxing exceedingly cute and down-to-earth (ha!) relatable, or the fact that their first sexual tryst is catalyzed by John playing a melody forlornly on his saw, which bafflingly inspires Rhoda to tear her clothes off once back at his place. And we have to mention the blind Indian janitor (Kumar Pallana) unselfconsciously painted as a misunderstood sage. In the end, Another Earth’s sci-fi setup simply disguises an unoriginal script and provides zero philosophical pay-off, despite its laughably serious self-regard. Director Mike Cahill must’ve internalized too much of Mapother’s previous work as one of the Others on Lost; the ending comes across like an episodic cliffhanger prompting head-scratching questions and answering none—a cheap trick since, unlike a television series, he’s completely off the hook in terms of providing any sort of follow-up. And God forbid a sequel. —Kristi Mitsuda
Best Thing Overheard at the Movies:
Older woman in concession line during the intermission of Mildred Pierce at Museum of the Moving Image's marathon screening: "I'm so glad Natalie Portman isn't in this."
Best Establishing Shots: Margaret
It’s become a critical truism to say that Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is as much about the chaotic, bleeding soul of post-9/11 New York as it is about privileged Manhattanite teenager Lisa (played volcanically by Anna Paquin), whose involvement in a freak bus accident activates her tempestuous coming of age. Lonergan makes no bones about his film’s grander ambitions, peppering his sprawling narrative with stormy classroom arguments about Bush-era foreign policy and Arab identity. Mostly, though, we know it’s a NYC-centric film because, well, Lonergan just can’t stop staring at the city. He fills Margaret with lingering long shots of illuminated skyscrapers, bustling midtown traffic, and pedestrians crossing streets. There’s little concrete narrative thrust to these images, given that the film rarely leaves the island. Nor does Lonergan seem particularly interested in aestheticizing the Big Apple. Indeed, the unadorned nature of the shots makes their persistent presence within the film all the more notable—and, after a while, all the more affecting. Lonergan’s insistence on chronicling the city’s visible banality and his need to uncover its silent pain invests these images with a hypnotic quality greater than the impact of any individual frame. Though he’ll occasionally link Lisa and Manhattan visually, Lonergan’s most powerful connections between the micro and macro come from the unapologetic earnestness with which he gazes at both. If you look long and hard enough, he insists, a person or a city will reveal itself to you: broken and seething and desperate for grace. —Matt Connolly
Dude, Sorry I Missed All of Your Other Movies, but I Won’t Let It Happen Again, I Promise Award: Christopher Munch for Letters from the Big Man
Who out there remembers Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day? The Hours and Times? The Sleepy Time Gal? And how about Christopher Munch, who directed all of these films and returned to filmmaking in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus with the beguiling Letters from the Big Man? Probably not too many, which is a travesty, judging from his new film’s mixture of reverence towards the rhythms of small towns (the most important ingredients for successful regional filmmaking—it takes more than just accents, y’all) and wholly Whitmanesque feel for the grandeur and mystery of nature. While finding myself entranced by this film’s painterly visuals, I thought about what the American independent film scene would look like if we spent more time valuing careful filmmakers like Munch, and less the slipshod offshoots of mumblecore. Further, its quiet, spiritual humanism tempts one to consider an almost unimaginable landscape in which such a gentle artist found more currency than the crass dirtbaggery of someone like Todd Solondz. It’s sad—Munch’s film is wonderfully Whitman (that is to say: evincing some of the best, most endemic characteristics of American art), yet a tried-and true-paraphrase from the lesser poet Frost is most apropos in thinking of this very special filmmaker’s career: he’s been the road less traveled, and somehow it’s made all of the difference. —JR
Most Important Off-Screen Issue of the Movie Year: Censorship
Other news stories in the Year of Our Beloved Cinema Twenty Eleven might have been sexier—Malick sightings! Lars von Trier’s Nazi admission!—but lest we forget, it was the year in which a brave film artist refused to be silenced by censorious powers. Sadly, Jafar Panahi’s bid to appeal a draconian conviction on charges of peddling propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran went nowhere, resulting in an upheld sentence of six years’ jail time, restricted travel, and a mindless warrant forbidding him to write or direct movies for 20 years. Creative annihilation, in other words. All this because he dared to film the restive street protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 “re-election.” The message: Don’t fuck with us. Miraculously, Panahi defied the ban, debuting his critically celebrated video-diary-cum-artistic-protest, the sly, ironically titled This Is Not a Film—an ingenious collaboration with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb shot partially on an iPhone—at Cannes in May. The digital files were snuck out of Iran in a cake. Considering that his appeal was still under consideration at the time, it was an incredibly courageous act.
