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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Movies in 2011: An Overview (Part 1)

I knew I wanted to do an overview for the year in film seeing as how I have seen the vast majority of films released this year but I wasn't entirely sure what format to use. A simple Top 20? An involved essay? Something in between? Well, after much deliberation (OK, "much" might be overstating it slightly) I decided to break the year down into categories and look at it that way. Also, I will be looking at the films released in South Africa this year so some of it might be old news for international readers and, of course, a number of big films that have been released overseas will not be included - even if I have actually seen a number of them. And, yes, this will be done in two parts because there's quite a lot of ground to cover.

Also, for any of you who do want a complete list of all films released in SA this year, check out this very useful site for more information. 

Like pretty much every year, 2011 was a mixed bag for film. There were some astonishingly awful films, there were some astonishingly terrific films and there were more than enough mediocre films to fill the gaps. That said though, 2011 did have a surprisingly high hit rate in terms of both big budget Hollywood blockbusters and smaller, more independent fare. Not only that but some of the more horrendous crimes against cinema were either pushed back to 2012 or dropped from the cinematic release schedule entirely. On the other hand, 2011 was the year - or at least it seems to me - that cinema took a huge hit in terms of smaller and more artistically adventurous films that were released in cinemas overseas, going straight to DVD over here. Of course, when you take a look at the rapidly worsening state of Ster Kinekor's Cinema Nouveau - South Africa's leading art house chain - it's easy to see why. Not only did the number of Nouveau cinemas decrease this year, but the quality, variety and sheer number of films released by them this year was decidedly less than impressive. One can only hope that they are able to right that ship soon because, for all the good to great films released this year, it's a pity to see what is such a vital artistic part of South Africa's cinematic landscape fall so far from its once dizzying heights.


The Oscars



While it's certainly true that most of these films can fit quite easily within the other categories I'm going to bring up, they do feel oddly separate from the rest of the films released this year. Nominated for the 2010 Academy Awards, they obviously seem like they belong to last year. Still, seeing as how - as is typical for South Africa, incidentally - these noteworthy 2010 films were released over the first few months of 2011 in this country, there's no way that I'm not going to include them here - especially when you consider just how impressive a selection this year's Oscar nominees were.

The Academy's decision to increase their Bets Picture field from five to ten films may seem like overkill for most years but that certainly wasn't the case for this crop of nominees. With the excellent Inception and even-more-excellent-still Toy Story 3 released last year - as well as the brilliantly acted but merely solid The Kids Are Alright - we still had no less than one good and SIX truly exceptional Oscar contenders released this year. The Fighter suffers from the same problem as The Kids Are Alright in that it's a merely solid film that happens to feature some (if you'll excuse the pun) knockout performances and it is done no favours by coming out the year after the far superior The Wrestler

What's left though, is nothing short of an extraordinary selection of films. Best Picture winner, The King's Speech was a genuine crowd-pleaser that featured some wonderful performances; a lively, witty script; oodles of heart and, as its greatest trick of all, an ability to make a sympathetic protagonist out of a rich, pampered and over-privileged member of the Royal Family. Which isn't to say that The King's Speech was the obvious leader of the pack. The Social Network, for example, was even wittier and, though it wasn't quite the crowd-pleaser that The King's Speech was, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin managed to make a tale about a group of unlikeable, geeky programmers creating the phenomenon that is Facebook as engrossing as any thriller. And then, of course, there was Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, a beautifully directed, enrapturing true story about a hiker stuck literally between a rock and a hard place for - you guessed it - 127 hours that featured a career-defining turn by James Franco.

Not to be outdone, Darren Aronofsky followed up his utterly bonkers The Fountain with Black Swan, a disturbing psychological thriller about, of all things, ballet that deservedly won Natalie Portman the gong for best actress and made for this Oscar season's most intriguing film. The most pleasantly surprisingly nominee of all though, most surely be Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, a twisted little crime film set in America's deep South that is as unnerving as it is deeply moving. It also had, in Jennifer Lawrence, the one actress who deserved to wrestle away Natalie Portman's Best Actress Oscar.

And the winna might as well have been...
Rounding out a seriously impressive Oscars season then is my personal favourite of the nominees, The Coen Brothers' spectacular remake of True Grit. Admittedly, I haven't watched more than a few minutes of the John Wayne original but it's hard to believe that True Grit isn't a Coens original. The colourful characters (played, unsurprisingly, by a awesomely eclectic group of actors) and hilariously off-kilter dialogue - that apparently is lifted wholesale from the original novel - are vintage Coen Brothers. And the more said about Roger Deakins' thoroughly lovely western cinematography the better...


Comedies and Dramas

I realize it's something of a strange move to lump these two polar opposites into one category but, aside for the fact that they are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin (as those masks suggest), some of my favourite films released this year neatly straddled both genres. It should be noted, though, that though some of the absolute worst films of the year were alleged "comedies", dramas are seldom worse than being underwhelming and forgettable. That's just the nature of the game and it doesn't much change the fact that comedy is still a strong contender for being my favourite genre - even if simply because there's just so much that can be done with it.

