Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Honorable Mentions of 2011

Below, in alphabetical order, my choices for the #20-#11 movies of 2011.
"Another Earth" had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Lars von Trier's great "Melancholia," but is itself one of the most thought-provoking films of the year. With its fascinating conceit (there's an exact replica of the earth, Earth 2, coming ever closer, with each of us having a doppelganger there), it casts a spell despite a shoestring budget and grainy film stock.

The Italian romance mystery "The Double Hour" is deliciously trippy, the kind of movie you watch through Finger Vision awaiting a violent episode, only to see the scene break in a totally unexpected direction time after time. There are a couple of big (and thankfully not pre-announced) scares, but the joy of the movie is in that rare delight of having the rug pulled out from under you, and loving it.

"Henry's Crime" is an unexpected delight: quiet almost to inertia, shrouded in the snow of Western New York, but unselfconsciously literate, with a bluesy, jazzy soul and dialogue you can't see coming from Rochester. Scenes end unexpectedly and people react - like people! I loved the cast - Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga and James Caan - and will smile anytime I think of Farmiga's ad for the local lottery: "Take a chance on life...take a chance on Buffalotto!"

Andrew Niccol's "In Time" is a great High Concept movie. It takes place in a future in which time, rather than money, is the coin of the realm. Our bodies stop aging at 25 and we're given one year to live - and to try to earn, cheat or steal more. Niccol fully fleshes out his concept, with transactions in time as ubiquitous and varied as financial transactions in our world. With the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie looks great, recalling the feel of "Miracle Mile" (Craig Armstrong's terrific soundtrack heightens the atmosphere). Justin Timberlake emerges as a creditable action and romance leading man in this gripping, unabashedly ambitious and unfairly overlooked gem.

"Margin Call" is not - as it perhaps aspires to be - the seminal film of our moment in history. It's just a good, solid entertainment, whose pleasures consist primarily of watching a great cast in peak form. Kevin Spacey is recognizably human for the first time in a long time, Mary McDonnell shows in one scene why we need more of her in movies, and Jeremy Irons deserves a supporting actor nomination for his commanding performance as a corporate CEO. The script is smart and topical in this rare movie that has something to say but respects its audience enough not to preach.

Remember when movies had enough substance that you could go to one with a date and then spend dinner talking about it? Not just plot points but characters, emotions, themes? The French import "Rapt," about the kidnapping of a captain of industry, has enough meat to chew on long after the credits roll. It depicts the kidnapping and related events from a variety of perspectives: the captors, the victim, his family, the lawyers and cops, the media. With its suggestive score and lovely (but not picture-postcard) images of France, it's a feast for the viewer.

The first half hour of "The Rum Diary" - and another half hour along the way - were as funny as anything I saw at the movies all year. Richard Jenkins has never been better than as the flamboyantly toupeed editor of the San Juan Star, who's long since given up any pretensions of real journalism and aims solely to keep the rag afloat. Giovanni Ribisi also shines as Jenkins' chief antagonist, the Star's "religion and crime" correspondent. His and Johnny Depp's consumption of potent potables goes beyond prolific; at one point, Ribisi shows how he's rejiggered the pipes to create a "470 proof" form of alcohol. Their interactions with the churlish Jenkins are hysterically funny, fueled by rage and wit and testosterone and psychotropics. I've rarely felt so attuned to Depp, who brings an endearing, ramshackle deadpan.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a holiday gift to moviegoers, a consummate, full-bodied entertainment and the big-budget crowd pleaser we've been waiting for Guy Ritchie to make (Cinemascore audiences, which gave the 2009 film an average grade of B, correctly rated this sequel an A-). Ritchie has lightened and brightened the mood of the movie, opening it up to new places and giving new freshness to the old ones. He's also constructed a coherent, highly clever plot. Robert Downey, Jr. has by now fully embraced and delightfully inhabits Holmes; he hasn't been this ingratiating in years, and it's a pleasure to share in the audience's affection for him. Jude Law significantly develops Watson here, and connects with the audience for the first time. Jared Harris makes a terrific Moriarty, and Stephen Fry steals his scenes as Holmes' brother Mycroft. The gorgeous look is capped by a breathtaking setting for the finale in Switzerland. The movie is full of good-natured repartee delivered with genuine wit and appealing bonhomie.

"30 Minutes or Less" was a great summer comedy, fast-paced and brimming with out-loud laughs. Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Michael Pena, and Fred Ward all turned in great performances, remembering that though the set-up may be silly, if you play it straight, that's when the comic magic happens.

"The Trip" is as simple as concepts get: a filmed motor tour with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as they chronicle six gourmet restaurants in the north of England for the Observer. But Brydon and Coogan are great company, and the interplay between them generates a barrel of big laughs (their warring impersonations of Michael Caine alone are worth the price of admission). Michael Nyman's beautiful score to director Michael Winterbottom's 1999 "Wonderland" accompanies the picturesque surroundings.

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