Year-End Leftovers

It's that time of year again.  I've been blogging with fairly decent regularity over at TheSplitScreen, and next week my "Best Of" list for 2011 will be making an appearance.  I have agreed to narrow it down to a strict ten picks, though it's pretty difficult.  I liked a lot this year that I think deserves to be seen.  As a teaser, I thought I'd share a few of the trimmings from the list.  Some of these may have made the list at any given moment, but at the time I finalized my selections, they just didn't make the cut.  Think of this as a supplement to my year-end list, an addendum.

I would also like to note that Cave of Forgotten Dreams and 13 Assassins, though I love these films immensely, have not been included in either of my lists because I saw them both well over a year ago at this point, and it's hard enough to narrow it down as it is.  Consider them as in the official Top Ten, but off to the side, looking on as everyone else gets a turn on the merry-go-round.

Cedar Rapids
An amazing comedy that is just enough smart and just enough raunch.  Ed Helms gets a chance to take a turn as leading man, and he pulls it off with plenty of help from my perennial favorite John C. Reilly (who was in another terrific film this year, Terri).  Helms plays Tim Lippe, who is sent to represent his small-town insurance company at a big industry convention in Cedar Rapids.  Having never really left his small town, the world of Cedar Rapids is opened up to him with wide-eyed wonder, and he soon finds himself taken under the wings of three veteran conventioneers.  This wonderfully kooky movie really shines in its supporting performances, with Reilly fleshing out a character who could become one-note very quickly, and Anne Heche appearing in a significant small role (funny, sweet, sexy, loopy) as Joan Ostowski-Fox, a mom who is tied to her boring life in much the same way as Lippe and everyone else who uses the convention as an annual oasis of drinking, fornicating and other shenanigans they could never pull off at home.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Director Joe Johnston takes us retro with this thoroughly entertaining superhero origin story.  There's great action, the film's design is terrific, and there's a big ole' musical propaganda centerpiece that stole my heart while I wasn't looking.  One of the things I absolutely fell in love with regarding that musical number/USO show montage was that it is a rare instance of how a superhero's story can be successfully condensed into a few minutes, and still leave so much untold that will be hinted at, only to be discovered much later.  The other thing I like about this film is that it's the culmination of Marvel's long-in-production franchise building process leading up to next summer's superteam film The Avengers, and as such, there are some well placed references to the earlier films in the series, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor.  This is not to say that the film is stuffed to overfill with constant in-jokes and references like some unholy marriage of unabashed spoof "comedies" and self-serious action spectacles that ended up acting like comedies anyway.  Instead, what we have is a light-weight, very fun flick that operates with the best of them.  There's a lot crammed into this Captain America movie, and all of it, by my estimation at least, works to its advantage.

Love Crime
Alain Corneu's final film is an airy, delicate examination of love and betrayal, high stakes office politics, and cunning deception.  What it lacks in plot (it's wafer-thin at best), it more than makes up for in its performances and great cinematography, both of which serve to highlight the intricacies of the central relationships of the film.  Kristen Scott Thomas is always terrific and this is no exception, but I really loved Ludivine Sagnier's performance as Isabelle, who is the central character.  Sagnier's such a great actress that she sneaks up on me constantly, just as she did Swimming Pool and both Mesrine films, and in spite of my personal feelings toward murder and murderers, I just kept rooting for her to pull her scheme off.  While we plainly see that she was, in fact, guilty, Corneau masterfully sets up the methods Isabelle will use to evade the cops and exact total revenge on her conniving boss and the corporate office power structure.  I think this movie was fairly well received by critics, but a lot of the commentary seems to express problems with the plot or lack thereof.  I think that's actually one of the film's strengths, giving us more time to absorb the characters and become familiar with its world.  Honestly, that's something more films could use.

