2011: THE YEAR IN FILM
by stu steimer
T H E I N T R O D U C T I O N
I missed a lot this year, only seeing a handful of films, which is why stuff like La Havre, Mary Marcy May Marlene, Tyrannosaur and Snowtown - among a deluge of other films that I've been told I would like - are noticeably absent, and most of the ones I have included probably aren't that shocking and I'm sure there are dozens of 2011 lists that appear similar. I had an opportunity to see Take Shelter a few times, but too many people told me that it was terrible (and not just on The Pink Smoke either), so I just believed them and played pinball instead. And The Artist, Midnight in Paris and The Descendants? Forget it. I don't really care.
For the most part I'm merely just articulating brainfarts on the following films, just tenuously examining them and not really exploring most of their deeper meanings and what not - most of the time I don't even bother doing that, and instead just go off into territory talking about shitting in bathtubs, etc. Some I put far more thought into than others, but I'm not going to tell you which ones ahead of time.
There's absolutely no order to this list.
T H E G O O D
M e e k's C u t o f f
So far it looks like I'm the only contributor to The Pink Smoke that has anything positive to say about Meek's Cutoff, at least to the extent that I would place it in a "best of" list. But I'm not afraid to put my reputation on the line for this one, and not just because I don't have one. Kelly Reichardt was someone that I wasn't too sure about as little as two or three years ago. Having never seen her 1994 debut River of Grass, and having a reaction to then-independent darling Old Joy that can only be described as "uhm... alright...I guess..." she's really managed to grow on me recently. Wendy & Lucy isn't something I might have walked away from gushing with praise but I still did respect its style, finding it a fairly notable effort that unlike Old Joy I didn't really find exceptionally grating - I even liked the old security guard. Meek's Cutoff however I was thoroughly into, the entire thing. Maybe it's the obvious Cormac McCarthy worship (more The Crossing than Blood Meridian), or maybe it's because I really am a big fan of staring at the back of people's heads as they aimlessly wander around in circles, stranded deep in their own uncertainty (then why do I hate Gus Van Sant's Gerry so much?) Truthfully I walked in late, missing the first 15 minutes, but with or without them I found it to be the earliest film I saw from 2011 that I really had any kind of a positive reaction towards. Stranger than Paradise on the Oregon trail.
D r i v e
I'd love to be the contrarian and bash probably the biggest fanboy-centric film of 2011, but I just can't bring myself to it, because I am one of those dateless salivating super-fans. Although Drive isn't his best film (I'm the Angel of Death: Pusher III is), Nicolas Windig Refn is one of the few "youngish" active directors I really bother giving a shit about, having only consciously disappointed me once thus far (re-watching Fear X - it didn't hold up on its second viewing.)
The storyline and the script in it of themselves are nothing new or revolutionary. Boiling it all down to its basic elements Drive is ostensibly a neon-streaked Urban Outfitters reboot of Shane. I realize that can easily be construed into snide, pejorative criticism but honestly it's kind of one of the reasons why I enjoyed it as much as I did. There's definitely substance in the film, no doubt, but stylistically it's just too much fun (fun being relative of course, I realize there's an apparent pending lawsuit against this film for being boring.)
Certainly I don't want to compare it to a sure-fire masterpiece like Taxi Driver - a film it obviously does take a fair share of influence from, but in the same breath I'll go out on a limb and talk it up with early Michael Mann and Walter Hill, and that's not necessarily because it apes their styles either (which it certainly does.) While not as affecting as Thief or Southern Comfort it conveys its action sequences with as much skill and precision as its general overall atmosphere, something that has been horribly lacking in genre films (or in films in general) over the last few years/decades.
As an action movie where not much action actually happens, it flows so perfectly together as a whole; a concrete and solid 100 minutes. Gosling is good, but seeing Albert Brooks reprise that Hank Scorpio role as the antagonist is worth seeing the movie again and again for. Probably my biggest complaint is that through most of the movie Brooks' presence remains almost as absent as Driver's personality (...or maybe it isn't, I'm just so used to Brooks making movies all about himself and his neurosis that I would have gladly paid ten dollars to see Bernie Rose perform menial tasks like shopping for running shoes or coldly dangle the blade in kissing distance from Garry Marshall's face while demanding his nest egg from the pawn shop be returned.)
Out of all the films released in 2011, Drive remains the only one that inspired an assault on Tiger Woods through means of a stray hot dog, making it the most important film of the year by default, if not of all time.
