Monday, March 5, 2012

2011 in Film: The Year of the Surprise

Now that the Oscar season has ended, it’s time to reflect on the movies of 2011. I agree with the general consensus that this was not a great year for movies. While there were a few little gems out there, there were no masterpieces.

I will remember 2011 for the surprises I discovered while watching movies. For the most part they were good surprises that jolted me and took me to unexpected places. The movie that most represented that was A Separation, a movie that zigged whenever I thought it would zag. Starting a small domestic drama about a couple separating it quickly becomes a moral mystery and a parable about class and sexism. Full of wonderful honest performances it was my biggest surprise of the year. And while it was very specifically an Iranian story, commenting on society and regime, it was universal in its themes and how the characters dealt with their predicaments. Don’t want to give away too much, because its merits come from being surprised.

Another little gem of a surprise was Weekend. I went in completely blind into that one, invited by a dear friend for a movie night out the Brooklyn Film Festival. It turns out to be a beautiful complex honest love story. And a gay one at that and you know those are very rare. Not only was it a good love story, but it was very cinematic with nods to the classic “Brief Encounter”, including the climatic train station scene. But the biggest surprise was the open raw performances of its leads Chris New and Tom Cullen, in my mind the discoveries of the year.

Another jolting performance surprise was Adepero Oduye in Pariah a lesbian coming of age story. The movie stayed away from clichés while delivering a story we’ve seen before. That is the clash between the gay teenager and her conservative religious mother. But the surprise was in the specificity of the story, very New York, very Brooklyn, very unique and particularly as it become a rallying cry for independence “I’m not running, I’m choosing”.

Looming large over 2011 was Michael Fassbender who it seemed like he was in every movie released. I’m not complaining, more Fassbender please. That he, along with James McAvoy, made X-Men watchable even interesting, wasn’t the biggest surprise he gave us. Back to that in a minute, but can we please get the sequel we deserve X-Men: Magneto and Xavier the Love Story?

The biggest Fassbender reveal was his disquieting kinetic performance as a sex addict in Shame. What a wallop of a performance that was, and what a movie. The movie rightfully depicts addition as an inescapable trap. Visually and with little dialogue, relying completely on Fassbender’s performance it conveys that trap closing in. Watch him jog around the open streets of Manhattan coming across as a big Metropolis monster trap of emotional unavailability.

Another surprise in “Shame” is Carrey Mulligan’s revelatory performance as Fassbender’s unhinged sister. I didn’t think she had all of that in her. I couldn’t take my eyes off her masterful depiction of a train wreck; a character so in touch with her emotions she can’t help but burn bright and leave havoc behind her. The dichotomy of the two characters, one so open and the other so closed off was fascinating to see and what made this movie such a surprising gem.

Mulligan was also in Drive, another gem. This one was the best “movie” movie of the year. A genre thriller full of exciting escape scenes , funny violent villains and a hero who doesn’t say much, all set to the best movie soundtrack of the year. What’s not to love? And it cemented Ryan Gosling’s reputation as the leading man of these times.

I was also surprised by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I read that it was confusing, slow and hard to follow. But I found it a mesmerizing whodunit that takes you on an enjoyable journey to the big reveal. And when that happens it is so much more than just who was the spy? It is a complex character reveal that keeps giving in surprising ways as you remember little vignettes from what unfolded before.

I will end with The Help. I, like many people of color who were loud about it this year, did not want to like this movie. It is 2011; Obama is in the White House, why should I watch another movie about black maids who are “saved” by their white “friend”. But what I discovered was that the main arch of the story was Abileen Clark finding her voice. While yes, Skeeter helped her and was the catalyst, it was Abileen who changed, became stronger and radically changed her life and the lives of those around her. And Viola Davis elevated the movie with her piercing quiet performance. She made it so much better than it had any right to be, because I was rooting for Abileen. And what other movie had this many great characters for women? Evil, funny, righteous, depressed, ambitious- it was a bonanza of interesting female characters and these actresses knew they were lucky and dug deep and gave us an entertaining moving film.

What did you think of 2011 in film? What were some of your favorites?

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