Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2011


As always, I wait till long after awards season to post my faves and least faves. That gives me time to see as much as possible (but, alas, never everything) so that my list is fairly well-rounded given the choices of available films out there from the selected year. Oftentimes, this means waiting for a DVD or Blu-ray release to catch up with those titles that either had a short theatrical run or no theatrical run! As with all such lists, I reserve the right to add titles as I catch up with those handful of films that I hope to see but have as yet not managed. For the moment, the films I still have to catch up with that I know of and that stand a chance of appearing somewhere on this list are: THE BEAVER, THE DEBT, LE HAVRE, A SEPARATION, UNDEFEATED. I’m sure there are others, but these are the ones that are currently on my radar.

So let’s start with the big category first. My Favorite Films released in 2011. Most categories I offer alphabetically, but this category I will offer in order of preference, starting with my absolute favorites up top. Each title is followed by year released and a rating on a scale of 0-10, 10 being the best. I also don’t limit my lists to a specific number of films. Never understood the point of that.

How do I choose favorites and least favorites? It’s a combination of things and, like all lists, it is a very personal reflection of my tastes and reactions. I base my choices on visual craftsmanship, writing, performance, mood, tone, originality, emotional poignancy, self-expression, poetry, theme, creative choices, fearlessness and honesty. It is rare that I find myself responding to the most financially successful films or even the most popular films. Not that I have anything against films that attain either one of those particular successes, but quite often my definition of what makes a film successful and effective varies greatly from the public at large. I’m a demanding audience member who knows what I like and why. That said, there is not a genre I do not embrace. All I ask is that it have a vision behind it.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Favorites Films of 2011:

TREE OF LIFE, THE (2011) 11/10
MELANCHOLIA (2011) 10/10
MARGARET (2011) 10/10
CERTIFIED COPY (2010-US release 2011) 10/10
TAKE SHELTER (2011) 9/10
SHAME (2011) 9/10
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) 9/10
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011) 9/10
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) 8/10
JANE EYRE (2011) 8/10
CORIOLANUS (2011) 8/10
TYRANNOSAUR (2011) 8/10
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010-US release 2011) 8/10
SKIN I LIVE IN, THE (2011) 8/10
MEEK’S CUTOFF (2011) 8/10
PARIAH (2011) 8/10
BEGINNERS (2011) 8/10
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) 8/10
WARRIOR (2011) 8/10
IRON LADY, THE (2011) 8/10
DRIVE (2011) 8/10

Favorite TV Films/Mini-Series from 2011 (alphabetical):

DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON 2 (2011 – BBC Mini-series) 9/10
MILDRED PIERCE (2011) 10/10
SHADOW LINE, THE (2011 – BBC Mini-series) 10/10
WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY (2011 – AMERICAN MASTERS) 9/10

Also recommend/above average from 2011 (alphabetical):
These films did not hit the necessary level to attain my favorites of the year, but they all had something above average to offer, even though they may also have shown somewhat larger flaws. Luckily, those flaws were not big enough to keep the films from standing out for me and for me to feel comfortable recommending them as “good.”

ALBERT NOBBS (2011) 7.5/10
ANOTHER HAPPY DAY (2011) 7/10
ARTIST, THE (2011) 7/10
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) 7.5/10
DANGEROUS METHOD, A (2011) 7/10
50/50 (2011) 7/10
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE (2011) 7/10
HELP, THE (2011) 7/10
IN A BETTER WORLD (2010 – 2011 U.S. release)  7.5/10
LIKE CRAZY (2011) 7/10
MARGIN CALL (2011) 7/10
MONEYBALL (2011) 7.5/10
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) 7/10
OF GODS AND MEN (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7.5/10
POETRY (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7.5/10
PUTTY HILL (2011) 7.5/10
RAMPART (2011) 7/10
RUM DIARY, THE (2011)  7.5/10
THING, THE (2011) 7/10
TRUST (2010 – 2011 U.S. release) 7/10
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011) 7.5/10
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) 7/10

Favorite Older Films Watched For First Time (alphabetical):

BRØDRE (2004- BROTHERS) 8/10
LINEUP, THE (1958) 9/10
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (TV-1995) 10/10
SECRET SUNSHINE (2007) 8/10

Most Disappointing Films of 2011 (alphabetical):
These are film that I, for one reason or another, had higher hopes for. Perhaps it’s a film by a filmmaker I have liked in the past. Or perhaps word-of-mouth among my friends was very strong. Or maybe the film was based on other material I had been fond of. Either way, these films did not live up to my expectations of what they could have been or should have been. Therefore, I left the experience disappointed and dissatisfied. In some cases, immensely so, as my ratings will dictate. 

ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN, THE (2011) 4/10
ANOTHER EARTH (2011) 5/10
CARNAGE (2011) 5/10
DESCENDANTS, THE (2011) 4/10
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011) 3/10
SOURCE CODE (2011) 3/10
SUPER 8 (2011) 4/10

Least favorites of 2011 (alphabetical):
These are the films that I found to be truly awful. Films that, despite quite possibly the best intentions, did not work for me on any level. For the most part, these films failed on all or most of the above-mentioned qualities that I look for from any cinematic, storytelling experience. 

HANNA (2011) 2/10
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) 1/10

I’m not going to go into detail about why I liked or disliked each and every film, but I will make comments here on some of them. Many of these comments were simply quick blurbs I posted to Facebook at the time of viewing.

Terence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE is easily the best American film I’ve seen in decades. Well, at least right up there with Malick’s other films. A filmmaker committed to his vision, to film as poetry, as music, as a sensory experience not confined by formula or a need to elucidate. It is a film of great emotional depth and the purest form of cinema. This is what I live for.

MELANCHOLIA is that rare cinematic experience that can only flourish in the hands of a filmmaker who has wholly embraced his unique vision of the world and is relentlessly invigorated by his own sense of daring exploration. MELANCHOLIA is also, oddly enough, Lars Von Trier’s most accessible film in quite some time. I’m obviously a fan of the director, even his most challenging works resonate with me. MELANCHOLIA is a staggeringly raw emotional journey that exists in a world of metaphor; the outer sci-fi elements serve the inner journey of the characters. Fearless performances alongside fearless filmmaking and Von Trier has forged a film outlining the devastating emotional impact of depression. It is both frightening and enlightening. And it is, for anyone who has ever personally experienced depression, brutally honest. What more could we ask of any filmmaker?

TAKE SHELTER is a film that has been haunting my thoughts ever since I watched it. Dreamlike, eerie, unsettling, mesmerizing. Michael Shannon has always been good at playing guys just a little “off” and he does so again here, but with a wonderfully sympathetic edge. And Jessica Chastain, who seems to have gone from anonymity to stardom in a single year, is absolutely a gem to watch. Not to mention possibly the most beautiful woman ever to grace the silver screen. I really dug this film. As always, avoid reading plot descriptions.

This newest adaptation of JANE EYRE is a stunning, moody piece of filmmaking. I was quite surprised. I had heard good things, but I am always skeptical of new adaptations of great works we’ve seen adapted to death (and oftentimes to horrendous effect). While there’s no doubt this film would have benefitted greatly from a running time of more than 120 minutes, what’s here is moody, creepy, unsettling and beautifully acted. This is NOT your sigh-inducing, romantic Hollywood interpretation of JANE EYRE. I cannot speak to its faithfulness as an adaptation as there is a lifetime passed between myself and the novel, but as a film I can say with complete assuredness that it has a hell of a lot to offer. Mia Wasikowska is fantastic and an inspired bit of casting. Michael Fassbender might be physically wrong for the part (i.e. too handsome), but he doesn’t let that stop him from delivering a passionate and tormented performance. The cinematography by Adriano Goldman is spectacular and not at all flashy or slick, but stark, atmospheric and inspired. And the sound design and score enhance the proceedings with great care and nuance. Directed with meticulous attention to detail and performance by Cary Fukunaga –who gave us the terrific film SIN NOMBRE– this interpretation of JANE EYRE is a minor revelation. One only wishes it had been a miniseries so that we could of had more of it.

Steve McQueen’s SHAME is one of those rare films that dares to take a look at sexual addiction with a raw, non-judgemental eye. It’s a film of deep anguish and Michael Fassbender’s fearless performance is at the heart of it. McQueen’s direction is incredibly confident and challenging and he conveys a world of deep inner torment both with his camera and a true understanding of the available depths of his actors. Like most NC-17 films, I question the necessity of the rating, but it may be the emotional content that pushed the ratings board over the edge.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. I loved this film. The look, the performances, the building dread… Olsen’s performance is simply terrific and heightens the proceedings quite intensely. The film also has a structure that moves back and forth in time, which is a device I love when used well (as it is here) and its uncompromising effectiveness is what makes this film such a tense, psychological journey. I’m always horrified to read critics like Roger Ebert claim that the film would have been better served had it been told linearly. Sorry Roger, this is not a film for people who can’t put two and two together and get four. The film is not a complex puzzle. It’s not confusing. It simply knows how to let the events unfold in such a manner as to create a genuine atmosphere and to up the stakes as the story progresses and more details are revealed. At the end of the day, this is a character piece and it effected me quite deeply. Not in a weepy, Hollywood sort of way, but in a “what’s this wriggling around in my gut” sort of way. And while there are elements of the storytelling that will undoubtably piss some people off (along the lines of what the director chooses NOT to show us), it’s exactly the kind of filmmaking and storytelling I admire. While some may see it as a cop-out or even a lack of storytelling, I see it as a filmmaker who knows how to get under his audience’s skin with no intention of healing any open wounds the film may leave.