In China, the censorship machine went into full swing too, arresting outspoken artist Ai Weiwei on a transparently flimsy charge (tax evasion); forcing the pusillanimous pointy-heads at Google to take their world-conquering Internet search engines elsewhere; and compelling Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yimou to grumble publicly about the Communist Party’s general chokehold on creativity. (The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television censor board frowns on everything from sex and violence to time travel.) Still, the San Sebastian Film Festival’s “Digital Shadows” retrospective, curated by Bérénice Reynaud, illustrated that younger Chinese filmmakers, like their New Wave forebears in early sixties France, are finding new freedom using smaller, cheaper cameras, and producing low-budget HD films about forbidden subject matter (alien invasion, same-sex relationships)—all evidence of a thriving, nose-thumbing underground.
Here in the good ol’ freedom-loving U.S., where the powers that be comprise banks, multinationals, and other Hudsucker-scale business interests, we go for the pocketbook when we want to muzzle free speech. Witness Joe Berlinger’s yearlong court wranglings over his 2009 documentary Crude, about the high-profile lawsuit indigenous Ecuadoreans brought against alleged polluter Chevron, which has cost him nearly $1 million to defend as a legitimate work of investigative journalism. Sweden’s Fredrik Gertten had a similar battle on his hands with the Dole Fruit Company after debuting his exposé Bananas!, a bizarre, down-the-rabbit-hole legal saga which edged him close to personal ruination, all chronicled in a new film, Big Boys Gone Bananas*!, that premiered at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. Even in the 21st century, art continues to be a dangerous profession. But cinema has a healthy attitude when it comes to censorship: Don’t frame us, we’ll frame you. —Damon Smith
Best Boy Crashing the Girls Club: Jon Hamm in Bridesmaids
With Bridesmaids, females finally got the Apatow Production raunch-com to call their own. Paul Feig helmed, but the personalities of Kristen Wiig, who wrote the movie with Annie Mumilo, and her dugout of talented costars like Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne, are the main attraction. Perhaps the achievement shouldn’t be overstated—a woman shitting in a sink is still a dumb gross-out no matter the sex of the relieved, and doesn’t appreciably improve the state of the modern sex comedy—but the movie’s giant success does make for a more gender-equal pigpen. But have any of the recent bromances and Hall Passes made room for a supporting female as funny as Jon Hamm is here as Wiig’s asshole hunk fuck-buddy? Coasting on wealth and looks, Hamm’s Ted is the type who says to her, the morning after a mediocre bed-pounding, “I really want you to leave, but I don’t know how to say it without sounding like a dick.” Bad at sex, he arrogantly assumes Great Lover status—Annie (Wiig) tells him she’s met someone, and he ham-handedly paws her breasts and asks, “Can he do this to you?” But it’s not just good dialogue. Hamm gives Ted’s idiot churlishness a great energy and a genuine darkness. There’s a void of humanity in him you can imagine he fills with frequent coke bumps and any number of other Annies. Also a very funny SNL host, Hamm displays real comic talent in Bridesmaids, something more than just a stiff Don Draper acting the fool. —JS
Best Scorsese: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
With apologies to Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s most luminescent cinematic offering of 2011 was the restoration (overseen in collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell) of Powell and Pressburger’s epic fable of British patriotism. A film as bullied and put upon as its lead character, it all but disappeared during the 1960s after being vilified for decades as un-British. Scorsese himself first saw it in a garroted version on TV—90 minutes (from 163), in black-and-white, with commercials. Like its American counterpart, Citizen Kane, the sophistication and flair of Pressburger’s screenplay alone is such that Blimp would have been a masterpiece even if it had only ever played on the radio. Dissecting the inherent conflicts of heroism, loyalty and natural justice with a lyrical grace and beauty that most satire would never dare to attempt, much less attain, it was sufficient at script stage to infuriate both Churchill (it’s a work that makes its audience think, hence worthless as wartime propaganda) and Blimp’s inventor, the cartoonist Low (dismayed to see his oafish caricature amputated of all ridicule). Now add Georges Perinal’s color, restored to a sumptuously pristine lacquer; Roger Livesey (who’ll never be remembered for anything else, but this is enough); Walbrook’s tenderness; and an incandescent Deborah Kerr in three roles. In a year of cinematic nostalgia (The Artist, Hugo), this 1943 film now feels like vividly fresh and powerful material. Politically, it’s misunderstood for the same reason most things are misunderstood—because it’s clever. Recognizing the need to break with the Blimp-ish values of the past, it nevertheless constitutes an adoring rehabilitation of Blimp himself, Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy—now catapulted, along with Scorsese, into the pantheon of cinema’s great heroes. —Julien Allen
Go Away Forever Award
JESUS H. CHRIST, KEVIN SMITH, WHAT THE HELL WAS UP WITH RED STATE? EVEN WITH YOUR VERY LOW STANDARDS, THIS WAS A NEW LOW. AND I SAW JERSEY GIRL ON A BUS.
