Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Movies of 2011, day two: the best of what's been

Back in 2010, I sat down and composed a very lengthy list of movies I wanted to see. It was no hasty effort - I wrote down films which had intrigued me for years and films by directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Carol Reed, Orson Welles) or stars (Humphrey Bogart, Jack Benny, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff) who were my personal favourites. I drew some items from critic's lists, but others were recommendations from trusted friends. I took note of genres which I didn't usually watch (ie, musical, western, documentary) and decided I would seek out the films considered to be the best of their ilk. Watching Hollywood granted me a list of silent films I was eager to see while a Personal Journey With Martin Scorcese Through American Movies drew me to a number of lesser-known titles.

Although I began going through the list in 2010, it was during 2011 that I watched most of the 200-some titles (about 30 remain; I've already watched one in 2012 as I write this). At the same time, I remained open to all sorts of films which weren't on my list as I watched movies with friends or family and from what I unearthed on Netflix.

Below are my favourite films of the many I watched during 2011. Films are described in the order of which I viewed them.

In terms of documentaries, Errol Morris' the Thin Blue Line was the best-regarded film I had heard of. Having seen it, it's become my go-to recommendation to friends. I felt I had seen enough of Michael Moore-style documentaries, but Morris' style was instantly arresting - the way in which he holds back from commenting, instead letting the camera run and allow his subjects to say what's on their mind has changed how I feel about documentaries. I followed this film up with as many other Morris pictures as I could, including Standard Operating Procedure, his picture about the Abu Ghraib scandal. I watched all but one of his films within the last year and they all come highly recommended!

My friends are sometimes amazed by what I haven't seen, namely the many well-known commercial films I haven't watched. For instance, I hadn't seen Chicken Run until it came up for viewing at my friend Tom's movie night; similarly, I borrowed his copy of Field of Dreams. You probably don't need my recommendation for these films, but I will say they're great for viewing in friendly company.

L.A. Confidential came recommended by my cousin; despite the accolades it received from critics and the Academy Awards (which I knew well, being from the era when I read the entertainment section of two newspapers and watched Siskel & Ebert every day), it was my cousin's championing this film which convinced me to watch it - otherwise, I think I would have dismissed it as "film noir pastiche." It was strangely less dark than I expected to be, even becoming rather life-affirming by the climax.. not genuine noir, then!

The Petrified Forest was of interest to me because it was Humphrey Bogart's big breakout role; I had heard a few radio adaptations of the story, so the plot held no surprises, but Bogart's performance was indeed the tentpole of this picture; I was also fascinated by the racial attitudes, as I blogged about here.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (this being the 1939 version with Robert Donat) is another picture whose story I had heard dramatized via old-time radio programs, but the picture was quite moving; I also happened to realize how despite Donat being a favourite Hitchcock hero (the 39 Steps), I hadn't really considered the rest of his film career.

The French film Les Diaboliques had a very simple plot, but oh so oh so much style; the story of a wife who murders her husband with the help and guidance of her husband's mistress just ticks along, making the viewer wonder where the complications will arise and how frayed the killers' alliance will become.

Getting back to documentaries, I watched Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, not entirely certain what I was in for. Herzog is certainly more of an editorialist than Morris, but when the film steps back and allows its subject - passionate yet foolish bear-lover Timothy Treadwell - express his thoughts, it's quite a show; to some extent, perhaps Herzog's heavy-handed narration and summation was needed to comment on Treadwell's behaviour, yet I wish Treadwell's footage could have stood on its own.

Beau Geste is from that interesting span of years in the late 30s when Hollywood would create big, rousing, exotic adventure pictures. Beau Geste still holds up, especially when it moves to the big set piece - the Foreign Legion outpost in the desert, divided by revolt within, beset by adversaries without. Everything after the battle for the outpost feels anti-climatic.