How did the film WARRIOR slip through the cracks? Thankfully, Nick Nolte received a well-deserved Oscar nom and the film is back on some radars. Director Gavin O’Connor –who gave us the entertaining Kurt Russell film MIRACLE– has made a terrific film here that seems to have been met with mixed reviews. I don’t understand why. This is an incredibly effective movie, well written with powerful performances by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nolte. In the hands of a lesser director, this film could have been schmaltzy and predictable. But in O’Connor’s hands, it’s incredibly human and driven by character and emotion while also offering insight into working-class America in a country pummeled by recession and war. And though I’m not a fan of mixed martial arts fighting, I was riveted and on the edge of my seat. This is a stellar film.

Hoyte van Hoytema, the film’s DP, describes the feel of director Tomas Alfredsson’s new work perfectly, “It is a melancholic world set in small rooms, drenched in nicotine and bureaucratic sweat.” Highly condensed compared to both miniseries and book, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a taught, moody film. It can also be immensely confusing as it twists and turns down psychological halls and untrustworthy corridors to the point where sheer frustration may set in. And that’s good, cause our characters are mostly living in a world that does not reveal itself easily. This is a film of images, of moments and looks, of people who watch and listen, but rarely talk. Not a film for those who need to feel caught up with the plot at all times. But for the rest of us, it’s rather exciting.

I love old Almodovar. You know, the pre-WOMEN ON A VERGE stuff: LAW OF DESIRE, MATADOR, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS… There was a period post-WOMEN where I lost interest in him as a filmmaker for about 10 years. Not that the films were bad, per se, but they were missing something for me. And then, Almodovar returned to form. Or maybe something in me changed. Whatever it was, I’ve really been enjoying Almodovar again. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is no exception. And how great to see Antonio Banderas back where he belongs! SKIN is playful, twisted and dark in a way that only Almodovar could blend together so magically, so disturbingly. It’s a wonderful genre piece that has its author’s confidence and experience written all over it.

CORIOLANUS is one of Shakespeare’s works I have not read nor have I seen it performed. So I cannot comment on the adaptation. But what I can say is that I found the film gripping and the performances unique and powerful. I REALLY enjoyed this film and loved the contemporary Serbian/Rome setting and politics. Someone else will have to be the judge of whether or not it honors the original work, but this was easily one of the better films I’ve seen his year. I thought Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus was an emotionally complex character. Very rich. And, if nothing else, we get to see the impeccable, stunning-beyond-words Jessica Chastain once again (she’s in everything this year!).

All these years and roles later and Meryl Streep still manages to be a revelation. She even effected sympathy from me for a figure I consider one of the most destructive political forces in modern social politics and the birth-mother of today’s conservative malformation (with Ronald Reagan being her sinister political spouse and patriarch of this draconian movement). The other surprise THE IRON LADY had in store for me was the assured cinematic hand with which director Phyllida Lloyd tackled the subject matter. In truth, I was prepared for another star-studded made-for-TV-movie. But Lloyd’s approach was anything but. Creative and effective and never talking down to its audience, THE IRON LADY is a solid film suffering very little from the usual pitfalls and obvious machinations of the Hollywood biopic. And Streep reminds us that doing a great impersonation of a public figure is not the same thing as acting. Streep’s performance comes from a place of great depth, a craft and insight rarely offered by today’s Hollywood movie stars.

Like all Kelly Reichardt films, MEEK’S CUTOFF is a slow, methodical film that builds internally and culminates in a rich, visceral mood that brings home the life or death veracity of the story’s setting. Not for the impatient. As always, Michelle Williams is great. As is the rest of the cast, which includes the ineffable Bruce Greenwood.

BEGINNERS. Not only was it wonderful to see my friend’s son Keegan play the young Ewan McGregor, but the film itself I found to be very moving. I particularly appreciated the brevity of dialogue and the emotional landscape that was created through image, performance and the choice of engaging us in a non-linear narrative. Bravo.

