Thursday, February 23, 2012

Belated Top Nine(s) of 2011 part one (#10 - #5)

Editor's Note: Welcome to I Liked The Trailer Better’s Best Films of 2011 round-up, brought to you just in time for the Oscars. In honor of the industry’s failure to produce ten movies worthy of Best Picture consideration, we present our own Top Nine list. By the way, how shitty do the movies not nominated for Best Picture feel? One can no longer be consoled by the thought that it was a highly competitive year and there just wasn’t enough room to fit in all the year’s masterpieces. Nope! Let’s stop at nine, says the Academy. Yeah, we’re good with nine. It’s like asking Suzy to prom and getting turned down. If it’s because she already said yes to a date, well, it happens. But if it turns out she’s going alone, LOVE HURTS I HATE YOU SUZY I WRITE A BLOG NOW SO WHATEVER.

First, we have some explaining to do. To all our loyal reader(s!!!), we know: we haven’t written in two years. So here’s what happened. In the spring of 2010, McFilmerstein was interviewing for a studio exec job. It went really well. He nailed his greatest weakness question and everything. Alas, when he got back in touch with the very powerful would-be boss, he was informed that several entries he’d written on this very blog were in poor taste (particularly when directed at the movies of that very powerful would-be boss), and that despite his many qualifications, the studio would hire someone else. Shit. So we stopped writing.

But now we’re back! McFilmerstein will be writing under his new pseudonym to protect his good name and standing in the industry. Brian will continue using his real name, as he does not have any standing within the industry (a quick inventory of his Top Nine will give you an idea as to why). In fact, while McFilmerstein was spiraling into a deep depression over lost opportunities due to the blog, Brian was secretly thrilled to know that people were actually reading his words.
That’s so cool, he thought. I’m fucking famous
, he further thought.

Without further ado, our Top Nine list:

GOLAN: Now that the intro and explanation is out of the way, I'll dive right in. Now that I'm anonymous, I can be totally honest and not worry about retribution. Unless anyone read this blog before. Then I'm screwed.


Cloon. I'll explain. I first saw this as a play onstage here in LA starring Chris Pine, and it blew me away. Clearly written by someone who knew what they were talking about (the playwright had worked for Howard Dean and Charles Schumer), it peeled back the onion on the gameplay of politics in a fun and inventive way.

Now, admittedly, nothing in the play, or the movie, was particularly groundbreaking (politicians are liars!, political advisors are Machiavellian!, Ryan Gosling has nice abs!), but somehow still felt fresh and new. The dialogue pops and sparkles. It's topical, smart and exciting. But more than any of that, it's cynical. And I love that. Cynicism is the new black, as far as I'm concerned.

Movies like this always end up being favorites of mine – they end up telling us something we already know, but doing it in such a way that you still feel exhilarated at the revelation and crushed by the inevitable conclusion. And in this case, it even works on a global scale. This movie is about politics, to be sure, but it also represents America as a whole. What we're willing to do to get ahead, who we're willing to screw, what we're willing to cover up. How we treat our friends, our employees, our allies, our constituents. It's all folded into this great drama and expertly helmed with nuanced direction by Cloon and brilliantly acted by all (even Gosling, who wasn't as good as Pine was onstage).


BRIAN: So, yeah. I haven’t seen IDES OF MARCH, so I’m just gonna do my best in reply to everything you just said. Here goes:
  • Politics! It really corrupts, you know? How ‘bout that Mitt Romney?
  • According to the Wikipedia page of FARRAGUT NORTH, the play is named after “a Washington Metro Station, on the Red Line,” which is pretty interesting stuff.
  • Clooney looks really serious in all the commercials I saw for IDES OF MARCH.
  • And when the commercial reveals Paul Giamatti to be an actor in the film, I have to admit: I did not see that one coming, for I had not realized who else was in the movie aside from poster boys Clooney and Gosling.
  • Politics!
  • Re: Gosling, seriously?! It’s like he’s Photoshopped!
  • Steve Carrell looks really funny in the movie, as well.

GOLAN: Glad we agree on IDES OF MARCH. That's what you were saying, wasn't it? Whatever. Who. Cares. What's your #9?


