It is still a bit early in year but my film going experience throughout the year tends to fall into three distinct periods: the Jan-April period that is really a toss up in terms of genre and quality, the May-August summer blockbuster season and finally the September-Dec period which is mostly dominated by festival films and Oscarbation. This list comprises obviously my picks from the Jan-April block – 30% of my final top 10 picks from 2011 (“Hanna”, “Incendies”, and “I Saw The Devil”) came from these 4 months so it will be interesting to see how my list changes towards the end of the year. So here goes…
Basically a heartfelt story about identity which uses the realities of hockey culture to get its points across. I have always been a fan of Seann William Scott and he is hilarious in this: funny, sweet, stupid. Great turns by Toronto-born Allison Pill , Jay Baruchel and Marc-André Grondin (from C.R.A.Z.Y.!!!) as well. Satisfyingly Canadian…. Check it!
Aside from just being a whole hell of a lot of fun to watch, “The Cabin in the Woods” makes a pretty cogent argument that there are still areas of metanarrative and mythology to explore and mine creatively in the horror genre. While the Scream film franchise of the late 90s, 2000s, and even 2010s concerned itself with the the “HOW?”, or the mechanics underlying the traditions and evolution of slasher film franchises (aka The Rules). Goddard and Whedon use the story here to attempt to explore the concept of WHY we have constructed the archetypes and even visual imagery/cues constantly used to drive the horror genre forward.
The film has the good sense to prep us on all the character types that we all know/love? (the vapid big breasted blond, the testosterone crazed alpha male, the goof/fool/stoner, the scholar/egghead and of course the chaste virgin) and then totally fuck with the formula. It is both an interesting and a timely choice that the geeky/scholarly lens the screenplay used to explore the deconstruction is through the aesthetics of reality television. The reality genre itself has become a veritable bread and circuses that indulges a lot of our primal drives, so using media manipulation as a precise instrument to examine the genre feels like an elegant and logical choice.
On to some of the performances: Bradley Whitford, Amy Acker and the amazing character actor Richard Jenkins all do great quippy work in helping to establish tone of this film and the universe of the film. The writing in fact plays to Whedon’s strengths: the characters are well written and textured without coming off as overdone (Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz display wit, comedy and empathy skillfully), the mythology feels well thought out and thematically the story seems to always be on the rails. I have to admit though that the pandemonium of the film’s third act felt distinctly like a season finale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer but that was actually a pretty good thing and this of course is a Mutant Enemy production. I was not so much a fan though of the writers and/or producers trotting out a well known actress from the Sci-Fi realm to help dish out some unneeded bad-assery and perfunctory plot points to the film’s remaining survivors near the end of the film. This was especially annoying as she did the EXACT same thing at the end of “Paul” from last year this same time…. weird, and just completely unoriginal. It did help though that her character had one of the best lines of the film when addressing the constraints and restraints of employing ritual sacrifice in a modern world to appease an ancient one…money in the bank. All in all, this film was an incredibly fun watch and employed enough craft, world building (the facility’s gallery of dark creatures is a sight to behold) and story telling detail to have me coming back for a second watch a couple of days a couple days after I saw the advance screening. Highly recommended.
John Carter” was unexpectedly awesome. If you are a fan of unironic swashbuckling epics (particularly the serials and technicolor epics of the 30s/40s, especially those produced by Alexander Korda who worked on 1940′s “The Thief of Bagdad” and the earlier “The Four Feathers” plus the pulp adventure films of the early 80s like “Krull” and “Conan”), “John Carter” is your ticket to ride.
No surprise that the visual look of the film is helped greatly by a director (Andrew Stanton of WALL-E) who knows how to conceptualize environments that have both a fantasy feel yet occupy a concrete space in the familiar. The elements of production design also display an obvious ambition and care: the colors feel peacock-lush, the costuming is appropriately theatrical and the Michael Giacchino score soars when it has to with the accompanying action. The kinetics of the action at times mixes a video game-ish aesthetic with a faux stop-and-go animation style that is hard to describe but it somehow manages to work when it all comes together and gives the film a smattering of kitschy fun that feels alternately goofy and technologically complex.
There are issues with the film which sometimes double as strengths. The film features a dense mythology that engages the viewer in the expositional sequences but produces a bit of a saggy midsection and produces dialogue that calls a bit too much attention to itself, especially when trying to explain the dynamics of warfare between the different factions within the story. Addditionally, one of the main action sequences midway through the film reminded me rather forcefully of the Geonosan arena pit sequence of Star Wars: Episode 2: Attack of the Clones which fell totally flat for that film. In Episode 2 you felt that you had been randomly dropped into one of Lucas’ setpieces. In “John Carter” the sequence feels more tightly woven into the narrative and helps to push the narrative forward into its third act.
Interesting to note that one of the screenwriters is none other than Pulitzer Prize winning (for the “Adventures of Kavilier and Clay”) author Michael Chabon. Chabon also had a hand in helping to co-write the Raimi Spiderman films and he is a great fit for this kind of creative material in turns of its light comedy tone and goofiness.
Beautiful, atmospheric take on the police procedural taking place in the wilds of the Turkish countryside that surprisingly places more of its focus on the investigators rather than the investigation itself. The cinematography is masterfully handled- the film makes a wonderful transition from wide angled shots that dwarf the characters to focussing on every line and crease on the faces of the film’s long suffering characters. Wonderful watch and nice to see a mood piece that balances the elements of environment, character and plot beautifully.