Worst Kid: “Robbie” in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Among all the unconvincing, unfunny, and unmoving plot threads in Crazy, Stupid, Love, the most unwatchable was clearly the one about the mop-topped preteen with the crush on the babysitter. There are few things that have been more consistently annoying over the last hundred years of cinema than preposterously written kid characters, and few recent examples have been as annoying as Robbie, played by Jonah Bobo, whose natural teen horniness is positioned by screenwriter Dan Fogelman (whose three-dimensional credits include Cars 2, Tangled, and Bolt) as an example of classic lovelorn romanticism. Clear-eyed, inspiring speeches (including a climactic one at his junior-high graduation, of course) and nonsensical confrontations ensue (right after the babysitter who walks in on him jerking off, he tells her he was thinking of her while doing it!). This kind of observational comedy needs to be grounded in reality to work, but nothing here, nor in the rest of this laughless movie, reflects any recognizable human behavior I’ve seen. —MK
Best Kid: The Baby Goat from Le Quattro volte
Thanks to a patient camera, that bleating tyke from Michelangelo Frammantino’s pensive portrait of regeneration, who gets separated from his herd, only to freeze to death in the unforgiving shadow of a massive fir, gives the year’s sweetest, saddest animal performance—far outpacing those damn terriers from Beginners and The Artist and jumpy Joey from War Horse. In fact only The Tree of Life’s pleiosaur on the beach, existentially considering the probably fatal wound on his side, supplied as much nonhuman pathos. But we thought we’d give the non-CGI’d creature the edge. —MK
Scariest Scene: Martha Marcy May Marlene
[spoilers] Say what you want about whether the third-act reveal (that the cult of which the main character had been a part was staging home invasions, one of which turned deadly) in Sean Durkin’s expertly calibrated Sundance hit places the film too far into conventional thriller territory. If ultimately Martha Marcy May Marlene is a horror film, it’s an astonishingly well-sculpted one, and the series of hushed shots that compose this crucial flashback—in which the intruding cult members are discovered by the home’s inhabitant—have a cruel, Hitchcockian effectiveness that suffuse the remainder of the film with an unsettling dread. It somehow doesn’t feel like a cheap shot: when Katie (such a minor character, we thought) emerges from screen left, my hair literally stood on end because I felt not like I was sidelined, but that I hadn’t really been watching closely enough. —MK
Most Retarded: Bellflower
End-of-world obsessed L.A.-hipster dude finds out his gf is sleeping around, gets so mad that he takes his homemade blowtorch and modified Road Warrior hot rod on a murderous blood-soaked rampage. Filmmaker blinks, winds back time to show that all the carnage was just an emotional apocalypse (!), not the coming of the real one. Sad dude’s friend convinces him the whole West Coast thing isn’t working out and they should just move back home to Wisconsin. FIN . . . du intellect. —JR
The Jaume Collet-Serra Award for Achievement in Films Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra: Jaume Collet-Serra, Unknown
We here at Reverse Shot have been vocal in our support of Catalan-born Hollywood hand Jaume Collet-Serra. His 2009 bad-taste classic Orphan was so hysterically funny and unrepentantly evil that it was possible to overlook the clarity and cleverness of Collet-Serra’s direction. So forget the predictable but overwrought auteurist attentions being lavished on David Fincher’s attenuated potboilerisms in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and acknowledge that last February’s Unknown—a super silly identity crisis thriller that finds Liam Neeson bulling his way through Berlin—gets way more out of its European locations and precisely realized exterior and interior environments (the final fist-fight in a bombed-out ballroom uses color expressionistically). Plus, the late-film duet between supporting players Frank Langella (as a sinister American operative) and Bruno Ganz (as his sympathetic ex-Stasi counterpart) is some of the best acting in an American movie this year. —AN
Note to Pedro Almodóvar:
JUST BECAUSE YOU SET THE CENTERPIECE FLASHBACK OF YOUR CRYPTO MED-FETISH MOVIE IN A STORYBOOK FOREST DOESN'T MEAN WE'RE WATCHING A FAIRY TALE.