I’ve never seen a sports movie like this. Yes, it’s a story about underdog losers who still end up losing, but that’s not what makes it so unconventional. It flips the genre on its head, reimagining it for the digital age. Sports films are generally character pieces – we become involved in the athlete’s personal life, and what is happening off the field correlates with what’s happening during the games. This formula implies a causal relationship, as if the protagonist’s personal demons are solely responsible for the team’s struggles. MONEYBALL rejects this simplification. It’s the anti-character piece. It strips away all the fluff we use to weave a narrative together and reduces it all to math. In other words, the film is a closer representation of how we now consume sports, scanning the box score after games and trying to make sense of the win or the loss.

And while the film doesn’t arrive at a conventionally satisfying conclusion (the so-called revolutionary method doesn’t carry the team to a championship, ultimately), I find the lack of a convincing answer rather moving. For the film poses an unanswerable question: how do we measure our lives? Our happiness? Success? Our lives are messy. Indeed, the stat sheet is messy. So how are we supposed to find some sort of meaning in all that mess? The sabre metrics employed by the A’s staff zeroes in on one meaningful stat (on-base percentage) and willfully disposes of all the other data. In the final scene, when faced with the decision to take a new job and accept its lucrative salary, Billy Beane weighs all the factors until we see him zero in on the one thing that gives his life meaning: his daughter, her voice singing on a cassette tape. The camera zooms in (zeroes in) on his eyes, very tight, and holds. All the other data in the frame goes away – his expression, the scenery, the road. The answer is fleeting, just as fluid as the tears in his eyes. It’s a perfect lasting image. And one of the best closing shots in recent movie memory.

GOLAN: I'll discuss MONEYBALL more when I get there, but suffice it to say that I loved it. I will admit that the first time I saw it, I wasn't sure what to think. I remember enjoying it, but I saw it with someone who hated it, and it threw me off. I remember walking out of the theater wishing it had been more conventionally plotted, more riddled with sports movie cliches, more MIGHTY DUCKS-y, if you will. And then I saw it again, and realized I was dead wrong. It was beautiful in its complex execution, full of soul and wit, and also had two of my favorite performances of the year in it.

We're not really arguing yet, are we? I hope we start to disagree soon or this is going to get pretty boring.

BRIAN: I mean, I have no desire to watch IDES OF MARCH, if one couldn’t tell from my response to it. That probably counts as disagreement.

GOLAN: That's right. I forgot. If it's popular and doesn't star a tall blue horse monkey or a dead Oscar winner, you don't want to watch it. Yeah, that'll work as our first argument.

And so, without further ado, my #8:


Oh wait... no... no, that's not right. What I meant was:


This one is a cool one to discuss, because I love it and hate it equally. It's audacious, to be sure, when anyone tries to do a big “Life, the Universe and Everything” kind of movie, but in the hands of Malick, it almost works. Yes, I said almost. There are portions of this movie that are as metaphysical as anything I've ever seen caught on film, and there are portions that over-reach and fall flat on their faces. The difference between this movie, and most other movies that sometimes try super hard and fall short, is that when this one failed, I still applauded it's temerity at trying to begin with.

That's actually a good way to summarize my feelings for the movie: I admired Malick for simply going there. Sure, that means when he failed, he failed
, but it also means that when he succeeded, he was able to transcend cinema in new and exciting ways. I mean, who else working today could have made this film? No one. It's rare when pretentious, powerful, messy, stunning, incoherent and sophisticated can all be applied equally to the same film, and I love that.

Let me put it this way. I'm not a religious guy, but sitting through this movie for me was like a religious experience.

Whoa! McFilmerstein! I’m pleasantly surprised to hear you like this movie. Truth be told, I’m a little surprised you even went to see it. I would have pictured you nodding off during the cosmos montage, only to have your date elbow you whenever Brad Pitt comes on the screen, whispering, “Look, look! It’s Mr. Smith!”

