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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 31, 2011

 
Saturday Night At The Movies


Subjective as hell: Top 10 films of 2011


By Dennis Hartley
















I now don my Kevlar vest once again, to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2011. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I have selected to review on Hullabaloo since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time (or the bucks, frankly, with admission prices these days) to screen every new release; especially with that soul-sucking 9 to 5 gig that takes up my weekdays (so I can eat and pay rent and junk). Unless, of course, you’d like to offer me a six-figure salary, and cover my expenses to attend Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and Tribeca…no? Then I’m afraid this is as good as it gets, dear reader-presented in alphabetical order, as per usual. Oh, and Happy New Year!


Another Earth-I will bet you dollars to donuts that you heard blather aplenty in 2011 regarding Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (which I reviewed here) yet next to nothing about this thematically similar gem. Funny thing…Malick’s film cost $32,000,000 to produce, and this one cost, well, next to nothing ($150,000). I’m just saying. In essence a two-character drama, writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike Tarkovsky, it demands your full and undivided attention. The emotionally raw performances from (co-scripter) Brit Marling and William Mapother are quite remarkable, and will haunt you for days. Full review


Certified Copy - Just when you’re being lulled into thinking this is going to be one of those brainy, talky, yet pleasantly diverting romantic romps where you and your date can amuse yourselves by placing bets on “will they or won’t they-that is, if they can both shut up long enough to get down to business before the credits roll” propositions, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami throws you a curveball. Then again, maybe this film isn’t so much about “thinking”, as it is about “perceiving”. Because if it’s true that a “film” is merely (if I may quote Orson Welles) “a ribbon of dreams”-then Certified Copy, like any true work of art, is simply what you perceive it to be-nothing more, nothing less. Even if it leaves you scratching your head, you get to revel in the luminosity of Juliette Binoche’s amazing performance; there’s pure poetry in every glance, every gesture. Full review


The Descendants- In the course of (what passes for) my “career” as a movie critic, I have avowed to avoid the trite phrase “heartwarming family film” as a descriptive. Well, so much for principles. The Descendants is a heartwarming family film. There, I said it. Now, let me qualify that. Since it is directed by Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) it is not a typical heartwarming family film. It is a heartwarming family film riddled with dysfunction and middle-aged angst (which is how I prefer my heartwarming family films, thank you very much). Think of it as Terms of Endearment goes Hawaiian. Payne’s screenplay (co-adapted with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) consistently hits the sweet spot between comedy and drama, giving us characters who, in spite of (or perhaps, due to) their contradictions and flaws, are people to whom we can all (un)easily relate to. Full review

3 (Drei)- German director Tom Tykwer finally answers that age-old question: What would happen if a bio-ethicist and an art engineer, who have had a loving, 20-year relationship should find themselves falling head-over-heels in love (unbeknownst to each other) with the same genetics research scientist? This is a relatively low-key effort from a director who has built his rep from kinetic, stylized fare like Run Lola Run and The International. Still, I found this surprisingly conventional romantic romp about an unconventional love triangle amongst the Berlin intelligentsia playful, erotic and smart. And if there is a message, it’s surely imbedded within the film’s most quotable line: “Say goodbye to your deterministic understanding of biology.” Uh, bon voyage? Full Review


Drive- Ryan Gosling gives one of his best performances to date as a Hollywood stuntman by day, a wheelman-for-hire by night in this richly atmospheric, top-notch crime thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding. Paradoxically (and in true Steve McQueen fashion) Gosling is technically giving more of a non-performance; he is not quite all there, yet he is wholly present (i.e. the less he “does”, the more intriguing he becomes). From a purely cinematic standpoint, the director proves himself to be on a par with masters of modern noir like Michael Mann, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Albert Brooks, whose quietly menacing turn as a mean, spiteful, razor-toting viper goes against type (don’t expect Albert to be the “ ha-ha” kind of clown in this outing; this is more like the, er, John Wayne Gacy kind of clown). Full review


The First Grader- Even though I knew from frame one that this year’s SIFF opening night selection was one of those “triumph of the human spirit over insurmountable socio-economic and/or political odds” tales engineered to tug mercilessly at the strings of my big ol’ pinko-commie, anti-imperialist, bleeding softie lib’rul heart, I nonetheless loved every minute of it. Beautifully directed by Justin Chadwick, the film dramatizes the true story of an illiterate 84 year-old Kikuyu tribesman (Oliver Litando) who had been a freedom fighter during the Mau-Mau uprising that took place in Kenya in the 1950s. Fired up by a 2002 Kenyan law that guaranteed free education for all citizens, he shows up at his local one-room schoolhouse one day, eager to hit the books and realize a long-time dream. The real story, however, lies in his past. The sacrifices he made and personal tragedy he suffered comes slowly and deliberately into focus; resulting in a denouement that packs a powerful, bittersweet emotional gut punch a la Sophie’s Choice. Full review


Midnight in Paris- Let’s put this to bed once and for all. Were Woody Allen’s early movies really “funnier”-or are they simply portals back to a carefree time when we still had our whole life ahead of us? Lest you think that this is one of his gloomy, Bergman-esque excursions-I assure you that it’s not. It’s romantic, intelligent, perceptive, funny, and yes…it’s magical. There’s a fantastic supporting cast, including Rachael MacAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody. And to think that Woody could make me love a film starring Owen Wilson? Now, that is some kinda magic trick. Full review


Summer Wars-Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a bucolic family estate. Maybe Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the better animes of recent years. Although a few narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel somewhat familiar to anime fans (particularly when it comes to the more bombastic “cyber-punk” elements of the story), it’s the humanistic touches and subtle social observations (quite reminiscent of the films by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that make it such a worthwhile and satisfying entertainment. BTW...just to head some smarty pants off at the pass: Yes, I know the film was released in Japan in 2009. However, it did not open in the U.S. until Christmas 2010 (as a limited engagement). It opened here in Seattle February 2011. Get it? Got it. Good! Full review


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy- When I say that Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s classic espionage thriller is “byzantine and multi-layered”, I mean that in the best way possible, thanks in no small part to that rarest of animals found at the multiplex these days: The Intelligent Script (#1 on the endangered species list). Not only do Alfredson, his writers (Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) and actors (an exemplary stable of British thesps led by Gary Oldman) stubbornly refuse to insult our intelligence, but they aren’t afraid to make us do something else that we haven’t done in a while: lean forward in our seat to catch every nuance of plot and character. Full Review


The Trip- The latest from eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Road to Guantanamo). Pared down into feature film length from the 6-episode BBC TV series, it could be seen as a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, essentially playing themselves in this mashup of My Dinner with Andre and Sideways. The simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. Full Review

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