Monday, January 2, 2012

The Man From Porlock's Year in Film 2011

2011 will go down, in my tiny pocket of the universe, as the year of my movie education. Sure, I "knew" movies for many years before, to the amusement of my family and annoyance of my friends. ("You like them innerlectual movies," a high school friend informed me, after I dragged him to a screening of The Big Easy.) But as Jason Bellamy aptly puts it, "I may be a Trekkie, but these people speak Klingon." 'These people,' who may include some of you, are the true hardcore cinephiles I've encountered on Facebook, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. I assure my circle of friends and family and work colleagues that while I know certain aspects of cinema relatively well - American movies from the 1970s on is my comfort zone - I'm an amateur regarding its history on the whole.

That history, as I've learned in the 4 1/2 years I've been blogging, is a humbling and awe-inspiring thing. I tend to focus on new releases here at Porlock (and the occasional book or TV series), because A) I've seen a mere fraction of what many of the folks with links on the right of this page have seen; and B) for those classic films I have seen, what left is there for me to say? Nevertheless, 2011 was the year of my Netflix queue, the year I made a concerted effort to expand my knowledge base. (This was also the year I came late to the Blu-Ray party, and followed up with a new wider-screen TV at year's end.) I queued movies reviewed or mentioned by other bloggers or tweeters, movies on the "pantheons" of the AFI and Paul Schrader, movies recommended by the Netflix database. I queued fewer new releases (streaming some of those instead) and watched instead films that filled an inch or two of my gaps: Preston Sturges comedies and 30s musicals, Japanese and Italian cinema, Max Ophuls and Satyijat Ray. As a result, I'd guesstimate my knowledge base has expanded from, say, 5% to 8-10%. I'll probably never speak Klingon, but as long as I keep learning and growing, that's more than fine by me.

I saw very few new releases for the first half of the year, catching up somewhat during the second half, totaling approximately 30 overall. Of those 30, less than ten were viewed at regular chains (the two AMC theaters in town). Six were at the Indiana University Cinema, and a couple more I watched at Ebertfest in April 2011. The rest were either on DVD or, more commonly, streaming on Xfinity. Luckily I caught most of the year's highlights, albeit with a few blind spots (e.g, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Separation, Margaret). Even luckier, I managed to catch up with 24 classic films through "revivals" at the IU Cinema, which officially opened on campus this year and has quickly become a center for film-viewing here in Bloomington, IN. I had seen most of these films before, but watching the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Psycho and Vertigo on the big screen is essentially watching them for the first time. The experience of seeing few key new releases there was also undoubtedly enhanced from what it would have been at the regular chains, with their dismaying rise in boorish audience behavior and technical malfunctions. The Cinema has had its share of growing pains - a few bad prints, an undergrad flipping open his cell phone during Meek's Cutoff, a sixty-something Sherlock Holmes conference attendee at a screening of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution cramming a large Tupperware bowl of homemade popcorn in his mouth - half of it ending up on the floor - after I politely told him it wasn't allowed ("Yeah, I know!" he exclaimed). By and large, though, audiences are attentive and the films look great. If you're ever in the neighborhood, check it out.

Although a Top-10 list from somebody who sees relatively few films would be misguided at best, I've cobbled together some of my favorites, least favorites, and other impressions from the year. I will try to avoid stepping into the territory of the aforementioned Mr. Bellamy, whose annual "Best of" post is a hugely entertaining must-read. I will also add that my opinions follow no model or method of the Right Way to view film, as some of the more tiresome critics insist there is, the more they huff and puff the less they convince. For me, the only "Right Way" is the way that's expressed adeptly and honestly, that engages the reader and encourages thought and discussion. I certainly haven't met these goals with every post, but hopefully I've hit near the mark enough for those of you regular readers to keep on reading, regardless of whether or not you agree with my views.

Best of 2011 (where and when viewed in parentheses):

1. The Tree of Life. (IU Cinema, August 2011.) Hate to be unoriginal, but Terrence Malick's fragmented epic paralleling the growing pains of a Texas youth with that of the Earth engaged my mind, opened my senses, and stirred my soul more than any movie all year.

2. Hugo. (AMC Bloomington 12, December 2011.) Martin Scorsese's elating "children's film" feels, like Malick's movie, an attempt to capture he's ever wanted to say about his own grand obsessions, as well as a vital piece of connective tissue between the uncertain future of cinema and its endangered past.

3. Drive (IU Cinema, September 2011.) A bloody, beautiful piece of mythmaking from Nicolas Winding Refn. Some seemed to think this was nothing more than a string of empty cinematic homages and a celebration of ersatz cool. It seems pretty clear, though, that Refn and Gosling want us to see the disturbing consequences of bullshit machismo as the Driver fulfills his destiny in the shimmering dark of L.A (the amazing Newton Thomas Sigel with my favorite cinematography of the year).