After all the serious documentaries I watched the Dark Side of the Moon was a hilarious change of pace; purporting to relate the story of how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing, replete with testimony from major NASA and US government officials, this is a brilliant joke; it does a fantastic job of encouraging viewers to be inquisitive and questioning of the "facts" people tell them, especially those told by filmmakers (who can edit "testimony" out of its context), but it doesn't stoop to lecturing; it isn't until the closing credits that the film exposes itself as a hoax, but hopefully anyone who watches the film would catch on much sooner; many of the early scenes are off-putting, making you doubt what you're being told; by the end, the story of the faked moon landing has become so absurd (yet delivered straight-faced) that it becomes very funny.

A couple of years ago, I read the book version of the One That Got Away, yet the film adaptation was a little elusive. I was amazed at how faithful the film was to its source material, relating the tale of how German pilot Franz von Werra repeatedly attempted escape from the British, until finally winning his freedom by leaping from a prison train in Canada. The book is the superior way of experiencing this story, but I have no complaints about the movie!

I've never really warmed up Billy Wilder's pictures, yet because of the aforementioned Martin Scorcese... special, I felt One, Two, Three with Jimmy Cagney would be worth seeing. And how! I'm surprised I hadn't heard of this film until seeing Scorcese's special, it's a very well-played Cold War farce which is still funny in a post-Cold War world.

Of the many movies I watched aboard various planes during my trip to/from Angola, POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold was easily my favourite experience. I had previously enjoyed Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, so I was willing to indulge in this gentle mockery of movie product placement. I wish a little more time in the picture had been spent discussing product placement with the briefly-interviewed Hollywood directors, but many of the gags - especially the Mane & Tail shampoo - are quite funny.

Thanks to Netflix, I was finally able to see two top-rated pictures: Gandhi and Kagemusha. I was recently rewatching Richard Attenborough's picture Chaplin and wishing he'd filmed it in a style nearer to that of Gandhi.

Netflix also had Charade, a pretty good thriller in the Hitchcock vein; I think it's often been mistaken for a Hitchcock film because Cary Grant was the leading man (at least, my father seems to think it was a Hitchcock picture).

I wish Black Hawk Down had been a little more ambitious. It's a very well-done depiction of modern warfare and the comradery of soldiers which you'd expect, but it stops short of being about something other than an andrenaline-fueled reenactment of a historical event and that held me back just a titch.

I often watch comic book-related pictures even when I haven't experienced the comics themselves, simply to be supportive. If Netflix hadn't had Persepolis available for streaming, I don't know when I would have made time for the film or comics; it does such a fine job of what Mark Gruenwald claimed comics were meant for: "to help people connect with life experiences of people other than themselves, thereby expanding upon their concept of humanness." That's Persepolis and now I know I need to make time for the original comic.

Netflix also lead me to films of various reputations: Seven Years in Tibet, Blues Brothers, 1984, Marty... funny thing about 1984: the novel was a huge influence on me in high school, but I always balked at seeing R-rated films in my teen years. Now having seen the 80s adaptation, I realize it had always been a mature, adult piece of fiction - the R rating is all I should have expected.

I don't know why I should be surprised I enjoyed Pixar's Up; I haven't seen a Pixar film I didn't like (ie, I haven't seen a Bug's Life or Cars) but this film's concept wasn't easy to get a handle on from the trailer (as opposed to "toys," "monsters," "super heroes," or "robots"). I'm glad it allowed the creators to be a little more offbeat and imaginative than usual. This is a letter-perfect all-ages film.

Having seen Throne of Blood I'm down to just a few remaining Kurosawa pictures; this was his adaptation of Macbeth into a samurai film and it fits together perfectly, from the supernatural elements, to the "Lady Macbeth" treachery and especially in the climax as the forest moves and "Macbeth"'s soldiers revolt.

I think I heard mixed reviews of District 9, but one friend I confronted about this claims he never talked down about the movie; well, there was no need to put this off, was there? The most common criticism of the picture seems to be the lack of a happy ending, but I have to appreciate how the film on a hopeful note; at various times, it seemed to be heading to a tragic ending where nothing was learned and nothing was changed, so I'm simply pleased at how some things change and some hope exists.

Tomorrow: the letdowns.

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