Oh Right, I Remember You Award: Of Gods and Men
Every year around this time, the critics’ lists roll out, and films that I barely even remember existing, much less actually watching, return to me like the repressed. In some instances this process comes with all of the pleasure of revisiting youthful night terrors, yet each December I’m reminded of some film I wish I’d spent time loving more. Xavier Beauvois’s terrific Of Gods and Men is one such a work, one that, if I’d not seen on a whim and tucked safely away many months ago, would be worth lauding with some serious “Bressonian” encomiums and a spot on my lists. This tale of a group of Christian monks harassed and eventually executed by Islamic extremists not only manages to get the politics of both sides straight, it also wades headfirst into the spiritual questions, rendering all of this remarkably thorny stuff with considerable aplomb. Also like Bresson on occasion, Beauvois knows he’s making a thriller and understands real ratcheted-up movie tension need not demolish a finely wrought intellectual superstructure. Best of all for a Rivetteian like myself, finding ever-paunchy Michael Lonsdale again after a few years was quite the pleasant surprise. History often exonerates great works, so although I and many others may have forgotten Of Gods and Men in 2011, its future still seems bright. —JR
Biggest Cutesy-Poo: Beginners
It’s hard to believe, but in 2011 Mike Mills outdid wife Miranda July in preciousness. His Beginners has been hailed as a sweet-natured tribute to his late father, who came out of the closet very late in life before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. All well and good (and Christopher Plummer gives a nuanced, uncondescending performance). But the majority of Beginners is actually made up of one of the most gag-inducing indie romantic comedies since that other Los Angeles-set quirkfest (500) Days of Summer. Ewan McGregor plays a cartoonist (natch) who tags the city with awesome graffiti (of course), and is seen talking at length to his winsome little terrier . . . whose thoughts appear as subtitles. He learns to open his cold heart when he meets cute with an idiosyncratic and at first disarmingly laryngitic French actress, played by Mélanie Laurent, at a completely adorable costume party. Often, Beginners seems less about Mills coming to terms with his father’s coming out and subsequent death than it is about how those events forced him to find the right girl and embrace his inner cutie-pie—who has a thing for roller-skating through the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel. —MK
Biggest guilt-free erection (gay): Andrew Haigh’s Weekend
Biggest guilt-free erection (straight): Um . . . er . . . they don't make fun sex movies for straights
Best Original Song: “Man or Muppet”
In The Muppets, a film that was largely successful because of its viewers’ nostalgia, it makes sense that there were plenty of musical reprises to tug on the taut strings of our sappy, Kermit-tenderized hearts. When the spirited Muppet Show theme song signaled the furry cast’s climactic performance, it triggered a feeling of uplift, and just thinking about Kermit and Miss Piggy starting to sing “The Rainbow Connection,” soon to be joined by the rest of their pals, makes me misty eyed all over again. Entirely less expected however, was the quality of the film’s original music, particularly the oddly affecting “Man or Muppet.” Not only did former Apatow stud Jason Segel write a film that embodies the spirit of the Muppets by reflecting on their long absence from show business, he delivered a perfectly silly/serious performance of a song that probes the nature of identity in the Muppet universe (“If I’m a Muppet I’m a very manly Muppet / If I’m a man I’m a Muppet of a man”). Written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, the film’s musical supervisor, the song is an exemplary pop power ballad. —Farihah Zaman
Best Text: Russell in Weekend
Weekend is a symphony of a thousand grace notes. To describe one moment in Andrew Haigh’s drama about two men forming a connection neither one expected is to downplay the way in which they all coalesce and reflect off one another, constituting a snapshot of experience at once piercing in its specificity and remarkable in its reach. When thinking back over the images that made my cinematic year, though, I cannot help but pluck one shot out of the film’s virtual cavalcade of small gems and hold it up to the light for closer inspection. Twentysomething lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) sits beside an echoing indoor pool. Hung over from the night before, his mind wanders back to the previous evening, when he took an impromptu foray into a local club and ended up going home with prickly artist Glen (Chris New). They exchanged numbers before parting ways, though whether either of them sees their evening together as more than a one-night stand remains unsettled. Haigh cuts to a close-up of Russell’s hands as he finishes typing out a text to Glen—“I feel like shit”—and lingers as Russell decides how to punctuate it. He goes with an exclamation point at first, but quickly backtracks. His thumbs rest thoughtfully for a moment, then begins to type an “x.” Is this the