The rest of the December crop, and thus, the last batch of movies I saw in 2011. Read quick, because it’s almost time to pop the bubbly!
CARNAGE -- Two couples (Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly) meet to discuss a confrontation that occurred between their kids. The discussion is begrudgingly civil at first, but gradually becomes more and more heated, finally escalating into all-out verbal warfare from which they cannot seem to escape. The result is often both funny and cringe-inducing as deep-seeded personal issues are revealed and exploited. Acting is obviously outstanding -- I mean, what could be better than watching these four great actors go at each other for an hour and a half? The material certainly fits right in with Roman Polanski’s usual themes of entrapment and the darker sides of humanity (if only he wasn’t such an asshole, so I could watch his films and not hate myself afterward). But I don’t know... I found it difficult to get completely invested because the whole thing is kind of silly. In reality, as soon as shit got nasty, any sane person would just get the hell out of there. If you’re a fan of the talent involved (and why wouldn’t you be?), then it’s a worthwhile curiosity -- but in the end it feels like a pointless exercise.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO -- This is the story of Benjamin Mee, a struggling single dad who packs up his two kids and moves to a new house to make a fresh start. The catch: They’ve actually bought a dilapidated zoo, which they now own and manage. With the help of a motley crew of zoo workers (led by a dressed-down but still-scorching hot Scarlett Johansson), the Mees attempt to rebuild the zoo as well as their lives. Contrived holiday-season sap? Oh yes. But everyone is so damn likeable that it works. Matt Damon plays Benjamin with wholesome earnestness and humor. His relationships with his kids are believable, as is his understated romance with Scarlett. (Incidentally, I’m going to need a video montage of every time Scarlett says the name “Benjamin,” for my own personal use. Get on that, Internet monkeys!) The budding friendship/romance between young Dylan Mee and a free-spirited zookeeper’s assistant is also very cute, though I think someone slipped something into Elle Fanning’s drink because she is perpetually, creepily smiley. Supporting cast, including such names as Thomas Haden Church and Carla Gallo, is eclectic and funny. At its core, it’s a movie about grand gestures, which is right up Cameron Crowe’s alley -- I particularly like (and have followed) Benjamin’s advice to Dylan that it only takes “twenty seconds of insane courage” to make something great happen. Not Crowe’s best film by any means, but effectively heartwarming in the moment.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO -- I enjoyed the Swedish versions of these films and I’m not sure an English-language remake was absolutely necessary. But thanks to David Fincher’s direction and some excellent performances, this version works exceptionally well. The cool thing about Fincher is that all of his films look & feel like they exist within the same universe. So you have Detectives Mills & Somerset tracking the serial killer John Doe, while at the same time, the Zodiac killer is on the loose, Edward Norton is being suffocated by Meat Loaf’s bitch tits, and Mark Zuckerberg is sitting in his dorm room creating Facebook. Meanwhile, in Sweden, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is recruited by reclusive millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to solve the mystery of his missing niece, who disappeared without a trace decades earlier. A labyrinthine investigation ensues and Blomkvist enlists the help of a mysterious tattooed-and-pierced computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in a star-making turn). Lisbeth also has her own problems -- namely, an asshole of a social worker who tries to control her life & finances (among other things). The film is intense, filled with menace and occasional extreme brutality, and driven by another relentless score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Craig infuses a bit more humor and steel-eyed confidence into Blomkvist, and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth, while still bad-ass and awesome, has a fragility to her that Noomi Rapace’s interpretation did not. These subtle but key differences make for an experience that may not necessarily be better than the darker, grittier Swedish version, but works in its own right and allows it to co-exist as a separate vision. Should be interesting to see what happens with the rest of the trilogy.
ALBERT NOBBS -- A very sad, strange little film about a very sad, strange little man... or rather, a woman (Glenn Close) who dresses as a man in order to keep a job as a butler at a well-to-do hotel in 19th century Ireland. None of her employers or co-workers have any idea of this secret -- Albert does his (her) job well and blends into the background, keeping a nest egg hidden in a floorboard with the hope of someday escaping this life of suppression. One day, a burly painter by the name of Hubert (Janet McTeer) does some work at the hotel and discovers Albert’s secret when they are forced to become bedfellows. But turns out Hubert has a secret of his own -- he is a she, too! And he has embraced his situation, gotten married to a woman and lives an exuberant life that introduces Albert to a whole new world of possibility. Albert hopes this life may be achieved with the help of a young housemaid named Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who, unfortunately is smitten with a strapping loner (Aaron Johnston). It all sounds very intriguing, but the story plods along, only displaying rare bursts of excellence when Close and McTeer are onscreen together. Close is great but blends into the background perhaps TOO much; McTeer, however, breathes much-needed life into the proceedings and if an Oscar nod is destined to come from this film, I hope it goes to her.
