Film Threat: Top 10 Movies of 2011

Film Threat compiled top ten movie lists from its writers. Here are my picks:

10. Crazy, Stupid, Love.
If you haven’t seen this romantic comedy, you may be surprised to see it on this list. Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are that I was actually tickled and moved by this genre-transcendent film. Before this movie, I thought Ryan Gosling was just another pretty boy actor with zero substance. But if you’ve seen “Blue Valentine” or “Half Nelson” (I had yet to), you already know that I was dead wrong. Baby Goose gives an incredibly nuanced performance as the professional-caliber lothario who teaches Steve Carell how to be a cold-hearted snake before falling ass-over-elbow for the beguiling Emma Stone. I gave it just three stars in my review upon its release. But it stuck with me throughout the year and I now think I sold it a little short. Today, I bequeath it an extra star!

9. Fright Night (2011)
I’m generally anti-remake. What’s the point, when there’s a perfectly good movie by the same name that already exists? But I couldn’t deny the fun of “Fright Night”. Colin Farrel is very much in his element here as the douchebag vamp who cons a Las Vegas suburb into being his dinner.

8. Conan O’Brian Can’t Stop
It’s the “Don’t Look Back” of comedian documentaries, revealing Coco as a neurotic, bitter and astonishingly talented man.

7. American Animal
Sometimes, a film about people having an ongoing conversation ends up being as engaging and multi-faceted as a real conversation. I was pondering this one long after it was over.

6. Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey
You don’t have to dig Elmo (or have a kid who does) to enjoy the story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the furry red monster who loves everyone. But it probably helps.

5. Bellflower
I don’t know if this film succeeded in putting Evan Glodell on the map. But he sure deserves all the hype surrounding his triple threat performance as writer, director and star of this story about a relationship gone nuclear.

4. The Thief of Bagdad: Re-Imagined By Shadoe Stevens, Featuring the Music of E.L.O.

The title barely scratches the surface of how awesome Shadoe Stevens’ pet project ended up. He spent years searching for the perfect soundtrack to appropriately honor and elevate the magic of his favorite film of the silent era. He finally found it in the music of the Electric Light Orchestra, resulting in an eerily harmonious marriage that takes you on an adventure of the senses. {Cough, cough, cough.}

3. Kill List
“Kill List” sneaks up on you from behind and bludgeons you in the brains (in the best possible way).

2. Drive
This movie is ultraviolent, effortlessly cool and sexy as hell. Ryan motherfucking Gosling. I wanted to see it again immediately after it ended.

1. The Future
Every once in a while, I go into a film knowing it’s about to become one of my all-time favorites. Miranda July’s oddball storytelling is just my bag, plain and simple. From the opening monologue delivered in the shaky, high-pitched voice of a terminally ill cat, I fell in love with “The Future” and immediately planned the rest of our lives together. Like her first, equally perfect feature film, “The Future” is about the lengths people go to feel connected and the weird things that fear drives them to do. It’s hilarious, existential, uncomfortable, heart wrenching and completely devoid of pretension. I hope they figure out how to keep heads alive in jars, a la “Futurama” because Miranda July’s brain is incredible.

Read the rest of the lists at Film Threat.