beginning of a “hearts and kisses” sign? Too much for a guy who might very well ignore the message? He deletes the character. What about an emoticon? He flicks through his options without resting on any of them. In a year when a romantic comedy like Friends with Benefits tried desperately to up its cultural cache by throwing in as many iReferences as possible, the patience, poignancy, and understated humor of this brief shot speaks volumes about how our personal technology becomes a digital scroll upon which we inscribe our romantic insecurities and social confusion. What does Russell ultimately decide upon? An ellipsis—an unassumingly perfect embodiment of Weekend’s tentative view of the possibility of emotional connection. Indeed, thinking about Weekend moment-by-moment might be the best way to understand how Haigh and company work their magic. Like the two men at its center, we learn to appreciate the most seemingly inconsequential of instances, finding within them the aching, hopeful possibility of . . . —MC
Most Romantic Theatrical Moment: Steve McQueen’s Shame
I’d only been watching Steve McQueen’s Shame for a few minutes before I realized something was horribly wrong. After that oh-so-precious opening, in which hunky Brandon (Michael Fassbender) arises from a mess of white sheets and the letters of the film’s finger-wagging title burn themselves into the space he’s just vacated, the film descends into the subway and Harry Escott’s score surges, drenching each new image of the Manhattan lothario on the hunt with supposed import. I turned to my companion, Farihah Zaman, also a stalwart #teamReverseShot member and also, at that point, my wife of a mere three months. She was already leaning towards me so that she could whisper, “I hate this so much.” I replied, giddily, “Me too.” Finding true communion in the dark, before a screen alight with images . . . that’s love. We found it (at the movies). —JR
Hey, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, that joke about rising at 9:30 a.m. to go to battle was funny FOR THE FIRST EIGHT MINUTES
Worst Supporting Performance: Mia Wasikowska in Albert Nobbs
Poor Mia. Fresh off acclaimed roles in The Kids Are All Right and Jane Eyre, she put the enthusiasm train to a screeching halt with Albert Nobbs, in which the poor, pale thing is saddled with an astonishingly underwritten yet narratively crucial character (wasn’t this thing workshopped for, like, thirty years?), and ends up looking endlessly confused as to what she’s supposed to be doing. As the delicate maid who turns woman-in-disguise Albert’s head (or does she?), Mia is reduced to making the kind of scrunchy bunny-rabbit faces and glances of feigned haughtiness one might see coming from a 12-year-old. But the death knell is a public hissy-fit scene so shockingly inept that one sincerely can’t believe that director Rodrigo Garcia used the take in the final cut. —MK
Best Supporting Performance: Marion Cottilard in Midnight in Paris
Isn’t she lovely? The gentle supernatural joke that is the clever central conceit of Woody Allen’s shockingly mega comeback would never have worked without the spellbinding Marion Cottilard to keep it all together. As Adriana, muse to Picasso and Hemingway, beguiling love interest for Owen Wilson’s time-traveling Gil, she invests her every line with pleasure and pathos. She coils herself around the film sensually, yet never forces that sensuality. We fall in love with her just as Gil does, and Woody and DP Darius Khondji reward her for her efforts with some of the most loving, caressing close-ups in the history of the comic master’s oeuvre. Adriana’s desire to return to the Belle Epoque is ultimately perhaps even more poignant than Gil’s need for the modernism of the twenties, as it’s what ultimately reveals the falseness of the film’s beautiful dream. And Cotillard makes Adriana’s decision to stay there—to become lost in history—worthy of a tear or two. —MK
Best Prop: The planet Melancholia
With its stretch-limo hijinks, 1997-era web pages, maudlin wedding speeches, and histrionic scenes set around late-night soup service, Melancholia was one of the sillier movies of the year—save for the titular planet itself. Laden with a constant, unshakable presence, it is more than a pretty twinkle in the night sky, or a rare astronomical event to be appreciated in expensive telescopes. Instead, Melancholia imposes itself slowly, heavily, relentlessly. When seen from a distance, a rudimentary viewfinder made up of stick and encircled wire warns of the planet’s massive, nearly imperceptible movements. In its final approach, however, it’s unavoidable, and everywhere. It even sucks the air from the sky. Lars Von Trier isn’t known for subtlety, but that’s not the point; rather it’s Melancholia’s bigness that overwhelms, not just what is basically a depressive kammerspiel, but something that extends beyond the limits of the frame. Nature, the huge blue planet reminds us, is not merely a decorative backdrop to human action, but a force that can overtake it, something beautiful, fearsome, and quite literally sublime. —Genevieve Yue
Worst Credit Sequence:
WHAT THE FUCK DO A BUNCH OF PEOPLE MOANING AND COVERED WITH TAR HAVE TO DO WITH THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO?
