In the wintery months of January and February, New Orleans gets the last of the previous year’s Oscar contenders. We also get something else...something darker. You see, January/February is generally Dumping Ground One for crap movies (August/September is the second) that even the studios have no faith in. Early 2011 brought us Seth Rogen’s ego as a lame super hero in The Green Hornet. Also, James Cameron apparently lost a bet and had to produce Sanctum, a shot-in-murky-3-D underwater cave adventure where father and son bond over the violent deaths of their comrades.
The spring, however, rewarded us with Paul Giamatti as a volunteer wrestling coach in the comedy/drama Win Win, as well as the crackerjack science fiction thriller Source Code, about a bomber on a commuter train. And let us also not forget the subversive alien fugitive comedy Paul.
This past summer was the best summer I had at the movies since that carefree summer of my youth, 1984. That summer saw such grand entertainment as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, The Last Starfighter and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Sure, summer 2011 gave us some poo-poo films like The Green Lantern and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but we got a great super hero movie in Captain America which really gives off a welcome Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) vibe. Other rollicking fun films were the Spielberg-ian monster movie Super 8, the self-explanitory Cowboys & Aliens, Takeshi Miike’s delirious action opus 13 Assassins and the surprisingly terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Woody Allen made a comeback with the wispy comedy Midnight in Paris, and John Carpenter proved he still has it with the horror thriller The Ward. In the midst of all the summer popcorn flicks there was food for thought in Terrence Malick’s metaphysical drama The Tree of Life, which is one of 2011’s best films. The summer, though, finally put an end to those lousy Harry Potter movies with the release of the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
Fall brought smart dramas like The Ides of March and Moneyball, as well as the retro thriller Drive and the effective cancer comedy 50/50. Typically, Oscar buzz movies fill theater screens as Jack Frost marks his return in November/December. Forerunners in 2011 include Martin Scorsese’s ode to silent cinema Hugo, and Alexander Payne’s thoughtful comedy/drama The Descendants.
All in all, it was a very good year in film.
Great Movie You Probably Missed
Attack the Block
By Fritz Esker
This British horror/sci-fi/comedy about teenagers in a housing project battling aliens received little marketing and played for a week or two at the Elmwood Palace to largely empty auditoriums (I saw it with 5 or 6 others). That’s a shame because it’s a rare movie that manages to be funny and scary simultaneously.
Too often, movies that combine genres often spend too much time winking at the audience to let them know the movie’s not to be taken seriously (e.g. 2006’s awful Snakes on a Plane). However, Attack the Block calls to mind 1990’s excellent Tremors. The plot is ludicrous (lots of excellent movies have been made from ridiculous plots) but the characters take it seriously, so the scares are legitimate. The movie is unafraid to kill off its characters but isn’t so nasty and unpleasant that it becomes a nihilistic slog, either. And the laughs come from how the characters interact with each other and the situation, not from the movie laughing at itself in an effort to seem cool or hip.
Attack the Block is the type of movie that rarely gets any year-end recognition, but is more well-crafted than many “important” Oscar-bait films that will come out this winter.
Great Performance You Probably Missed
Paul Giamatti in Win-Win
By Fritz Esker
While there’s always hope, Paul Giamatti’s performance as lawyer/wrestling coach facing an ethical dilemma in Win-Win is unlikely to garner any attention from the Oscars. The movie (and it’s very good, you should see it) came out early in the year and Giamatti doesn’t have a death scene, doesn’t impersonate a real-life figure, doesn’t have a handicap, etc. He just plays an ordinary man facing the kinds of tough decisions that a real person would face.
Giamatti portrays a lawyer who makes an ethically shaky decision involving a senile client to earn some extra money. But he soon finds himself caring for the man’s runaway grandson and his decision comes back to haunt him. Giamatti never grandstands, there’s no acting with a capital A here. He just convincingly plays a fundamentally decent man trying to atone for a mistake he made. Everything about his performance feels real and lived-in. But alas, convincingly playing a “normal” person in a subtle, un-showy way doesn’t get you attention during awards season. But it should.