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The Year in Movies

The Grantland Staff presents the films of note from 2011

When it came to looking back at the movies of 2011, we didn’t want to take a page from the musical Rent and ponder for an entire song how to measure a year. So we did what anyone else would do; we got three staff members whose priorities are as follows: movies, then everything else, and asked them 10 simple questions.

Successful movies we will be embarrassed that we liked in five years

Katie Baker: After seeing in person all the people camped out for nearly a week for the The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 movie — not even to see the movie, mind you, but to get a spot near the red carpet — I’ve got to go with that one. I don’t need to see the movie to know.

Amos Barshad: It’s Malick so no one will actually turn on it, but I nominate The Tree of Life. At some point in the middle of this (was it the 100th shot of Brad Pitt clenching his handsome jaw? The 1,000th of sunlight breaking out from behind leaves? Maybe just that one of Jessica Chastain floating?) I had resigned myself to the fact that this movie would never end, that I would live out the rest of my life in that theater, watching pretty scene after pretty scene that I did not understand. More dinosaurs plz.

Dan Silver: It has to be Moneyball. This one’s more for you (the general public) than me. I have nothing to be embarrassed about, I thought Moneyball was lousy. The film was a not-so-subtle and failed attempt to draft off the success of The Social Network. But the filmmakers associated with TSN understood that to make their film interesting to a wide audience, they needed to create an underlying metaphor that played out parallel to the surface-level narrative. Simply, the film was about Facebook, but also not about Facebook, as it utilized the “concept” of Facebook as an allegory to larger themes. This is ultimately where Moneyball fails, and fails huge. It never successfully establishes a deeper human meaning for Beane’s “stats,” and instead takes the easy way out and devolves into a formulaic sports movie. Complete with heavy-handed flashbacks and “By God! We’re Playing Better” musical montages. This is best illustrated in the dramatic weight director Bennet Miller places on the 2002 19-game win streak. Scott Hatteberg’s game-winning home run is treated as a rousing emotional moment, but the problem is it comes with 20 minutes left in the film. He positions the homer as the film’s climax and thusly wastes any/all of the emotional equity he’d built with the audience. So by the time, the true culmination of the film comes around 10 minutes later with the Red Sox-interview scene, the audience is already detached and ready to go home. The box-office success (more than $100 million worldwide), the accolades, and award nominations Moneyball has received continues to shock me. And the only thing keeping this film from turning into a Forrest Gump-like cinematic cold sore is my belief that you … the moviegoing public … will one day see how flawed the film truly is.

Failed movies we will pretend we always liked in five years

Baker: Country Strong. (I’m counting this as a 2011 movie since that’s when the wide theatrical release was.) Catchy music, drunken Gwyneth Paltrow, a subplot involving a baby bird … I will never not drink a bottle of wine and watch this movie when it comes on TNT and/or Oxygen.

Barshad: Nothing in 2011 cinema made me sadder than Your Highness failing. I saw an early screening, died laughing, then waited for the rest of the world to declare this an instant comedy classic. instead, I had to have a string of soul-crushing conversations with people more or less trying to keep their lunch down while they asked me, “Wait, you actually liked it?” To all the haters, I say, [Insert crass choking-the-chicken gesture] .

Silver: Going strictly by box-office numbers, 50/50 massively underperformed (even though it did make money) and Cedar Rapids was a failure. But when I look back at 2011 in my little black notebook (which does exist), both of these films will clearly be highlighted as two of the year’s best. The films’ leads — Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 50/50 and Ed Helms in Cedar Rapids — deliver the best performances of their careers, and dissuade any doubts as to their “above the title” worthiness (Hangover success aside, I believe Helms won The Office boss job based on his work in Cedar Rapids). And each film’s the supporting players are equally as good. John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. are hilarious as the supportive and yet pathetic clique of insurance salesmen who take the rookie Helms under their wing. And in 50/50, Seth Rogen reminds us how great he can be, dramatically and comically, when he’s given a supporting role with meat on it.

