Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Live! Live! Live, damn you! Live!!!

Well, it's officially a new year.

A time for new beginnings, making good on resolutions (in short, this year we may actually get this up to a regular pace again) and, if you're one of the ones who still genuinely believes it, getting the most out of the last 12 months before the Mayans kill us all (...or something to that extent. Hell, even they can't get the story straight half the time.)

Inevitably, for all of the five of you who've stuck with us here through all the stops and starts, you know who you are (...and I'm sorry too) this is about the time when we here at the Third Row run the top five picks of the previous year (held over for two weeks in this case for a grace period. One part conferring, one part trying to get in a straggler or two before posting.)

Now then, for those who are just tuning in...and who aren't that interested in going through the archives, the set-up here is easy enough.

1) These aren't in any set order. Just cause I listed something first doesn't mean it's #1 over another pick on this list.

2) This list is based on the films of last year that I have seen at this point. There are still many on my 'to do' list I regretfully didn't get to in time for this. Chances are, when I do get to them, they may upset the balance (it's happened before. Really kicked me in the teeth back in 2007.)

I have to admit. This one was both trickier and easier than I expected it would be. Cause when this year was good, it was generally pretty spot-on.
...but the disappointments. Oh Lord, the disappointments.

Despite that, and with some weighing over, I've come up with a top 5 that, based on what I've seen at this point, I can look at and not feel like something is on there just as a placeholder. They may be supplanted in the future, but at least for now, I can say it feels like they've earned their place here.

Having cleared up the preamble, and in the hopes of kicking this year off right, here we go...

Because someone eventually thought
"What if we turned Doorbell Ditch into an extreme sport?"
What ensued was both a new pasttime and
leading cause of death.


This was a film that I was surprised by compared to my expectations...
...this was partially because I went in with almost no idea of what to expect.
Marketing on this film was...virtually nonexistent, actually. Sure, there were spots for it running, but they never really gave you much of an indication what exactly the film was supposed to be about. I mainly gave it a go on the strength of the subsequent reviews and recommendations from others.
The film itself was an interesting mix. On the one hand, its story felt very much like a standard issue action film. Many of the classic elements to it, the mysterious stranger helping a down on their luck family, the sinister mobster villain, the old friend who was once a pro, etc...and yet, the film itself executes them in such a way that it actually manages to feel fresh. This is thanks in one part to the direction, which really does lend the film a lot of its style that keeps it from being lost among the many 'shakey-cam' action offerings out there. The other thing that helps this one stand out - the casting. For what could have easily just been cheap renderings of old character tropes, the cast on this film manage to breath a lot of life into these old hats (even Ryan Gosling manages to take the stoic hero type and make it an interesting, if cryptic, character to watch.) That said, the two best performances in this cast have to go to the two senior cast members - Bryan Cranston (proving there is still gonna be work for him after Breaking Bad ends) as a former racer turned mechanic who never quite seemed to accept that his glory days were over, and Albert Brooks playing VERY against type as the film's crime boss antagonist. The latter especially surprised me, in part since at first it almost seems like this could be a Brooks-style character, a touch sarcastic, but ultimately still mostly just a talker.
...then we see what he's like when he's been crossed. For a man most well known for his comedy work, Brooks can be surprisingly intimidating when pissed off (to be perfectly blunt.)
Is it an original film? Technically, no. Despite that, it still does well at taking the old and making it feel like something new.

"Look, what you've been through sounds terrible, and I do
feel bad for you...I'm just warning you, I'm not sure the
Academy's going to recognize it is all."