Worst Edit: Hugo
People love talking about Hugo’s amazing first shot. You know, the one in which the souped-up digital 3D camera cranes down over the Gare Montparnasse to ground level and then flies down a track dodging past seemingly miles of luggage-laden passengers swarming off steam-clouded trains before zooming into the open expanse of the grand warmly lit station itself. It is a marvel, indeed (it may well be the best thing that happens in all of Hugo’s heaving first hour), but it’s not the film’s first shot. And sadly, it’s joined to the actual opening shot by the most unexpectedly, unintentionally jarring edit of the year. Prior to that masterfully designed movement, we see the Gare from the opposite side. The camera is also moving down, but at an angle and rate such that the jump to the more fluid, forceful second shot is like a punch in the chest. Hugo has many wonders in its Méliès-obsessed second half, but it sure makes you work to get there. —JR
Most Justified Flop: Young Adult
After Up in the Air, many were ready to crown Jason Reitman the new Billy Wilder, but the poor performance of Young Adult has hushed the praise chorus down to a whisper, if not silenced it entirely. Truth be told, this sour-faced, Diablo Cody–scripted comedy about an aging head-cheerleader type (Charlize Theron) who decamps to her podunk hometown to reclaim her alpha-girl persona (and her former big-man-on-campus boyfriend) is less completely galling than its predecessor (no stern black ladies committing suicide to trouble George Clooney's conscience!). But it’s still a hollow, self-impressed exercise in the comedy-of-hostility so beloved of contemporary quality-television writers. In fact, at times Young Adult feels like a pilot for a Showtime series, right down to the device of having Theron’s character essentially narrate her own adventures through the trashy teen-lit novel she’s writing on her laptop. It’s possible that a serialized format would have fixed some of the superficial problems with pacing and plotting, but the prospect of spending more than 90 minutes in the hands of this creative team is pretty dismal. —AN
The Poughkeepsie Dinner Theater Medallion: The cast of Carnage
Roman Polanski’s latest exercise in cramped spaces is the first one in which I ever felt like I had my own attack of claustrophobia. Carnage is like being trapped in a very small box with very loud movie stars, all of whose well-rehearsed tendencies (Kate Winslet’s arch overenunciation, Jodie Foster’s strained righteousness, John C. Reilly’s doofy equanimity, Christoph Waltz’s thinly veiled hostility) are exaggerated to the breaking point. Even from those who acknowledge Yasmina Reza’s play source material for the cartoonishly broad junk that it is, Polanski’s been praised for his usual elegance with space. Fair enough. But surely he has to shoulder some blame for those performances, which huff and puff and swerve around so much you’re scared they’re going to fall off the set right into your lap. Just as Carnage could have been recouped as an Exterminating Angel–like exercise in surreality, these performances might have made more sense if the film were a meta-exercise for accomplished actors getting back to their first-year acting-class roots: it’s easy to imagine Foster and Winslet breaking with script to do the Stanislavski mirror exercise or Waltz throwing out improv starters for a befuddled Reilly. —MK
Best Trip: I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You*
Runner-up: The Sky Turns*
Here are two wholly charming films (the former from Brazil, the latter from Spain) that scramble preconceptions about regional documentary making in favor of highly personal, perspectival works. I Travel . . . is the less truly nonfiction work, in that its central, yet never seen, lovelorn geologist and his taped musings to his absent lover are wholly constructed. Yet the spaces he visits couldn’t be more real, the sense we get of the traversed countryside more lingering. The Sky Turns, a documentary, now seven years old, uses an inviting look at a remote Spanish village synecdochically for the history of Spain’s politics and art. Both capture their vistas in the mushy colors and resolution of DV, which somehow makes their locales all the more appealing and potentially reachable. [*Both of these films also share the now-annual Anthology Film Archives Award for truly rad films that would only be shown by Anthology Film Archives.] —JR