And it’s not just the performances, these are two films filled with pathos, which play out on a razor edge between comedy and drama. 50/50 even contains my single favorite cinema moment of the year. After finding out he has terminal cancer, Gordon-Levitt’s character becomes emotionally detached as a defense mechanism. Knowing he has little time left, he makes it clear that he has no desire to make or sustain connections with anyone. He’s particularly dismissive of his loving but overbearing mother. Laying on a gurney in the surgical prep room with his mom, waiting to go into a surgery that could either put him on the road to recovery or kill him, he finally breaks down. He leans forward, and just says, “Mommy.” His mother comforts him, as he buries his head in her shoulder. The scene is treated with such care by both the directors and actors that it resonates on a truly human level.

I don’t know of a single person who’s seen these two films and did not enjoy them. So my hope is that over time, when box-office results don’t matter anymore, both Cedar Rapids and 50/50 will be found and fully appreciated.

Movies we wish we thought of

Baker: I wish I’d thought to round up the funding/experience/equipment/network/understanding of the film industry to do something like The Ordinary Skier, a kickass documentary on Seth Morrison, one of the giants of the professional big-mountain circuit. It raises some of the same great, unanswerable questions that one of my favorite 30 for 30s did.

Barshad: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. I’d be so loaded right now!

Silver: Let me first make this clear, wishing I’d thought of Bridesmaids is much different than saying that I think I could have made Bridesmaids the utterly hilarious film it turned out being. I’m well aware that the film’s success was due in large part to Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s script, a solid director, a talented producer, a killer cast, and a whole lot of kindness from the Cinema Gods. But those who have praised this film as one that redefined genre cinema as we know it (a la The Matrix) are just plain wrong. What was really taken away from Bridesmaids that we didn’t already know or hadn’t already seen? Women are funny? We knew that. Women interact with each other differently than men? We knew that as well. Women can be just as crude and/or gross as men? If Chelsea Handler hasn’t made this one obvious, then I don’t know what would have. Wiig and Mumolo’s concept has been done before and will continue to be done, both poorly and proficiently with men, women, aliens, or Keebler Elves, just as long as there are people willing to pony up their hard-earned dough to see it. What makes me jealous is the simplicity of the female-centric twist on the genre. I just wish I’d thought of it and then had the brilliant thought of hiring Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Judd Apatow, Paul Fieg, and the entire cast. If only I were that clever.

Greatest fall in 2011

Baker: Ashton Kutcher. I don’t care about what or whom he did, but his whole appeal was always that he was the silly and easygoing and Labrador-cute guy who everyone knew in high school. Now he’s just … Trip McNeely. Those camera commercials he’s in? They used to be normal, even slightly dorky ads, but now when I watch them I see a lurid gleam in his eye as he shoots photos of hot girls. I’m not judging, it’s just … I think I now know too much.

Barshad: The Hangover franchise took a mighty hit with its second installment, which brainlessly repeated the formula from the magical first go-around but made sure to suck anything joyful out. The sad thing is they’re making a third one, and there’s almost no way I’m going to be able to resist paying for it.

Silver: Adam Sandler is the easy answer here; in 2011 he shoved two cinematic turds on the ticket-buying public (Just Got With It and Jack and Jill). My selection is much more of an unknown, but in his own way was the perpetrator of crimes equal to Sandler’s. I’m saying director David Gordon Green has had the greatest fall of 2011. In the early aughts, after writing/directing films such as George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), and Snow Angels (2007), Green was dubbed the wunderkind of the independent film scene. He received numerous awards and nominations from critics and highly respected film festivals. Snow Angels was the film all the hip critics liked to say was snubbed when Oscar time rolled around. Then in 2008, he got his first commercial success with Pineapple Express. His fans justified his move to the studio system by saying that at its core, Pineapple shared similar subversive themes to Green’s previous work. So how did Green parlay that success in 2011? Did he take his newfound clout to make his (publically stated) dream project, a low-budget remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria? No. He went further into the mainstream middle and released two huge stinkers — this past April’s Your Highness and this month’s The Sitter. Both box office and critical failures. But what’s worse, in both films there’s no sign of the David Gordon Green who once made deeply personal and raw human narratives. As a fan of his earlier work, my hope is that Green got served a big slice of Humble Pie at his holiday dinner and decides to raise some non-studio cash and find his voice again.

