I know, I know. I’m not even going to bother apologizing for the severe lateness of this recap -- let us just be thankful that it’s here, because November was by far the best movie month of the year (and that includes the first half of December, but that is a story for another day). I saw a modest 11 movies on the big screen in November, and while my year-end list is not yet finalized, at press time SEVEN of them are sitting pretty in my Top 25. Not too shabby. Here are my reviews....
TAKE SHELTER -- Michael Shannon gives the year’s best male performance in this startling film that is part psycho-thriller, part metaphor for the mindset of America in this age of economic uncertainty. Shannon plays Curtis, a family man who has a solid job, a pretty wife (Jessica Chastain, who continues to be everywhere), good friends and a faithful dog. His daughter is deaf as a result of an accident, but it is not a hopeless situation thanks to some medical breakthroughs and a good insurance plan. But when Curtis starts having weird nightmares and ominous hallucinations, he can’t quite figure out if he’s having some kind of mental breakdown or experiencing legit, prophetic, apocalyptic visions. Knowing his family has a history of mental illness, he seeks help, but that only results in more frustration. The only thing that makes sense is to spend his savings to build an underground shelter to protect his family from whatever storm may or may not be coming. But that increases tensions with his wife, workplace and life in general, which in turn piles on the pressure. Masterfully crafted by writer/director Jeff Nichols, the film begins with a nightmare, maintains an ethereal feel as Curtis’ sanity frays, and culminates with a wallop of an ending that will stick in your gut for a long time. Shannon has been a great supporting actor for a while now (see: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, where his few explosive minutes of screen time earned him an Oscar nod), but as of now he is my pick for Best Actor -- his performance is that powerful and haunting.
J. EDGAR -- The last great Clint Eastwood-directed film, on my list, is 2005’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (particularly when paired with its companion piece, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS). Since then... wow, has it been a precipitous decline for the old man, as CHANGELING, GRAN TORINO, INVICTUS and HEREAFTER were all bad to varying degrees. His latest, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, is an improvement in the sense that it is not a completely terrible movie. It tells an intriguing story that doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of Hoover’s life (i.e., his closeted homosexuality). It features some fine performances -- wouldn’t be surprised to see DiCaprio snag an Oscar nod, and possibly Armie Hammer, too. The problem is that it’s just so... pedestrian. The film looks drab, thanks to what is clearly a stylistic decision gone awry. Eastwood’s direction is plodding, and Dustin Lance Black’s script is ambitious but clumsy, with a narrative twist that just comes off as befuddling. Plus it uses every biopic cliché in the book: I don’t know if J. Edgar’s smothering mother (portrayed by Judi Dench) really portended that he would become “the most powerful man in the country,” but my gawd, that’s cheesy. And to top it all off, the old-age makeup is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s unfortunate, because I’m sure there is a very good movie about this complex individual in there somewhere -- makes you wonder what, say, Oliver Stone might have done with the material.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN -- This is the story of Marilyn Monroe’s infamous trip to England in 1956, where she filmed THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL with Laurence Olivier and supposedly had a brief fling with a lowly stagehand. This particular episode in movie history, in which the world’s most famous actress clashed with the world’s greatest actor, is interesting stuff. Beyond that, it is pretty straightforward, light-hearted fare -- the film doesn’t shed much new light on what even casual fans may already know about these legends. Still, it is pure entertainment at its finest, with sparkling performances that are among the year’s best. Michelle Williams is an absolute vision, reasserting herself as one of the best actresses of the day. She BECOMES Marilyn, perfectly capturing her look, mannerisms, quirks and complexities. It is really something to see. Who knows if the love affair really happened -- or at least, if it happened quite this way; feels more like someone’s embellished take on what it would have been like to have an affair with Marilyn Monroe. But regardless, it is hugely enjoyable. Kenneth Branagh may be Oscar-worthy, himself, as the grandiose Sir Laurence; Julia Ormond and Dame Judi Dench are great as Vivien Leigh and Dame Sybil Thorndike, respectively; and it’s interesting to see Emma Watson, as a lowly wardrobe girl whose relationship with Colin is disrupted by Marilyn’s presence, in her first major post-POTTER role. But really, this is Michelle Williams’ showcase through and through and will surely earn her another Oscar nod. Actually, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN reminds me of THE KING’S SPEECH in many ways: Last year’s Best Picture winner was also light-hearted, crowd-pleasing historical fare anchored by an outstanding lead performance. It’s the kind of thing that Oscar eats up... and MARILYN is way more enjoyable than SPEECH... so we’ll see what happens.
