Thursday, February 23, 2012

2011: The Top 10 Films (in alphabetical order)

We’ve had better film years and then great film years. 2011 gave some hope that intimate movie-making will continue to flourish but, as made evidence at the Oscar nomination presser, not all the time will those projects get due recognition. I missed out a lot of films, so this is far from being an overall perspective…just those that I saw. Here goes:

13 Assassins:

the last martial arts film to gain as much rave reviews was of course Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and while this remake of the 1963 original doesn’t get up to such heavenly heights, it does literally spill blood fiercely. As with most films in the genre, there’s a baddie (the sadistic Naritsugu) and the good guy (old pro Shinzaemon) out to get him. They meet in the final scene, after much bloodshed, to shed more blood. All the while---though it goes a bit longer than needed—your eyes remain riveted to the screen.


A surprise megahit, Bridesmaids continues an amazing streak of success for SNL alumni of late. Kristen Wiig plays the lead Annie but she wrote the whole thing as well. Her life hits a bad patch just as her best friend Lillian (Mayas Rudolph, in a revealing role) is getting married i.e. getting on with her life. If nothing depresses one more than that then Annie really goes off the deep end when she realizes that her post as “best friend” is in jeopardy when Helen (Rose Byrne) shows up with her perfect self. What manifests in Annie is at once funny and sad…all comedic gold (that rant at the bridal shower is classic!) and puts comedy deservedly back in the spotlight.


the biggest shock when the Oscar nominations came out was the omission of Albert Brooks in the Best Supporting Actor category and rightfully so. Drive works mainly off his villainous energy…pretty much as how The Departed worked because of Jack Nicholson. Danish director Nicolas Refn uses a retro, deliberately 80s vibe to chug the action along and Ryan Gosling as the unnamed driver silently plays along. He falls in love as is expected but when the body count starts to pile up and he remains the only one standing then you realize that this is a serious hombre. Oh, and that iconic scorpion jacket. Damn.


though he seems fated to not win the Oscar, Brad Pitt has never been better in a film than in this sports drama. He plays Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane amid their remarkable 2002 season where they went 20 straight games without defeat, a record. Pitt is so good that you’ll forget that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is in it and that the team didn’t even win the World Series that year…and that all this really happened recently too.


though we’ve come to rely almost exclusively on Pixar for great animated films, here comes Paramount trying to get into the market. Rango, a continuation of Gore Verbinski/Johnny Depp, is a troubled chameleon who gets lost in the desert and ends up achieving notoriety and celebrity at the same time. It’s an unusual Western theme but even with a few loose ends this film is a huge win.


an insightful look at pre-teen sexuality, Tomboy makes a case for something we as adults rarely consider: how does sex as a definition affect young males and females. It also posits that among the potential confusing phase, there can be overlap, a third stance that isn’t clearly defined. Director Celine Sciamma uses her star Laure (the absorbing Zoe Heran) as the ten-year old she is and as she alternates between her femininity and her boyish self (Michael) we see, rather than intellectualize, the issue and its heart-breaking conclusion.

The Trip:

I may have been the only person who saw this film last year but whenever I need to point out the importance of great writing then this will be the template I’ll use. The Trip is your good old road trip with besties Steve and Rob (Coogan and Brydon respectively, playing themselves). If you’re British then you know it’s the big screen version of their BBC show. What starts as a trip around Northern England to review restaurants though turns out to be touchingly two men trying hard not to deal with their bond. Steve is the star, flashy life but he begins to realize that he envies the married, normal life that Rob enjoys. He is vain though and determined to make it in Hollywood. Rob is content with his voicing fame, a talent Steve desperately wants to mimic just to prove that he is ‘superior’ to Rob. Along the way, they renew the obvious friendship that neither suspected they had to begin with.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives:

the 2010 Cannes Film Festival winner is a surreal look at the title character as he is dying. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul gives us an exquisite yet weird assemble: Boonmee talks often with his ghost past wife and makes peace with his deceased son, now in non-human form. These supernatural elements only add to the richness of the Thai landscape and acting on show.

Win Win:

Paul Giamatti is gold in pretty much everything he does so there’s no surprise that Win Win ends up here…just a shame no one went out and watched it. He is the good guy lawyer Mike who is struggling to keep pace with the financial demands of his family. So, he does something devious---opts to take care of a client Leo (Burt Young) and rake in the monthly stipend of $1500 in the process. The great thing about the film is that it presents manliness in a non-depreciating way to show the various reasons behind why men do the things they do. That he’d end up doing the right thing eventually if Leo’s daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) and grandson Kyle (real-life wrestling star Alex Shaffer) hadn’t showed up is another thing.

