Favorite Movies 2011

Looking over my Top 10 movies of the year, I notice the running themes are “loss” and “nostalgia.”  This makes sense, as 2011 was my hardest year so far, what with everything going on with my dad.  And the movies have always been my home away from home, so to speak, so I guess it makes sense that I would be drawn to similarities to my situation.  In any case, I think this is a good selection this year.  Without further adieu, follow under the cut:

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My Take on Hugo

Every once in a while, I come across a movie that manages to harness everything I look for and love about the movies.  It creates a world that encompasses these things and I immediately get sucked in.  I hang off every image, every word, every facial expression.  And it touches me so deeply inside that it forever becomes a part of me, a piece that before long had somehow been missing and now quickly fits into the grooves.  It reminds me that, despite the struggle it takes, despite the superficiality it promotes, a film like this is the reason why I want to be a part of this business. 

Hugo is one of those films.

I saw the film in 3D, despite my not being a big proponent of the technology.  It’s become too gimmicky, a transparent way for studios to make more dough.  I made a vow to myself long ago that, unless the story truly called for it, I would steer clear: Captain America doesn’t need a greater depth of field; Tron: Legacy might.  With Hugo, the 3D is a big boost.  It was impossible not to feel Martin Scorsese having fun with his new toy and it’s the first time I’ve really said “wow” while wearing those stupid glasses.  One of the first shots follows Hugo (Asa Butterfield, handling a giant movie with great aplomb; he’ll make a good Ender) through the walls, the inner workings, of the train station where he lives.  It’s a single shot, darting through corridors and giants gears, down ladders, and going so far as to descend a slide along with Hugo.  Picture glee on my face.

Butterfield, by the way, is only one of a handful of performances that are impressive.  The story respects its supporting roles, like two routine station residents (Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour), giving them their own mini-romance.  I got a little Amelie vibe from them, although Hugo never intervenes in their relationship; it’s used merely as a means to the theme (which I’ll get to soon).  Sacha Baron Cohen makes a delightful comic relief as the station inspector; he embraces the physicality of his character, disabled in the war, so watching him run with a bum leg is simultaneously funny and sad.  And Ben Kingsley…jeez, is he ever bad?  (Andy remembers he’s been in Prince of Persia, Bloodrayne, and Thunderbirds, tugs at his collar, and decides to move on.)  I hope he gets some awards love this year.

In retrospect, I can say that the female characters aren’t as fully realized as the males.  Their purpose seems to be to act as muses or support systems for the men.  If there was a scene, say, of Chloe Grace Moretz’s Isabelle at home with her godparents, away from the point of view of Hugo, that might have made her a little more complete.  But it doesn’t take away from Moretz’s performance.  It’s nice to see her branch out from the adult or at least oddly mature roles she’s been doing so far.  Isabelle is a young girl with wide, bright eyes, game for the prospect of adventure.  She’s experienced loss, but was just an infant when it happened, so instead of letting it bring her down, it breathed life into her.  She’s wonderful, and the perfect companion for Butterfield’s Hugo.

Their relationship, by the way, is not a typical love story, but that’s what makes it so great.  I’m a sucker for stories of two people, usually young people, somehow finding each other, coming together, discovering common ground and becoming inseparable, all the while, doing so with nary a cliché moment, like a kiss or a full on declaration of love.  Like Super 8, the love story isn’t necessary about romance, but about an intimate bond forming between two people.  A hand-hold here, a comforting touch there, an embrace, a kiss on the cheek, but overall just an understanding that never needs to be said, an understanding that, for better or worse, these two will be there for each other.  Butterfield and Moretz, like Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney before them, pull this off with flying colors.  Damn, this has been a good year for kid-acting.

At its heart, Hugo is about people trying to make sense of tragedy.  This struck me immensely.  See, as I’ve mentioned maybe just a couple times on this here blog, my father is dying.  He’s only 64 years old, so the suddenness and unfairness of it all has been crashing down on me for the last few months.  He’s not even gone yet, but I miss him terribly and am struggling to navigate this big, scary world without him, trying to understand the purpose behind everything, because there is no purpose.  And that’s what drives Hugo.  His father is killed in a freak accident, so now he’s all alone, suspicious of other people, but at the same time, searching for something or someone to fill that hole.  Whether it’s a mechanical man he has to fix because it may hold a secret left by his father, or a new friend who doesn’t see a dirty vagrant slumming around a train station, he discovers the answer may lie in others.  Everyone here is trying to heal in pretty much the same way: escape.  Through people, through mystery, through work, through books, through films…

Films…films are the greatest escape there is.  Films shape lives, bring people together.  You lose yourself for a couple hours.  Sure, there are brief reminders of what awaits you outside the theater walls, but somehow, the celluloid spinning through that projector (well, not so much anymore) in that dark room with several, like-minded individuals is enough to bring you comfort.  It does for me, anyway.