Other Great Films: Certified Copy, Carlos (a 2010 release I didn't see until Spring 2011), Melancholia, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Honorable Mention: The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Cave of Forgotten Dreams,
Win Win, Attack the Block, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger.

You Liked It More Than I Did:
Joe Wright's thriller Hanna, which I found tedious, earned some fervent admirers. Kelly Reichardt's acclaimed Meek's Cutoff had some great moments but ultimately fell short for me. Most of all, Moneyball, the year's "I don't like baseball but I really like this movie" movie, seemed to me a textbook example of filmmakers not fully comprehending their subject and trying to slip some disingenuous notions past the audience. How else to explain the dubious depiction of Art Howe as an absentee manager, or why the crucial narrative thread of a player becoming a starter inexplicably climaxes with his coming off the bench to pinch-hit, or the claim that embracing Billy Beane's principles rather than lining their own deep pockets (with at least one of Beane's former superstars) led to the Boston Red Sox becoming World Series champs? Beane's own A's have also floundered considerably in the years since, but the movie doesn't want you to know that either.

Worst of 2011: Friends with Benefits, an energetically inept romantic comedy that embraces the very conventions it pretends to be subverting (and, more unforgivably, wants to convince you that flash-mobs are cool), made me wonder if my rave for Will Gluck's previous film, Easy A, was off the beam. The Help, about which I can only second the chorus of criticisms regarding its shoddy history, naive view of racism, and atrocious script. Finally, at barrel's bottom, the loathsome animated film My Dog Tulip, which nearly made me flee my seat at Ebertfest, fulfills the conviction of its co-director (who admitted to once eating a canine) that dogs "are nothing more than piss and shit, and I wanted to reflect that." Mission accomplished.

Biggest Thrill: The opportunity to introduce Paul Schrader before an IU Cinema screening of Taxi Driver, and lead a Q&A with him afterwards. He was formidable, thoughtful, combative, and funny as hell. Runner-up: Attending Roger Ebert's annual film festival and shaking the man's hand.

Best Audience: Taxi Driver. A younger demographic than the usual Cinema crowd was in attendance and belied the claim that their generation is ruining the communal moviegoing experience. (My worst experiences for the year were overwhelmingly the result of yapping oldsters.) Not a peep was heard during the two-hour running time (nor, it seemed, did anyone move), leading a colleague to surmise, "What they felt for that film was respect."

Best Moviegoing Experience Overall: No surprise, Taxi Driver, in part because I'm biased, but also genuinely because of the tremendous audience reaction and the fact that the movie (in 2K digital resolution) looked amazing. Runner-up: Metropolis, of which I actually saw two versions with live scores, one at the IU Cinema with orchestral accompaniment from the Jacobs School of Music, the other at Ebertfest with the Alloy Orchestra. Again I'm biased, but the Cinema's experience, which debuted a new classical score (compared to the Mickey-Mousing approach of the Alloy), was the best. The IU score underlined the emotions; the Alloy version underlined the movements.

A very happy 2012 to all.


Hokahey said...

Craig - My pick for Best Picture of 2011 is the same as yours. My second place is Melancholia. Also, if I had seen Taxi Driver on the big screen as you did, it would have been one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year. For me, the best experience was going to NYC to see The Tree of Life two days in a row on opening weekend with Jason of the Cooler.

Craig said...

Thanks, Hokahey. I think we're in the majority as far as "The Tree of Life" is concerned (including your upstanding nephew) - an unusual place for me to be, but I'll deal with it. I liked "Melancholia" quite a bit as well, and may have been even more impressed had I seen it on the big screen rather than at home.

"Taxi Driver" was a fantastic experience, and I'm honored and humbled to have been a part of it. I'm looking forward to seeing "Once Upon a Time in the West" at the Cinema next week, and "The Seven Samurai" later in the semester.

Steven Santos said...

While I can't get on board with both "Tree of Life" or "Hugo" for reasons I've probably reiterated a few times already, I do have to thank you for writing this about "Drive":

"It seems pretty clear, though, that Refn and Gosling want us to see the disturbing consequences of bullshit machismo..."

Very, very surprised so few are reading it this way. I find it bizarre so many are reading the film as portraying that character as a hero. I didn't even consider that interpretation when I saw it.

Having just seen "Meek's Cutoff" (and liking "Wendy & Lucy"), I can only say that I've never seen a film strive so much for authenticity while simultaneously disposing of any need to have interesting characters or themes. It felt like a gritty History Channel recreation with better actors.

Craig said...

I find it bizarre so many are reading the film as portraying that character as a hero.

Well, they probably heard "Real Hero" on the soundtrack, and that was all they needed to draw that conclusion. Like the TV critics who congratulated themselves for comparing "Boss" to "Citizen Kane" because Kelsey Grammer's character is named Kane.

Also rather surprised that some of the same folks who went out of their way to attack "chaos cinema" shrugged off a movie that serves as an outstanding example of classical filmmaking, as you commented to my original review. But no matter. I'm finding the weird afterlife of "Drive" encouraging; I think it's going to hold up sensationally well.