-Martha Marcy May Marlene

Let the record show, we're now 3-for-3 on an 'actress goes off the rails' movie making it into the top five. I feel like this should be a warning sign of some sort...either that or this just means I have some strange offshoot of schadenfreude.
Of course, it also helps in this particular case that many of the other things addressed in this movie clicked well for me beyond just the challenge of 'will this continue the streak?'
The premise of the film is a bit strange at first because it's not really a complete closed narrative. The focus of the movie is around Martha, a woman who's fled from a communal cult she's been living in for some time. The film intercuts between her attempts to get her life back on track as well as showing us what her life back at the commune was like.
One of the things that surprised me the most about this (and from the look of reviews, annoyed many others) is how the film handles its narrative shifts. There is no real set up to a flashback per se. No dissolves, no real prompt, nothing. It simply shifts into the past and leaves you to piece it out yourself. This element works particularly well for the film in a large part thanks to the fact it dabbles in two things that, admittedly, I love to see done in a film in capable hands - paranoia and the unreliable narrator. Thanks to how these shifts are handled, we're thrown for a loop trying to determine what's then and what's now...and how much of it is genuinely real and how much is either paranoia or altered memories. To this end, as viewers, we also can't help but sympathize with her sister (as well as her fiance) who find themselves at times growing frustrated with Martha's erratic behavior. To their credit, the film avoids making the couple seem unreasonable. As outsiders, we sympathize with them as well as we do with what we've seen Martha has been through (it's worth noting the film makes it pretty clear she hasn't told them.)
Which leads to the other thing I have to commend this film on - given how easily films tend to cave to the temptation to depict cults as these outlandish groups of either eccentric loonies or robe-wearing Satanists, there's something refreshing and more than a bit disturbing in how the cult is depicted in this film. From the initial flashbacks of Martha's first days at the commune, where she became Marcy May, to helping indoctrinate new members, to taking part in the increasingly more brutal actions ordered by their leader, we see a down-to-Earth, and altogether rather disturbingly plausible vision of a cult.
Between these multiple strong elements, as well as some great acting (especially Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, who really helps drive home how badly this cult has affected her) it's a shame this film will probably be passed over come awards season. I mean, I haven't put much stock in them in years, but it's gonna be a damned shame if they let this performance go unacknowledged. there's a few bits of exaggeration. It's a documentary
about a comedian. You can't be THAT shocked.

-Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

I'm gonna start this by saying, had it not actually been made in 2010 and only screened in '11, there's a possibility Conan's spot on this list would have gone to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This isn't to say this is a lesser film (actually, given the different styles and subjects, comparing would be tricky here) just saying...despite the different year, that was a great documentary (OK, mini-plug over.)
As I'd explained in part when discussing films seen over the summer, this film was another for this year that really surprised me when I saw it. Given this was a behind the scenes look at Conan's live tour when he was legally blocked from appearing on television, the humorous parts of the movie were a given. The parts that caught me by surprise, however, were some of the moments in between the joking. While I had a great time watching the performance footage, some of the parts that stuck out for me the most were actually the behind the scenes moments, things like some like joking around with his team, some of his talks with his children (both at home and, while on the tour, via webcam), and even the moments of frustration/fatigue on the road. This movie could have easily just been all about the on-stage persona. It could have come across as the proverbial vanity piece. Instead, we get the bad with the good and, as a result, we get a much more human portrait of the comedian. This probably won't be a documentary that goes down in history as an earthshaker, but for what it is and what it could have been, it handled its content very well.

"How about Ghandi? Did you see that one?
A House of Sand and Fog?
...please kid, don't make me discuss the live-action
Thunderbirds movie here, give me something!"


