2011 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

After the best Canadian films and the best performances, 2011 in Review ends with my picks for the best films of the year. I made a slight gaff, though, as I broke my own rules by including Take this Waltz as a 2011 film during my picks for Canadian films. I usually follow the rule that a film is categorized by year of theatrical/DVD release so as not to shut it off from discussion before everybody else has a chance to see it. I’m okay with allowing Sarah Polley to double-dip, though. Likewise, Jane Fonda’s comeback in Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding will be the performance against which all others are judged in 2012. (A pretty high bar, if you ask me.) 2011 was a decent year for movies, but not a great one, I think. Only three films earned a five-star rating, as opposed to the eight or so dished out for 2010; however, this may be a product of frequent criticism that I like too many films. It was a good year for movies nontheless, as five or so films were duking it out for the tenth spot, until I saw a last minute goodie. Selecting my top spot was an easy choice, though, for one film stuck with me all year.

The Top Ten Films of 2011:
1. Midnight in Paris
A dream for Woody Allen fans and casual moviegoers alike, Midnight in Paris brings out the best of the director’s work. As always, this film by the Woodman is another musing on love and death; however, it’s also a walkthrough of the very best aspects of his films. The neuroses, the obsequious banter, and the high-falutin’ pseudointellectuals are prime Woody staples, but they haven’t felt this fresh since Annie Hall. Starring Owen Wilson in fine form as Woody’s surrogate, Midnight in Paris is a nostalgic walk through the city of love, but it shows the dangers of living in the past, too, as Allen uses his finest achievements for new ideas, rather than to recycle old ones. Still going strong at age 76, Allen is smarter, wittier, and funnier than ever in Midnight in Paris.


Spielberg Schmaltz

War Horse ★★
(USA, 146 min.)
Dir. Steven Spielberg, Writ. Lee Hall, Richard Curtis.
Starring: Jeremy Irivine, Niels Arestrup, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson.
War Horse might have seemed great in the forties. Back when Hollywood restricted onscreen violence so as not to encourage public disorder, such a tidy rendition of the Great War might have seemed fair. Back when Hollywood sought to solicit a positive image of the war effort through film, such an unabashedly sentimental tale could have been appropriate. In 2011, however, Hollywood no longer has the Hays Office or the OWI looking over its shoulder, so filmmakers are allowed to tell the truth and offer portraits that reflect life as it is. Steven Spielberg did it back in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan, which is arguably the grittiest, most unflattering and most honest war film ever made. It is also the best. War Horse most definitely is not Saving Private Ryan.


2011 in Review: The Best Performances

After the best Canadian films, come the performances. If there are any clear winners for 2011, it’s the actors. Although I’m having little trouble whittling my upcoming list of best films, it was nearly impossible to cap the lists of the best lead performances and the best supporting performances at ten apiece. For every name that made the cut, I omitted two. Even after narrowing the field, I had doubts: Where are Williams, Pitt, Dujardin, Woodley, Dunst, and Gainsbourg? I forgot Rooney Mara! Which performance by Jessica Chastain? Which supporting actress from The Help? Alas, these are the performances that held strongest.

The Top 10 Lead Performances of 2011
1. Michael Fassbender in Shame
The performance that blew me away at the Toronto International Film Festival and stuck with me all year, Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame is in a league of its own. As Brandon, a New Yorker struggling with sexual addiction, Fassbender offers a raw, revelatory depiction of the hunger and mechanics of the addiction, as well as the psychological toll of his nonstop hunt for flesh. Fassbender has amazing stamina in Shame (pun intended), and he does more with his wandering eyes than most actors do with their whole bodies. Fassbender’s performance deserves the “bravery” with which many moviegoers have labelled it: not for his willingness to perform explicit scenes of a sexual nature, but rather for how far he takes his character. Public transit will never be the same.


Black-Hearted Barbie

Young Adult ★★★★
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Jason Reitman, Writ. Diablo Cody
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson.
The bitch is back. Charlize Theron proved she could make us laugh when she did a five-episode stint on the tragically short-lived Arrested Development. As Rita, the plucky Brit to whom Michael Bluth was engaged until he learned her “MR. F” status, Theron showed a side of her skills that we hadn’t seen before. Theron tickles the funny bone once again, returning as a woman with arrested development in Young Adult.