S U P E R
Never thought I would end 2011 thinking one of the biggest surprises I had seen all year was from a vigilante film co-starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, but most wouldn't have thought the Giants would be Superbowl winners either. Miles above any of the other "Superheros, that aren't really..." movies that have cropped up over the past few years, Super remains the only one that I think gets it "right" (Kick-Ass I still admit to being pretty fun.) James Gunn's movie openly apes Taxi Driver and, to a much greater thematic extent, King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin with its portrayal of Frank, a man who totally loses all grasp of reality after a traumatizing event (his wife hooking up with Kevin Bacon - but who could blame her? If I had a wife and she left me for the front man of The Bacon Brothers then I would probably come to terms with it and understand) and begins to receive messages from God through equal parts tentacle-rape and Christian television programming (maybe this is the quirky, 2010 counterpart to God Told Me To?) Frank dons his cape and mask and goes to the streets to essentially transform himself into a mass-murderer operating under the guise of good and justice. Despite the cathartic ending the movie plays itself mostly as a comedy, but in the same way that King of Comedy is a comedy. It's actually pretty bleak in a very clandestine way, all boiling just slightly under the surface. The audience is kind of fooled into getting on Frank's side, but then you step back and realize that he's the most erroneous, morally fucked-up and over-zealous character in the entire movie, and deliberately so. A complete pole-reversal to the faux-macho Boondock Saints brand of slick Jihad.
[You can read Stu's full review of the film here. --ed.]
I S a w t h e D e v i l
Looking back at 2011, it really seemed like the year of the revenge/vigilante film, as we got it coming at us from all sides with Super, Drive, I Saw the Devil and... well, that's pretty much it really. But for any year to have three quality movies - much less genre flicks - seems like a pretty solid one when you throw it up against all the other crap that's being spewed out the great cinematic butthole (And hey! One of the worst movies I saw this year was a revenge/vigilante movie too!) I Saw the Devil forgoes much of the satiric elements of Super and leaves behind all the endless shots of Ryan Gosling blankly standing in doorways and staring at floor tiles under pink neon lights and instead plays itself as a much more straight cat-and-mouse game. It's 141 minutes long and I won't say it's the most shocking and unpredictable film ever made - you kind of do know where it's going and have some idea of how it's going to end fairly early on, but it's just so damn entertaining and fun, moreso than any movie released this year that hovered around half that running time. Probably my new favorite of the Korean splatter-thriller films of the last 10 years, and I've seen like 4 or 5 of them.
S h u t U p , L i t t l e M a n !
My attention span has weakened drastically over the years and in truth I'm not really into movies as much as I was when I was 20. Now don't get me wrong, I get just as moist about the latest 48-minute long tracking shot of the outside of a bull's ass in the latest Bela Tarr movie as the next guy, and I haven't actually gotten a life or experienced the outside world at all, it's just that for the most part my nerdom has shifted, coming right back to the same place where it was when I was 15: found footage oddities. I guess the explosion of YouTube hasn't helped in the past few years, but for better or worse (mostly worse, as to paraphrase Keith Richards, 90% of everything on that site is shit, just like everything else) here I am.
Although Winnebago Man certainly left much to be desired, I'm actually happy to see that some of this pre-YouTube stuff from the tape trading era is not only being unearthed again, but actually examined. I know most will view that as a waste of time and video, and the subject of listening to verbally abusive neighbors would warrant noise complaints by most but I'm the type of person that likes to go to movies and actually enjoys hearing complete strangers argue with one another in the theater - it's usually much more entertaining than any movie and I'm always disappointed when it doesn't happen.
Though the tapes of the drunken, belligerent rantings of Raymond and Peter make for very enjoyable listening (at least to anyone that is into that sort of thing), it's also kind of depressing, not to mention inherently exploitative. Though Peter and Raymond were certainly inconsiderate and abusive, clearly apathetic towards their neighbors one has to still question the dubious nature of how these recordings were propelled into the sub-pop cultural canon, inspiring plays, comics and even a low-key film production, all of this essentially streamlining directly from the misery of two hopeless individuals that were soaked in alcoholic despair as legitimate movie studios were waging wars against each other to adapt their story, without them ever knowing.
A strange, almost unintentionally satirical look at voyeurism and accidental celebrity that comes off like a cross between The Truman Show and King of Kong, with less likable characters and none of Truman Show's hamminess. By the end Peter and Raymond, in all their venomous instability, seem like the only reasonable people left on Earth, strangely enough. I just wouldn't want to live next to them.
Now where's my Uncle Goddamn documentary so I can watch it and quietly nod off like I did while watching the original video?
T r e e o f L i f e
I was tempted to leave this out of my "Best of" list if only because I'm starting to grow weary of Terrence Malick's narration. I love the narrations in Badlands and Days of Heaven because and not in spite of their sparseness, Linda and Holly's lines come across as more organic and real, simple but consequentially flowing with more profundity and poetry than Jack's inner workings, specifically as a child, that frankly come across as loaded and superfluous while doing that unnecessary "loud whispering narration" thing to make them appear not-so (I think Marcus Pinn aired some grievance over that "Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside of me, always you will" line spoken by a 12 year old on his blog, and I have to agree...who the hell talks like that, even inside their own psyche?) Of course, this is easily Malick's most abstract, ambitious and personal film (the comparisons to Tarkovsky's The Mirror are all pretty well in order) so I probably should have expected anything but concise verbiage here.