Just to get the truly revolting comedies out of the way then, lets start off with the multiple crimes that were perpetrated against cinema this year by one Adam Sandler. A quick glance through this year's releases shows that the year has been blessedly free of those godawful "spoof" films and the Wayans Brothers have decided to take the year off. Sandler clearly noticed this too and, in his role as "writer", "actor" or producer, he has clearly decided to fill the hole by releasing as many horrible alleged comedies as possible.

He started the year with the gooey Jennifer Aniston rom com, Just Go With It, and it was, unsurprisingly, atrocious but it is, by a country mile, the absolute best thing he inflicted upon audiences this year. The worst probably would have been the Boogie Nights parody/ripoff Bucky Larson: Born To Be A Star but unlike us poor critics, audiences were spared it by the distributors dropping it from their schedule at the last minute. Audiences have also been spared, for a couple of months at least, Jack and Jill, which not only features not only Sandler in typically awful form but Sandler playing his own twin sister at the same time. Audiences weren't quite so lucky, though, as to avoid the Sandler produced, Kevin James-starring trainwreck that is Zookeeper. Remeber that one? It's the one where Kevin James gets dating advice from zoo animals that apparently have always been able to talk but have just chosen not to. "Stupid" doesn't begin to cover it.

No it ain't!

The only so-called "comedian" that challenges Adam Sandler in this department is Martin Lawrence, whose Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son took the already bankrupt notion that Lawrence in drag is somehow funny and wrung out a truly wretched third film out of it.   

As for the rest of the genre's bad entries its mostly bad romcoms and comedy/dramas like the puketastic New Years Eve, the wildly inept The Dilemma, the redundant trash of The Hangover 2 and this week's irritating Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle, Just Go With It. As for pure dramas, I might have been a bit too light on them as I suppose that the trigger-happy 50 Cent shitfest Gun can be considered a drama and the far-too-earnest, so-called "black dramas" Jumping The Broom and For Coloured Girls were genuinely painful to sit through - especially because they were both so bloody long! And while Julian Schnable's heavily biased Miral has its strengths, its such a huge comedown after his sublime The Diving Bell and the Butterfly that I hate it probably more than I'm supposed to.

All that said, there was plenty of great stuff that came out this year as well.

On the pure comedy front, nothing beats Bridesmaids, which might have been little more than a female version of The Hangover except that it was infinitely funnier and far, far sweeter - and it has made comedy giants out of Melissa McCarthy and star Kristen Wiig. The rest of this year's great comedies have at least some dramatic elements to them. Easy A reconfirmed just how great a comedic actress Emma Stone is, while breathing new life into the teen-comedy and Woody Allen's magical Midnight in Paris (full review coming soon) stands tall as not only his best film in decades but one of the year's funniest, most romantic, most nostalgic delights.  
 
What do you get when you get the most chilled out actor in Hollywood to play the most neurotic?

 And then there were two films that were equal parts dramatic and comedic and they easily rank as two of my favourite films released this year. The Concert, a French-Russian co-production open 2011 with a bang as it mixed effective farcical comedy with stirring classical music, war-time tragedy and a shamelessly sentimental climax to create one of the year's great cinematic pleasures. Similarly effective is 50/50, a cancer dramedy that was genuinely funny and genuinely moving without resorting to mawkishness and was a far more complex piece than it was ultimately recognized as being. Indeed, for all their positive reviews, I still think that both 50/50 and The Concert are more significant, noteworthy films than they are often seen to be. Not to be outdone entirely by these two films, lets not forget the similarly charming Made in Dagenham, the real-life British comedy drama in which a group of women labourers changed equal-pay laws in Britain or Beginners, a rather more divisive dramedy that, as far as I'm concerned, had more than enough heart and laughs to make it a solid highlight of the year.

In terms of straight-up dramas, the year had more than its fair share. The Help was probably the biggest drama this year as it seems to have stayed at the top of the charts for just this side of forever. Sure, it's clearly emotionally manipulative and more than a little long but it mostly deserved to be as embraced as it was. Old fashioned storytelling mixed with great acting, an uplifting humanist message and plenty of well-meaning sentimentality apparently really does go a long way. Add to The Help, a fairly long list of good, solid drama (Win Win, Barney's Version, Blue Valentine, The First Grader and Another Earth to name but a few) and we have a year that had plenty to offer for fans of the (non) genre. Even South Africa got into the game (with some help from Canada) with the effective true-life drama, The Bang Bang Club.     

Some audiences were somewhat less enthused about Never Let Me Go than I was.

Aside, perhaps, for some of the Oscar contenders, my pick for drama of the year, though, must be Never Let Me Go, a science fiction parable about free-will, scientific ethics and what it means to be human. It's a somewhat harrowing viewing experience but it is as good a dystopian morality tale as you could hope to find and with its superb acting, icy direction and subtle romance and emotionalism, it certainly deserved a hell of a lot better than the mixed reviews and lukewarm audience reaction that it received. The only thing that I could imagine poisoning my opinion about the film would be its source novel, which is why I'm almost afraid to read it, but until then, it stands as my dramatic gem of the year.

And that's it for this first installment of my year in review. Hopefully, the second part will be coming soon, which will include some thoughts on the best and worst action, horror, scifi and thriller films of the year.     
       

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