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  January 24, 2012

 

Ten Best-Worst 2011
by Dan Lybarger

Ten Best

  1. Hugo —Martin Scorsese’s latest film and arguably his most accomplished in a decade is a children’s film that daringly assumes that youngsters are as smart as if not smarter than their parents. This sort of thinking on the part of the director and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) might have hurt the movie at the box office, but it makes for a much more rewarding experience in the theater. This reworking of Brian Selznick’s book is both an adventure and a tribute to one of cinema’s most important pioneers, French fantasy filmmaker Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon).

On a technical, Scorsese uses 3D in an astonishingly subtle way. For once, it’s integral to the story. In addition, it’s also refreshing to see kids film with an antagonist (ably played by Sacha Baron Cohen) who isn’t a menacing buffoon. Letting youngsters learn that people who disagree with us aren’t necessarily bad is a lesson that most adults could stand to comprehend. Read the original review.

  1. A Separation —This Iranian drama is engrossing because it doesn’t fit neatly into any category except for a well-made film. Writer-director         Asghar Farhadi effortlessly combines a courtroom drama with a chilling look at how civil servants often windup being oxymorons. A man named Nader (Peyman Moadi) faces murder charges because he shoved a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) near a stairwell. The situation isn’t as clear and simple as it appears. Razieh stumbles in her attempts to care for Nader’s father, who has dementia, but she has to work because her hotheaded husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) has been out of work for ages and may be unemployable.

A Separation just made the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars in part because it unfolds in surprising but not sensationalistic ways. If Farhadi is manipulating our feelings about these complicated characters, it’s hard to notice. He conceived the film during a visit to Berlin so the story feels oddly universal even though a lot of the frustrations depicted in the film seem to arise from Iran’s overburdened bureaucracy.

  1. Beginners —Moonlighting graphic designer Mike Mills has made a strangely enchanting film about being honest in your love life. Ewan McGregor stars as a character modeled after the film’s writer-director who learns that his 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) has waited decades to tell the world he’s gay. Unfortunately after shedding his troubling secret, he also discovers he has cancer.

While death and grieving are important parts of Beginners, it’s primarily a movie about learning how to live. Mills explores how the son gradually learns to overcome his wariness over his parents’ sham of a marriage and to appreciate the woman (Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds) who may be the love of his life. All the lead performances are terrific, and even minor characters like Plummer’s lover, played by Goran Visnjic are memorable. By dispensing which chronological order Mills winds up giving the film a spontaneity that keeps some of the more pithy developments in the film from being contrived. Read the original review.

  1. Project Nim —Oscar-winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) makes documentaries that don’t feel like documentaries at all. While Marsh is careful to capture opposing points of view on sensitive issues, he also manages to capture the emotions from days gone by, making the past seem alive. His latest, Project Nim, concerns an experiment from the 1970s where a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky was raised in a human household and taught sign language to communicate with people. The film not only captures what happened after the experiment with Nim ended but the surprising changes that occurred in his life after he was forced to return to a simian existence. Marsh creates a moving and remarkably detailed portrait of Nim and the people he knew, and raises fascinating questions about how humans and animals react to each other. Read the original review.

  2. The Tree of LifeThe eccentric and slow-working Terrence Malick has returned with a movie that is both aggravating and mesmerizing. Thankfully, the latter adjective is far more applicable. In his account of a dysfunctional family in 1950’s Texas, Malick follows the uneasy relationship between a domineering father (Brad Pitt) and his frustrated son (Hunter McCracken). He also manages to go through the history of existence and muses if there might be a loving God out there. That’s a lot to pack into a single film, but Malick gets points simply for trying. He might be overly ambitious, but too many movies these days seem to have no ambition at all. Read the original review.

  3. Bridesmaids —Read the original review.

  4. The Interrupters —Read the original review.

  5. Contagion —Read the original review.

  6. Cave of Forgotten Dreams —Read the original review.

  7. Drive —Read the original review.

  Ten Worst

  1. New Year’s Eve —Thank goodness Groundhog Day is already taken. Otherwise, director Garry Marshall and screenwriter Katherine Fugate, the team behind the equally intolerable Valentine’s Day, might be tempted to make another pointless, irritating waste of celluloid or hard disc space. A shameful list of Oscar-winners and nominees has squandered their time and ours on a series of irritating tales centered on the final night of 2011. After seeing this thing, perhaps it’s best if the 2012 prophecy did come true. Does the universe really need more trash like this? Read the original review.

  2. Snow Flower and the Secret FanWhile her husband Rupert Murdoch has made billions degrading journalism beyond recognition and listening to the phone messages of murder victims, freshman producer Wendi Deng Murdoch has spearheaded this adaptation of a Lisa See novel. Fans of the book and of good cinema might say that her offense is greater than her husband’s. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has confusing flashbacks, terrible acting and fuzzy characters and plotting. The movie might create outrage, but it’s so bad it’s incapable of creating any reaction at all. Read    the original review.

  3. Answers to NothingThe title is truth in advertising. This Los Angeles ensemble includes what might possibly be the least compelling residents          of the metropolis and has no discernible point. Comic Dane Cook attempts to prove that he has dramatic chops, but Answers to Nothing is so humorless and pretentions that a little wisecrack every now and then might have been an improvement. On second thought, his recent standup debacle indicates that he might be in trouble there as well. Robert Altman could have made Answers to Nothing with his back to the camera and wearing earmuffs. Perhaps that’s what writer-director Matthew Leutwyler     actually did. Read the original review.

  4. Something BorrowedFrom the moment that Kate Hudson announced that she’d lost her $2,000 purse, you could hear groans and audience members running for the exits. This laugh-free romantic comedy centers on duplicitous jerks, which have weaker morals than the gangsters in GoodFellas. None are likable enough to make viewers care if any ever bother to mate. The only thing borrowed in this film is the setup, which has been used far more expertly and entertainingly in countless other films that don’t feature selfish jerks with $2,000 purses. Read the original review.

  5. Seven Days in Utopia —Football, soccer, baseball and MMA kickboxing are all photogenic sports. Golf isn’t. Perhaps a movie about Angry Birds players might have been more cinematic. Throwing in proselytizing certainly doesn’t help because golf makes a really weak spiritual metaphor. You’d think these folks would have learned from the not-so-legendary The Legend of Bagger Vance. Instead, Robert Duvall and Lucas Black spend what really seems like a week discussing getting closer to God and putting. This might have been          more edifying if Seven Days in Utopia didn’t feel like two-iron to the head. Read the original review.

  6. Sucker Punch —Read the original review.

  7. Arthur —Read the original review.

  8. Transformers: Dark of the Moon —Read the original review.

  9. What’s Your Number? —Read the original review.

  10. Red Riding Hood —Read the original review.


Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.