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Digging for gold: the year's best and worst films

Franchises filled up movie screens this year, but some of 2011's best films were original features

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Going back over the years in decade increments, I see 1971 was a great year for movies: A Clockwork Orange; The French Connection; Dirty Harry. So was 1951 (A Streetcar Named Desire; The African Queen; Strangers on a Train). Even 1991 was no slouch year (The Silence of the Lambs; Beauty and the Beast; Terminator 2: Judgment Day).

The year 2011? Not so much.

Worst films of 2011

I will go out of my way to see some movies I missed in their original theatrical release for Top 10 consideration. But I don't have enough of a masochistic streak to do that for worst film consideration, which is why purportedly dreadful movies such as Jack & Jill are not on my list. (After last year's scabrous comedy Grown-Ups, I will not see an Adam Sandler movie unless I must review it.)

Of the movies I did see, I especially hated:

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

When Keith Richards shows up to coherently contribute exposition about the Fountain of Youth, you know the fun is being well and truly leached from the Pirates movies. In fact, the whole franchise resembles the skeletal pirates of the first movie, dead but still mysteriously ambulatory.

2. New Year's Eve

Truly painful shmaltz in the template of Garry Marshall's hit Valentine's Day. I just have to think of the buffed, polished Jon Bon Jovi and Katherine Heigl on the screen together to give myself a case of the heebie-jeebies.

3. Abduction

This hirsute variant of Hanna (a teen trained in self-defence from an early age becomes a fugitive when targeted by a sinister villain with boundless resources) demonstrates that, wow, Taylor Lautner really can't act.

4. Beastly

This sterile contemporary urban update of Beauty and the Beast attempts to be edgy, but with its glossy surfaces, its callow characters, and its skin-deep exploration of outer-vs.-inner beauty, there isn't sufficient edge here to break a Popsicle.

5. Green Lantern/The Change Up

Ryan Reynolds is a natural, likable leading man, so it's doubly distressing to see him swing and miss in both a soulless superhero movie and a raunchy but unfunny adult comedy.

This year ended with a lackluster showing at the holiday box office and that was appropriate for a lackluster year in which every single one of the top 10 box office winners were sequels and/or franchise movies, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I; The Hangover Part II; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Fast Five; Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cars 2. (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger may have been technically originals, but both films were made in anticipation of next year's über-franchise The Avengers.)

In a cultural climate like that, we could hardly expect to be rewarded with much in the way of original cinema.

But really good movies did break through, even among those franchise films. My picks for the best of the year:


1. Hugo

Trust Martin Scorsese to reinvent the contemporary 3-D movie and fashion a loving, visually splendid paean to pioneering silent film. Scorsese has generally been more at home with gangsters than plucky Parisian orphans, but Hugo demonstrates that maybe he should reconsider his choices.


Asa Butterfield plays Hugo Cabret in Hugo, Martin Scorcese's foray into 3-D.

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Asa Butterfield plays Hugo Cabret in Hugo, Martin Scorcese's foray into 3-D. (POSTMEDIA / HANDOUT)

2. Melancholia

Controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier uses the tropes of an end-of-the-world thriller and delivers an existential manifesto: We are alone in the universe. Death is inevitable. There is no hope. But there is consolation in Kirsten Dunst's perversely lovely nude scene (bathing in the reflected light of a stray planetoid that threatens to wipe out our Earth) and this additional small comfort: when the going gets depressing, the depressives get going.

 

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Just because a movie is the No. 1 box office champ of the year doesn't mean it's not great. This ripping conclusion sent off the Harry Potter series in style, as the young wizard Harry finally faces his ultimate reckoning with Ralph Fiennes' Lord Voldemort. This, incidentally, is a movie that proves great visual effects are lovely to see, but they don't mean a thing unless you're engaged by the human interaction in the foreground. If you don't believe that, try watching Green Lantern more than once.


4. Rango

Ripped from the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, director Gore Verbinski is given licence to let his considerable imagination loose in a feature-length cartoon, and he duly stampedes across genre lines with a movie that invokes theatre of the absurd, spaghetti westerns, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the comparatively obscure 1968 Don Knotts yukfest The Shakiest Gun in the West. Yet it's still a more cohesive and pleasing movie than any and all of the Pirates movies and, incidentally, the best animated film of the year.

 

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia.

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Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. (POSTMEDIA / HANDOUT)

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This is a bit of a cheat. This adaptation of John le Carré's spy novel is not due in Winnipeg until Jan. 20 but it's currently playing in some of the bigger metropolises for awards consideration. Gary Oldman is Smiley, a put-to-pasture spymaster suddenly responsible for uncovering a Russian mole buried deep in the cagey community of British intelligence. Populated with the cream of the English acting community (including Colin Firth and Tom Hardy) and directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), it's understated, intricate and gloomy as a month of rainy days. I loved it.


6. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Guy Ritchie offended many with his manic interpretation of the dignified Baker Street sleuth, but I say Ritchie's muscular style and his tendency to visually deconstruct every action nicely jibes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's exacting prose. Plus: Robert Downey Jr. playing Holmes as a sexually confused, antisocial genius demonstrates the unfettered joy of acting.

 

7. Young Adult

Romantic comedies have been at the low ebb of the genre in the past few years, which is why this venomous anti-romantic comedy/character study from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody makes the list. Charlize Theron is the emotionally immature heroine who sets out to win back her old high school sweetheart and fails ignominiously. Along the way, she meets up with a true soulmate (Patton Oswalt), who, like her, has never really gotten over his high school years. But the fact he's chubby and crippled and homely doesn't forebode well for any relationship longevity, at least not in the real world.


Gary Oldman in

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Gary Oldman in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." (CP)

8. Winnie the Pooh

They don't really make movies for small kids anymore, but Disney's Winnie the Pooh offered up material for parents of young children who would prefer their kids simply be entertained (as opposed to having their little socks knocked off by rip-roaring spectacle) with its line-drawing characters and pastoral watercolor backgrounds. If the esthetic of computer-generated animation is plastic, Winnie the Pooh has the texture of a lovingly used plush teddy.

 

Winnie the Pooh

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Winnie the Pooh (POSTMEDIA)

9. Margin Call

It used to be that direct-to-DVD was the ultimate put-down for a feature film. Now, worthy features are often released almost simultaneously on DVD and pay-per-view, including this under-the-radar drama speculating on what kind of boardroom shenanigans preceded the financial meltdown of 2008. Turns out there was a whole lot of rationalization going on among people who ultimately chose to act like criminals to preserve their own fortunes. Bonus points: How refreshing to see Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci on a movie screen not feeling compelled to chew any scenery.

 

10. 50/50

Q. What do you call a cancer movie that injects stoner levity into a premise that is typically handled as straight-up, hand-wringing drama? A. Brian's Bong. Or maybe 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as the cancer sufferer with the titular odds of survival and Seth Rogen as his best friend, a guy not above using the plight to get his friend some sympathy sex. Call this the cinematic equivalent of medical marijuana.

 

Honorable Mention:

The Top 10 list is for feature films, but the best local film of the year happened to be an animated short: Anita Lebeau's Big Drive, a nostalgic but fanciful riff on one family's car trip through the Prairies, circa 1971.

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2011 D1

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.

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