Be Kind, Rewind

Hugo: Watch carefully, this is how to make a future Oscar-winning film.

Hugo: Watch carefully, this is how to make a future Oscar-winning film.

Every year SN&R film critics Jonathan Kiefer and Jim Lane slog through dozens upon dozens of films—some great, some OK, some downright awful—and all in the name of helping you spend your time and money wisely at the art houses and big-screen palaces.

Missed a couple of reviews? No worries. The following are the duo’s entertainingly varied takes on 2011’s best and worst films. Popcorn not included.

The head and the heart, swimming

My 10 beloved, alphabetically listed films of 2011:

The Arbor

The Artist

Attack the Block


Certified Copy

The Future

Nostalgia for the Light


The Princess of Montpensier

Le Quattro Volte

One most beloved: Certified Copy—just another Tuscan love story. Does that sound mundane? Consider these exotic elements: a voluptuous French woman (Juliette Binoche), an intellectual Brit (opera singer William Shimell, in his film debut), and a genius Iranian director working outside of his native country, with a palpable sense of liberation, for the first time (Abbas Kiarostami).

Still not enough? Here’s the Certified Copy setup: She runs a gallery in an Italian village, and is the mother of a 10-year-old son; he’s the visiting author of a book about the value of authenticity in art, the rarity of newness. The name of the book is Certified Copy. They fall into a leisurely day together. It’s a flirtatious, combative first meeting, full of possibilities. One of which is a chance that, in fact, they’ve been married to each other all along.

“In fact” is no easy proposition with Kiarostami, whose fans should curl with glee at this latest of his poetic dispatches from the fact-fiction frontier. Imagine the phrase less as assertion of certifiable truth than as obligatory preface to a needling narrative contradiction. The couple is playing at a marriage, as couples sometimes do. But is the playing a way of mocking, or of discovering anew? Like any meaningful relationship, theirs will be a puzzle of loving and gaming and sometimes getting hurt.

Resolution, per se, will remain elusive—as if to affirm an idea that aesthetic and philosophical satisfactions may be more important than narrative ones.

And so, with its flow of half-seeable reflections gliding along the woman’s windshield while she drives the man around, Certified Copy likewise shimmers with the flashback-glints of other cinematic precedents. The same fans, and the film encyclopedists, will think of Last Year at Marienbad or L’Avventura, among others. Just another Euro-modernist art film.

Does that sound unnecessary? Perhaps, yet the romance is real enough, if the caress of Mediterranean light and the chorus of persistent birdsong are any indication.

Besides, Kiarostami demands more of himself than merely a self-enclosing gimmick for its own sake. There is generosity here; the coyness is a come on. It is the rarest of moviemakers who gets the head and the heart swimming at once.

The Artist: Don’t say a word—actions speak louder than the talkies

Such delicate sophistication—both freewheeling and well-controlled—might not work but for the astonishing aliveness of Binoche, longstanding muse to many a great director, who seems to get more beautiful and maturely sensual with every performance.

Once again her vitality and command are revelatory. Meanwhile, Shimell, an accomplished and charismatic performer here rendered sometimes awkward by an unfamiliar medium, seems precisely plausible as an aesthete whose intellect ironically has thwarted his receptivity to sensual pleasure—the very man who might fail to appreciate this woman. Early on, he explains that he wrote the book to convince himself of his own idea. “There’s nothing simple about being simple,” he later says, with a telling combination of weariness and self-satisfaction.

Later still, she asks: “If we were a bit more tolerant of each other’s weaknesses, we’d be less alone, don’t you think?”

Although a display is made of this relationship, Kiarostami also honors its privacy. There are some exchanges to which only the players themselves are privileged. Thus does the display become even more intimate, more ambiguous—and just another of those ephemeral roaming-couples films, one long enchanted walk-and-talk. Does that sound great or what?

And, one least beloved: Larry Crowne. Pretty much the opposite of above.

Dazzling, ineffable,

endlessly surprising

Hugo, Hugo, Hugo.

More and more, as December arrives and I look back over the past 12 months, I find myself thinking not in terms of a 10-best list, but of that one movie that stood out from the pack of action thrillers, star-driven rom-coms, vampire and/or werewolf fantasies and comic-book transplants that make up your run-of-the-mill cinema year.

In 2011, for me, the picture that stood head, shoulders and torso above them all was the dazzling, ineffable, endlessly surprising Hugo, from the novel by Brian Selznick, by way of writer John Logan and director Martin Scorsese. It may, in fact, be Scorsese’s most personal picture, expressing as it does his passion for the magic of movies.

It may also be the first movie in which 3-D was something more than a gimmick; Scorsese uses the process not to tart up the action, but to coax us into looking at the great Georges Méliès’ 100-plus-year-old movies with new eyes that aren’t jaded by all that followed, to feel the astonishment and sense of discovery that Méliès’ audiences felt, and to experience it all through the eyes of a child (or rather, two children: Asa Butterfield’s Hugo and Chloë Grace Moretz’s Isabelle). I can never prove it, but I suspect that if the Academy had known Hugo was coming, they’d have waited, rather than honoring Scorsese for the second-rate The Departed.

So, for me, 2011 comes down to 1. Hugo and 2. everything else. But even “everything else” had its highlights, and here are a few, in alphabetical order.

The Artist: Almost a companion piece to Hugo, Michel Hazanavicius’ tribute to silent cinema is loving and lovely.

The Big Year: No doubt about it, the best movie ever about birdwatching (oops, pardon me—birding), and Jack Black’s best performance since School of Rock.

Captain America: The First Avenger: The comic-book movie simply never had it so good. Director Joe Johnston honored the Captain’s 1940s roots while moving him smoothly into the present day—and setting the bar impossibly high for 2012’s The Avengers.

Contagion: Steven Soderbergh’s matter-of-fact tale of the rise and decline of a killer pandemic probably created a run on hand sanitizer, thanks to its low-key approach and Scott Z. Burns’ persuasive, unnerving script. The star-spangled cast didn’t hurt, either.

Crazy, Stupid, Love: A funny, truthful script (Dan Fogelman) and the crackling chemistry between Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone made this the romantic comedy of the year.

50/50: Making a comedy about a young man stricken with cancer is either a fool’s errand or a job for someone with an acute and sardonic sense of human frailty and strength. Fortunately, in writer Will Reiser, director Jonathan Levine, and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick, we got the latter.

The Ides of March: A political drama so trenchant and well-acted, that not even the preening narcissism of director-star George Clooney pulls it down. Ryan Gosling scored again, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei.

And while we’re looking back, we might as well consider some of 2011’s low points. Any year that sees a new Transformers movie or anything from director Paul W.S. Anderson (The Three Musketeers) has a good yardstick for finding the bottom of the barrel. But not even those stinkers were the year’s worst. There were also:

Arthur: Empirical evidence, if any were needed, that movies have gotten worse in 30 years. Look up Steve Gordon’s 1981 original and then marvel at the ineptitude on parade in this remake.

Real Steel: Who ever thought we needed a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots movie?

And a dead heat for the supremely silly-ass movie of 2011, two lousy ideas that were poorly executed:

Hollywood Division: Red Riding Hood: Director Catherine Hardwicke demonstrates why she was fired from the Twilight franchise (not that it helped those movies much); and Independent Division: Another Earth: A grungy art-house Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which a young woman seduces the man whose family she killed through her inattentive driving, and a planet identical to Earth appears in the sky a few thousand miles away. I am not making this up.