Monday, 23 January 2012

#4 A Return to Cinema

Simply put, I watched a lot of movies in 2011.  For many years I claimed that I didn't have the patience to sit through a piece of cinema of any length.  Regardless of the quality of a picture, I simply wouldn't watch it.  There wasn't any genre that caught my attention.  Good comedic movies come along so infrequently and I was unwilling to sit through something just to say that I had witnessed it.  A great movie can provide a wonderful backdrop for spending time with family, and most of the movies were seen with either Sheila, Jasmine or both.  Until this last year I just flat out refused to watch any animated kids movies, not realizing just how happy it made Jasmine to have mom or dad watch with her while she enjoyed her show.  I have to say, some of the best films I saw this year were of the animated genre.  Jasmine and I were at the theatre a number of times this year, and I can recall seeing Megamind, Rango, Happy Feet 2, Despicable Me, Puss In Boots, Arthur Christmas within the last 18 months.  I really do get spoiled as I also attend the theatre regularly with the guys at work and have witnessed a number of great flicks in their company as well.  Allow me to share my favorites with you, and perhaps this will inspire others to give some of this movies a try.  Keep in mind I am going to restrict this list to movies that were either released in 2011, or were released in the last few months of 2010 and made it to home movie in 2011.  Without further ado, on to the list.

#10 Rango (Animated Western) Starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Gore Verbinski (Director)

I had been seeing the previews for this flick for months ahead of time, and the character of Rango just seemed perfect.  A meek hero who falls into saving a dying town from the evil big wigs who are controlling it seemed like a great premise for a movie.  Johnny Depp lending his voice to an animated flick that Tim Burton had nothing to do with was surprising, and I have nothing but respect for his ability to select quality projects.  I was seemingly more eager then Jasmine to see this movie, and in the end it fulfilled expections.  It had a genuine Western style, with twists of great humor to boot.  Jasmine was laughing throughout, but they also included some showdown scenes where Rango had his back against the wall and was able to excape through hook or by crook.  Gore Verbinski's other works include 3 of the Pirates movies, and I am glad that he didn't force this one into 3D, as I have seen a few animated flicks that felt forced due to the need to include 3D elements.  If you have kids or you don't this is a really funny movie that you need to see.

#9 127 Hours (Biographical Drama) Starring James Franco, Danny Boyle (Director)

A perfect storm of events came together which ultimately led to Sheila and I watching and thoroughly enjoying this movie.  Sheila is not a huge reader and when she reads she tends to stick to the sappy romantic type books.  During a visit to the library we found Aron Ralston's book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place", and I am struggling to remember why it was chosen.  I believe Sheila saw Aron make a media appearance on TV and felt compelled to give it a try.  She devoured the book, reading it in a couple days, as I have never seen her delve into a book before.  She had to finish before we saw the movie as it was being released days later.  I was also excited to see the movie as I respect very few Hollywood actors more then James Franco.  The man involves himself in projects that interest him first, seemingly giving much less thought the the amount of money or fame that will go along with his work.  From all indications this movie paid Franco a small amount, and the role itself seems tedious.  He is stuck in one location a calamity that occurred while the character is out rock climbing.  Through a series of flashbacks we gain perspective on the character's life and it is through these scenes that we build to the ultimate moment when we discover just what courage is.  If you haven't seen this film I don't to ruin it, but the climax of Danny Boyle's movie is one of the most memorable movie scenes I have witnessed.

#8 Our Idiot Brother (Comedy) Starring Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Jesse Peretz (Director)

While my sister and brother-in-law were in town we threw this movie on, and I will say I was pleasantly surprised.  The premise seemed like it could have fallen flat.  Lazy and unmotivated, Paul Rudd's character Ned does not lack for complicated layers to his personality.  Instead of being portrayed as a burden, he comes off as a loveable guy that you can't help but pull for.  The supporting cast is great as well, playing 3 contrasting sisters who all pull for Ned in their own way, and ultimately come together to help him in the end.  The movie likely benefitted from my afinity for all things involving Zooey Deschanel, she is an ace when it comes to comedic timing, and her sitcom "New Girl" was one of the reasons I was looking forward to giving this movie a try.  I was not disappointed by her performance or the movie as a whole.

#7 Cedar Rapids (Comedy) Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Miguel Arteta (Director)

The best comedy of 2011 in my opinion was "Cedar Rapids", a flick that very few people saw based on the $5.6 million box office gross in North America.  Sheila, Ian and I sat down for this one and I think we all came away pleased.  Ed Helms plays the loveable loser who has never travelled out of his hometown, as he ends up spending a weekend away at an insurance salesman conference.  He meets up with Anne Heche's character who along with John C. Reilly playing the party hard insurance man proceed to spend the movie currupting the loveable loser until he thinks his world has ended.  Smart, witty and endearing, Miguel Arteta directs in a very understated style as he plays into the actors strengths.  Arteta directed last year's "Youth in Revolt" that I also highly recommend.