2011 in Review: The Best in Canadian Film

I think 2011 was good to Canadian films. While 2010 was a hard year to surpass with Incendies, Barney’s Version, and Trigger standing out as Canuck masterpieces, 2011 is still a step forward. The biggest winner, I think, was distribution. At least as far as Ottawa goes, local theatres yielded a bigger crop of homegrown films. Even if these films played for no more than one pitiful week, they still received more screen-time than in previous years. A big shout-out goes to The Bytowne, The Mayfair and, most surprisingly, the AMC Kanata for supporting #cdnfilm. Ottawa also had its second instalment of the Ottawa International Film Festival (OIFF), which featured five films by local talents. The best of them was Adrian Langley’s A Violent State. As far as movies go, 2011 had plenty of films worth celebrating, but not solely for their Canadian content. On that note, here are my picks for the ten best Canadian films of the year:

(Dir. Larysa Kondracki)
The best feature debut of the year in addition to being the best Canadian film, The Whistleblower is filmmaking at its bravest and best. Telling the true story of Nebraska cop Kathy Bolkovac, played by Rachel Weisz (expect her on another ‘Best’ list), who exposed a sex-trafficking operation involving UN peacekeepers, director Larysa Kondracki makes a startling entrance into the Canadian film scene. Part cop movie, part tell-all, The Whistleblower is a harrowing, suspenseful film in the vein of the taut political thrillers of the seventies. Kondracki’s handling of the material is potent, revealing, and compelling, yet this exposé is never didactic. The Whistleblower is, in fact, so persuasive that the United Nations officially responded to the film and screened it with hopes to correct past wrongs.

Pain is Pleasure

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ★★★★
(USA/Sweden/UK/Germany, 158 min.)
Dir. David Fincher, Writ. Steven Zaillian
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson.
The opening titles for this new Daniel Craig movie resemble the introductory interlude of a James Bond movie. Instead of offering naked ladies dancing with guns in silhouette, though, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo appropriately offers a cyber-punk rock chic aesthetic. Keyboards and faces melt into goopy black plastic. It’s all very sleek, cool, and mysterious; moreover, as set to Karen O’s bombastic, anthemic, and excellent cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, in collaboration with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo immediately asserts the up yours girl-power flair missing from the 2010 Swedish adaptation. 


Put it in a Love Song

Café de Flore ★★★½
(Canada/France, 120 min.)
Written and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu, Marin Gerrier.
After the awkward incident of 2009’s The Queen Victoria, which saw the French Canadian filmmaker direct a heritage film about a young British monarch, Jean-Marc Vallée returns to his native Quebec and delivers a film worthy of his breakout hit C.R.A.Z.Y. Like C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore is a rich, affecting story of family ties. Café de Flore is a masterfully assembled film, tightly crafted and ingeniously realized – it’s easily the best French Canadian film of the year.


Start Spreadin' the News

It's understandable that upon leaving Shame, the first word on everybody's tongue is "Fassbender." Nevertheless, "Mulligan" deserves another go, since the actress is equally as good as her male co-star. In just a few scenes, Carey Mulligan threatens to steal the spotlight from Fassbender’s bravura work. Just take this brief snippet of her performance of “New York, New York” in one of the most pivotal scenes of the film. You’ll have to buy a ticket to see the scene in its full glory, though. (Trust me, it’s worth it.) SAG and the Golden Globes might have snubbed you, Miss Mulligan, and shame on them for doing so; however, you still have my vote.

For your consideration.

The Artist leads Golden Globe Nominations

The Artist
The Artist leads the nominations for the 2011 Golden Globe awards. The silent, black and white festival favourite is now a bona fide front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars. (However, everyone was saying the same thing last year about The Social Network, so…) The Artist got 6 noms including Best Picture (Comedy), although the highly touted Uggie the Dog was snubbed in the Best Supporting Actor category. Leading the Drama category for Best Picture is The Descendants with 5, followed by The Help (which lead the Screen Actors Guild nominations yesterday) and Moneyball with 4, as well as The Ides of March, which many people (including me) had written off as an Oscar contender. Joining The Artist in the Best Picture (Comedy) is my favourite film of the year Midnight in Paris, which scored 4 noms including Best Actor for Owen Wilson. My Week with Marilyn strangely got a Best Pic (comedy) nod too… I guess the HFPA got quite a hoot from the casting of Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh. Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey found a nom in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and Madonna’s W.E. scored noms for score and song… perhaps a hint that she should stick to music?

I've seen many/most of the titles, and the nominations are good overall! (Except for that Carey Mulligan snub!) Check back in January for picks/predictions!