Greatest rise in 2011

Baker: It’s not like he was some unknown heading into this year, but I do feel like roughly 70 percent of the movies that were out this fall, in particular, all involved Ryan Gosling. (Not to mention the novelty Tumblrs.) Now I just want him to get back together with Rachel McAdams and all will be right with the universe.

Barshad: Ryan Gosling. No other answer is acceptable.

Silver: Ryan Gosling owned 2011. He starred in three hit films (I’m defining a hit film here as one that made money): Crazy, Stupid Love, the mass appeal rom-com; Ides of March, the respectable, star-filled political drama; and Drive, the critical indie darling. In both Crazy and Ides, Gosling not only holds his own, but also out-acts such performers as George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Julianne Moore, and Steve Carell. But in Drive, Gosling gives probably his best performance of the year. His character inhabits every single scene of the film, and he speaks (maybe) 60 lines of dialogue. The bulk of his performance is delivered in silence, or with a stare or a blink. It’s really quite remarkable. I’d go so far as to argue that there have been very few performers who, in one year, have created and embodied three fully formed characters, in three films, from three different genres. After having solid outings in films like Half Nelson (for which he received an Oscar nomination) and Blue Valentine, Gosling didn’t need a year like 2011 to show us all he was a true talent.

Two quick side notes:

1. Another obvious choice here would have been Melissa McCarthy for just making both Bridesmaids and SNL her bitches. But the true runner-up, and the dude in 2011 who almost “Out Gosling-ed” Gosling, was Michael Fassbender, who, like Ryan, gave three excellent performances in three excellent films (A Dangerous Method, Shame, X-Men: First Class). I ultimately chose Gosling because there were too many similarities between Fassbender’s performances in A Dangerous Method and Shame.

2. I can tell you all now that the person who’ll have the greatest rise in 2012 will be Jeremy Renner. The dude is on the precipice of becoming this generation’s Harrison Ford. Performers work their entire career to be involved in a single blockbuster franchise (Ford obviously had Star Wars, and the Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan films), and by the end of Summer 2012, Renner will have taken over or will have been a part of his own three — Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, and the Bourne reboot. So ya’ll better get ready for Renner.

Terrible movie that will be remade into a great one in 30 years

Baker: In Time.

Barshad: They’re actually remaking Source Code into a TV show right now, but I feel like we’re too close to the crappy original to work the basic viable concept — a dude has a repeating eight-minute span in which to time travel for the good of humanity — into something good.

Silver: J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood. J. Edgar is the filmic equivalent of a street-vendor pretzel. From afar it looks and smells delicious (Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Lance Black), but once you’ve forked over the money and have taken a bite, the pretzel is cold and bland. Instead of choosing one or two moments from Hoover’s life, meticulously explore him as a character, the filmmakers take the path of least resistance and instead string together a series of moments from Hoover’s life, all framed by an elder Edgar dictating his memoirs. Because of this all-encompassing approach, each moment cover feels rushed and superficial. As a result, the film lacks focus and ends only skimming the surface. So it’s pretty simple. Speculations/confirmations about his private life aside, J. Edgar Hoover is a national hero who’s professional career is chock full of drama ripe for cinematic interpretation. And one day someone is going to figure out how to focus the narrative into an engaging film.

Great movie that will be remade into a terrible one in 30 years

Baker: Lion King 3D.