Having just seen "Meek's Cutoff" (and liking "Wendy & Lucy"), I can only say that I've never seen a film strive so much for authenticity while simultaneously disposing of any need to have interesting characters or themes. It felt like a gritty History Channel recreation with better actors.

That's brilliant.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I really enjoyed this, and not just because you quoted me.

You approached 2011 the way I'd like to approach 2012 ... but probably won't. I have so many blind spots and I want to chip away at some of them this year, as usual, but what I really should do is unplug from the new releases, more or less, and even from my own collection, and attack those gaps, but I can't bring myself to do it -- mainly because I enjoy the ritual of moviegoing, even when the movies suck. (Note: Increasingly poor audience behavior from, yes, adults, is making me rethink that, slowly.)

A few comments ...

* The IU Cinema looks like a great place to see a show. Reminds me a bit of the AFI Silver here in the DC area.

* You make some fantastic points about Moneyball. When I wrote my review -- which was kind of a shoulder shrug ("Yeah, it's good...") -- I worried I was coming from too much of a baseball geek's perspective. But the point about Hatteburg coming off the bench is all about story structure; great point! (And, yeah, you'd think they could have at least mentioned having the AL MVP and one of the best pitching staffs in the league.) I saw in some other piece recently, maybe over at Grantland, where they like their movie conversation vapid, that Moneyball would be the movie of 2011 that five years from now no one would want to stand behind anymore. That could be true.

* On Drive, maybe we've had this conversation before, but I'm not sure I grasp the suggestion by you and Steven that the film is about "the disturbing consequences of bullshit machismo." It's been so long since I've seen it that I'm not very comfortable arguing one way or another, but I seem to recall feeling it was about a man struggling with his own role -- wanting to see himself as a hero but knowing he has the bloodlust of a villain. (And, frankly, I don't think we can dismiss the lyrics of that song; it didn't strike me as entirely ironic.) But, again, it's been a while. I will say that I think, in general, Drive will linger with me. Many others haven't.

Craig said...

Thanks, Jason. I think your interpretation of "Drive" is valid. If I emphasize the darker aspects of the film, it's because those registered more strongly to me (the elevator scene, the blood on the Driver's jacket), and also maybe because I feel compelled to push against the rather vapid counterpoints I've been reading elsewhere. Michael Phillips in today's Slate Movie Club writes: "I’m intrigued to the point of bafflement as to what the ardent lovers of Drive see in its “ravishing” surfaces and superhumanly cool antihero with the cool jacket and shades, sported by the unblinking god Ryan Gosling." It's tricky to respond to that without resorting to something Kim Morganish like, "'Drive' both celebrates cool and deconstructs it," even though that's essentially accurate. I think Refn's take on the character is more complicated than he's being given credit for. Maybe Steven can articulate it better. I believe he compared the movie to those South Korean thrillers featuring dark antiheroes, a far more original frame of reference than you'll find anywhere else.

Adam Zanzie said...

Craig, I still envy you for getting to introduce and interview Paul Schrader. That must have been an unforgettable experience.

Glad to see The Tree of Life and Hugo in your list. I have no doubt those will both make my eventual Top 10. Haven't seen Drive yet, though.

Sam Juliano said...

Seeing TAXI DRIVER and METROPOLIS on the big screen would understandable rate among your most venerated experiences this past year, Craig. I find myself in agreement with you on several of these films as my own Top Ten list confirms:

1. The Tree of Life
2. Mysteries of Lisbon
3. Bal (Honey)
4. Of Gods and Men
5. War Horse
6. A Separation
7. Melancholia
8. The Artist
9. Hugo
10, Jane Eyre

Of the 20 or so runners-up I listed, I was most saddened that DRIVE, POETRY, TOMBOY, THE MILL AND THE CROSS, INCENDIES, LE QUATTRO VOLTE, SHAME and WIN WIN couldn't make the 10.

I guess there was only one serious issue of disagreement in my Top 10, but I won't talk about that here.

Anyway, loved reading about your engaging recollections and movie specifics. Great stuff here!

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. Schrader is so funny in person that it's surprising his own films are so dour and humorless. Near the end of the Q&A, a perky blonde undergrad raised her hand, and Schrader announced, "Reese Witherspoon has a question from the back!"

I suspect you will dislike Drive, or might say, "What's the big deal?" I'm almost afraid to see it again myself, the digital print at the Cinema being the best audio-visual experience I've ever had at a movie.

Craig said...

Thanks, Sam. I've seen half of your 10-best and have three of them on mine. I'm envious of the breadth of films you get to see during the year and hope to continue filling in my own blind spots during 2012, Raoul Ruiz being a major one.

Also glad you mentioned Win Win, another delightful low-key McCarthy comedy with a great supporting turn from Amy Ryan. Meant to add that to my Honorable Mentions. Will do so now.