Hugo did, big time.  It is a tribute, a thank you.  A magical film.

Rating: Four stars


My Take on Super 8

I have a dilemma.  I want to accurately describe my thoughts on JJ Abrams’ Super 8, but I don’t want to give away too much.  The mystery the trailers give off is not necessarily essential, but going in without knowing a whole lot certainly does amplify the experience a few notches, so I’ll do my best to keep the game going.  I guess I can say that it definitely brings to mind vintage Spielberg—talking Jaws and Close Encounters and E.T. here—and classic horror flicks, as has been expressed in interviews and such.  I can say that if you’ve ever felt the need to create, especially within the film medium (like yours truly), you’ll eat up the zombie movie the ragtag group of 1970s middle-schoolers attempt to make (shit, was that giving too much away?  Sorry).

No, here’s the best way to describe it: Super 8 is the most enthralling experience I’ve had at the movies since Wall-E, and that’s saying a lot, because I LOOOOVE Wall-E, enough to add a few too many Os to the word “love,” as you can see.

Seriously.  It pushed all the correct buttons.  It made me smile.  It made me jump.  It made me cry.  It made me imagine.

Some might complain that the mystery hurts the movie.  That it takes too long to reveal certain important details.  But what needs to be understood is that the majority of the movie is seen through the eyes of those kids, primarily Joe (Joel Courtney) and Alice (Elle Fanning).  Only when they learn something do we learn it.  And it’s done naturally; they don’t run into an all-knowing professor forty minutes in who gives them a play-by-play of what exactly is going down.  No.  They and the rest of the town end up in the middle of a disaster, of a panic.  There’s no time for full-on exposition.  It’s actually a very effective narrative tool, as stalling and slow it might be for some.  But trust me: it’s worth the wait once all the pieces fall into pace.

But back to the kids.  Wow.  I mean, WOW!  This is some of the best young-person acting I’ve ever seen.  They hit all the right emotions.  They’re playful, they’re funny, they’re mean, they’re all unique characters.  I especially liked Ryan Lee as the reckless firebug, Cary.  And of course, I don’t have to say Fanning is a phenom; she’s a Fanning, so it’s in that family’s blood or something.  She has a scene in Joe’s bedroom (not like that, get your head out of the gutter) involving an old home movie and a monologue that she just kills.  At one point, she starts to say something, chokes on the words, then regroups.  I was awestruck.  And Courtney is a discovery.  There’s a moment where he confronts his father (Kyle Chandler, very impressive), and every word he says is believable, relatable.  If he doesn’t go places, I’ll be shocked.

I’m a huge JJ Abrams fan.  Alias, Fringe, and of course, Lost all rendered me obsessive (not so much Alias in it’s later days, but still).  I cannot wait for Person of Interest and Alcatraz to occupy my time and brain energy.  I enjoyed M:I-3 and loved his take on Star Trek.  So I have a lot of faith and stock in the guy.  But he earns it.  Every shot, every beat is superb.  He has a keen ear for dialogue, and while nothing is too stand-out here like his previous efforts, it works, and it even sounds decade appropriate (not that I know what it’s like to live in the 70s, bell bottoms and whatnot).  People and moments are funny without trying to be; again, it’s all natural.

And the emotionality.  Going back to Wall-E, the “dancing” scene is what I often point to when talking about something that strikes me deep and gets those salty droplets a runnin’ (what?).  Something so simple and yet so beautiful.  Well, there a few of those here.  A single look.  A moment of courage.  An embrace (or two).  A slap.  These characters became real.  Their pain, their fear, their love, their confusion—I felt it all.

It’s the mark of a good movie when there’s an immediate desire to see it again, right then and there, once the last frame has spooled out of the projector and is just flapping in the ether.  Well color me antsy.  I need to see this again now.  But it’s almost 3 in the morning, and I have a haircut at 12, so maybe I should go to bed.  Kind of looking forward to it, actually.  For I will dream.  I am inspired.

Rating: Four stars