Todd Haynes’ MILDRED PIERCE is an incredible piece of cinema. Thank the world for the creation of the mini-series. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed version of this story and I still am. Luckily, these two films are completely different animals that both hold up fantastically under close scrutiny. I’ve always been a huge fan of Haynes –every film he’s done– but this one may be his masterpiece. Or, at the very least, it’s a grand testament to a director that grows in leaps and bounds with each film he makes. And that’s saying something given Haynes’ astounding and complex body of work. The writing, directing, acting, design, cinematography, editing, score, wardrobe, hair… Everything is in top form. An edge-of-your-seat emotional cinematic experience. Very powerful stuff on so many levels.

THE SHADOW LINE, one of the best BBC mini-series I’ve ever seen. Taut, intense, scary, exciting, thrilling… All these adjectives and many more apply. Including incredibly well-written and acted. Across the board. The first episode was good, but it was the second that made it impossible for me to turn away. I watched the last 5 episodes (of 7) back to back in one sitting. I literally could not stop.

I really enjoyed ALBERT NOBBS. Glenn Close is, indeed, terrific in the lead role. It’s a touching and detailed performance. That said, the film still asks us to stretch the realm of believability a bit as neither Close nor Janet McTeer are actually believable as men. In fact, McTeer looks like your average Hollywood lesbian. Close is more of an odd bit of androgyny, though unique and infinitely human. If you can get past that one small hitch and go with the story, it’s a sweet, endearing and heartfelt ride with a very unique tone and flavor. And this continues my Mia Wasikowska film festival (JANE EYRE). As always, she’s wonderful, as is the rest of the supporting cast. The film does a nice job of setting up a world where even people who are not outwardly wearing “disguises” are still not truly showing the world who they really are or what they’re really up to. One need not dress up like the opposite sex to have societal facades.

About halfway through ANOTHER HAPPY DAY, I wasn’t sure if I was, ultimately, going to like the film. It’s uneven at times and some of the side characters (the sisters, in particular) seemed oddly cartoonish to me in a way that unbalanced the narrative. But as those characters drifted into the shadows and others emerged, I found myself effected by much (though not all) of what was taking place in this film. Part of it reminded me of my own youth in the character played by Ezra Miller. The other in the daughter surprisingly well-played by Kate Bosworth. I understood them both more than I care to admit (but just did). It was also great to see Ellen Barkin carry a film again and Ellen Burstyn is always a joy to watch. It was also nice to see George Kennedy! It’s been a while… The film has its flaws, there’s no question, and it can be (appropriately) frustrating at times, but my feelings of compassion, rage, resentment and sadness where genuine enough. With so many films out there “indicating” emotions (THE DESCENDANTS?) rather than actually experiencing and communicating them, I have to give this film credit for tapping into quite a few. Again, it’s not always successful in every moment, but the ones that work, work well. There’s a sincerity to the film that I admire and respect. ANOTHER HAPPY DAY may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it’s a theme we’ve seen before and even recently, but this particular film finds its own way into the subject matter. It would also make a very appropriate double bill with WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, also starring Ezra Miller. There are some serious thematic similarities. But make sure to have your anti-depressents standing by…

50/50. A good film. Not a masterpiece, but effective. I was worried about watching it so close after my dog Gus’ cancer-scare and I was right to be! Was probably a bit more emotional watching it than I might have been otherwise :) The film has some genuinely nice moments. And a dog named Skeletor.

A DANGEROUS METHOD is a fascinating film. I didn’t love it, but I liked it quite a bit. To witness the birth of psychoanalysis and the neurosis, complications, theories and vast attempts at comprehending how our inner thoughts and experiences manifest is beyond fascinating. At once a history lesson and a love story, neither is relayed to us as simple or pedestrian. Fassbender is terrific, as is Knightly who really put herself out there on a limb and has received some negative criticisms from folks who seem to have been incapable of separating their discomfort in watching her, from the performance she was actually giving. Sure, Knightley’s no Meryl Streep, but her performance does not deserve mockery. Based on a play (adapted from a book), the film is unusually talky and restrained for a Cronenberg film, but it’s to the director’s credit that he showed such restraint and understood that this is a film largely ABOUT talking. It’s also a film that epitomizes Cronenberg’s fascination with psychology, psychosis, sexuality, neurosis… The list goes on. It’s as if the characters in this film were studying and deciphering Cronenberg’s work while he was studying and deciphering theirs. It certainly shines a light on what has drawn Cronenberg to explore the stories he has and makes them that much richer as a result.