Full list of nominees (titles link to reviews)

Best Picture
The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse

Best Picture Comedy or Musical
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn

Doc is Hot to Trot

Buck ★★★½
(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Cindy Meehl
Buck scooped the Audience Award at Sundance back in January and is now ready to gallop to the winner’s circle after making Oscar's short-list for Best Documentary. It’s a sparse portrait of horse trainer Buck Brannaman, whose gentle, humane method of training horses has changed wranglers across America. This small little doc has been trotting through theatres with much success and has only one showtime left in Ottawa, so I’ll be brief.


To Havre and Havre Not

Le Havre ★★★★
(Finland/France/Germany, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: André Wilms ,Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel.
Marco Marx (an impressive André Wilms) is a man of the working class within the small French fishing village of Le Havre. He earns his living by shining shoes, supporting his devoted but ailing wife (Kati Outinen) and spending the rest at the local pub. He also reminisces about his past days as a bohemian in Calais. 


Must-See Double-Bill of Canuck Classic!

Kathleen Robertson and Doug McGrath in Down the Road Again
Starting this Sunday, the Mayfair Theatre (Bank St. location) has a must-see double bill for Canadian film buffs. The theatre will be playing Don Shebib’s 1970 Canuck landmark Goin’ Down the Road, along with this year’s sequel Down the Road Again. Goin’ Down the Road is essential for anyone who gives a hoot about Canadian film. Arguably the quintessential “cheap Canadian movie,” Goin’ Down the Road proved a major milestone for representing Canadians onscreen. People took notice of the small little movie and it seemed like our industry was on the road to success. Forty years later, Down the Road Again continues the story of Pete and Joey, yet it is still a rare treat to see movies made by Canadians in Canadian theatres. (Case in point, when TIFF announced Canada’s Top Ten last week, they included David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which won’t hit Canadian screens until January despite the fact that it opened in New York three weeks ago.)

Nevertheless, auds should see the two Road movies together simply because they’re good stuff. It’s pretty hard to come across Goin’ Down the Road on DVD, so one may as well take advantage of seeing it on the big screen, especially with a theatre of Canadian film fans. I reviewed Down the Road Again in October, calling it a worthy follow-up to the granddaddy of Canadian film. However, I think you’ll also find the critical blurb on the Mayfair’s website equally persuasive.

Goin Down the Road plays Sunday. Dec. 11 at 3:15 and Tuesday. Dec. 13 at 8:45
Down the Road Again plays Sunday Dec. 11 at 5, Monday Dec. 12 at 6:30, and Tuesday. Dec. 13 at 7


Life's a Happy Song!

The Muppets ★★★
(USA, 103 min.)
Dir. James Bobin, Writ. Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller.
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Walter, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Chris Cooper.
With little to see on a Wednesday night, I skimmed the options listed at the multiplex. I’d seen everything, except for the slew of family-friendly fare released for American Thanksgiving. In the mood for a comedy since I went to the movies as a respite from grading Film 1000 papers, the choice came down to Twilight or The Muppets. Preferring to escape with some dignity intact, I chose the lesser of two evils, opting for fond nostalgia of Kermit and Miss Piggy over bad memories of Bella and Edgar. Thank goodness, since I spent the night laughing like a simpleton. The Muppets brings a smile to even the most cynical face, for one can only be enthralled by the unabashed feel-goodness of the film. 


TIFF's 'Eh' List

Michelle Williams and Luke Kirby in Take this Waltz
The folks at the Toronto International Film Festival revealed their list of the Top Ten Canadian Features and shorts for 2011. It's an odd mix of the expected and the unexpected. The list is an eclectic range from Sarah Polley's Take this Waltz to B-grade crap like Hobo with a Shotgun. One could say this list reveals Canada's bipolar relationship with art and commerce. As expected, Cronenberg and Vallée made the cut, as did our sentimental Oscar bid Monseiur Lazhar. Absent, though, are strong films like The Whistleblower and documentaries like Wiebo's War and St. Henri: the 26th of August, or more experimental fare like Ingrid Veninger's much lauded i am a good person/i am a bad person, which had some calling her best film yet when it debuted at TIFF this fall. I'll give the listmakers credit though, for they snubbed the turkey Nuit #1. Anyways, full list of TIFF's Top Ten is after the cut. I haven't had the opportunity to see some of these films yet, so I will withhold my personal 'Eh' list until the end of the month.

***UPDATED! The list now includes shorts! Excited to see that 2 of my faves from 2011 - Rhonda's Party and Choke - made the list!