But you loved it. Yeah, me too. I also found it imperfect. But I don’t think any of it failed for me, nor do I think Malick is overreaching at all. I just thought some of afterlife stuff looked a little trite (the walking on the beach, the deserted door frame). Curious to hear where you thought the film failed.
GOLAN: I think maybe you agree with my assessment, only your terminology is different. For instance, some of the imagery in the metaphysical sections you reference above was a bit on the nose. I don't mind literal imagery at times, but it seems to me that when someone is pushing the envelope as far as Malick is in this film, there's no reason to rely on old chestnuts to get you by. Especially when it didn't feel like he cared if anyone understood what he meant by any of it. I have my own interpretations, but I also have a hunch that if I told any of them to Malick, he would chuckle at me and not even give me the courtesy of an answer. I know you'll take me to task for this, but I would have liked more character development. I wanted more of Sean Penn, more of Brad Pitt – more of all of the actors, actually. I didn't mind the half an hour of non-actory stuff either, but I did feel like some of it could have been swapped out for more time developing the story of the core family without sacrificing the message that Malick was trying to get across.

As a side note, since I forgot to mention it earlier, the cinematography in this movie is sooooooooooooooo good. Emmanuel Lubezki is a freaking master. And if he loses the Oscar, it will only be because black and white is gorgeous, and because so many people hated this movie.

Oh god, less of Sean Penn. Much, much less. Like, THIN RED LINE cameo less.
GOLAN: I don't know if you would want less of Sean Penn if you actually got to know him a little better. As it stands now, it's all wistful looks. But let's move on. Enough about me. What's your #8?


It might be pointless to sing its praises considering it’s a lock to bring home Best Picture on Sunday, so instead, I’ll address the backlash bandwagon. The film’s detractors charge that its appeal is merely one of nostalgia, blindly paying tribute to a bygone era. Sure, but even as the movie romanticizes the past, it is also about the dangers of doing so – even suggesting that honoring the past is often indistinguishable from fetishizing it (the repurposing of the
score, another common complaint, is surely not accidental in the scene it plays over).

The theme of nostalgia has been noted in this year’s crop of awards movies, but I don’t think THE ARTIST is guilty of pandering to this in the same way that HUGO is. Scorsese is a known film preservationist, but his movie felt too precious about the early silent films, and as a result of embalming the subject matter with the love of a film historian, those films felt mummified rather than resurrected. THE ARTIST, somehow, feels alive and contemporary.
GOLAN: Love me some ARTIST. I'll discuss soon enough. But I will say this: I love it when you say “fetishizing.”

For the uninitiated, our loyal readers bet on the over/under for how many homoerotic exchanges we do in a given entry. Including McFilmerstein’s elongated spelling of “sooooooooooooooo good” in his description of MONEYBALL’s cinematography, the running count thus far is 5.
GOLAN: Our record so far is 35 in a single post. And I think Brian's capitalization of “BALL” in MONEYBALL counts as #6, and his use of the word “elongated” counts as #7. We're on track to bust this record wide open. Annnnnd that's #8.

Speaking of numbers, my #7 is a tie (and there's a reason):


BEGINNERS was a film I didn't think was perfect, but the three lead performances and the film's heart push it over the top for me. In THE WAY, the lead performance by Martin Sheen sold me, as did the film's heart. See? These two films are connected! And they're both about father/son relationships – in BEGINNERS, it's about how a father's radical decision affects the son's life, and in THE WAY, it's about how a son's radical decision affects the father's life. And *BOOM*, I just blew your mind.

Brian, you know that I am a pushover for sentimentality. I cry at the movies (and at TV, for that matter) more than any grown man should. But neither of these are cloyingly sweet or overly sentimental, despite their occasional dalliances with clichés and gimmicks. In BEGINNERS, Ewan McGregor does a great job as a man coming to terms with the hand life has dealt him, Melanie Laurent shines (as she has since I discovered her in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) and Christopher Plummer gives an Oscar-winning performance (oops, did I spoil the surprise?) as an older man, diagnosed with cancer, who is finally living the life he always wanted. Plummer's role struck me in particular – so much so, that I wish more time had been dedicated to the father/son relationship in the film. Which isn't to say that I would want to trade in any of the time that McGregor and Laurent share, as their story is equally touching. In THE WAY, Sheen gives a performance that rivals any I've seen him give. If the film had been with Fox Searchlight instead of self-distributed, he would surely be looking down the barrel of – at the very least – a Best Actor Nomination.

