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.