MELANCHOLIA -- The latest vision from Lars von Trier opens with a beautiful, slow-motion prologue set to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde that sets a bizarre, dreamlike tone for what is to come. As the narrative begins, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is celebrating her wedding night at her sister & brother-in-law’s opulent mansion. But Justine is not happy. Why? It’s not entirely clear. But as her depression consumes her, in her mind the end of the world is nigh. This is paralleled by the appearance of a rogue planet called Melancholia that has entered Earth’s orbit. How is this possible? Again, not entirely clear... but while at first the phenomenon is captivating, it slowly becomes clear that the end of the world really IS nigh. At this point, Justine begins to take control of her sanity while her sister (brilliant Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) unravel around her. On one level, von Trier’s uses the end of the world as an unsubtle metaphor for depression’s destructive power. On another level, it’s an honest-to-God disaster flick, art house style, that is more devastating than anything Roland Emmerich could ever imagine, with an ending that will absolutely knock the wind out of you. (Side note: It’s been a pretty great year for shocking endings between this, TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. Years have been taken off my life.) And above all, it is a showcase for the talents of the lovely Kirsten Dunst, a longtime crush of mine, who has risen to new heights with a tour-de-force performance that has already earned her a Best Actress win at Cannes. The girl-next-door cheerleader from BRING IT ON is all growns up and she’s growns up and she’s growns up!
THE DESCENDANTS -- The one knock against George Clooney (though not by me) has historically been that it always seems like he’s playing “GEORGE CLOONEY.” And that is not untrue -- but it’s the nuances of his performances, from the ring-a-ding-ding coolness of OCEAN’S 11 to the brooding hitman of THE AMERICAN, that have turned him into one of the top three or four actors alive today. (Besides, he just plays “GEORGE CLOONEY” so damn well.) In the latest stroke of genius from Alexander Payne, Clooney plays Matt King, a sad sack from Hawaii, who must readjust his life after his wife suffers a tragic boating accident and falls into a coma. He has to reconnect with his young daughters, decide whether to sell his family’s coveted Hawaiian land AND deal with the possibility that his wife may not have been entirely faithful. The whole time, his wife’s unconscious, slackened face looms over Matt’s life like a spectre, weighing on him while driving him forward. Clooney is playing “GEORGE CLOONEY” again, but it’s a far more grown-up version than he’s ever tried before, and of course, he knocks it out of the park. Shailene Woodley, playing his rebellious teenage daughter, also gives a lightning performance that has already been recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press. Fantastic, offbeat supporting players, too, including a nearly-unrecognizable Matthew Lillard in a key role. The film is a funny, poignant look at the complexities of family, love and death, and Alexander Payne once again proves that he has a firm grasp of the imperfections of humanity. The man has now made a Mike Nichols-esque five great films in a row to start his directorial career (CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS) -- time to start listing him among the best and most exciting filmmakers of this generation.
THE ARTIST -- A brilliant black-and-white silent film that is itself an ode to the silent era. Jean Dujardin plays George Valentin, a superstar of the silver screen in the 1920’s. He has a classic look and oozes charisma which he is confident will sustain him through the burgeoning “talkie” fad. On the set of one of his films, he meets a backup dancer named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, who lights up the screen), and they have a bit of a thunderbolt moment. But before long, talkies are all the rage, Valentin is on the outs, and Miller suddenly becomes the next big thing. Their destinies seem to set them on opposite paths, but really, they are intertwined -- she never forgets him, both on a personal level, and because of what he has meant to cinema, and the journey that brings them back together is one of the great feel-good stories of the year. It is an absolute joy to watch, with gorgeous cinematography, an amazing score and fantastic performances -- Dujardin (who won Best Actor at Cannes) & Bejo are perfect, and the more well-known faces, including John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller, blend in nicely. Actually, Goodman seems almost tailor-made for the silent era -- but then, he always seems like the right choice for whatever role he is playing. Second-best performance by a Jack Russell Terrier in 2011, too, trailing only Arthur from BEGINNERS. THE ARTIST is a charming, funny and heartwarming love letter to old Hollywood -- in fact, the best thing I can say about it is that it inspired me to load up my Netflix queue with silent films, a genre that I had never really explored. As we enter the heart of awards season, this is one film that will not be going anywhere anytime soon.
Stay tuned for Part 2, featuring HUGO, THE MUPPETS and more!