Having really disliked both director's last films (THUMBSUCKER and BOBBY, respectively), I went in to both with relatively low expectations, and was really moved and impressed by both films. They both made me want to call my dad, who promptly told me I was wasting my time working in this stupid industry. *sigh*

BRIAN: What the fuck is THE WAY? Hang on, I have to give you shit about this. Is this one of your
projects? It is, isn’t it?! Or, no. Is it because you’re doing a movie with Martin Sheen and you’re trying to raise his stock to up your development fee? You’re incredible. I had never seen an ad for that film until now. Admittedly, that’s because I don’t watch Huell Howser on PBS.
GOLAN: A random sampling:

“Martin Sheen in THE WAY is the longest of shots in the Oscar field, and still one of the most deserving.” - Pete Hammond,

“It's a quiet, believable performance, the best of his storied career. Martin Sheen certainly deserves the Oscar for this role.” - John Dear, National Catholic Reporter

“Shoulda Been a Contender for the Oscar: Martin Sheen for THE WAY” - Scott Feingberg, Hollywood Reporter

“My father, Martin Sheen, is currently starring in THE WAY... and he has given the best performance of his career!” - Charlie Sheen

Suck it, Tran. What's your number 7?


Depression’s symptoms are not easily identifiable externally and thus can be a very private disease. Lars von Trier gives us a grandiose, operatic realization of this disease. The beautiful symmetry of the unforgettable overture – the blue planet is framed in the same location as the main character’s head in a following shot – suggests that the apocalyptic story of a planet colliding with the Earth can be interpreted as being all in her head, an outward manifestation of her mental state. The paralysis of this affliction is right there in the plot: there’s nowhere to run, and there’s no Michael Bay movie to destroy the oncoming planet either. No flight or fight. The melancholia is inevitable.

One of the observations Lars von Trier is sharing about depression here (it’s widely reported he suffers from it, as if you couldn’t tell from his films) is that depressives tend to act more calmly than others during a crisis. And Justine (a perfect Kirsten Dunst) seems more at ease in the second half of the film (the apocalypse) than the first half (a wedding), which perhaps suggests that depressives
a crisis. There’s a disconnect when one goes about their day and feels like absolute shit. Indeed, the concerns on Justine’s wedding day are trifling compared to what she’s feeling inside. So when the world is coming to an end, the external circumstances finally match and justify what she’s feeling. Justine seems to welcome the end of the world, as if the planet Melancholia were attracted by the gravitational pull of her mood. Given the coddling sense of comfort one feels in depression, it should come as no surprise that despite the apocalyptic setting, this is von Trier’s warmest, most hopeful film.
GOLAN: I loved Kirsten Dunst in MELANCHOLIA, but overall, I found the film kinda depressing. Yes, yes, I know that sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. I happen to be a fan of Lars Von Trier’s stuff more often than most people – BREAKING THE WAVES is devastatingly amazing, THE IDIOTS was sadly funny and beautiful, it took me a few times to appreciate DANCER IN THE DARK and now I love it, and I thought DOGVILLE was seriously effective and different. I enjoyed this one less, though.

As I said, Dunst’s performance was amazing (I honestly didn’t think she had it in her), and the visuals are haunting and genuinely beautiful (the images in it reminded me of a sadder TREE OF LIFE), but the writing, for me, suffered from on-the-nose syndrome at times, and never seemed to let up. I eventually felt less that I was observing someone succumbing to depression, and more that I was wallowing in it myself. I’m sure many would (and have) praised the film for forcing the viewer to relate so closely to what the main character is going through, but at a certain point, it stopped being interesting and started feeling oppressive.

Funny part is that I don’t disagree with anything you wrote above. I just got tired of the film after a while, despite it all.

BRIAN: But what in particular did you find on-the-nose? I think when a work has some surface symbolism, it gives the viewer the impression that everything else is to be found on the surface as well. Just because the planet is named after the film’s subject matter doesn’t mean we should stop digging deeper for more layered meaning. The work is rich in allusions – to Wagner, Marquis de Sade, and 16th
century paintings – in the overture alone, most of which I’m not familiar with. Even though I feel I was able to unravel the gist of what von Trier is saying, much of the film remains a mystery, inviting me for repeat viewings.