Barshad: The greatest thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes was going into the theater with the most minute of expectations, and then having that one final moment — maybe when all the apes start massing for the bridge crossing? — of conclusive realization: Holy shit, this was dope. The worst thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is its success means we’re due for just decades more of potentially horrendous Apes movies.

Silver: Thirty years is way too long, I’d be shocked if the subpar remake of Attack the Block wasn’t already in development somewhere. So I’m saying five to six years max. Written and directed by Joe Cornish (a protégé of Edgar Wright, who’s also an executive producer of the film), Attack the Block is a sci-fi action-comedy about a teenage gang from South London who attempt to protect their urban housing complex from an alien invasion. The film shares similar DNA to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films and Wright’s own Shaun of the Dead. It’s a bit more straightforward than Dead and Shaun, and does not contain nearly as many winks/references/indicators to the genre or form, but is still a thoroughly entertaining and expertly crafted wall-to-wall action and comedy film. For an American studio, the youthful, central characters, the simple transition from a South London block to “Any City, USA,” and of course the ultra-violent sci-fi/action angle make the film a perfect candidate for a remake. But unless Cornish and/or Wright have a meaningful hand in it, I guarantee there’s no way Cornish’s humor or distinctive hyperkinetic style will be captured. Regardless, I know I’ll be sitting in the theater at midnight on opening night, and I’ll do my best to convince myself that what I’m seeing is just as good as the original … but will inevitably and ultimately be disappointed. (Wait … did I just foretell my experience at The Evil Dead remake? Please, don’t let it be so!)

Most cringe-worthy scene

Baker: All the ones from Horrible Bosses that involve Jennifer Aniston.

Barshad: Really, any random chunk of The Future would work, but I’ll go with that excruciating scene in which Miranda July climbs inside her T-shirt.

My internal monologue: “No! Stop it! Stop it!

Stop it! No!”

Silver: Keira Knightley’s first therapy session with Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, and Hilary Swank’s public address in New Year’s Eve.
Why a tie? Because scenes can be cringe-worthy for two reasons; first, because the subject matter and visuals in a given moment are disturbing (for good or bad), and second, because a scene can just be plain bad.

In A Dangerous Method, Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a deeply troubled Russian girl who was one of the first psychoanalysis patients under Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender). She was also rumored to be Jung’s lover, and later went on to be a brilliant psychoanalyst herself. Knightley’s performance in Sabina’s first therapy session with Jung is remarkable. This happens right at the start of the film, when Sabina is at her most disturbed. Knightley’s entire body strains as she tries to force out even the simplest words. Her eyes are like doll eyes, black and unmoving, transfixed on a point in the middle-distance. She spits and convulses as she recounts her sexual arousal from being beaten by her father. It’s extremely hard to watch. And if internalized the wrong way by an audience member, it could be a moment so unsettling that it could overshadow the rest of the film. All because of Knightley’s brilliant performance.

And then there’s New Year’s Eve.

Before I begin, let me state that by choosing a moment from New Year’s Eve I am indeed admitting that I’ve seen this absolutely awful and unredeemable piece of Bantha fodder. I am eternally ashamed. (Does it help that I didn’t pay for my ticket? No, probably not.)

So, there’s a moment in the film when the Times Square New Year’s ball loses power and gets jammed as it’s being hoisted into position. A huge tumult ensues because there’s a real concern that New Year’s will be ruined if the ball doesn’t get fixed and drop on time (I just choked back some vomit). Amid the chaos, Hilary Swank (who plays some rookie something-or-other from the Time Square Commission and is in charge of the New Year’s festivities) steps up to a podium, and in front of what seems like every news camera in New York City, gives an impassioned speech about how the spirit of New Year’s is in all of us, and how it’s about human connection, and blah … blah … blah.

As Swank lays the sentimentality on thick, and does her best to not get her two Oscars repossessed, director Garry Marshall (who’s, like, 157 years old) executes the obligatory cut-aways to silent and stoic people watching/listening and being moved by Swank’s speech.