Joining Drive on the double-bill of 'No, really marketing, what's this movie about?' this was another that promotion gave me NO idea on. Word of mouth, as well as a couple of promising interviews by Scorsese finally won me over. The resulting film honestly surprised me...partially because, despite strong word of mouth, I was still going in skeptical (in large part due to the 3D. I'll spare you all that rant.)
After the film was over though...I have to admit, I was impressed. For a man known for his passion for cinema, this movie, more than most of his offerings, is probably one of Scorcese's purest love letters to the silver screen. While the title and main focus are on the young boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield, proving yes, America does still manage to get some good child actors, even if they're somewhat rare), much of the film is about both the love of, and the history of, the early days of film (to a degree personified in Ben Kingsley as Georges Melies, a performance that hopefully means Kingsley's career rough patch is behind him at last.)
Alongside the salute to the pioneers of film that makes a major theme of this movie, Scorsese in general delivers a very heartfelt and fleshed out world. Everyone of the regulars seen at the train station is seen as having their own lives we peek into, instead of just being talking heads to serve a singular purpose. Even Sacha Baron Cohen as the film's antagonistic station officer is revealed to be more than just a clumsy force of authority, his own feelings and insecurities helping showcase that, despite his general comedic styling, Cohen can handle drama.
...and yes, I will admit, even the 3D managed to surprise me on this movie. After many of its applications so far, I expected a case of the obvious stand-outs and spectacle tricks that have become such a staple for the new technology. Instead, I was surprised to find it actually used in such a way that it felt like I wasn't even really watching 3D...and by that I don't mean it didn't work, I mean it all just felt natural. Instead of favoring big spectacle scenes, the real gem of the technology in this film was in how much depth it adds to the film. The crowded train stations feel more, for lack of a better way to put it, there. For all my cynicism towards the big push for the technology, this gave me faith that maybe it still has potential in the right hands.

"...and that big face with the camera up there, that's
director Lars von Trier. He comes by the Earth every
few years to sow misery and doom upon us all.
It is an act of nature as cruel as it is beautiful..."


...and once again, right after the heartwarming entry on this list IT'S LARS VON TRIER TIME (...this was coincidence, I swear.)
As von Trier's first project after Antichrist, this already felt slightly ominous when he described this movie as having his 'first bad ending'
(...after how the prior film ended, I'd be slightly afraid of a man who'd count that as happy...just saying...)
To the man's credit, his statement was technically accurate. It IS rather hard to top ending your movie with the literal end of the world (...what? It's not a spoiler. You find it out in the first 10 minutes of the movie.)
Of course, the main draw of the movie isn't actually 'will the Earth be saved?'. Instead, taking place over two arcs, the film follows one small group during the final days before the end of the world and how they all respond as it becomes increasingly clear that there's no getting out of this.
The casting on this one...I have to admit, had I seen these names on paper, I wouldn't have expected these performances. Well, OK, I'd have expected Charlotte Gainsbourg. She's shown the range with von Trier before. The other two principle leads though really surprised me on this one in particular, Kirsten Dunst making one Hell of a comeback as Gainsbourg's sister who's been suffering from clinical depression. It's a very different role for her, but she handles it remarkably well. Rounding out the trio, we have Kiefer Sutherland reminding us that, yes, he CAN handle other non-action roles...if anything, this role almost seems a counter to that idea, as he starts as the seeming voice of reason, only to find the foundations of his assertions coming undone around him.
The interesting thing about how all of this is handled is that, despite this being an 'end of the world' movie, it's also a very personal film. In particular with the focus on Dunst's depression. The film does a considerable job really capturing the feel of what depression can, and does, do to people. By comparison, the impending planetary collision almost feels like a minor setback. For as controversial as the man may be, it's hard to dispute that von Trier has once again proven himself as a talented director on this film. Likewise, it again affirms the man's surprisingly good eye for visuals. Some of the shots in this film are stunning.

I have to admit, for my earlier mentions of the disappointments, there were also a lot of promising titles had to pick from this year (alongside the many I still haven't watched yet, I feel a need to give shoutouts to a couple of titles from this year that didn't make the cut. In particular: Hanna, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Meek's Cutoff, and Attack the Block.)

While they may not have made this top 5, I will still say they're worth the watch if you have the opportunity.Overall, I'm not gonna say 2011 was an all-around great year. We had some strong entries, but also several stretches of mixed offerings.
...on a plus side, a year like that really DOES help you appreciate the good ones that much more.

Anyway...between my own inner self-nagging, and a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the custom of New Year's Resolutions, hopefully we'll be back here next week and finally writing again on a regular basis.

If all goes well, see you all then.

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