The Alfred Molina Award for Overacting: Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method
We were rooting for her, oddly. But her writhing, gasping, jaw-jutting, hyperventilating entrance as Jung protégé Sabina Spielrein was ultimately more Regan MacNeil than a woman under the influence. Perhaps that’s all okay because we’re dealing with Cronenberg here, and in a Cronenberg joint the body needs to be as twisted as the spirit (ah, how we love preset critical parameters!). But Knightley’s performance, based, she said in an interview, on reading a diary entry in which Spielrein describes herself as a dog and a demon, comes across more like a hydraulic special effect than an expression of a soul in sexually repressed torment. It’s insane, and not necessarily in a good way. Oh, and Spielrein’s totally cured, like, two scenes later. —MK
Worst Sexism in a Children’s Film: Arthur Christmas
The rare children’s holiday film that is more than capable of enchanting adults, Arthur Christmas is clever and charming. It is also peculiarly and pervasively sexist. The film's male-centricism isn’t inherently problematic considering it revolves around the Santa fable and, like many classical British tales, runs on the tension and drama regarding which son will supplant his prominent father figure. But then enter Mrs. Claus. One of the only two female characters—the other being a spunky but subordinate elf who wields a tape dispenser like an AK-47—the poor missus, it’s repeatedly suggested, is the true brains of the outfit, running the year-round military, political, and administrative duties of the Santa industry. Yet her family consistently fails to credit, or even notice, her work in a way that one can tell is intended to be comical, and she gently laughs off their arrogant condescension in a way that is obviously intended to be graceful. It would have been better not to include the character at all than to have her sole purpose be as the butt of an unfunny, offensive joke. Why repeat the tired old gag about the wife of superior intelligence gently rolling her eyes at her dismissive buffoon of a husband? What is this, Everybody Loves Raymond? The most disappointing aspect of this small but niggling misstep is the fact that a woman, Sarah Smith, was involved in both the writing and directing of this film, still relatively rare in the animation industry. —FZ
What Is Wrong with People Award:
WHY IS EVERYONE SO CONFUSED ABOUT THE DINOSAURS IN THE TREE OF LIFE? JUST WATCH THE MOVIE.
The Lord Giveth and He Taketh Award: New York’s Film Forum
When they’re not just more groupings of noirs, the retrospectives are essential: Bresson! MGM silents! Bernard Herrmann! Japanese Divas! And we can’t do without many of those first runs: A Separation! Once Upon a Time in Anatolia! The Mill and the Cross! The Arbor! So how come so many of us New York cinephiles dread going to Film Forum? Maybe it’s because on most nights it contains the most reliable conglomeration of ill-behaved moviegoers in the city, packed like sardines into long, thin, shoebox-shaped theaters that offer perhaps two or three (out of what seem like over eighty) rows with “prime” views. Maybe it’s because of the almost constant inappropriate laughter during silent films and French New Wave gems alike—all remarkably hilarious because people looked, talked, and did stuff differently in earlier eras. Maybe it’s because every time I sit in the seeming 560-degree heat of one of its propaganda screening rooms/movie theaters, I can’t help but fantasize about watching the “big-screen” treat before me at the Walter Reade Theater, or the Museum of the Moving Image, or BAMCinematek, instead. Not your fault, Film Forum programmers, you’re doing God’s work. But you are the city’s prime enabler of the cinephile’s masochism. We’ll keep coming back. Good popcorn. —MK
Award for Most Self-Pleasuring, Knob-Polishing in 2011: “The Movies” 2011
We loved movies in 2011. Absolutely loved them! But not more than the movies loved themselves. (Do a little ctrl-f and see how many times “nostalgia” has come up in this and similar year-end articles.) Hugo, and The Artist, yes, obviously. But also War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, Super 8, Midnight in Paris, Drive, Film socialisme . . . The list could go on. And on. —JR