THE HELP. I actually liked this film. I was not sure I was going to (I have low tolerance for anything too saccharine). But the performances are too good to be ignored. Now I do have to say that I thought the last half hour of the film wrapped too many story lines up in nice little (unnecessary, obvious and pandering to the lowest common denominator) ribbons. And I thought, as good a performance as it was, that Bryce Dallas Howard’s character was a little too villainous and hackneyed for my tastes. Though I know there were, indeed, people like that and worse, they loose their power for me as characters in a story when presented in such simple, black and white terms. But the over all story held me and moved me and the conviction of the performances (yes, including Emma Stone’s) made it more than a worthwhile viewing experience. And to see Cicely Tyson again. How I love her…

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. I enjoyed this film. And yes, Michelle Williams’ perf is at the heart of it. It’s why the film works as well as it does. The director has done a lot of British TV dramas and this film feels like a solid (but not stellar) BBC film with an exceptional performance. The story is very sweet and touching. It’s enjoyable. But it’s the amazing vulnerability in Williams’ performance that elevates the film. And unlike my friend Joe, I thought Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier was spot on (sorry, Joe, I thought he nailed it). My only real complaint would be the musical numbers that bookend the film. They are the only moments when Williams is NOT convincing as Marilyn. In these scenes, it appears more obvious that she doesn’t “move” like Monroe. It’s an odd choice to open the film with such a moment as it makes the hurtle to believing her that much more difficult. Thankfully, she is incredible throughout the rest of the film until the director, again, decides to close the film on a less than convincing moment. Particularly when the film already has a wonderful ending that should have been followed by credits and, instead, goes to this extraneous musical number that feels more like a screen test than something that was meant to be seen by an audience.

Oren Moverman’s RAMPART is a terrific character study of the generations-old mentality that allowed the Rampart division of the LAPD to become as corrupt and brutal as the “criminals” which they were supposedly out to stop. Woody Harrelson’s performance is gripping, grotesque and frighteningly human. And the impressive supporting cast does more than hold their own. RAMPART is not a perfect film, but it is a very compelling one. Moverman’s visual style effectively illuminates the inner life of Harrelson’s character and the downward spiral he is on. Dedicated to the many people who suffered at the hands of LAPD’s Rampart Division.

TRUST is a very sincere film. It is also quite moving at times. And, in may ways, difficult because of its subject matter. Directed by David Schwimmer, the film looks a bit like a TV movie. That keeps the film from being a particularly interesting film from a cinematic standpoint. What the film does have going for it are some moments that feel quite authentic to some of the dilemmas, emotions and hurdles that face a family dealing with the rape of a minor. Schwimmer is apparently no stranger to the subject matter having worked with The Rape Foundation for over 15 years (as well as being on their board for 10) and I believe his experience has allowed him to make a film that comes from a very honest place. Viola Davis is wonderful (as always) in a smaller role and Liana Liberato as the daughter is truly worth watching. Clive Owen and Catherine Keener also both turn in very good performances. Might be a good idea to show this film to your teenage kids. As well as to those parents unaware of the true potential for danger their kids may face while innocently surfing the net.

Chang-dong Lee’s film POETRY is a terrific film grounded by Jeong-hie Yun’s incredible performance. The film is not particularly cinematic, but what it lacks in the visual realm it more than makes up for in story, character and consequence. While I wasn’t as bowled over by this film as many, I still found it very engaging and, at times, quite moving. It’s a fascinating portrait that appears deceptively simple at first, but grows steadily into something of considerable substance.

Steven Spielberg’s ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN is an assault on the senses. It’s like a roller coaster that just won’t stop even after you’ve thrown up and passed out. If that sounds like fun to you, have at it. For me, there were long stretches where the action was so furious and over-the-top that I forgot I was actually watching a film with a plot (such as it may be). Not only are the characters consistently ten paces behind the audience, but it’s hard to care one way or another if they succeed in their mission or not. Perhaps all this is a result of Spielberg’s desire to make the ultimate 3D action film, but the only thing he succeeded in doing for me was to convince me that 3D can hurt more than it can help. In 2D, the film is interminable and relentless. It’s an exercise in tedium.

