Monday, January 9, 2012

What I Loved at the Movies in 2011

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Next week, I'll publish a post on my top 10 films of 2011, but first I need to review a few final films from last year. For today, however, I'm writing about some of my favorite things from movies from 2011; this will include some of the best sequences as well as acting performances along with screenplays, original scores and a few other categories:

Best Sequences

The elevator sequence in Drive.

The seven and one-half minute flashback in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, beautifully directed, photographed and scored.

In Moneyball, the game where the 2002 Oakland A's go for the American league record of 20 consecutive wins. I love the way director Bennett Miller uses actual film clips and recreations of certain situations in that game (these recreations are done remarkably well). I also love the way he alternates between crowd noise and silence on the soundtrack, as this game took its strange twists and turns. This sequence was one of several highlights from this notable film.

The Halloween night sequence in We Need to Talk about Kevin, with the use of Buddy Holly's song "Everyday." What a chilling moment!

The fire sequence in The Artist where Uggie the dog helps save the life of George Valentin.

The wildly inventive title sequence of The Adventures of Tintin. It's too bad the rest of the movie wasn't as inspired.

The first battle in War Horse, where the cavalry is seen emerging from a wheat field. Beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski and directed by Steven Spielberg.

The sequence in Hugo where we see how Georges Mélies made his movies - wonderful imagination by Martin Scorsese.

The scene at the café in Budapest, near the opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; this set the tone for the rest of this first-rate work.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Performances

The list of lead performances by actors in 2011 begins with Gary Oldman and his remarkably subtle turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Another wonderful performance was that of Brad Pitt in Moneyball; this is the most complete acting job to date. Also high marks for George Clooney in The Descendants, Michael Fassbender in Shame (as well as a fine turn in A Dangerous Method) and Jean Dujardin in The Artist. My final praise for a leading actor is for Antonio Banderas in The Skin I Live In. Banderas is cool and calculating in this role and beautifully underplays this intense character.

As for supporting roles, I loved Jonah Hill in Moneyball - what an engaging, charming performance! Ditto for Ben Kingsley in Hugo as well as Viggo Mortensen for A Dangerous Method. I was also impressed by Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey in Margin Call, Niels Arestrup in War Horse, Albert Brooks in Drive and Tom Hardy in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Finally, kudos to Robert Forster for his brilliant small turn in The Descendants as well as Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn.

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin

The finest performance I saw turned in by an actress this year was given by Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin. Intense and proudly fierce, she adds tremendous depth to the chilling film - you can't take your eyes off of her! Kirsten Dunst was first-rate in Melancholia; I'm hopeful this leads to more serious roles like this for this actress who is finally starting to receive much overdue praise. 

I also liked Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method as well as Michelle Williams who was very enchanting in My Week with Marilyn.

As for supporting performances, I loved the work turned in by Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life, Emily Watson in War Horse as well as Shailene Woodley in The Descendants and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist.

2011 was a wonderful year for cinema - just look at this list of directors who gave us some of the year's finest films. Let's start with Martin Scorsese for Hugo - who knew that the maker of Raging Bull and Goodfellas had this absolutely charming film in him? I also loved the light touch of Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris, a breezy comedy with several ideal performances. Pedro Almodovar gave us a chilling world of an obsessed doctor in The Skin I Live In that featured arguably the finest visual compositions of any film from 2011.

Lars Von Trier brought us a highly personal vision of the apocalypse with Melancholia, while Terrence Malick gave us creation and its aftermath with The Tree of Life. It was also nice to see David Cronenberg turn in a beautifully executed film such as A Dangerous Method, without resorting to violence, one of his trademarks in the past.

Lesser known directors that were at the top of their game in 2011 included Lynne Ramsey for We Need to Talk about Kevin - what dazzling images! - Bennett Miller for Moneyball, Tomas Alfredson for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist and J.C. Chandor for Margin Call.

Kudos also to Aki Kaurismaki for his delightful and ironic Le Havre, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for their sometimes troubling, sometimes enchanting The Kid With a Bike and finally, high praise to Werner Herzog for his brilliant documentary Into The Abyss.

Brilliant job by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin adapting the script for Moneyball, taking a book based on statistics and finding the human story. Also a marvelous job by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn, putting together a beautifully cohesive and well-structured script for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the famous John Le Carré novel. Likewise an excellent job of structure for the adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steven Zaillian. 

Woody Allen gave us one of his most charming original scripts ever for Midnight in Paris while J.C. Chandor wrote a detailed screenplay that took us inside the inner doings of an investment firm in Margin Call. Michel Hazanavicius contributed a funny and touching original screenplay for The Artist

Other excellent adaptations include that of Lee Hall and Richard Curtis for War Horse, Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon for The Descendants and Christopher Hampton for A Dangerous Method.

The outstanding quality of work turned in by cinematographers not only in Hollywood, but also around the world, is amazing. Technology has changed dramatically in this field over the past decade, as many films are now shot digitally - think about it, just 15 years ago, who could imagine a movie not being shot on traditional film stock? Whatever the method selected, the visuals of films today are stunning.

Every year, we see as many as a half-dozen brilliant jobs turned in by cinematographers, but in 2011, the number was much higher. For me the finest cinematography was by Emmanuel Lubeszki for The Tree of Life. Lubeszki, who has been one of the two or three most brilliant cinematographers of the past ten years, always delivers outstanding work, but he topped his previous efforts with this film. Working with a genius of a visual storyteller such as Terrence Malick helped as the compositions are brillliantly composed and lit; an especially memorable image is a wide-angle shot of a field of sunflowers. This shot, just before the end of the film, is simply breathtaking.