2011 in a Nutshell

1. What did you do in 2011 that you’d never done before? Entered a beauty pageant. It was for charity! Also, most of the other contestants were drag queens. I was interview on the radio for the first time this morning. I’ll let you know how that goes. Methinks I was a drag.
2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year? I wanted to work out more and I definitely accomplished that. I also did get to do more writing, but not as much as I’d hoped. This year, I want to stress out about things less, even if that means finding a way to take some things off my plate. That will be VERY hard, though, because I’m not good at letting go of things. I had a hard time living in the moment in 2011 because I was always thinking/freaking out about the future. I want to figure out a way to enjoy my present more.
3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes. Babies Jack, William and Luke came into the world. More on the way for 2012. Not for me, though.
4. Did anyone close to you die? Not to me, no.
5. What countries did you visit? I did not make it out of the country in 2011. To be rectified in 2012!
6. What would you like to have in 2012 that you lacked in 2011? More patience and the ability to manage stress. A cleaner bill of health.
7. What date from 2011 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? Skaraoke was epic this year. Possibly the best one yet. 2/21 was the day Lula started walking.
8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? I have to steal Elyse’s answer and say that keeping a toddler thriving and relatively happy is a huge achievement. Those things are always trying to kill themselves.
9. What was your biggest failure? Time management. Letting things go.
10. Did you suffer illness or injury? So much goddamned illness. I was at the doctor constantly. The pharmacist knows my name now.
11. What was the best thing you bought? Organizational tools. It felt SO good every time I got a new drawer or closet in working order. Still so much work left to do, though.
12. Whose behavior merited celebration? My husband is a champion. Such a good dad too.
13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Big time mama issues.
14. Where did most of your money go? Stuff for Lula, trips and medical bills. I wasn’t very good with kid shopping in 2011. I kept trying to find the perfect book or toy that would make Lula happy forever. But, of course, such a thing doesn’t exist. Unless that thing is the TV. But I can’t let her become a couch potato just yet.
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? SXSW, SIFF, friends visiting, visiting friends, Skaraoke, seeing Ween at the Paramount, Party Bus w/ Drag Queens, Adult camping, pie.
16. What song will always remind you of 2011? “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. I was late to the Gaga party but really enjoyed the hell out of her in 2011. “Bad Romance” is also pretty fun to sing at karaoke.
17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
i. happier or sadder? Sadder.
ii. thinner or fatter? Thinner. I weigh less now than I have since college. It’s the toddler-wrangling workout.
iii. richer or poorer? Pooer.
18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Relaxing.
19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Freaking the fuck out.
20. How will you be spending Christmas? Spent the morning with the in-laws and the evening with friends. Perfect.
21. Where will you be spending New Year’s Eve? Having slumber party with another family. Hard to get a sitter for NYE.
22. Did you fall in love in 2011? I loved hard.
23. What was your favorite TV program? “Louis”, “Justified”, “Archer”, “American Horror Story” (compellingly bad). Apparently, I am FXs bitch, as I also watch “The League”. “Doctor Who”. Was “Mad Men” on in 2011? If so, “Mad Men”. “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”. I was very excited for “Fringe” to come back, but it was a pretty big let-down. Holy shit, I watch a lot of TV.
24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? Not that I can think of. Weird. I can’t even think of a celebrity. I am losing my edge.
25. What was the best book you read? Just finished the new Miranda July book, “It Chooses You” and was predictably moved. I still haven’t finished “Everything Matters!”, but was really into it for a while.
26. What was your greatest musical discovery? I never discover anything anymore, but I really dug the Gaga catalog. Also Dead Man’s Bones (way late on that one). Both Liam and Noel Gallagher came out with new music this year and I will probably always buy what they’re selling. I’ve listened to a shit ton of Caspar Babypants recently because they’re tolerable kids music and Lula has been wanting to hear more of it.
27. What did you want and get? Plentiful nights off from parenting.
28. What did you want and not get? Caught up.
29. [Replacement question] What did you get and not want? A chronic fungus.
30. What was your favorite film of this year? Kind of a toss-up between “Drive” and “The Future”.
31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? I turned 33. We went out to karaoke over the weekend and my husband made me dinner on the day.
32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? For time to stop for, like, a week so I could make some headway on my ever-growing to-do list.
33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2011? Portland hipster. Lots of soft cotton, hand-stitched skirts and appliqued hoodies. Barrettes because I’m growing my bangs out. Colorful boots and knee-high socks. More color in general, but still sticking with dark and earthy tones. Slim fit tops, as well because I wasn’t trying to hide my belly as much.
34. What/Who kept you sane? My husband and friends. The babysitter. Recreational substances.
35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Ryan Gosling. Again I am late on this. I guess that just cements my status as an out-of-touch old lady. But this year, he became more than just “That guy from the steaming pile known as ‘the Notebook'” because I saw him in a number of impressive roles and he just blew me away. He’s also kind of a weird guy, which is unusual for a guy who looks like that. Also, Nick Kroll a little bit.
36. What political issue stirred you the most? Health care, Occupy.
37. Who did you miss? Friends who used to live here.
38. Who was the best new person you met? I think I didn’t meet my friend’s daughter, Josie, until this year. She is an awesome, smiley kid.
39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2011: The opinions of strangers do not matter.
40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year: I can never think of anything good for this. Here’s how I feel every time I try to take a load off.

It’s not that I don’t like you/I’m just at a party
And I am sick and tired of my phone r-ringing
Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station
Tonight I’m not taking no calls/cos I’ll be dancin’

Film Threat Review: Young Adult

2011
Rated R
94 minutes

***

I’m not what you would call a Diablo Cody fan, so I was fully prepared to rip on “Young Adult.” Had she written another catchphrase quirkfest, I would have had a field day. I have to give Diablo props (do you mind if I call you Diablo?) because “Young Adult” is about as far from “Juno” as one can get and still carry the Cody watermark. It’s an exploration of what happens to the most popular girl in high school once she leaves the monarchy and has to face the real world. It seems that being beautiful and marginally literate can only get you so far.