I was worried about ANOTHER EARTH when I first heard about it. There are some thematic similarities between this film’s concept and a series I’m developing. So I found out the story of the film long before seeing it to make sure the similarities weren’t too great. They’re not. So, sadly, I knew the whole plot and ending before seeing the film. So I can’t tell you how I might have responded to this film had I not known its course. As it stands, I thought the film okay at best. Cool concept. But the performances were not quite strong enough to pull me in. And the director’s visual approach used that low-budget, hand-held, poorly-lit style that rarely ever works for me. It’s catch-as-catch-can and it often creates a distance between me and the characters and events. Even though, I assume, it’s meant to have a pseudo-documentary feel, it’s a gimmick that rarely appeals to me unless applied through the hands of a master storyteller. I found the look to be ugly in a way that didn’t serve the story. I was too aware of the actors acting and the filmmakers filmmaking. All that said, there are certainly things to like about the film. Its concept, for one. The effects shots of the other earth. Even the dilemma the characters find themselves in is interesting. I like that it’s a character piece with a science fiction element. But the sci-fi itself isn’t the story, just the catalyst. That’s a plus for me. I also like that it shows a concept/character film can be made on the fly with very little money. I wish I just liked the film itself more.

THE DESCENDANTS. I wish I liked Alexander Payne more than I do. There are certainly things I respect about him. He hires many of my friends and acquaintances, for one. And he also turned down Tom Cruise for the Paul Giamatti role in SIDEWAYS. And he tries to make films that are about something. But his films ultimately play like TV movies. They’re like pebbles skipping over water. Except that pebbles eventually break the surface and plunge in. Payne’s films never do. They just keep riding the surface until the credits roll. And the one genuine moment in the whole film (by the wonderful actress Judy Greer), is misused as an opportunity for a cheap joke. A gag. Shameful. Yes, I thought Shailene Woodley as the older daughter was also good, but Payne cut away almost every time the truth of her character threatened to emerge. With all the depths of emotion teetering on the edge of potential, Payne seems to consistently back away from the ledge. He caters to those who would like to think they went swimming, when all they did was dip their feet in to see if it was too hot or too cold. And it’s always lukewarm.

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Wish I liked this film more than I did. Its heart’s in the right place, and it certainly has a couple of touching moments, but I ultimately felt the film to be contrived. And the score by Alexandre Desplat (a composer I usually like) doesn’t help matters by being overly magical and sentimental. At least for my tastes. And the young actor, Thomas Horn, while certainly giving it 120%, was just never convincing to me. His character felt as contrived as the film’s rather unbelievable and somewhat forced plot. Very disappointing viewing experience given the director is Stephen Daldry. This is easily his least compelling, least challenging work to date.

I wish I liked Roman Polanski’s filmed take on the play GOD OF CARNAGE. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the play itself when it was here in Los Angeles. I heard a lot of great things about it, but I cannot comment on whether or not Polanski’s adaptation/vision of that play honors it or not. What I can say is that, though I thought the film had its moments, it didn’t work for me over all. I found it to be rather obvious. It was clear where it was heading from the moment the opening credits ended. No surprises, no revelations. I also wasn’t sold on all performances, though everyone had their moments, I still thought the characters obvious and contrived. Where the film DID work for me was in the early stages where I was feeling the dread of the situation and wished someone would make a move to avoid the social train wreck the characters were blindly heading into. But motivations were forced, in my opinion, and the destination overwrought and not all that interesting. For me. CARNAGE isn’t a bad film by any stretch, it’s just not one I much cared about and it’s the kind of tale that I feel I’ve seen a dozen times before and done much better (WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?).

What’s with all the rave reviews for SUPER 8? For me, it showed us just how far we’ve fallen. It takes the flavor of early Spielberg, Dante and Donner films (which some already dislike, though I am not one of those) and reminds us just how effects-obsessed we’ve become in lieu of actual storytelling. I cringe when I read “director J.J. Abrams teamed up with legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg to create this generation’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” or “one of the most balanced films the genre has seen in quite a long time.” Really? I must be getting old cause I thought it descended quickly into unintentional absurdity and ultimately kinda sucked.

As for the abysmal RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES —perhaps one of the worst films I’ve ever seen– I would send you to my blog post devoted to that atrocity titled RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence. Normally, I don’t like to outright “bash” a film as I know what it takes to actually make one, but this particular film was an exercise in ridiculously lazy writing and shockingly uninspired acting and directing.

Despite some of my complaints and disappointments (what’s an honest list without them?), 2011 was, ultimately, a rather good year for film. However, as is the norm, few, if any, of the best films were produced by American studios. Some found distribution in that arena, but few of the best were developed or funded there. Unfortunately, where filmmaking is concerned, Hollywood is one of the last places for truly gifted and visionary directors and writers to explore their craft and do their most original work. But thankfully, despite its popularity, Hollywood is not the only place where films are made. There’s a whole wide world out there engaged in the cinematic art of storytelling. We have a lot to look forward to.

