At the end of 2011, I set out on an insurmountable task: to catch up with everything from the year I hadn't seen but wanted to. As many of you know, I posted a list of the movies I wanted to see before the end of the year. I managed to see a third of those by the time I threw my hands up in the air and said "it's halfway through January so I have to get this thing going."
Since then, I've seen most of the films nominated for Best Picture and quite a few I wasn't expecting to see but am glad I did. They'll get proper reviews (if they haven't already), but I'm The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Skin I Live In away from hitting all of the major films from last year that I really wanted to see.
Because I'm not sure quite when I'm going to watch those, I thought I'd take a look at some of the films I have caught up with from last year and see whether my Year End Recap Lists would have changed if I had seen them before writing it. As a rule, I don't amend the lists - where they are is where they stay, but I think it's a worthwhile exercise to consider the films I've seen since in the context of other movies from 2011.
Very quickly, here is how I broke down the films from 2011:
My Absolute Favorites (Drive, Midnight in Paris, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Guard, Melancholia)
Really, Really Great Movies That Didn't Make the Above List (Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, Super, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop)
Movies That Were Pretty Good, Very Good, but Not Life Changing or Anything Like That (A Dangerous Method, Paul, Drive Angry, Hobo with a Shotgun)
Garbage (The Thing, Blubberella, Sucker Punch, Scream 4)
To put this in perspective, I'd put Moneyball in the Movies That Were Pretty Good category (it's a well-made movie that's inherently pointless because of how it ends), and Cowboys & Aliens in the Garbage category (not in the "Bottom Five" slot, but definitely with the likes of In Time, Killer Elite, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides section).
There's probably only one movie that would cause me to reconsider the Absolute Favorites, and I'll get to that shortly, so most films not listed below fall right in the Pretty Good to Very Good (that would include Absentia, Some Guy Who Kills People, and My Week with Marilyn). Captain America is probably going into Cowboys and Aliens territory, and Your Highness? Well.... that I'd have to think about.
The five films up for serious contention are:
1. Hugo - I really do struggle with whether Hugo should leapfrog Attack the Block and go into the rarefied air of "Absolute Favorites." It's every bit as good, if not in many ways better, than Midnight in Paris (which it shares some tangential connections to) and certainly has more to say about film than Woody Allen's movie does about literature. Hugo is a film that caught me off guard; first I was concerned that by not seeing it in 3-D that I was missing one of the major reasons Scorsese made the film, and then second the initial burst of "kid crap" pratfalls had me worried.
But this is a Martin Scorsese film, and I should have known better than to have doubted a master filmmaker to lure in the younger audience without pandering to them for the entire film. He hooks them with a tease of dumb kiddie humor and then draws everyone into a world indebted to cinema. I really think what's holding me back is that I didn't see it in 3-D, and even though you forget that it was filmed that way shortly after, I suspect that it would have made a difference. As it is, I look forward to watching Hugo again. And again. And again.
2. The Descendants -So The Descendants is probably the least "typical" Alexander Payne film: to be sure, there are maladjusted adults behaving badly to each other in funny but also painful ways, but with a sense of warmth I wasn't prepared for. I've noticed a distinct critical dismissal of the film based on the fact the protagonists of The Descendants are all essentially products of privilege, and that their struggles are accordingly irrelevant because people who are well-to-do don't have problems. And okay, I get that some online critics don't want to watch movies where characters in better life positions than they deal with infidelity amidst the decision whether to make millions of dollars selling land that doesn't belong to them. Fair enough. I'm not sure why you liked Sideways if that's the case, but fair enough.
