Paul Bettany, Margin Call
Movies and I didn’t get along in 2011. Some of the most acclaimed entries – such as, for instance, The Tree of Life or Take Shelter – left me in a state of bemused respect rather than real admiration or authentic response. Oscar hopeful The Artist amused me as far as it went, but didn’t make a strong enough impression to get on any list of mine. It would be damning with faint praise to say that X-Men: First Class was the least objectionable superhero film I saw all year; in truth, I genuinely enjoyed it, from the amusing scenes of Professor X’s swingin’ London youth to the clenched intensity of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Heck, Hugh Jackman’s cameo may just have been the biggest laugh in movies in 2011. But again, I just can’t bring myself to put it on a 10-Best list. Maybe it’s been unfairly tarnished by my general sense of overwhelming ennui with the superhero genre and all things fanboy-esque. Hanna? Sharply directed, shot through with antic fairy-tale resonances. Didn’t leave me with much to ponder an hour after I left the theater. A Dangerous Method? Notched up my respect for Keira Knightley as a thespian, but I’m not sure if I could sit through it again. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for movies. All year long.
That said, below are the movies that punctured my pissy mood and stuck with me. I missed too many essential 2011 films (A Separation and Melancholia, to name just two) to make even a humorous claim to this being some kind of definitive top-ten list. In fact, it’s not a top-ten list at all. I could only come up with eight. Sorry, 2011. It wasn’t you; it was me.
Fine, it’s a potboiler thriller of seemingly-limited aesthetic ambition. It’s also one of the only films in 2011 that showed me something I hadn’t seen before. In visualizing the hyper-intelligence unlocked in Bradley Cooper when (in a classic Faustian bargain) he pops pills of mysterious origin, Limitless’s director Neil Burger hits upon a wonderful visual-effects solution: a series of prolonged zooms in which space seems endlessly to be compressing itself into two dimensions yet still pulling us forward. Hats off to the visual-effects mavens that came up with this technique; I may pick up the blu-ray of Limitless just for those shots. Much was made of the mind-expanding visuals in Malick’s Tree of Life and their relationship to Kubrick’s legendary Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But for my money, there was more mind-expansion, at least on a visual level, going on in this little genre exercise. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a well-acted, for-the-most-part-smartly-written tale that gets a lot of mileage from its theme, which is nothing less than the fulfillment of human potential: something we all agonizingly, heartbreakingly wish for, however far out of reach it may be.
7. The Adventures of Tintin
I more or less learned to read by paging through Tintin comics in my youth, so I have a strong bond with its plucky hero, he of the tufted hair and nonexistent personality. The Indiana Jones films always seemed to me to be Tintin writ large, and so it seems the most natural thing in the world that Steven Spielberg would return to one of the ur-texts on which he modeled his famous adventure franchise. The most delightful thing about this film is the way it has allowed Spielberg to expand his own filmmaking technique – to take advantage of the animated format by plotting out impossibly long takes of giddy momentum and dazzling intricacy. The film stumbles when it attempts to slather some rudimentary character-development onto its classically one-dimensional protagonists – I couldn’t get any more interested in Haddock’s struggle with alcoholism than I would want to see Falstaff at an AA meeting – but as long as it stays kinetic and breakneck, it’s grand fun: maybe the purest expression yet of the film-as-ride, and another of Spielberg’s many late-career rebukes to the post-Bruckheimer incoherence of modern action cinema.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
As a partisan of Alec Guinness’s George Smiley, and of the BBC miniseries generally, I wasn’t too hopeful for this film, and I walked away from it not altogether satisfied. The screenplay, competent though it is, feels too compressed and is unable to draw out the full emotional resonances from John Le Carre’s source material. That said, Tomas Alfredson’s English-language debut gets a number of things very, very right. England has never looked greyer, more dour and depressing, and the business of spycraft is as anti-Bond as you can get – a world of stale drudgery, tacky office parties, inter-office backbiting, and occasional, brutal, banal violence. You can luxuriate in its misery: these are not happy people, and we don’t want them to be. It’s high praise to say that Gary Oldman, in a supremely understated performance, comes within inches of owning Smiley as completely as Guinness did. Those reptilian bespectacled eyes, that knowing stretch of mouth that seems simultaneously a smile and a frown, that indestructible air of weary, threadbare moral fiber: you sense that Smiley embodies the only thing that makes the west the Good Guys in this corrupt and corrupting clandestine struggle.