Another superb job of cinematography was supplied this year by Janusz Kaminski for War Horse. Kaminski, who has been Steven Spielberg's regular cinematographer since Schindler's List in 1993, paints a lovely portrait of the English countryside during the First World War; the images are deeply saturated, as though he were recreating Technicolor from the films of 50 and 60 years ago. The final images of a burnt orange sky and a golden sunset are straight out of Gone With the Wind.

Jeff Cronenweth set a cool tone for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, capturing the gloomy blues and grays of a Swedish winter. Given the depravities of the film's characters, Cronenweth's work instantly gives the viewer the perfect visual feel, helping us understand the behavior of everyone in the film. 

Robert Richardson simply dazzled the eye with his work for Hugo. The opening scene in the train station is marvelous and I love the saturated golds of the clocks at the station as well as the deep blues of the costumes. 

Manuel Alberto Claro had to present a visual tone for a marriage ceremony in a darkly lit country club as well as that of a mysterious planet in Melancholia and he was up to the challenge. I loved the lighting of the wedding scenes outside at night as well as the bluish tones of the planet. 

Of course, only one individual can win the Academy Award for cinematography, but I think all five of these craftsmen deserve an award this year!

Other very impressive work was turned in by Jose Luis Alcaine for The Skin I Live In; Wally Pfister for Moneyball; Hoyte van Hoytema for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Seamus McGarvey for We Need to Talk about Kevin (the bright colors of the house are especially ironic, a nice touch); Peter Suschitzky for A Dangerous Method; Newton Thomas Sigel for Drive and Sean Bobbitt for his cool look of corporate Manhattan in Shame.

Original Score
I will write a separate post on this very soon- 2011 marked a return to the symphonic score. While I have nothing against electronic scores, it is the composer who writes for a full symphony that generally writes the loveliest themes.

Briefly then, two scores stood head and shoulders above the competition this past year. The first was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, composed by Alexandre Desplat. While Desplat did incorporate some of John Williams' previous themes for the Harry Potter franchise into his work, he did compose two lovely original themes and gave this film a regal and accomplished musical setting. This is an outstanding score!

The second score that reached the top in 2011 was that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Alberto Iglesias. This is a subdued score that perfectly suits the moodiness of this Cold War spy drama. The music picks up on the emotions of the characters in a most subtle fashion; the score never announces itself. This is a marvelously complex work from Iglesias.

Other excellent scores were written by John Williams for War Horse (bless him, at 79 years of age he is still able to turn out such a lyrical piece of work), Howard Shore with a charming, lilting score for Hugo;  Mychael Danna for Moneyball and Ludovic Bource who beautifully captured the feel of the silent film scores of the 1920s with his work for The Artist.

Other scores that had some effective moments were composed by Clint Eastwood for J. Edgar, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Johnny Greenwood for We Need to Talk about Kevin.

And finally... a few of my favorite movie quotes from 2011

"You have your mother's eyes." - Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

"Speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever. It wasn't brains that got me here, I can assure you of that." - John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) - Margin Call

"Sometimes you have to do something terrible just to go on living." - Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) to Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) - A Dangerous Method

"Nothing is genuine anymore." - Control (John Hurt) to George Smiley (Gary Oldman) - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" - Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) to Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) - Moneyball


  1. @Tom: This post is a fun reminder of just how strong a year 20l1 was for cinema. I'm especially in agreement with you on the high marks for cinematography. With oustanding work by Kaminski, Cronenweth, Richardson, Lubeszki and Claro, I imagine the Academy is going to have a very difficult time awarding just one of them.

    So many of my favorites are here: War Horse, Hugo, Melancholia, The Tree of Life, The Artist and The Adventures of Tintin (which it seems I admired more than you did; I'm thinking about reviewing it pretty soon). I loved The Descendants, too, and am so glad you mentioned Robert Forster. His quote, "Hey -- I'm gonna hit you!" is my pick for the funniest line of the year.

    One film on your list here I have to admit I wasn't too big a fan of was Margin Call, which I saw at Sundance last year. Although I admired the effort, I ultimately felt like J.C. Chandor was struggling with the dialogue. He appeared to be attempting to mount a David Mamet-esque portrait of the Wall Street crisis, but I feel like he still doesn't have Mamet's gift for language. Still, the performances by Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey were top-notch.

    And I'm seriously looking forward to A Dangerous Method. It opens in St. Louis this Friday, alongside Carnage, and I'm incredibly excited for both. It'll be quite an experience going to see a new Cronenberg film *and* a new Polanski film in the same day.

  2. Adam:

    Thanks for the nice comment. I forgot that line from Forster in "The Descendants"- that is a classic! He was just great and it was so nice to see him back on screen- he's a marvelous actor. It was also nice to see Beau Bridges in this film as well - a very nice turn by him.

    As for cinematography, how do you choose among those top 5 I've mentioned (or whatever 5 the Academy chooses)? They're not about to present dual awards for this category, but they certainly have reason to this year. I do hope it's Lubeszki, as his work here is tremendous and he's been passed over for an Oscar more than once, despite his amazing body of work.

    As for "Margin Call", I like your comparison with Mamet. No, Candor's script is not as devastating as something such as "Glengarry Glen Ross:, but I still think it's quite good. It may be a bit difficult to believe all of the action takes place in just a few hours, but other than that, I thought it was a well-written script and I loved the part about Spacey worrying about the health of his dog.

    Yes, 2011 was a wonderful year at the movies!

  3. Great column! I'm curious: what did you think of Meryl Streep and Glenn Close? I have not yet seen those films ...

  4. I haven't see them yet either. But soon!