But isn’t this movie supposed to be a comedy? The laughs are few and far between in this cringingly realistic portrait of a sociopath. It’s almost a revenge fantasy, as an aging prom queen spirals headlong into a nervous breakdown. The performances are solid enough to keep you watching, but it’s not exactly a fun time at the movies.

Once again, Cody teams up with director Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”) to tell the story of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron, “Monster”), a 37-year-old ghostwriter for a once-popular teen lit series called Waverly Prep. Nursing an ever-present hangover, she slumps around her trashed apartment in her pajamas, trying to finish the last book. A birth announcement email from her high school ex, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) prompts a trip back to her tiny hometown of Mercury, MN. She’s on a mission to rescue him from the domestic life she convinces herself he doesn’t want.

We have no reason to believe that this is anything other than an out-of-the-blue impulse. Apart from her book, one night stands and getting hammered, Mavis has nothing going on. She may not have even thought of Buddy in years. He just popped up in her in-box during a lull and she decided to use him as a procrastination tactic.

Once she hits town, Mavis heads straight for the local bar, where she encounters another former classmate, Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, in his nerdy element). Though they were locker neighbors (aren’t they always), she doesn’t remember him at first. He was one of the little people in her vast kingdom. But he jogs her memory with his tale of woe as “The Hate Crime Guy.”

Matt was crippled by jocks in a horrible gay-bashing incident that earned national media attention until the press realized that it was a case of mistaken sexuality. Mavis makes light of his situation (“Could you walk any slower?”), constantly turning the conversation back to herself throughout their subsequent unlikely friendship. They get hammered on bourbon and a lonely Matt listens to Mavis concoct her delusional schemes to steal a politely oblivious Buddy away from his wife and daughter. Matt calls her out at every opportunity. He’s the only one who does so. But she ignores him, just as she ignores the more subtle signals from everyone else in town telling her she’s off base.

Theron does an incredible job with the role proving that she doesn’t need to wear prosthetics to play ugly. Mavis is simply not a good person. Beauty is power in high school and in certain metropolitan circles. But in a real town like Mercury, they don’t give a crap about fresh mani-pedis and silk blouses. Everyone regards Mavis with polite horror, and she takes their silence as a sign that they are buying her bullshit. Even her parents, whom she avoided until she ran into her mother on the street, are so tired of her shtick that, when she blurts out a true admission that she’s an alcoholic, they laugh it off as just another plea for attention.

Another actress with comparable beauty would have botched the role, playing it with one note. But Theron does so much with just one glare. We can see deep into where Mavis’ soul would be, if she had one. She speaks in platitudes, crediting destiny and true love for her actions. But she’s just saying and doing what she thinks a character in her books would do. She’s not just a bitch. She’s Dexter Morgan minus the bloody history and code.

Which leads me to my main issue with the film: Why should we care about Mavis? For the audience to have empathy for a wholly unlikeable person, you have to give them a motivation for being that way. Mavis’ parents are both still alive and seem perfectly normal. Mavis does reveal a small piece of baggage near the end of the film, but it’s pretty clear that she only brings it up to garner sympathy. It’s not something that’s been haunting her this whole time, making her do evil things. It’s just another manipulation card. Without proper motivation, you’re just watching a bad person do bad things.

In that case, some jokes are in order. There are a handful of truly humorous moments, but 99% of them belong to Patton Oswalt, and his character is not the focus of the film. Mavis would be friends with anybody with a bottle opener. The more interesting question is why Matt would hang out with Mavis. Sure it’s partly “Breakfast Club” curiosity and partly boredom. But she’s not exactly good company. She should be the unlikely buddy in a movie about “The Hate Crime Guy.”

Matt tells Mavis straight up that she’s being crazy and selfish. He attempts to give her a wakeup call with every interaction, but she keeps hitting the snooze bar. I hate to advocate for less movies with female protagonists, but if that’s what you’re going to do with them, they’re better off in small doses.

It’s not that sociopathic women can’t make appealing characters (see Baby Firefly in “The Devil’s Rejects”), it’s just that something needs to happen to them. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“Young Adult,” as it stands, is a slice-of-life piece about a beautiful lunatic who tries to ruin some lives, fails and carries on being loony. It’s an intriguing place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

Film Threat Review: We Bought a Zoo

2011
Rated PG
124 minutes

*

With one line in “Jerry Maguire” (1996), Cameron Crowe officially switched gears from being an edgy rock n’ roll filmmaker to becoming the Crown Prince of Schmaltz. (It’s gotten so bad, that sometimes I’m not even sure his “good movies” deserve all their praise.) Nonetheless, “You complete me” now sounds like Yeates compared to some of the self-help advice uttered by the characters in “We Bought a Zoo.” The weird thing is, I don’t think he’s being disingenuous. I have a feeling that this is actually how Cameron Crowe lives his life, finding signs in everything and espousing about the importance of taking insane risks because life is an adventure. He loves love and he wants everyone else to love it too. Crowe’s emotional maturity is Benjamin Button, aging in reverse. Unfortunately, this means that “We Bought a Zoo” is an excruciating film for anyone not wearing rose-colored glasses.