As the cut-aways started I had a vision, a vision of a potential moment so abhorrent and sappy that it could exist in this film. I put my head in my hands and watched the scene through my fingers, hoping and praying that Marshall wasn’t dumb enough to use it.

There’s Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel in the maternity ward watching the speech on TV. OK, I’m good.

The nameless cab driver stuck in traffic listening on the radio. Still OK.

Katherine Heigl and Sofia Vergara watching it in their catering kitchen. Maybe I’ll get out of this.

The multiple mega-screens in Times Square airing the speech. Oh no, I feel it coming.

Then it happened … the crowd of ONE MILLION people in Times Square standing still, silent, and giving their full attention to Swank. Ah CRAP! There it is!!!

Come on! Really?! This moment is the moronic equivalent of shooting a sports film about the Liverpool and Manchester United soccer rivalry and having a scene in which the captain of Liverpool stands in front of the Old Trafford (Man U’s stadium) crowd and kindly asks them to quiet down before his penalty kick … and they do it. It’s just absurd and would never happen.

There is not a single crowd that size, that drunk, and that preoccupied that would ever become that docile. Much less the group of drunken serfs who inhabit the pit that is Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I’m willing to suspend some disbelief with these sentimental rom?coms, and even would have been OK with a cut-away to one or two people paying attention in a sea of crazy revelers, but even people who are not New Yorkers (like me) know this would never happen.

Great achievements in nudity (male)

Baker: I got so used to the anthropomorphized ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that when they made him take off his people clothes, I felt like I should be looking away to give him some privacy! BTW, did you know the same guy who played Gollum played Caesar? I like that résumé.

Barshad: Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, for Bridesmaids. “Soup’s done! … No it’s not.”

Silver: Michael Fassbender for Shame and A Dangerous Method. There are no “outside the box” candidates here. It’s Michael Fassbender. In 2011, his (well-endowed) penis has more theatrical screen time than Lindsay Lohan. And between Shame and A Dangerous Method, his ass should be considered for a SAG Award. Why consider anyone else?

Great achievements in nudity (female)

Baker: I don’t know if I saw any memorable female nudity in 2011? (I wish Splice came out this year, because I could have answered it for every single category on this list.) I’m going through this website to see if I did in fact witness any great achievements in naked ladies, and oh man … this website is the best. I may never go to a theater again when I can just read these synopses. They’re dirtier than the movies themselves!! (Sample, from X-Men: First Class: “We see a brief flash of a woman’s underwear as she is running and her dress lifts slightly in the front.” I’m too scared to even click on the description of Shame, but be my guest.)

Barshad: One more time … Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, for Bridesmaids. “Soup’s done! … No it’s not.”

Silver: Leslie Mann has played a lot of sexy and sexual characters (the former Hooters waitress in Big Daddy, and the aggressive, sloppy drunk in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to name a few), but outside of a potential nipple slip in 1996’s Last Man Standing, I don’t think she’s gone “sincerely” nude in a film. But in the (underrated) film The Change-Up, not only do her breasts and behind make regular appearances on screen, they do so in often unbecoming and sometimes private situations — breast feeding and getting explosive diarrhea. Within the context of the film, these scenes actually make sense; she’s only ever naked in her bedroom and in front of a man who she thinks is her husband (but it’s not really her husband because he’s switched bodies with his best friend … ha ha ha). In each situation in which Mann’s nude, it is used as the catalyst for a humorous reaction or piece of business. It’s incredibly brave to see an actress not only give her all in moments like these, but do so fully exposed. And her performance in the film is much more than the typical wife role. In all the most revealing moments she owns the nudity and plays it as blasé as any wife would if she were naked in front of her husband. And she looked mighty good doing it. So let’s give uber-props to the 39-year-old Mrs. Apatow.

Filed Under: Grantland, Movies, The Year In Movies