X-Men: First Class:

here at last was the definitive X-Men film that fans feared would never come. First Class may have been without the grown-up version of the heroes but in staging a look at their humble beginnings, director Matthew Vaughn has score a hit. Magneto (the irresistible Michael Fassbender) is the star and his inherent anger the driving force. We learn how Charles Xavier lost the use of his feet, something I’ve given much thought to over the years. What the film handles brilliantly though is the look behind the outer shell of the characters and reveals insecurities. Like the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who yearns for Xavier’s acceptance but finds Magneto’s instead. Or the way the others struggle at first to comprehend that they’re no longer human but something else totally unprepared for.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Iron Lady (2011)

Yes, Minister

Given the politically-charged environment we’ve been in since October last year, it seems fitting that the release of The Iron Lady, a biopic of sorts on Margaret Thatcher, should arrive at this time while so much is still so electric and contradicting about our own female politicians.

The film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mama Mia!) focuses on the years Thatcher (Meryl Streep, under heavy make-up and in scintillating form) has spent out of power while allegedly grappling with dementia. The sense of improbability surrounding the disease is clear from the start: Thatcher buying milk at a convenience store, unrecognized by the cashier and general public. She returns home to kvetch to her dead husband Denis (the ever solid Jim Broadbent) about how expensive the milk was. While she carries on an imaginary conversation, her personal assistant worries what could have happened to her unaided to the police. Shortly after, a dinner party triggers off flashback sequences that interchange with the present and that is the basis of this controversial film.

Lloyd treats the situation as myopic as possible and this works well when Thatcher is alone with her memories. Indeed, it is a leader’s own view of their career in retrospect so, from that angle, the film is brilliant. Yet, a more realistic feeling would be one of lingering resentment, a sentiment The Iron Lady refuses to delve into as a means of examining Thatcher as the biopic spans a mere three days in her life.

While many critics and aides to Thatcher have rubbished the film’s writing and narrowed scope—citing egoism--one crucial disadvantage that clearly hobbles it is that Baroness Thatcher is still very much alive. Like Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II a few years ago, we’re in ‘wing it’ territory and The Iron Lady thus has its fair share of hit and miss moments. Streep, of course, is flawless and the long wait for the inevitable third Oscar clearly is over. The opening seven minutes alone feature a stunning range from the actress. Streep never lets up nor goes overboard with the role. There are two sheer genius moments: the first when the dementia is hinted at and she covers by blaming her inner circle in the Cabinet, using faulty grammar as a ruse. The other is that split second change from frown to smile after her resignation, with the media impatiently awaiting her outside 10 Downing Street.

What Streep and script can’t adequately show us is Thatcher’s hunger years or even those tentative ones where she sat in the backbench of Parliament. Her tenure as Education minister is vacant while her surly determination and power-broking deals before the 1979 election are pared down to a minimum. When the film hits these cues, it feels rushed, as if fleeing from unnecessary moments of a life well beyond that era. Case in point, at her maiden speech as Prime Minister loud jeers could be clearly heard at intervals. The film retraces this through her perspective with all cheers and happiness.

Within these moments of rawness and inaccuracy lie limitations that will frustrate anyone unfamiliar with Thatcher and why even now she is reviled by so many Brits. Lloyd’s film is quasi-reverential, as if daring not to ruffle too many Thatcher sympathizers or to simply embellish the effect of her dire social policies. This perhaps deals less with Lloyd’s own direction but more with the ambiguity with which female leadership is treated globally. Thatcher remains Britain’s only female prime minister even though they’d had a woman head of state for more than half a century. The Iron Lady, astonishingly, never gives credence to the sentiment that made Thatcher the leader possible at any point other than her will not to ‘die washing tea-cups’. The tea-cup point made early on thus hangs over the biopic right throughout, as if some phantom conscience of a promise either kept or broken. We see so much of the aging decline of this remarkable woman yet are shielded from her own personal craftiness and gifts as a politician. To serve as the country’s longest post-war prime minister, one imagines she must have had wiles to survive so long. Her henchmen like Airey Neville are purged here of deviousness. What shines through instead is the brilliance of yet another Streep tour-de-force and an able supporting cast.

It’s a frustrating template but the same circumstances heralded the rise of others like Julia Gillard and Kamla Persad-Bissessar, both loved and detested in equal measure. Both served as junior ministers in popular Cabinets before usurping leaders who underestimated them. Like Thatcher, we’re no closer to really knowing these women on the idealistic level that got them to where they are today. And no film adaptation of their lives will truly reveal much insight either other than what we already know—so precise is the effect of all their mythologies--these women just simply are.

RATING: 7.5/10