5. Margin Call
Yet Oldman’s is only my third-favorite male performance in 2011. My second-favorite belongs in Margin Call, the underrated financial-meltdown drama that for my money featured the most accomplished ensemble cast of the year. There are several winning performances – including Kevin Spacey’s humane-yet-compromised Company Man, Simon Baker’s cautious, calculating shark, and Jeremy Irons’s wickedly charismatic mogul (whose line about a golden retriever might be the second-funniest moment in movies last year) – but the one that stays with me most is Paul Bettany as the spiky, sharp-tongued Cockney in charge of the banking organization’s Risk Management team that discovers the shit is about to hit the fan. Can this be the same guy who played Darwin in Creation, and Dr. Maturin in Master and Commander? What a wonderfully versatile performer. Here, he’s pissy and selfish, yet possessed of more moral clarity than anyone except Spacey – and perhaps more even than that character, as Bettany doesn’t waste energy on futile protestations to show off his conscience. He has a scene on a skyscraper rooftop that is Oscar-worthy and would, in a juster world, have netted him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
4. Young Adult
Speaking of favorite performances, here’s mine in the double-X-chromosome category. I never saw Monster so don’t know whether Charlize Theron deserved that Oscar or was simply being congratulated for her willingness to submerge her exquisite beauty in prosthetics and makeup. Whatever the case, she shows here a talent worthy of the classic screwball comediennes of the ‘30s. This chick has got control: she can work a slit of the eyelids or a pause between lines like nobody’s business. Her acting style feels wonderfully classical, all externalities and bodily awareness, and she’s perpetually ready for her closeup. This is a maturer effort from both Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, lacking either the airbrushed slickness of Up In The Air or the self-conscious cuteness of Juno – good movies both, but neither in the league of this one. Theron’s perpetually-juvenile, alcoholic heroine is a human wreck I can get behind – she reminds me (lamentably) of myself, and her friendship with Patton Oswalt’s crippled nerd develops in directions as human and affecting as they are improbable.
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Now we come to my favorite performance of 2011, if performance it be. I will leave it to others to divvy up the credits between Andy Serkis and the visual-effects animators who brought his Caesar the Chimp to digital life; in any case, this is not merely the most emotionally compelling movie protagonist of the year, but it’s one of the purest depictions of the vaunted Hero’s Journey in movies ever, full stop. Never mind James Franco’s guilt-ridden scientist: he gets ample screentime but is merely a midwife for the real story, the tale of one young ape’s journey from orphanhood to a false home, through separation and pain and brutality, and to mastery of his true environment. When he turns his angry eyes to Franco from within his cage at the animal preserve, exposing the full range of hatred and betrayal; when he defeats another ape in single combat and wins the hearts of his compatriots; we are there, locked in, captivated, in a way that only cinema can do – in a way that, explicitly, cinema discovered, almost 80 years ago, when Merian C. Cooper discovered the humanity within Kong’s stop-motion-animated eyes. Caesar is Napoleon, Alexander, or, yes, Caesar: the will to power fully expressed, the wounded ego bringing itself to fruition in an exercise of leadership and charisma on which the fate of nations will hang. How desperately we want to actualize ourselves, but how heavy a price the world may pay for it! It’s gripping stuff.
2. The Descendants
I said that Margin Call featured the year’s most accomplished ensemble cast. I had to give that a long hard think before committing it to prose, because Alexander Payne’s The Descendants – probably the best film he has yet made – gives it a run for its money. There is such beautiful acting in this film, and the least of it comes from Clooney, who serves ably as the star-center of the drama yet doesn’t stretch beyond his familiar notes much. I think of the supporting cast that orbits him: Beau Bridges, couching sinister steel in surfer-boy bonhomie; Robert Forster, making bad-tempered hostility seem so intrinsic to his being that it hardly gives offense; Judy Greer, who flitters anxiously between baked-in good manners and needy anxiety; and Shailene Woodley, as Clooney’s troubled teenage daughter, who gets a scene in a swimming pool that just might break your heart. I love that Payne has abandoned the shield of ironic humor and decided to tell a straight drama – he came close in About Schmidt but allowed an on-the-nose oom-pah-pah score to undercut his intention. This time the direction is assured, confident – even, dare I say, masterful. There are two scenes toward the end, one on a boat and one on a couch, both of which came close to bringing me to tears. And, Pixar excepted, not a many filmmakers can get me there.
Moneyball is everything Hollywood filmmaking ought to be: smart, entertaining, mainstream in the best sense of the word. It’s hard for me to pinpoint just why this movie clicked with me so strongly, but it’s probably because it’s about the victory of nerds over jocks. I’m a nerd; always have been. I’m not a jock; never will be. So when nerdy Jonah Hill tentatively walks into a room full of aging crusty hardened bad-tempered baseball jocks, and, under the benevolent protection and guidance of reformed jock Brad Pitt, blows their preconceptions to smithereens with simple goddamn logic, I am so there. Fuck you, jocks. You go, nerd! Simple as that. Now, I have no idea whether Moneyball is faithful either to its source book or to the reality that inspired that book. I don’t much care. Salieri didn’t murder Mozart, and Amadeus is slander, but it’s still one hell of a movie. As an added bonus, Moneyball gives us one of Brad Pitt’s greatest acting moments: his reaction shot of pure shell-shocked parental love after his daughter sings that anachronistic song in the guitar shop. It’s wonderful stuff: almost as signal, in Pitt’s career, as “what’s in the box???!!”