#6 Unstoppable (Action Thriller) Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Tony Scott (Director)

Oddly enough I heard absolutely nothing about this movie until I found it online and gave it a shot.  With a relatively large budget of $85 million, and being driven by Denzel's obvious star power I would have thought a major hype engine to follow.  In the end the movie stands up very well on it's own.  A simple premise, a minor mistake by a railyard worker leads to a runaway train.  The entire length of the movie is spent trying to bring the train under control and avert disaster.  Various suspenseful methods are tried without success before the climactic final scene.  I have always had a soft spot for Denzel's movies and he doesn't disappoint with this one.

#5 Super 8 (Science Fiction) Starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, J.J. Abrams (Director)

With the team of J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg at the helm of this project, my expectations were high for very good reason.  I can say that I was most satisfied as I was able to enjoy "Super 8" at the theatre opening weekend with the guys.  It was an awesome visual experience as there was a huge train explosion scene as well as an alien creature that were created with the use of CGI.  While the visual effects were most satisfying, I was also blown away by the job done by the child actors that played the main characters in the movie.  Joel Courtney who plays the main character Joe, and Riley Griffiths who plays his best friend Charles both were making their mainstream acting debuts in "Super 8" but you wouldn't know it while enjoying their work.  Aged 13 and 14 respectively, both interact well with each other and the other characters including Elle Fanning's character Alice who is the object of Joe's affection.  Definitely check this movie out for the CGI graphics and J.J. Abrams' directing work, but be prepared to appreciate the acting talents on display as well.

#4 Win Win (Sports Comedy-Drama) Starring Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Thomas McCarthy (Director)

Here is where I confess my love for all things Paul Giamatti.  As I write this I have now seen 5 films in which he starred or co-starred.  His 2004 film "Sideways" ranks as one of the best movies I have ever seen.  In the last year I viewed "American Splendor", "Cold Souls", "Cinderella Man" and this entry "Win Win" and every time I came away satisfied with the experience.  All 5 of these movies reviewed very favourably with critics and all with the exception of "Cinderella Man" where Giamatti is a supporting cast member, are driven by his lead performance.  "Win Win" likely flew under the radar for most movie viewers as it didn't have the benefit of a wide release or any advertising whatsoever.  Giamatti plays small town attorney Mike Flaherty who's life is crumbling around him.  In a desperate attempt to stabilize the family financially, he takes on power of attorney for an elderly client.  Flaherty also coaches the local high school wrestling team that has a penchant for losing.  When a teenage boy comes looking for his grandpa who ends up being the man in Flaherty's care, a wrestling star is found.  The story benefits from a series of small twists that provide a great deal of unpredictablility.  My bias opinions aside, this would be a great movie to view on a relaxing night, small parts humour with a great deal of human interest as well.

#3 True Grit (Western) Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Coen Brothers (Directors)

As 2011 moved along, I found myself getting more and more interested in the Western genre as a whole.  As I had seen so few movies in the previous, well, 27 years of my life, I had missed out on a number of westerns that proved to be great films.  "3:10 To Yuma" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" were very well made but they were outclassed by the Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris film "Appaloosa" released in 2008.  I was happily anticipating the release of "True Grit" on DVD after missing it at the theatre.

My new found affinity for western movies, coupled with my love of all things created by the Coen Brothers meant this movie was one I couldn't miss.  To top it off, the movie critics were heaping praise on the directing, Jeff Bridges' performance and the debut of one Hailee Steinfeld.  Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls who read for the role of Mattie Ross.  Indeed, a role beside Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in a Coen Brothers film has to be one of the most amazing ways to start an acting career. 

To sum up, the movie did not disappoint.  Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn an old and weathered U.S. Marshall with an incredibly accurate shot.  While Matt Damon's character LeBoeuf spends much of the movie quietly questioning Cogburn's sanity, we get taken on a wild adventure while the two men chase criminals together with Mattie Ross who's father had been killed by the ringleader.  While the men overcome obstacles like Cogburn's drinking, his accidentally shooting LeBoeuf and the fact that they have a young girl riding with them, the movie climaxes with a wonderful scene involving a standoff between the lawmen and the criminals.

This movie proved to be the most commercially successful of the Coen Brothers movies and deserves a few hours of your time if you have not already seen it.  I anxiously look forward to their next picture, as they always deliver regardless of genre.