The film is based on the real life experience of British journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), who moves his family from the city to a rural zoo in order to help them move past the untimely death of the family matriarch. The film quickly catches the audience up through heavy exposition. His troubled teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford, a.k.a. flashback Sam Winchester on “Supernatural”) argues that it doesn’t matter if he’s been neglecting his studies in lieu of his artwork because “they’re not gonna give an F to a kid whose mom died 6 months ago.” His seven-year-old daughter, Rosie (a so-cute-it-hurts, Maggie Elizabeth Jones), occupies the precocious ray-of-sunshine role uttering such contrivances as, “their happy is too loud” of their perpetually partying neighbors. I suppose we’re meant to see it as inspirational when a widower with two children to feed, quits his job on a whim AND refuses a severance package because he’s “sick of sympathy.” An instant later, Dylan is kicked out of school for stealing, thus justifying Benjamin’s plan to “start over.”

What follows is a train wreck full of fluffy bunnies and rainbows. After an exhaustive, one-day search for a new home, Benjamin decides to buy the decrepit countryside zoo, home to 49 species of animals and an entire staff, simply because his daughter looks happy feeding some peacocks and the sunshine hits her just so as the music swells. The sun comes back time and time again to signify revelations and canonize the dead through photos and flashbacks. I hope it received a SAG day rate for its pivotal role in the Mee family’s emotional journey.

Crowe isn’t entirely to blame for this Sapfest. He punched up a script by Aline Brosh McKenna, the woman behind such inoculations of feminism as “27 Dresses” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” One shudders to imagine the original draft.

“Caricature” is a generous word to describe the supporting cast, as a caricature usually depicts more than one facet of a personality (skateboards AND hot dogs). The staff at the Rosemoor Zoo isn’t quite so complex. ScarJo is the no-nonsense head zookeeper who, after she warms to Benjamin, does little more than throw him supportive smiles. Patrick Fugit plays a guy who stands around with a monkey on his shoulder. Elle Fanning is the sweet teenage love-interest for Dylan. She tails him like a smiley, mute puppy dog for most of the movie and then gets mad because he doesn’t know how to talk to her. Thomas Hayden Church plays Benjamin’s accountant big brother (We know this because, at one point, he says, “Listen to your big brother, the accountant”). There is also a Scottish animal habitat designer with an adorable case of alcoholism, an uptight zoo accountant, and a petty inspector with a chip on his shoulder for no reason other than to create conflict and prompt a calendar-checking montage.

As for Damon’s performance, I see what he tried to do there. But his attempts at underplaying the melodrama are thwarted by come-to-life visions of his wife in happier times (they’re the sort of family who literally frolicked in a field with…airplane arms) and crying ONE SINGLE TEAR when scrolling through an iPhoto album. I usually enjoy his work, so I’m hoping this is just a fluke for him and that he hasn’t fallen prey to whatever it is that made Tom Hanks become a man who would agree to star opposite a volleyball. To his credit, it’s pretty hard to take the cheddar out of a thinly veiled terminally ill tiger metaphor. Benjamin all but calls the tiger by his wife’s name during this drawn-out parallel. The only one who comes out of that with any dignity in tact is the tiger.

Even in the worst Cameron Crowe films, the soundtrack is usually a bright spot. It appears that he’s lost that edge as well. Instead, he took a play from the McG Manual of Literal Soundtracks. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” underscores Dylan being expelled from school. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” plays when it rains. When Benjamin is writing checks beyond his means, he does so to Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike.”

I do have to give the script props for not fast-tracking the Damon/ScarJo romance. Six months is not long enough to get over the alleged love of your life, no matter how much effort you’re putting into moving on. But they neutralize this authenticity by including stereotypical father-and-son issues. You know, the ones that could have long been resolved by simply listening to one other and admitting that you actually give a damn (Oh, you men).

Those are just some of the more glaring issues with a film that is essentially a parody of family melodrama. Here are a few more: The titular line is uttered THREE TIMES (twice by little Rosie in exactly the same tone). Dylan mainly draws severed limbs, but he’s also, unintentionally, a skilled graphic design artist. Benjamin has a bad rapport with the animals until he follows the staff’s advice that he should “just be real with them.” I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Cameron Crowe got his start as a rock journalist, but now he’s about as rock n’ roll as “River of Dreams”-era Billy Joel. Yeah, don’t see this movie.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).