GOLAN: You will be repeat viewing this one on your own. Okay, maybe “on-the-nose” is too harsh. Mostly, some of the metaphors were heavy-handed (the planet being called Melancholia was as trite to me as unobtainium), some of the dialogue didn’t help the film’s cause (“The Earth is evil”) and some of the music choices were obvious (Wagner!), and seemed like devices to me. Look – some of my favorite movies are depressing – this one just left cold.

BRIAN: I loved it. But it might be because I’m miserable. :)


Aki Kaurismaki is a Finnish director making a French film. He doesn’t speak the language, nor did he use a translator on-set. He communicated with his actors by pointing and whistling, and further, never allowed more than two takes. This method sounds like a recipe for some atrocious acting, but in the same way that THE ARTIST reminded us of the pleasures of silent movie acting, LE HAVRE reminds us of how wonderful pre-Method acting is. It took a couple reels for me to get used to, but once I did, I was enchanted. The acting would be described by modern audiences as mannered or stiff. The performances are primarily external, the way a child plays make believe (a legendary French silent film actor plays the lead), and it is your own sense of make believe that leads you by the hand further into the story. You are aware that the story is artificial, and I think that’s Kaurismaki’s point. The plot is entirely contemporary despite its retro style, and its subject matter is potentially grave – a boy from Africa seeks refuge from immigration officials, and the main character’s wife is diagnosed with cancer. But he tells this in a lighthearted way, and the movie has an artificially happy ending. He acknowledges the film’s function as escapism, but only by showing you – and getting you to recognize – how shitty the real world is.

GOLAN: I saw this with you! Yay! That makes me feel all warm inside. Maybe you only liked the movie a little, but sitting next to me in the theater made you feel like you loved it? Awwwww… pookie.

I liked what I saw of LE HAVRE. I fell asleep for part of it (remember the snoring?), but what I saw was really good. I remember laughing, tearing up and gripping my armrest at different times during the film. I also remember the film making me want red wine. I have a hard time imagining this in my top ten, but I do want to point one thing out. You got on me for putting THE WAY into my top ten because it’s obscure, and you are putting LE HAVRE into yours. It’s no wonder that hypocrite and hipster sound so much alike.

BRIAN: Well, this is the first Kaurismaki film I’ve seen, so I’m not familiar with his early work – pretty sure that disqualifies me from being a hipster.Note to reader: LE HAVRE is best enjoyed being awake the entire time. Same with MELANCHOLIA. For TREE OF LIFE, it might be okay to fall sleep during some of the Sean Penn scenes.

Your # 5?

Much like my #10 in 2010, THE BLIND SIDE, this one is a trifle of a film, but a delightful one at that, and one that stays with you after you've left the theater. It's fun, it's whimsical and it's wish fulfillment at its best. The first time I saw the film, I thought it was merely "cute" - a bouncy diversion - but upon repeat viewings, it occurred to me that it's really a meditation on the dangers of nostalgia, and the fuzzy and selective nature of memory. The casting is pitch perfect, which has long been a staple of Woody Allen's films, and the players contribute to an already sumptuous and beautifully realized world.

I've been a superfan of Woody's work since I first saw CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS as a child, and this doesn't match up with his earlier work (nowhere near, in fact). CRIMES, ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (and many others), run far and fast past MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. But if this adorable gem had been made by anyone
than Allen, people (me included, and I suspect even you, Brian) would be hailing this as a creative new voice to watch in the world of cinema.

You can’t say I would’ve liked this had I not viewed it grading on a steep Woody Allen curve. Because that’s impossible, and also, entirely fair to do so. We bring our baggage and expectations into watching a filmmaker’s work – the disappointment if it fails to live up to those expectations, or surprise if it exceeds them, is part of the process. I’d argue that it plays a small hand in pushing the filmmakers to evolve by holding them accountable to their previous work. So if you’re saying the ideal audience member for this is someone who hasn’t seen ANNIE HALL, I’m saying that ideal audience member is a dumbass for not having seen it yet.

