5. SUPER 8
Few directors have such a specific style that their names have been commonly turned into adjectives; Spielberg is one such director. Often, though, movies that are described at Spielbergian only share basic traits in common, like backlighting or plots about fatherless boys. Super 8, however, is a marvel. It truly feels like someone unearthed a lost Spielberg movie from the ‘80s.
Super 8’s director, wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost, Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek), channels Spielberg in every way, while still adding his own inimitable spicing to the mix. Those who have called the ending saccharine and hokey are themselves just cynical and jaded. Let’s not forget, many classic Spielberg action movies (especially the model for this one, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) had endings with emotion rather than explosion; Super 8 simply does the same.
It also is absolutely ingenious in its pacing and the way it introduces new information, only to distract you before you can process how that information will come into play later; you only recall it once Abrams wants you to recall it. When it comes to directing action movies, Abrams has conclusively shown himself to be second only to Spielberg himself. Speaking of whom…
4. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
Near the start of every decade, Spielberg makes an action masterpiece. In 1971, he made Duel. In 1981, he made Raiders of the Lost Ark. In 1993, he made Jurassic Park. In 2002, he made Minority Report. 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin keeps that tradition alive, and deserves being mentioned in the same company.
Much debate has gone on over whether it counts as an animated movie or not. Spielberg filmed it using motion-capture, just like James Cameron did for Avatar. While all the settings and background characters are rendered photorealistically – my friend and I left the theatre unsure whether some parts were even unanimated, the effects were so good – the main half-dozen or so characters are rendered with exaggerated, slightly larger-than-life features. (Think of the character design in The Incredibles for an idea of what I mean.)
So, some say it’s animated, like The Polar Express was, while others argue that it’s no more animated than the central two hours of Avatar. The bottom line either way, though, is that this is the best action movie of the year. It is a new masterpiece by the greatest living director, and everybody who enjoys movies should see it.
If there were justice in the world, Beginners would have been a runaway indie hit last summer, like (500) Days of Summer and Garden State before it. It cruelly was not. Even more cruelly, those who have heard of this movie but haven’t seen it know it only as “that one where Christopher Plummer plays an elderly, gay man.” While Plummer’s plot in the movie is beautiful and fantastic, it’s just one facet of this movie and to define it just by that is akin to referring to Pulp Fiction only as “that John Travolta comeback movie.”
Beginners is a story of learning to show people who you truly are and conquering the inner demons and insecurities that try and stop us. Ewan McGregor plays the lead character, a man in his 30s who has closed himself off from people after being hurt. He meets a woman at a costume party he is reluctantly dragged to, and she begins to get him to open himself up to the possibility of love. Meanwhile, McGregor’s 75-year-old father announces that he is gay and does not want to hide it anymore. It’s tough for an old dog to learn new tricks, but he wants to at least be free to try.
As well, speaking of dogs, due to plot circumstances, McGregor adopts his father’s dog and they share a fascinating bond. (In one of the movie’s most delightful quirks, McGregor talks to the dog a lot and the dog wordlessly responds in the subtitles of what McGregor imagines him saying.) All three relationships are examinations of new beginnings, each of the characters in this beautifully touching and honest look at love being the titular beginners.
2. THE ARTIST
Three things right off the bat. Yes, it is black-and-white. Yes, it is a silent movie. And yes, you will love it. The Artist is a movie that reminds us why we love movies in the first place. The biggest hurdle the average person will have with it is simply giving it a chance. There’s the prevalent notion in our post-post-modern society that we don’t have the attention span for silent movies, or that black-and-white movies are boring, or that a black-and-white silent movie just couldn’t be that entertaining. This is really a gigantic falsehood, on every count. Most of our present-day exposure to black-and-white or silent films these days is through parodies in films or TV shows, which inherently poke fun at the format. However, such parodies are ridiculing bad silent, black-and-white films.
It’s a collective idea we’ve adopted that we’re “beyond” movies like that, that they’re somehow inferior to our sensibilities just because they’re old and arguably antiquated formats. There are really no grounds to it, though. When you watch a truly great black-and-white movie, like It’s a Wonderful Life or Casablanca, does it matter that it’s not in colour? And as for the silent-comedy aspect of it, if your favourite parts of the Ice Age movies are with Scrat futilely trying to get the acorn or if you used to enjoy watching Mr. Bean in the ‘90s, then I hate to break it to you, but you like silent comedy.
In the end, The Artist is a fantastically easy movie to love. It combines elements of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain; features recognizable faces like John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, and James Cromwell; has one of the funniest performances by a dog in cinema; and delivers thrills, tears, mystery, tragedy, scares, joy, and most of all, comedy. I walked out of theatre feeling happier than I had after watching any movie last year.
(Note: If at all possible, see it in the theatre. The experience of watching an old-fashioned silent comedy in a theatre setting with an audience will make you feel magically transported to the 1920s, if just for 90 minutes.)
1. A SEPARATION
A Separation is one of those movies where a small number of people are involved in a battle against each other, with the stakes no higher than their very livelihoods. The best movies like that make you empathize with each character. Changing Lanes is a great example of that kind of concept, where Ben Affleck’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters are decent men who end up are pitted against each other not due to fault or blame so much as simply accident. A Separation is the same kind of idea, except it involves six characters instead of two, all involved in a tapestry of misunderstandings, lies, pride, devotion, presumptions, coincidences, and kneejerk reactions.
The plot is brilliantly played out, with perfect pacing and a master’s feel for story. It’s cliché to compare a movie to an onion, but A Separation is wondrous at slowly revealing more information as it goes along, and always at deliberately timed moments. Ruining the experience of learning how the movie unfolds would be criminal, but I can tell you the early set-up. A husband and wife in Iran legally separate, because she wants to leave the country (for both her and their daughter’s safety) but he wants to stay and care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. They can’t reconcile, so they separate and she leaves. Without his wife around to take care of his father, the husband has to hire a woman to do so during the daytime. One day, the husband comes home to find his father’s caretaker absent and his father tied to the bed, inches from death. The caretaker has a good reason for both, but the husband doesn’t know that yet and neither do we. When the caretaker returns, the husband understandably is irate, fires her, and, when she refuses to leaves, forcibly shoves her out the front door. I’ve perhaps already spoiled too much of the wondrous intertwining storylines, so I’ll stop there, but suffice it to say that the husband and the caretaker end up in a legal battle that spirals faster and faster out of control, eventually involving one of the characters even fighting murder charges.
The ultimate power of the film is that every main character – the husband, the wife, the daughter, the caretaker, and the caretaker’s hot-headed husband – is portrayed not just realistically, but sympathetically. We can relate to each character and understand why they say and do each thing that digs them all even deeper into their situation, even if we feel we wouldn’t necessarily have done the same. As well, even though the whole picture is slowly revealed to the audience, you usually have one or two jigsaw pieces more than any of the characters, so you’re burdened with knowing information the characters need to make the right decision, and you’re forced to watch them make the wrong ones, unable to warn them. Truthfully, I could keep going on and on about this movie, but I’ll quit the hyperbole and let its final position speak for itself. A Separation is the best movie of 2011.