#2 Blue Valentine (Romantic Drama) Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Derek Cianfrance (Director)

The romantic drama makes a one time appearance on my list, with the little known "Blue Valentine" finding a home at number 2.  Considering my lack of affinity for the genre, this only serves to add weight to how strongly I felt about this picture.  While I have not seen Ryan Gosling's most known work "The Notebook", I did decide that I should give him a try as he boast a series of well reviewed movies on his resume.  Sheila and I viewed "Lars and the Real Girl" and came away quite contented.  Gosling plays an awkward man who after the end of a long term relationship finds himself falling in love with an anatomically correct sex doll.  Working with material that could have deteriorated badly under the wrong guidance, Gosling provides a very moving performance that leaves the viewer pulling for him at every turn.  The suspense is well drawn out as few indications are given as to how a conclusion to the situation will be found.  After this pleasant experience, we also gave 2001's "The Believer" a try.  While turning in an equally believable performance, the subject material isn't as strong as "Lars", and for this reason only, I would rate this movie below the latter in Gosling's resume.  So, with some deal of anticipation, Sheila and I got ready to view "Blue Valentine".

There are a number of things about the production of this that stand out.  The entire movie was put together for $1 million, including actors salaries, production costs and marketing, of which there was very little.  Michelle Williams read the script for the first time in 2001 and remained committed to the project thoughout numerous challenges from securing financial backing, to finding a shooting location, to ultimately finding an actor to co-star in the film on the cheap. Eight years later in 2009 filming finally began.  To get into their roles as quarreling lovers Williams and Gosling rented a home and outfitted it based on their characters incomes.  They even went so far as to get family portraits done at the local Sears involved their character's young daughter.  The level of dedication to their roles is quite uncanny. 

#1 50/50 (Comedy Drama) Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Jonathan Levine (Director)

50/50 was a movie that I was waiting for with a great sense of anticipation.  I had heard about the movie months before and the cast was very appealing.  I really enjoy Seth Rogan's work, and his coupling with Joseph Gordon-Levitt intrigued me.  The supporting cast is also very strong, Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard providing, the latter developing an uncanny knack to draw heat from an audience.  The subject matter, while seemingly quite delicate, was also of great interest.  A comedy about cancer?  This was definitely a unique topic, one that had scarcely been breached before.

As it turned out I had the opportunity to view 50/50 on opening night with my coworker and the guys I work with.  The theatre was only half full, a disappointing turnout for a movie that had recieved considerable promotion.  Perhaps the topic was offputting to some, or maybe the love I have for Seth Rogan movies isn't as universal as I had thought.  In the end, it was those that stayed away that lost out.  Grossing only $39 million at the box office the movie was seen by a relative few compared to such commercial giants as Transformers or Harry Potter.  Regardless of commercial success, I fully endorse this picture as the best one I saw in 2011.

From the outset director Jonathan Levine gets to work establishing Rogan and Gordon-Levitt's characters Kyle and Adam as good buddies who met through work but now spend considerable amounts of time together outside of work.  Rogan's Kyle is a sarcastic man who likes to joke and goof around even if it is not the right time for it.  Gordon-Levitt's Adam on the other hand takes his job much more seriously, looking to excel in radio broadcasting.  He also has a very serious girlfriend, one who has gotten in the way of the friendship between Adam and Kyle.  When Adam is first diagnosed with cancer his girlfriend and bestfriend react in very different ways.  The girlfriend becomes withdrawn and aloof, while Kyle shows a different side of himself, doing his best to pick Adam up out of his depression.  Adam begins attending counselling sessions with a rookie psychiatrist played by Anna Kendrick.  As his relationship with his girlfriend deteriorates he begins to open up to Dr. McKay about what he is going through.  In the end, a candid story of a young man's battle with cancer is told, with requisite plot turns and twists thrown in.  Rogan's great humour and wit and Gordon-Levitt's understated way of quietly battling with such a serious issue make for a great dynamic.  What put this movie at the top of my list was the excellent cast of supporting characters.  Anna Kendrick who I was not familiar with before this movie is very cute and she sparkles as her character and Gordon-Levitt's character grow closer throughout the film.  Adam becomes friends with two older men at the hospital who are also battling cancer.  Played by Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall, his new friends provide great comic relief and give an nice look into how daunting the constant hospital visits can be. 

I walked away from the theatre that night with a special glow as I felt that this movie had actually exceeded my lofty expectations.  A great project from all of those involved, I greatly look forward to the next work from Rogan, Gordon-Levitt and the director Jonathan Levine. 

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