But if we're to judge it on a purely visual experience then it would be my favorite film of 2011 (but I'm not going to do that.) I went to see it twice and found each time walking out of the theater and going back into the real world, specifically in nature, to be all the more rewarding. Then I went back in public, got annoyed and started drinking and abusing my body again. It's a great work of visual art, and a strong film from Malick, but I really do have my reservations about it - in fact, I prefer Andrew Dominik's Terrence Malick way above Terrence Malick's Terrence Malick. Whatever.
U n c l e B o o n m e e W h o C a n R e c a l l H i s P a s t L i v e s
I like movies that tell me exactly what they're about in their titles because I don't have to pretend like I possess the intellect to fully understand them. I feel fortunate to be able to add Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to the same list that includes Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Although I just pulled that throwaway joke out of my ass in lieu of a fitting introduction, the association of the three films is serendipitously appropriate. Uncle Boonmee's adventure in recalling his past lives is conversely an excellent and bogus one; bogus in that he has to recount them from his current death bed, dying of apparent kidney failure, but excellent in that he has the ability to wax poetic about receiving cunnilingus from a wise and mystical catfish. And imagine if this were to occur life after life after life, a much more promising thing to look forward to than just rotting away in the soil, miles from any catfish-stocked spring. And with each entry into the new life you get to be birthed in the caves, surrounded by a bunch of zombie turd monkeys with red bright-light fixtures for eyes. This is why contemplating about one's end should not necessarily be indicative of that person being a negative Nancy.
J u s t i n B i e b e r : N e v e r S a y N e v e r
It's rare these days when I see a movie and instantly am floored by it to the extremes that I was during Never Say Never. Within 5 minutes I lost all muscular control, my mouth went ajar and my body went limp, succumbing completely to Justin Bieber's unmatched hypnotic power. Although my physical glee may have matched the crowds of tens of thousands screaming teenage girls (and some middle-aged women) my reasoning behind it was completely different.
Never Say Never is difficult to describe. There are plenty of films like it, and yet there is nothing like it. The first half of A Face in the Crowd immediately sprung to mind, but seemed too gentle a comparison. The closest one-line description I can muster is this: Try to imagine the pod scene in This is Spinal Tap if it ran for 105 minutes and was orchestrated by Leni Riefenstahl. Though obviously the film was clearly constructed for fans, who I'm sure would enjoy it, for those not familiar with Bieber's work and can appreciate good social satire it is all the more edifying. The film is all about promoting Bieber, with him appearing in nearly every frame, and yet the audience gains no knowledge about him or the people he works with. It instead paints him as an enigmatic god, if not the one and true savior himself. And that is absolutely not hyperbole. At one point he even transcends above the arena in a giant metal-framed heart as a light show erupts and a giant screen illuminates behind him displaying a slideshow of his own baby pictures; if that's not a This is Spinal Tap moment then absolutely nothing is.
The level of over-the-top sycophancy in this thing is so all-encompasing that it would be absurdly hilarious if it weren't so terrifying. And I'm not referring to the screaming 12-year-olds. From his own stage crew to his manager and press agents to the music stars he performs with (Usher, Ludacris, Miley Cyrus, etc.) to his own family, all appear to be gathering together in the world's largest daisy chain to figuratively suck this guy's dick; they gather in circles to pray with him, provide him with constant praise and never seem to at all question his clear lapses from sanity (I don't know, I think I counted at least two times where the 16-year-old Bieber takes his shirt off and jumps on pieces of furniture like a petulant pixie stick-addled three year old in front of adults who only looked on in absolute admiration.) Although Bieber never seems to outwardly treat people like shit, his presense makes others around him noticably tense, like no one will ever dare to disagree with him; it's like you're watching the "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone. Stranger still, Bieber doesn't even seem like he's capable of displaying any kind of basic human emotion; it's like we're watching the diary of a machine and by the end I have to wonder if Bieber is one of the apparent 4% of the population that is said to be sociopathic in nature. Something about this kid is as fascinating as it is strange, and it's very, very strange - more so than any other Tigerbeat star before him. I have no idea where Justin Bieber will be when he's in his 40's, but for some reason the phrase "shady motel room painted wall-to-wall in peanut butter and human excrement" keeps popping into my mind when I think about it.
(continues on next page with more BESTS, a couple WORSTS and JARED from SUBWAY)
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