5. “Pariah” (written and directed by Dee Rees) This amazing debut film by director Dee Rees was shown some love at Sundance earlier this year and was an official selection at TIFF ’11 while also being a spotlight film for Inside Out’s continuing film series here in Toronto, Canada. Rees very precisely details the ebb and flows of main character, Alike ‘s (played exquisitely by newcomer Adpero Oduye) journey of self discovery as a gifted Brooklyn teenager coming out and discovering her own voice and path.
Everything about the film feels fresh and vibrant: Oduye’s performance displays a complicated mix of earnestness, introspection and just plain exasperation in her dealings with her out-as-all-get-out best friend Laura (great extroverted turn by Pernell Walker) as well as with her long suffering mom trying to connect with her in a nicely restrained performance by comedic actress Kim Wayans. The look of this film caught me by surprise as well and adds a lot in terms of mood and tone- it is no surprise that cinematographer Bradford Young won an award at Sundance for this film’s ambitious look.
Totally fun departure from the 80s series and it feels fresh and was a lot of fun to watch. Not much else to say on this one, just check it out if you are in the mood for a good laugh- Ice Cube, Tatum, Hill, and Bree Larson all give great comedic performances.
7. “Chronicle” (directed by Josh Trank, screenplay by Max Landis from a story by Max Landis and Josh Trank) In “Chronicle”, three high school friends develop superpowers after making an alien discovery. I LOVED “Chronicle”. If you want to see how the battle between Superman and General Zod SHOULD have gone down at the end of Superman 2, check this one out. Trank and Landis manage to use the cliches of the found-footage genre to help scaffold its storytelling by offering moments of introspection and balancing it with fantastic spectator-like visual moments. A great surprise to be sure.
8. “The Hunger Games” (directed by Gary Ross, written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray)
A worthy adaptation by director Gary Ross of Suzanne Collins’ mega selling dystopian YA trilogy. What I feel this film has most going for it is in the casting and performance. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be revelatory for me as an actress. Lawrence brings a sullen integrity to all of her scenes as Katniss Everdeen and plays well off of Josh Hut herson who does good work here as fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (yes, his name is Peeta and his family is comprised of bakers). Hutcherson does a great job playing against alpha male sterotypes that we so often see programmed into films geared towards a young adult audience. The supporting players are strong as well: Lenny Kravitz’s subtle touches as Cinna help bring some heart and Stanly Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the host of the titular Hunger Games brings the appropriate reality television aesthetic to the film’s portrayal of a modern bread and circuses media experience.
I am one of the few people out there that didn’t mind the use of shakey cam during the opening stretches of the film and during the opeing of the games as I feel it adds the right sense of unease, tension, chaos and confusion, especially when inside the arena. I don’t think Ross is a strong action director though as I feel the finale could have been done with a lot more visual flair and cohesion but the film definitely left me looking forward to the second film in the trilogy, “Catching Fire”. As of this writing, the producers of the trilogy are looking for a director to replace Ross. Cuaron, Cronenberg and Inarritu are being considered so it will be interesting to see what new vision we will see for the continuation of this trilogy. I think Cuaron would be a great choice, but I think even an action director like Kathryn Bigelow would be awesome as well.
9. “Miss Bala” (directed by Gerardo Naranjo, written by Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz) This film was a bit of a struggle, but well worth the journey in the end. Originally a Contemporary World Cinema selection at last year’s TIFF, “Miss Bala” is director Gerardo Naranjo’s impressionistic take on the drug war film. I had expected something a lot more conventional so I felt my perspective on the film has to keep up with the morphing tonality and stylization of the film. What starts out as a meek and mild story about a young woman’s aspirations to enter a local beauty pageant with a best friend quickly reconfigures into a rabbit hole nightmare of drug lords, high speed chases, suspense, and unimaginable loss.
Naranjo finds a rythm though and the performance by Stephanie Sigman who plays the protagonist Laura displays a nuanced and heartbreaking take on a young woman who sees her hopes dashed and then reconfigured in a way she never could have imagined. A must see for those in the mood for something narratively unconventional at theatres or on-demand.
“Love in the Buff” was a fun discovery I made at the AMC on Saturday morning- AMC actually has a nice variety of international cinema so it was a pleasure to catch this gem. A sequel to Pang’s “Love in a Puff” from 2010, “Buff” follows a 30-ish Hong Kong couple, Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue), as they struggle to maintain their relationship, first as live-in lovers and then while seeing other people in Beijing.
Yue and Yeung’s chemistry is totally palpable and while there isn’t much exposition to give you some grounding, their relationship and individual personalities feel nicely textured. Yeung’s character Cherie is definitely the more interesting of the two who realizes over the course of the film how fundamentally she has been changed by her relationship with Jimmy, a nerdy man-child more occupied with his advertising job than with the domestic obligations and joys of a real relationship. The film also gave me a peek into an urban China that is becoming ever-more Westernized and looks to be an enticing playground for young singles. Yeung’s performance was the standout for me as she single-handedly seemed to carry the film’s themes and sense of heart so ably on her dramatic shoulders. Fresh, funny and totally worth a watch by fans of romantic comedies looking for something a little different.