'Be First. Be Smarter. Or Cheat.'

Margin Call ★★★★
(USA, 107 min.)
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci.
Fourteen years ago, Gordon Gekko convinced us that greed was good. Now, after seeing what the greedy will do to cover assets, Gordon seems wrong. Margin Call is like the anti-Wall Street, dramatizing the harshest aspects of the financial world, without glamourizing or glorifying it. Margin Call provocatively stabs at the black heart of American capitalism, and offers a damning portrait of the times. It’s hard to imagine a 2011 film more timely than Margin Call. Easily the “zeitgeist film” of the year, Margin Call lets us occupy Wall Street for two hours and watch the machinery of the 1% as they willingly make the decisions that precipitate the economic meltdown. A talky, spectacularly acted ensemble film in the vein of Glengarry Glen Ross, the drama of Margin Call gains an additional jolt of urgency through its relevancy.


The Apprenticeship of Roman Kogler

Breathing (Atmen) ★★★★
(Austria, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Karl Markovics
Starring: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebman, Georg Friederich.
Roman (Thomas Schubert) passes through the high concrete walls of a juvenile detention centre. Upon his return, he strips before a pair of guards, bends over, and coughs. He has been through this routine before, having spent almost the entirety of his adolescence in a cell. Before that, Roman was in and out of orphanages and foster homes, as his mother gave him up when he was a baby. A lost, seemingly unwanted child, Roman floats through life without care.


Chaos Reigns: Round 2

Melancholia ★★★★
(Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany, 136 min.)
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Cameron Spurr, John Hurt.
Certifiably insane director Lars von Trier strikes another chord of brilliance with Melancholia, a film that has rightly been dubbed the most beautiful rendering of the end of the world. Like his previous works Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and, most recently, Antichrist, von Trier puts his leading ladies – and viewers – through a fit of madness. While Melancholia is not exactly the psychological hell of, say, Antichrist (thank God), it nevertheless offers the director’s unrelentingly bleak vision in full force, accompanied by sumptuous visuals and bombastic use of Wagner. As Justine (Kirsten Dunst) says of her dire fate, “The world is evil. No one will miss it.”

Mayfair Orleans Opens Today

An Ottawa suburb gets a much needed jolt of life today. While Kanata and Barrhaven are still the lands of beige garages and big box stores, Orleans finally gets some character. As noted in The Ottawa Citizen, a new branch of The Mayfair Theatre opens in the east end today. The new location, located on Centrum Blvd. across from the Shenkman Arts Centre, offers three screens of quality alternative cinema, plus second runs of features you might have missed at the multiplex.

As reported by The Citizen:
Although one focus of the Mayfair programming will be family fare and weekend matinees for the many families who live in the area, programmer Lee Demarbre says the new Mayfair will also present firstrun independent film, Quebec-made films and films from France for the area's large francophone community, Bollywood movies, foreign films and Hollywood movies ... that have run recently in chain cinemas. There will also be occasional Hollywood classics. The lobby already includes "Coming Soon" posters for The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, giving movie lovers a chance to curl up with a large popcorn and marvel at how much better those movies look on the big screens for which they were created than they do on living-room televisions.

Demarbre says the new cinema will offer "the best of the art house and the cineplex combined," and he says response from the Orléans community has been encouraging since he and his partners officially announced the news a few weeks ago.

West-enders and devotees of the original Bank Street location needn't fret, though, as both locations are operating and memberships are valid at both locations. Prices at the new Orleans location are $5 for members, $9 for non-members, $6 for children. Annual memberships are $10, so you may as well get one!

The first weekend of the Orleans location kicks off with some great programming: see Gone with the Wind on the big screen (a must!), as well as Midnight in Paris (my pick for the best film so far this year), The Help (review here; it's also playing at the Bank St. location) and Drive (review).

Best of luck with the new location! Hopefully I'll make the trek from the west end over the holidays. Let me know how it is when you visit!

See for more info and showtimes.


From Méliès to Marty

Hugo ★★★★
(USA, 127 min.)
Dir. Martin Scorsese, Writ. John Logan.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee. 
It takes a master filmmaker to make 3D seem credible. With Hugo, however, Martin Scorsese makes the added dimension an essential layer of the film. Whereas some directors seem mostly to enjoy the blatant cash grab offered by 3D glasses (aka James Cameron and his upcoming Titanic 3D), Martin Scorsese uses the 3D for more than visual fancy. In the case of Hugo, style is substance. 