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Favorite & Least Favorite Films of 2011

THE WALKING DEAD Season 2.5: When Characters No Longer Matter


Warning! Spoiler Alert!

It seems I am NOT your average viewer. I readily confess to being baffled by the reactions I get from others regarding the TV series THE WALKING DEAD. I’ve blogged about this show before (THE WALKING DEAD: Dead On ArrivalTHE WALKING DEAD Season 2.0: Rising From The Ashes) and I feel the need to keep my thoughts updated as the series progresses. To summarize my feelings, I thought the first season suffered from lazy writing. Poor dialogue, a lack of inner logic, and lazy solutions and outcomes that seemed to serve the writers’ needs more than the characters’. Add to that, generic zombies that came across more like extras in makeup than people we once knew and engaged with in our day-to-day lives. All that said, writing is difficult and challenging and how the first season turned out may not be a reflection of the talent of the writers involved. Many more factors enter in to what finds its way to the screen.

Regardless, the result was that I initially had no plans to continue watching the show. Until I heard that an all-new team of writers had been brought on for Season 2. For me, the first half of the second season elevated itself far above the first season. Finally, characters were being developed over time and acting within the limits of what had been set up. I didn’t feel the writers rushing to the next zombie attack, but letting it happen organically while understanding that nothing mattered or had consequences if the characters themselves were not believable and offering some measure of dimensionality. Though the writing never managed to become great –and certainly not as good as the show had the potential to offer– it was, to my mind, leagues ahead of where it had been, even if it still showed signs of laziness from time to time (the zombie in the pharmacy). I finally felt myself being pulled in, sorry to see each episode end while excited to catch the next.

Sadly, as the second half of the second season aired and came to a close, I personally felt the show and its characters dropped back into the pit of unmotivated actions and behaviors, events of convenience (more for the writers again than the characters). In essence, I stopped believing in this world. I stopped caring. What had begun to excite me, now had me rolling my eyes and shaking my head. Again.

But it seems I might have been alone.

The few conversations I’ve had with others have shown me just how outside the mainstream I might be. It seems those I talk to felt the first half of the second season was boring; not enough zombie action and too much talking about feelings. Which I interpret as “I don’t care about character development, I just want to see some really cool shit.” I had a conversation last night with a nice gentleman who agreed that a lot of what was happening wasn’t really motivated or particularly well-written, but he was thrilled to see “something finally happening.” But what I saw were things happening that betrayed the characters, the world of the story, and any audience member with a desire for inner logic and organic character development. What the show returned to for me was a world in which characters show up in places they would never go and at times they could never realistically manage. Characters who would say things I don’t believe they’d say and come to conclusions that any believable person simply would not come to (without a writer breathing down their necks): Dale wandering alone in a field at night for no good reason and then having a zombie suddenly “appear” inches behind him out in the open and unnoticed. Carl wandering around stealing guns and poking at zombies deep in the woods. Carl showing up in an open field at night just after his father has killed Shane. Talk about place and timing! Especially since Shane went to all that trouble to set up an elaborate scheme to lure Rick through the woods and into this field (that is oddly right outside the house they started at!), only to have Carl find them there. And why would Shane want to kill Rick out in the open instead of in the woods? And why would Carl not tell his father that Shane has risen and is coming up behind him? Instead, he chooses to take the risk that he might accidentally shoot his father? Or that he might miss them both and his father will be eaten by Shane and become a zombie himself?

And then there’s the attack on the house at the end. Silly. Zombies reaching out and grabbing people from off frame as if the edge of the frame were also the edge of the characters’ sight lines. I’m sorry, running from a crowd of zombies, you know if you’re running alongside one. Again, it’s more act of convenience than anything else. Andrea falling down and the others assuming that the zombies “got her” instead of opening the door to find out and help her. Don’t buy it. And everyone turning on Rick at the end, wanting to go their separate ways. And Rick never fully explaining that Shane created this elaborate plan that included killing a man just so he could lure Rick out to the woods to murder him and take position again as Rick’s wife’s lover and the father to their boy (and unborn child). He never mentions that Shane held him at gunpoint. Kind of an important fact to leave out, especially when all your friends are judging you harshly for your actions. And despite any guilt Rick has (and some of that guilt is just), there’s not one character there I believe would blame Rick or question Shane’s intent. Not for a second. And I certainly don’t believe they would all turn on Rick. Particularly not his wife Lori who is the one who warned Rick about Shane, that he was dangerous and planning something and that Rick needed to take action. Add to all that Rick’s sudden decision to declare himself the group’s dictatorial leader… No, it’s all a matter of convenience; I can feel the writers’ wheels spinning in desperation. Very little of it feels organic or keeps within the logic of the series. But the comment I keep hearing is “at least something’s happening.” I guess as long as you have zombies attacking, it doesn’t matter if the writing’s awful or lazy. It doesn’t matter if the characters are devoid of dimension or behave in unbelievable ways.