The issue of class and rightful ownership was in the back of my mind during the film, but at no point did I think about Matt King (George Clooney) as a wealthy lawyer whose wife was cheating on him because he didn't spoil her. That was the argument that her father made (minus the infidelity - he blamed the accident on Matt's "miserly" behavior). I saw a guy who thought he was doing right by his family but knowing deep down that he was giving them a raw deal, one that he hoped he could compensate for some point "later." Then things fall apart and he finds himself unprepared to be a father, a son-in-law, a husband, or a mentor. Instead, he latches on the role of "victim" when he finds out about Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), but he's not even sure how to do that the right way. It takes Speer's wife to give King some idea of how to move forward. The "I'm not going to sell the land" was a perfunctory plot line you could see coming a mile away, so when Payne cuts away from the "big speech" to return to the hospital, I was relieved.
I don't know that I agree with the characterization of The Descendants as a "mom movie," but I can kind of understand the impetus for that. It would fall under the classification were it not for a film about dealing with the death of a cheating wife that exists in the movie for other characters to project on. It ends as well as it can, but I don't know that it's going to supplant The Help as "mom movie" material for last year. For me, it sits comfortably in the Really Really Good list.
3. Young Adult - I was not expecting to like this movie. Hell, I wasn't expecting to WATCH this movie until several people I talked to mentioned that they liked it, even if it "went nowhere." When I get to my actual review, I'll address that point and try to reconcile my reaction to Young Adult with my feelings about My Week with Marilyn. In the mean time I wanted to let you know that Young Adult, despite my strong distaste for Juno and all things Diablo Cody related, stuck with me. Not in a "why did I watch this" way, but in a "well damn, that hit home in a lot of ways" way.
I've noticed that this is a common reaction among online reviews, in part because Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the misanthropic writer many of us relate to even though we probably shouldn't. The film is concerned with bad decisions, feeling like you "peaked" too soon, and most of all about how perceptions of others affect you at critical junctures in life. The dialogue is so removed from the "hip speak" of Juno that aside from one reference to a combo restaurant, I wouldn't have pegged the film as being from the writer of Jennifer's Body. Like Melancholia, Young Adult is a movie that I've come back to in the weeks since I watched it, and as a result deserves mention among 2011's best surprises.
4. The Artist -The backlash against The Artist began almost immediately after the film won Best Picture (and Best Director and Best Actor) and has only increased since many of the competing films landed on home video. I'm not going to pile on the film, which was by no means the best film I saw of 2011 but was a perfectly enjoyable hybrid of Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. It's a movie that makes you feel good, and it's fun to watch and is clever at times. It makes you smile, even if it doesn't make the longest lasting impression. That's fine, because the Academy Awards doesn't always reward the "best" film or whatever criteria you want to judge disparate films by. Like The Departed, The Artist is starting to get the "well it wasn't that good" chatter, so whether it deserves the top spot of 2011 or if it was just marketed to win awards is kind of irrelevant.
I did want to say that while I did really enjoy The Artist, I'm not sure I'd put it in the Really Really Liked list. I thought long and hard about this, and will probably watch it again before I make up my mind, but in the wake of films I've seen since, The Artist continues to be bumped down by movies I was more surprised by, more engaged with, or ones that linger in my memory. I don't want to pile on The Artist, but I'm not sure where it would fit if I had the list(s) to do over again.
5. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - This is going to be a strange comparison, possibly the first time it's ever been made, but I kind of feel the same way about Tucker and Dale vs. Evil as I do The Muppets. I wasn't necessarily sure what I was going to see when I watched both films, but had high hopes. The buzz was generally good, but every now and then I'd run into a negative review that made one or two very salient points, and I'd be a little worried.
Both films are a lot of fun, if not perfect, but set out to do what they intended: The Muppets exists to bring, well, the Muppets back, even if they don't really show up as we know them until more than halfway through the film. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a killbilly slasher movie that flips the protagonists and antagonists and pushes coincidences and "accidents" to extreme degrees to maintain that inversion. Both films are clever takes on expectations, with likable leads and slightly unexpected plot twists near the end. In keeping with that, I'd put the two films side by side on the list. That should give you some idea of whether Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is worth your time.
Keep an eye out for an actual review of Young Adult sometime soon. I'll be back tomorrow with a look back at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.