PARIAH -- Alike (Adepero Oduye) is an African-American teenager living in Brooklyn. Lee, as she prefers to be known, likes girls -- a fact that she is slowly but surely coming to embrace. She dresses like a tomboy and sneaks off to a lesbian nightclub with her outspoken best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), but she is shy and unsure how to proceed, sort of feeling her way through the process. Unfortunately, she has no help from her her parents, who have their suspicions about Lee’s lifestyle on top of their own marital troubles. Her mother, Audrey, tries desperately to force her to stay away from Laura and wear girly clothes, while her aloof father, Arthur, has convinced himself that there is no issue at all. When Audrey forces Lee to hang out with a co-worker’s daughter, it becomes a turning point that leads to new experiences, emotions and confrontations. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we have seen this kind of coming-of-age story before. But blistering performances (especially from Oduye and Walker), along with a potent script by Dee Rees (who also directed), help elevate it to something much more. A tremendously moving film, bursting with realism and heart, that should probably be required viewing for all in this day & age.
THE IRON LADY -- No actor or actress is taken more for granted than Meryl Streep. Think about it: She’s widely considered to be the greatest actress alive and has been nominated for SIXTEEN Oscars. Yet she hasn’t actually won since SOPHIE’S CHOICE in 1983. Since then, she easily could have walked home with gold every single time. When it comes to sheer acting talent, she is always head and shoulders above the competition. And yet, she never wins! My only guess is that the Academy must figure, “Eh, she’ll get it next year... let’s give someone else a shot.” Which brings us to this biopic of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Streep is, as always, at the top of her game, perfectly capturing Thatcher’s strength and tenacity, not to mention her voice and mannerisms. Unfortunately, the movie is simply not very good. Much like this year’s other big-name biopic, J. EDGAR, this one is too conventional and frustratingly shallow. I mean, say what you want about Thatcher’s ultra-conservative politics, but she WAS the first female leader in the western world -- yet the film never gives this fact proper gravitas. Instead, we get scenes of an elderly Thatcher doddering around, talking to her dead husband (Jim Broadbent) and reminiscing about her younger days. Story-wise, it’s a big yawn. Fortunately, the power of Streep makes the elderly scenes watchable (much better old-age makeup than the clown costumes in J. EDGAR, too) and the younger scenes fascinating. There’s no doubt that she will be nominated for her 17th Oscar -- but thanks to the shoddy material, she will also likely suffer her 15th defeat.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE -- I believe there are two types of people in this world: Those who will watch this movie and succumb to the raw emotion, or those who will scoff at it for being manipulative Oscar bait. If you’ve been paying attention to this blog over the past few years, you can probably guess that I fall into the former category. Yes, it’s about 9/11 and it stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Yes, it’s schmaltzy and sentimental and tugs on one’s heartstrings with reckless abandon. Yes, it may go a little too far with fantastical shots of Hanks falling to his doom from the burning World Trade Center. But damned if it isn’t extremely effective. It’s the story of Oskar Shell (Thomas Horn), a wildly precocious and inquisitive boy whose father is killed on what Oskar calls “The Worst Day.” A year after the tragedy, Oskar gets the nerve to dig through his father’s closet, where he accidentally stumbles upon a key in an envelope marked with the name “Black.” He decides that this key must unlock a hidden message from his father and becomes determined to find it. Thus, he embarks on an epic journey through the five boroughs -- one of coping, self-discovery and a greater understanding of the world around him. The film is filled with whimsy and taps into every emotion, especially for those of us who were in NYC and watched 9/11 happen with our own eyes (pretty much everyone at my screening was a blubbering mess by the end). I actually don’t think it is anywhere near good enough of a movie to compete for Oscar gold (except maybe for Best Score -- nice work from Alexandre Desplat), but as an experience, it is incredibly moving.
A SEPARATION -- The final movie I saw in 2011 was part family drama, part mystery, part socio-religious commentary on life in contemporary Iran. Expertly crafted by writer/director Asghar Farhadi, it begins with a court proceeding that shows the apparent crumbling marriage between Nader and his wife Simin. Simin wants to leave Iran for their daughter’s sake (and, considering the way women are still treated in Iran, her own, too), Termeh, but Nader refuses because he doesn’t want to leave his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Things don’t go Simin’s way and she leaves them. Nader in turn hires a maid to help clean house and take care of his father, who is indeed in bad shape. From there, the film spirals off in a whole other direction and becomes a murder mystery of sorts that reveals the nature of Iranian culture and politics, the differences in class and religious beliefs and the fine line between truth and perception. As the mystery unfurls, it takes on a Hitchcockian feel in the sense that all of the clues are laid out -- you just need to pay attention and find them (which is easier said than done). Performances are outstanding, characters are complex and dialogue is multilayered -- you may find your sympathies changing as new information comes to light. An intense, intricate, riveting film that has gotten universal praise so far (100% on RottenTomatoes) -- if there’s a more worthy Best Foreign Film out there, I hope I get a chance to see it!
And on that note, after 155 trips to the movie theatre over the past twelve months, we can put 2011 in the books. My Top 10 and Bottom 10 lists, as well as all sorts of other year-end goodies, are coming soon, so stay tuned! Happy New Year to all -- and may the best of 2011 be the worst of 2012!