The films of 2011 

The trends, triumphs and trash that left their mark this year

Action goes artsy-fartsy

It was bound to happen — action flicks that have more on their mind than just explosions and macho posturing. In the case of Hanna (beautifully played by Saoirse Ronan), Ms. Kickass just happens to be a backwoods teenager longing for her first kiss. Joe Wright’s twisted coming-of-age thriller is long on fairy-tale metaphors and short on logic, but still knows how to open a can of cinematic whoop-ass when need be. Meanwhile, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn brought equal doses of retro noir and David Lynch to Drive, his art-house actioner, producing a hypnotically violent flick that cemented Ryan Gosling’s ability to score with any woman on the planet ... even in a white silk jacket with an embroidered dragon.


It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel 'meh’

What do giant robots, aliens, nuclear terrorists, a viral plague, electricity monsters, super intelligent apes, and Lars von Trier all have in common? They’re how movies in 2011 envisioned the end of humanity. From Battle: Los Angeles to Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Contagion, Hollywood sure loves to get its Armageddon on. This year offered a veritable Whitman’s sampler of apocalyptic wet dreams. Still, as dark and dire as these movies got, some brave soul usually stepped in to save the day. No one, it seems, however, could stop Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s depression from smashing our planet to tiny bits (Melancholia). Not only does von Trier believe that mankind deserves to go extinct, but also that the universe will most definitely not mourn our passing. Oh, that Lars, ever the laugh riot.

It’s the economy, stupid

This year was book-ended by a pair of recession-era films that couldn’t have been more different. In January, The Company Men (by John Wells of ER, The West Wing) made the heartfelt case that entitled rich white dudes are suffering too. Inexplicably embraced by critics (it has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 67 percent), this tone-deaf exercise in apologia for the country club set not only asked that we empathize with Ben Affleck as he was forced to give up his Porsche and golf club membership, but it condescendingly reassured us that salt-of-the-earth middle-classers will just be fine, if only they’d work a little overtime on weekends and evenings. Thank God for Jeff Nichols’ powerful and timely Take Shelter. Perhaps my favorite film of the year, it offers a heart-breaking portrait of Curtis (Michael Shannon in an Oscar-winning performance), a working-class Ohioan who may be losing his sanity. More than an atmospheric family drama, Nichols finds profundity through metaphor, capturing the complete breakdown of America’s social safety nets and the deep anxieties that plague those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Take Shelter reminds us how resonant and relevant cinema can be.


Sexual dysfunction

When did getting it on get so damn depressing? Sex comedies from the ’70s and ’80s may have made for bad cinema, but at least boffing seemed like a hell of a good time back then. Not anymore. The films of 2011 caught America’s puritanical wave and declared that intercourse is dirty, nasty, sinful business. While Steve McQueen’s Shame pulled us down into the joyless depths of sexual addiction, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo affirmed that Pat Benatar was right and sex is, indeed, a brutal, rape-y weapon. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar made clear the creepy oedipal underpinnings of homo-longing while even pervy stalwarts David Cronenberg and Pedro Almodovar turned kinky desire into neurotic repression and vengeful misogyny. Even the French, typically dependable with their sexy romantic comedies, decided to cock-block the naughty nudity of The Names of Love (and vixen Sara Forestier) with subplots involving multicultural oppression, child molestation and, yup, the Holocaust. Don’t filmmakers understand that bumping uglies is a euphemism, not a thematic requirement?


Hollywood makes good films about ... Hollywood

Tinseltown has never been shy about making itself the center of attention, but this year finished out with a small avalanche of homages and vintage self-referencing. There was the slight but engaging My Week With Marilyn (as in Monroe), which featured a pair of Oscar-worthy performances by Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh (as Lawrence Olivier). Martin Scorsese’s much heralded big budget love letter ($170 million by some reports) to French film pioneer Georges Méliès not only reinvigorated 3-D, it made a compelling artistic case for its use. Then again, Hugo, by all accounts, was a huge box office loser. Last week offered the storybook beauty of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, which shamelessly cribs from John Ford and Howard Hawks (while pounding on your emotional buttons), while Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist furnished a bold and inventive re-creation of the silent film era. The best of the bunch, this delightful throwback to yesteryear is destined to get plenty of nods from the academy in February. Put your fears of watching a "silent" movie aside and check it out. You won’t be sorry.


The best of what 

you probably missed

Every year there are a handful of great movies that breeze into metro Detroit theaters, play for a week, then disappear without a trace. They’re the movies that Blockbuster grudgingly wedges a single copy of, between the 400 Transformer discs and the floor-to-ceiling display of whatever crap Adam Sandler has decided to smear across the screen. Here are a trio of faves: Cary Fukunaga’s moody yet moving Jane Eyre boasted shining performances by Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska, and atmosphere that just wouldn’t quit. Lightening things up, Our Idiot Brother proved, once again, that Paul Rudd is one of the most charming comic actors working today. Brendan Gleeson, on the other hand, got a long-overdue lead role in John Michael McDonagh’s pitch black comedy The Guard, a wicked and witty buddy cop drama set in Connemara, Ireland. All three deserve to be moved to the top of your Netflix queue.


Top Shelf: 

Take Shelter

Tree of Life

Nostalgia for the Light

Moneyball

Into Eternity

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Poetry

Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy

Paradise Lost 3

50/50

Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

Attack the Block

13 Assassins


Bottom of the Barrel: 

Red Riding Hood

Twilight: Breaking Dawn

New Year’s Eve

Jack and Jill

There Be Dragons

Hoodwinked Too!, Trespass

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I Don’t Know How She Does It

Larry Crowne

SuckerPunch

Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon

Apollo 18

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