OK in no particular order here’s my list of the films I have enjoyed and admired over the course of 2011. I’m sure there are terrible omissions – feel free to remind me in the comments!
Myth of the American Sleepover
I bet you didn’t see it, but it is on Netflix so find a quiet mood and do yourselves a favor. Sweet, gentle, authentic and beautifully performed.
An exercise in pure filmmaking style that actually works.
Attack the Block
Best aliens attack a Sarf London tower block and get spanked movie ever.
Midnight in Paris
Sweet, appropriately slight, a wonderful fantasy. And who knew Owen Wilson could be this good?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Best adaptation of the year. Beautifully written, shot, directed and acted. Just a classy piece that shouldn’t have worked, but does. Best use of flashbacks I have seen in ages.
Well observed, wonderfully acted. Says more about relationships – gay or straight – than just about all of the romantic comedies ever made.
Flawed, but quite brave at times. It avoids the easy choices and allows nasty people to be irredeemable – the cast are all terrific, especially Patton Oswalt.
A curate’s egg, but Fassbender’s performance hides enough of the rotten bits for it to make the list.
The best Jean Pierre Melville movie made by a mad Finn in 2011. Completely human, and tender in a minimalist way – don’t miss it.
I know, who knew? It’s actually so much better than the trailer and Clooney does a lot more than: look down… look up… The girl who plays his daughter is excellent.
I still need to see: Take Shelter, The Mill and the Cross, A Dangerous Method, Martha Marcy May Marlene and A Separation so they were not in consideration.
Cowboys and Aliens
When pointlessness attacks.
I was the sucker for going, but even the punch lacked punch.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Write your own Michael Bay joke here. It’s just too depressing…
Oi, Emperor – I can see through your new clothes!
The Green Lantern
When bullshit exposition attacks! Again… and again…
They threw a bunch of indie tropes at the wall. None stuck.
Make up your mind, what is this film about? A real missed opportunity.
Conan the Barbarian
Come back John Milius, all is forgiven.
The Green Hornet
Frighteningly dull and unfunny.
Because sometimes ‘meh’ is a crime.
And finally, my ritual “I didn’t see it but I just know it sucked” award goes to:
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1
“NO EMO VAMPIRES!” – How many times do I have to write this on my ‘board of sins’?
I thanks you.
This week at the movies seemed to be all about unwise extraterrestrials making a nuisance of themselves in inhospitable parts of the world. Over here they have landed in the Old West™ distracting Harrison Ford by kidnapping his idiot son and forcing him to take time out of his busy schedule of… randomly being gruff™ to save him. Across the pond they are invading a south London council estate on the trail of a willing female (insert your own ‘pikey’ jokes here) and run foul of a gang of teenage ne’er-do-wells and general riff and/or raff.
In both cases it doesn’t end well for the aliens, but only one of the movies has an up ending for its audience. This really could be a classroom comparison of how to – and how not to – bend genres and create effective story worlds. One of these films is a big budget, star laden Hollywood Big Summer Movie™, the other a very low budget British movie with no stars (well OK the lovely Nick Frost) and a director best known as a TV sketch comedian. Can you guess which one works yet?
The trouble starts, as it always does, with the script. Cowboys and Aliens isn’t actively terrible – it’s not Transformers: Douche of the Moon or even merely Green Lantern bad – its just kind of… pointless. The opening is slow and we have no interest in the characters or their problems. Indeed they are mostly predictably reactive. This is a kind of puzzle movie – Daniel Craig has escaped from a probing with no memory and has to find out who he is before bad things happen. The problem is the answer to the puzzle is obvious to the audience from the title of the movie if nothing else and all the plot device does is keep us at arms length from our hero until it is too late and we have no investment in him at all. The only character with a little spark gets killed as an unnecessary story lesson and the only thing keeping us watching is a cast who at least look good on screen. Note to Hollywood filmmakers: don’t cast great character actors like Walton Goggins unless you have actual stuff for them to do!
On top of all this, the aliens in Cowboys and Aliens are also dull, pointless and fall into the Super 8 trap of being deeply implausible. Here’s an example of how not to design a movie alien. If the creature is big, tough and has a strong armored carapace, do not allow it to open up its chest to expose humanoid arms for detail work, along with – wait for it – its beating heart. This may allow your Annoying Kid™ to stab one to death at an appropriate moment rather than being ripped apart (much more fun surely, and something Attack the Block isn’t afraid of doing) but it makes your audience call immediate interstellar Darwinism shenanigans on your movie. Hands up who can hear the typewriter now? I thought so.
Attack the Block plays its aliens just right. They are not an unlikely super intelligent race who are actually dumb as rocks, they are shaggy, toothy beasts who arrive in mini meteors on an interplanetary quest for nooky and attack anything that has come into contact with pheromones from a female of their species. These aliens have one gimmick and it’s fun and funny – I won’t give it away here. It allows them to get on with the job of being an entertaining threat and a catalyst for bringing together a disparate group of enjoyable, well written and funny characters to oppose them. Oh and the human characters are active, not reactive. They initiate the problem and deal with it in their own inimitable way.
And that’s the point. Attack the Block works because it is well written, well directed, has a great cast who inhabit their nicely drawn characters and knows its number one job is to get on with the fun. It uses every penny of its tiny budget to great effect and constructs its genre world to work brilliantly at that budget level. Cowboys and Aliens tries to be clever and forgets to have fun. Oh and it spends an enormous amount of money to no effect whatsoever in doing so.
Green is for stop, please stop with the exposition!
In an introductory screenwriting class we often talk about what makes the task of writing a movie unique. This is a huge topic, but we can begin to focus our discussion by reminding students that all movie writing is led by two of the oldest yet most important principles: the need for narrative economy and the mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’. The first reminds us that you are likely to have a maximum of two hours to tell your story, so get on with it and make every moment count. The second that you are working for a visual medium so don’t write a radio play. These lessons are frequently lost on the team behind Green Lantern, which is one of the stodgiest superhero movies I have ever seen.
Any superhero origins story is stuck with the problem of taking beloved bullshit seriously enough to please fans of the source material while simultaneously keeping the two-hour movie clipping along at a good pace. The problem for Green Lantern is that its own version of the beloved bullshit smells like it is much, much closer to the wrong end of the cow than is usual even in this kind of story. Faced with that problem writers usually either play it straight but blow it off as fast as possible or work it to camp and revel in the rich farmyard odors. Green Lantern not only takes it seriously but lectures us about it at length and both in dialogue and voice over.
The result is a movie that is long on pointless self-justification, yet short on coherence. Rather like the movie’s villain Parallax, the exposition billows out and sucks the life force from a plot that is only tangentially related to its hero at the best of times. You know you are in dangerous waters when the spectacular final confrontation between superhero and supervillain is also their first confrontation.
Part of the problem is that the movie’s incarnation of Parallax is kind of a one shot, beat him or die deal so the whole movie is played out through proxies until big bad finally shows up. The other problem is more to do with a studio’s almost total lack of faith in the waiting audience. This is a film about the battle between will and terror where the real battle has been lost in development before the movie begins.
The lesson of Green Lantern for the producers of future superhero movies must be that your audience is familiar enough by now with the beloved emissions of the wrong end of the superhero cow that we are willing to just go with it. Don’t be scared, have the will to just have fun for heaven’s sake, otherwise how are we ever going to join you?