It all falls under what I now call The RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES syndrome; when some of the laziest, most logic-defying, downright god-awful writing is lauded as intelligent and engaging. I suppose it’s my personal Twilight Zone.

The same gentleman I had been talking to also complained that the storyline surrounding Carol’s missing daughter, Sophia, was “dragged out” over six episodes when it should have been wrapped in two. Am I the only one who understands that this was the backbone of season two? That what happened here would forever effect these characters and how they view not only this new world, but themselves and one another? This was the human element that the show was finally dealing with. Hope versus hopelessness. Humanity versus inhumanity. Compassion versus savagery. THESE are the issues that will allow a show like THE WALKING DEAD to be more than a series of zombie attacks. This is the event that either separated people or brought them together. Without this storyline, Darrel would never have had the opportunity to grow beyond simply being “the hick.” No, that little girl became a symbol. And a complex one at that. And the power of the final reveal of Sophia’s untimely death and the manner in which it took place and what it meant for each character, would not have had near the impact or significance had it wrapped in two episodes. No, it seems people would rather have “stuff happening,” than an actual story about human beings struggling both internally and externally in a horrible, nightmarish setting.

Sigh…

Regardless of whether or not I stand alone in this, the beginning of the second season of THE WALKING DEAD had me on the edge of my seat. The show was finally giving me a reason to care. They were finally addressing some of the deeper issues, some of the thematic and moral and social issues that this new world would offer; emotional survival IN ADDITION to physical survival. But now, as with the first season, I simply don’t give a shit. Nor do I trust the makers of this show to find a way to offer quality over quantity. Now the show looks like it’s about to dive head-first into its graphic novel roots which will either make it a really fun, cool show, or simply even more ridiculous. Given what I’ve seen so far, I’m expecting the latter. And I can’t say that I’ll actually be sticking around to find out. Maybe if I hear people complaining about it, that “nothing’s happening,”  I’ll tune in because, as the first two seasons have shown me, what I like and dislike about this show is out of sync with those I engage with about it. But I’ll be sticking to my guns on this one. I’m a demanding audience member and have no intention of lowering my standards to find satisfaction within a show that cannot live up to its potential. I don’t know if that makes me too much of a geek or not enough of one.

What I do know, however, is that the spine of THE WALKING DEAD is slowly being severed from its brain and, if someone doesn’t step in and stop it soon, there will be nothing left but an inanimate corpse, not dangerous or interesting, just simply dead. And unfortunate.

At least so far as this viewer is concerned.

THE WALKING DEAD Season 2.5: When Characters No Longer Matter

You Never Forget The First Time: HELP ON THE WAY, April 17, 1983


April 17, 1983 was the first time I saw the Grateful Dead play their magnificent trilogy of songs from what I consider their best studio album (from a band not known for their studio efforts), BLUES FOR ALLAH. Kicking off the second set with HELP ON THE WAY and moving seamlessly into the instrumental bridge SLIPKNOT! and eventually culminating –after a long, strange trip– with the ever-danceable and always-joyous FRANKLIN’S TOWER, the Grateful Dead, as they had done many times before, blew my mind.  The band had just reintroduced this beloved combo of songs only a month before (after a period of many years where two of the three songs were simply not performed at all) and audiences were MUCHOS excited to catch this powerful musical triptych. This night was the fifth time they’d played these tunes together since reintroducing them.

Not only was this my first time seeing the trilogy live, but it was easily the best version I ever caught. While it’s true that by the spring of ’83 Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were already showing signs of wear and tear, they also managed to maintain a vital energy that is fiercely evident in this audience recording from the Brendan Byrne Arena in NJ. They performed 2 back-to-back nights on this particular run and both nights featured appearances by Stephen Stills (though not playing on the above songs. Sorry). They were rockin’, magical nights and still talked about in the annals of Grateful Dead history. And rightfully so. There was a dynamic drive to both these shows that was palpable. And it still is as you’ll see when you listen to this tasty tidbit. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

 

This stream is temporary so if you find it no longer works you can hear these songs, as well as the rest of the show, at the Internet Archive HERE.

You Never Forget The First Time: HELP ON THE WAY, April 17, 1983