Beating the Machine

Tilt ★★★½
(Bulgaria, 94 min.)
Dir. Viktor Chouchkov, Writ. Viktor Chouchkov, Borislav Chouchkov.
Starring: Yavor Baharov, Radina Kardjilova, Ovanes Torosian, Ivaylo Dragiev, Alexander Sano.
Tilt is a fine debut for director/co-writer Viktor Chouchkov. The film sets a lively story against a provocative political backdrop and tells it in a fresh original voice. The title comes from an early scene between Stash (Yavor Baharov) and Becky (Radina Kardjilova). As the friends play pinball in their dingy hangout, Stash explains that “tilt” is the word for defeat. He describes all the ways a player can work to beat the machine, learning when to tap, when to defend, or even when to simply cheat and lift the table. Angel (Ivaylo Dragiev)  interrupts, though, and says that no matter how hard you try, the machine always wins. 


The Best from Toronto comes to Ottawa!

The Descendants ★★★★★
(USA, 115 min.)
Dir. Alexander Payne; Writ. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard.
I'm very happy to report that Alexander Payne's The Descendants opens in Ottawa this week! As you might recall, it was easily the best film I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The Descendants stars George Clooney as Matt King, a hard-working realtor who finds himself in a quandry when the time comes to take his wife off life support, as she is in a vegetative state after a boating accident. Matt discovers that his wife was unfaithful, and he undertakes the horrible task of confronting his wife's lover (Matthew Lillard) so that a) he can accept his wife's infidelity and b) her lover can say goodbye before Matt pulls the plug. It might sound dark, but this story of the King Family Tree is one of the smartest, funniest, and warmest films this year.


My Beef with 'Marilyn'

My Week with Marilyn ★★★
(UK/USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Simon Curtis; Writ. Adrian Hodges.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Emma Watson.
“When Marilyn gets it right, you can’t take your eyes away,” says Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) upon watching a flawless take. One gets the same impression when watching “Marilyn” as performed by Michelle Williams. She’s truly flawless as the iconic blonde: sexy, sultry, and equal turns fragile and tragic. Williams gets it so right as Marilyn Monroe that one can only regard My Week with Marilyn with awe when Williams graces the screen. The problem, though, is that as much as one wants to let Marilyn work her magic, the film frequently cuts away, casting the drama on the plight of Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Colin is by no means a dull character, nor is Redmayne a poor actor, but Colin is simply no match for the incomparable allure of Marilyn Monroe. (Really, who had heard of him prior to the film?) Since the film favours Colin, rather than the far more dramatic Marilyn and the impeccable Williams, My Week with Marilyn ultimately plays like the rough cut of a five-star movie.


The Countdown Begins!

How will Rooney Mara fare as Lisbeth Salander? We'll see!
Only one month until David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens. This time last year, I was actually planning on writing my thesis on the Swedish trilogy and discussing them with the Fincher version, but I ultimately decided against it since:
a) I was afraid to let everything rest on a movie that I wouldn't be able to see until December.
b) Nobody in my class was writing about Canadian films and that just wasn't cool.

However, after seeing this trailer for the film, I'm slightly regretting it. (Even more so with how terribly my chapter on Incendies is currently going...)

Anyways, 30 days and counting - this is easily my most anticipated film of the season!


Young and Dumb

 Like Crazy ★★½
(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Drake Doremus; Writ. Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead.
It started with a chair. The courtship of Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Ana (Felicity Jones) in Like Crazy is at first brisk and sweet. Then, as a marker of some milestone they have reached, Jacob presents to Ana a chair that he made especially for her. Like Jake and Ana, the gesture, too, is sweet since Ana is a writer and she does all her work sitting at a stiff frumpy desk. Ana then looks underneath. On the underside of the chair, the words “Like Crazy” are etched in the hip scrawling of a black Sharpie. 


Worse than 'Trespass'

(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Rob Minkoff, Writ: Jon Luca & Scott Moore
Starring: Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Tim Blake Nelson, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Octavia Spencer.
Brain dead "comedy" about an annoying jackass (Patrick Dempsey) who stumbles into a bank just as two different sets of crooks try to rob it. He falls in love with a bank teller played by Ashley Judd, and manages to thwart the criminal masterminds in the process. Or so it seems, although I couldn't really say since Flypaper is one of the stupidest, most annoying, and most poorly shot movies I've seen, so much so that I stopped watching.

And I sat through Trespass.