And did it really take you repeat viewings for it to dawn on you that it’s “a meditation on the dangers of nostalgia”? Because the theme is right there in the dialogue. This has always been one of my gripes about Allen films: his tendency to verbalize the film’s message. I more or less forgive him for doing this when that message is sophisticated enough to warrant an articulation (in MANHATTAN, Woody’s character spells it all out in his monologue speaking into the tape recorder in the penultimate scene, but what he spells out still manages to be enlightening as it ties disparate through-lines together rather beautifully). But with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, I found the story to be a one joke series of fake cameos.
GOLAN: First of all, I not only can say that, I did say that. And I think at times, you have to look at a film on the merits, and not on the baggage that everyone involved brings to the table. Also, as a film teacher, I refuse to be the guy who gets down on someone for not having seen something great yet. If this film creates awareness for a whole new audience who had never seen a Woody Allen movie, and it makes them go back and watch all of his earlier greats, then wonderful! I don't call that dumbassery – I call it a new generation of fans. But I digress, because that wasn't really my point – it was just a momentary diversion. The point is that this film isn't as shallow as you believe it to be.

You ask me – incredulously – why it took me repeat viewings to pick up on the theme of the film. Simple. When I first saw it, I saw it alone. I walked away from it thinking that it paled in comparison to other Woody Allen films and that it was merely a “one joke series of fake cameos,” so I dismissed it and didn't even bother to look deeper, even missing (ignoring?) the obvious subtext (and text) of the piece. Then I saw it again, with someone who rather enjoyed it. And somehow watching it a second time allowed me to let go of the notion that this film had to be compared to his previous films. It allowed me to let go of the gimmick and get to the good stuff.

The film is charming as all hell, looks gorgeous and is just fucking fun. So yeah, it's my #5.

And yours?

BRIAN: This is why I tend to watch movies alone. Sometimes I tell myself it’s by choice.


It’s easy to hate Miranda July. She puts herself in her own movies, her work can be mystifying in its experimentation, and the stakes in her stories are incredibly flimsy, inviting the viewer to ask,
Why am I supposed to care?
Perhaps her voice is better suited for YouTube, a platform for people to put themselves on camera, record everyday things, or experiment with the format and create video clip art. Yet her work in movies is indispensable. I don’t think there’s a filmmaker working today that captures the way we live better than Ms. July.

YouTube figures somewhat prominently in the story. Along with other technological contemporaries that have turned personal pronouns (
YouTube, MySpace, iPhone) into prefixes, it has changed how we live by enabling our age of self-absorption and solipsism, turning anyone with Internet access into a writer, filmmaker, photographer, journalist, comedian, radio DJ, musician, critic, curator, or artist. Solipsism is present in the very title of her first film, ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, with the word and
simultaneously separating and connecting. THE FUTURE is about how insignificant me and you feel in the multitude of everyone we know. If the film is dismissed as too slight and insignificant, it’s only in keeping with the ideas she’s exploring here.

An early plot point in the film is when the characters decide to turn off their Internet access, seeking refuge from an all-consuming digital world. Most everything online is ephemeral (activity can be cleared, deleted, revised), and the characters desire to create or hang onto something that lasts. The houses and apartments in the film are filled with bric-a-brac presumably imbued with sentimental value, and the characters quit their jobs to attempt to make some sort of dent in the world. Time is the enemy. It produces change. And the characters who had once desired to change the world are resentful of the change around them in their failure to do so. The film is a moving portrait of artists (and keep in mind, everyone is an artist these days) struggling to be heard in today’s sea of voices. The scene when Ms. July yells out the window to see if someone she’s never met can hear her is what every unknown artist today feels whenever they create something. They have no idea who could be listening, or if any of it is being heard at all.

GOLAN: That sounds great and self-indulgent. What artist wouldn't love that? Haven't seen it though, so I can't comment. But BEGINNERS, my #7 film, was made by her husband, so I still feel closer to you right now.

BRIAN: Pretty sure that was an implied marriage proposal. I can’t wait to tell mother.

GOLAN: She'll totally plotz.

Editor’s note: And that wraps up Part 1. In Part 2, find out what happens when Fredo breaks Michael’s heart. Also find out what films make the Top 4.

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