The Guard
Brendan Gleeson is so good in this movie that I had a review typed up and ready to go all about his face until I decided it was just a bad piece of writing and I never wanted it to see the light of day.  But I'll give you a taste anyway: "He has a big ole' round moon of a face is possibly the most likable movie star currently working, which no doubt helps him land roles for characters we would otherwise find it difficult to understand the motivations of or sympathize with."  I know, and it only got worse from there. But the truth is that Gleeson is a fascinating performer, able to give an audience one piece of information only to betray our thoughts about it seconds later, and a lot of it has to do with his physical presence.  In The Guard he is Sgt. Gerry Boyle, who ultimately teaches us that appearances and first impressions are not always correct.  When Don Cheadle's FBI Agent Everett comes to Boyle's sleepy Irish town on the tail of some drug smugglers, he is confronted with Boyle's overtly racist remarks and seemingly dimwitted rube of a police officer.  Truth is, he's actually smart, and likes to play toward others' perceptions of him.  Despite his outward demeanor (and his very real insistence on taking vacation days) he knows police work, and knows exactly what is going on at all times, mostly because everyone thinks he will be easily overpowered.  The film is a very funny comedy, pitch-black at times, and confronts us with an ending that is confounding, inconclusive, touching, and inevitable.

A film that looks to the cosmos not as a creative entity but as the manifestation of the natural destructive impulse, Lars von Trier's Melancholia is the treatise on humanity and life on Earth that Terence Malick's Tree of Life so desperately wanted to be.  Told in two halves, each examining one of two sisters with a seriously strained relationship more closely than the other, the film is an emotionally draining experience.  Kirsten Dunst's Justine is a pitch-perfect portrayal of clinical depression, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (given a break from the tortures she endured for the director in Antichrist) keeps things from pitching over into total lunacy until the final sequence of the film with her denial of the world-ending event that everyone knows is coming.  Told in grandiose images and stark melodrama, Trier's film is shocking in its revelations, and by allowing us to wholly identify with the depression of Justine–and the depressing denial of Claire–it jolts us to discover that we, too, could be comfortable with the end of the whole maddening show of this world.  The existence of life beyond corporeal bodies and human thought is just as unfathomable as in Malick's film, but is not made into some hopeful message about our existence at this moment.  Death of all life is inevitable and the only sure thing in the entire universe.  And yet somehow I found myself feeling better about life in general after this latest von Trier depress-fest.  I actually believe thematically this is a work that is much closer to the heart of 2001's mystifying look toward infinity and our own understanding of ourselves and our lives than that other movie which is constantly compared to it, even though there is no "beyond the infinite" possible here, and none is even posited.  Melancholia is a film in which we learn that we only have this one life on Earth, and not for long (to misappropriate the tag line of the movie).  There's something to be said for that message.

Source Code / The Adjustment Bureau
I'm pairing these films up because I think they're just some terrific examples of science fiction that isn't all about monsters blowin' shit up.  Speculative Sci-Fi damn near doesn't exist anymore on American screens, and these films, though they fall a bit short of true greatness, at least gave me something to chew on and think about.  Source Code, Duncan Jones' second feature after a terrific masterpiece of a debut, Moon, confronts some of the same issues at the heart of his first film, namely the question of what constitutes life and death?  Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who was killed in action but whose body was saved enough so that his mind could still function, permanently plugged into a virtual reality system that can play back the final minutes of someone's memories, allowing him to investigate a crime and discover the person behind it.  The Adjustment Bureau operates in a similar vein, adapted from a Phillip K. Dick story, and typical of that author's work, is concerned with questions of fate, human relationships, and digital manipulation of the physical world.  I like the relationship between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt as they attempt to overcome the machinations of the bureau, an entity (thankfully never fully explained) that oversees all things on Earth according to a "plan" and must maintain balance and order.  Thematically these films are almost too similar, but such is the world of adult science fiction.  My colleague Eric Plaag wasn't too big on either film, but I thought they were both really solid and thoroughly enjoyable flicks.