Friday, December 2, 2011


A Better Life is a wonderful movie about an illegal Mexican immigrant (the Oscar worthy Demian Bechir in a heartbreaking performance) trying to provide for his teenage son.  Writer/director Chris Weitz, in a riff on The Bicycle Thief, wisely steers clear of cheap Hollywood sentimentality and nonsensical situations (precisely one moment felt “movie-ish” to me) which added up to a narrative with honest emotions and a finale that felt real and true.  This is one of the most underrated films of the year, a small gem that people will discover and wonder why they’ve never heard of it.
Bill Cunningham: New York is a great documentary because it reminds you never to lose sight of doing what it is that you love to do.  Funny, sad, and uplifting in equal measure, it’s a movie about fashion, photography, and a man driven by his wild passion of documenting pretty people wearing outrageous outfits.  Quick and to the point, it’s a doc that will not disappoint.
Another excellent documentary from this year, the horse-whisperer expose Buck, will totally delight equestrian fans and confound most everyone as it displays a man in tune with animals on a level that most people will never fathom.  Buck, who served as the inspiration for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, is a man of intense values, and I found it amazing to see how he related to the horses and literally seemed to understand what they were thinking.  This is a fascinating portrait of a mysterious and complex person, and a movie that animal lovers will flip out for.
Made in completely poor taste and without a subtle bone in its depraved body, Lee Tamahori’s giddily violent and nasty Uday Hussein biopic The Devil’s Double is a messy ode to Scarface with a bravura double performance by Dominic Cooper (Oscar better come calling...but it won’t…) as both Hussein and his real-life, look-alike body-double.  Tamahori, a director who has never made good on his promise (Once Were Warriors is still one of the best debuts ever), is only as good as his script as he isn’t much of a visual auteur even though he’s got some nice flourishes, and the script here is a bit sloppy.  But Cooper is so irresistible and magnetic in both roles that it doesn’t matter how outlandish or garish or gross the proceedings are – you’re transfixed by Cooper to the point where you can do nothing but applaud the Daniel Plainview-esque immersion into the characters.
Green Lantern is easily the worst movie that I’ve seen in 2011 – stupid, cheesy, unfocused, and feeling 100% synthetic, this is what happens when a director (Martin Campbell, hit or miss) has zero grasp of special effects/CGI filmmaking and when the script is rushed so that a release date can be met.  As much as I like Ryan Reynolds, his inherent snarkiness didn’t mesh well with the Hal Jordan character; he’s blown off the screen by Peter Sarsgaard, who’s about the only good thing about the movie.  Boring, cruddy-looking (the entire thing looks like a video game), and completely misguided, I’m glad I didn’t pay money to see it in the theater.
Steve McQueen’s brutal and unflinching Irish prison drama Hunger is the cinematic equivalent of 10 shots of whiskey and a swift kick to the groin.  Michael Fassbender pulled a Christian Bale and lost half his body weight portraying striking inmate Bobby Sands, who refused to eat in order to make a personal and political statement.  In all of its high-art, shit-smeared-wall glory, it’s the sort of movie that feels like punishment and homework, but it’s demanding viewing for demanding viewers, and announces McQueen as ruthless purveyor of cinematic misery (the upcoming Shame seems to confirm this…)
Life in A Day, aka “the Youtube movie,” is my favorite documentary from 2011, if for no other reason than it showed me things I’ve truly never seen before, which is getting harder and harder to do.  Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and directed by Kevin MacDonald, this is a Baraka-esque kaleidoscope of imagery from all around the world, shot (rather handsomely and artily) by regular joes who then uploaded the footage onto Youtube, and then a fleet of professional editors turned it into something transcendent.  Unforgettable footage abounds in this breathtaking look at where we’re currently at in our world – ugly, beautiful, sad, exciting, heartbreaking, scary, and above all – real.
Page One: Inside the NY Times will fascinate those of us with an interest in journalism and bore the shit out of everyone else.  Factual, dry, and wholly compelling (to me at least), this is a scholarly documentary that showcases what it’s like to work at the NY Times in this day and age of digital media and online news outlets.  I’m a sucker for all movies about journalism and news papers so I was sucked into this immediately; for many others I think it might be like watching paint dry.
Small, simple, and tragic, Shotgun Stories demonstrated that writer/director Jeff Nichols is a true talent and someone to watch out for (his latest film, Take Shelter, is one of this year’s finest films).  Michael Shannon burns up the screen in a customarily intense lead performance, and he’s matched by an ensemble of unknowns who up the authenticity levels.  And even if the narrative doesn’t go anywhere revelatory, you’re able to appreciate the performances, direction, and atmosphere.
Errol Morris’s loony and extremely entertaining documentary Tabloid is a crazy look at a whacko-lady who kidnapped her former fiancĂ©e, tied him to a bed, and then “raped” him for a period of 4 days in a British country-side cottage.  Those are the nominal details – the rest I will leave for you to discover.  Make it a double feature with Crazy Love and you’ll never look at your significant other the same way again!
Win Win is another underrated, small movie from 2011 that didn’t truly find the audience it deserved – with Paul Giamatti front and center and delivering yet another fantastic performance, it’ll be a popular Netflix/Redbox/On Demand title.  Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is becoming the go-to-guy for “smart adult dramedy,” not quite on the level of Alexander Payne, but certainly getting close.  Don’t be fooled by the DVD cover-art – this isn’t a “high-school wrestling movie” – it’s a great little drama with equal doses of black comedy and layered pathos. 

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