2011 Film Review: 10 Surprises

2011 wasn’t short of surprises; some of them small, yet hinting at better or bigger things to come. Around the world, Athina Rachel Sangari’s Attenberg’ ‘raised our hopes for of a new wave of Greek Cinema currently on its way, proving that last year acclaimed ‘Dogtooth’ was more than a one-off; Latin America gave many signs of good health (Las Acacias; Post Mortem..) and in the States notable commercial alternatives to the typical multiplex fodder included such accomplished works as Benoit Miller baseball drama ‘Moneyball’ ; JJ Abrahams recreating the spirit of teen 80’s movies in ‘Super 8’ or, on a larger scale, the rush to complete the films introducing all of Marvel’s comic Universe characters with a view to the huge all-star superhero blockbuster ‘The Avengers’ arriving this year.

But those ones counted as minor cases compared to our top 10 surprises

But those are only minor examples, The 10 biggest surprises of the year, after the jump

10-The rebirth of peplum

For quite some time one could argue Hollywood has been trying to recover the ancient ways of ‘Peplum’ (literally meaning sword and sandals; it was a popular Italian low-budget genre during the 50’s and 60’s, whose films were based on epic biblical or mythological stories, often amounting to no much more than a glorified showcase for the actors’ physiques). Despite their impressive production values, recent examples such as ‘300’ (Roberawards’ worst film of that year) or ‘Clash Of The Titans’ could easily be categorized as part of that not so illustrious group. It took the barroque imagination of former video clip director Tarsem Singh to dignified this old-fashioned B-movie factory by adding a hugely entertaining storyline and impressive production values. ‘Immortals’ could be hailed as a creative triumph. Even if its returns weren’t as large a sum as its predecessors’, it served as good training ground for the new Superman, Henry Cavill, as well as a platform for a batch of future stars such as Luke Evans appearing back to back with the likes of John Hurt, Mickey Rourke or Freida Pinto.

9-Woody storms the box office

We’ve spent a decade and a half watching Woody Allen’s proverbial wit and wisdom slowly fading, with increasingly intermittent promises of getting back to shape –Match Point; Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Maybe that’s why it feels so gratifying to see the favourite director against all odds achieving the biggest commercial success of his long career. Still on European vacation, Allen went back to Paris, a city that inspired his acclaimed musical “Everybody Says I Love You”, with a romantic comedy spiked by imaginary time-travel elements which somehow recalled former highlights such as ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’. As usual, it benefited from an extraordinary cast featuring such extravagant appearances as Madame Sarkozy herself, next to Allen’s novices such as Owen Wilson; Marion Cotillard; Michal Sheen and a show-stealing Corey Stoll impersonating Hemingway. ‘Midnight In Paris’ was a bit too middlebrow; pleasant enough, yet still far away from his best. However, it has helped renewing interest for Allen’s work,raising the hopes once more for his forthcoming, Penelope Cruz starring project ‘Bop Decameron’ to be a definitive comeback to the top form he used to flaunt.

8-Comedies With An Edge

On a year that, perhaps accordingly to social events, has not been particularly good for comedy a few exceptions to the rule came loaded with a certain iconoclast spirit. ‘Bridesmadis’ was launched during the summer like a female version of ‘The Hangover’, where former Saturday Night Life alumni, comedian and writer Kristin Wiig, was meant to surpass her male counterparts in gross vulgarity and laughter. Instead, Wiig has crafted one of the best screenplays of the year, so generous with the cast that allowed everyone to shine -the careers of former TV stars such as Oscar nominated Melissa McCarthy; ‘Damages’ Rose Byrne and Irish comedian Chris O’Down, not to mention ‘Mad Men’ John Hamm were given a considerable boost by it. Another fine examplee was “50/50”, based on the real experiences of Seth Rogen’s writing partner Jonathan Levine after being diagnosed with cancer. The sort of material that rarely gets treated under a funny perspective; it worked extremely well helped again by a notable acting ensemble, featuring Rogen himself; Jonathan Gordon-Levitt; Anna Kendrick and best in show Anjelica Houston in the role of the young patient’s neurotic mum.

7-And The Feel Good Movie Of The Year Is…

The old adage “practice makes perfection” comes to mind when looking at the way Hollywood is getting it right when making new versions of rather worn off brands, now being called reboots. Traditionally, most of them were made with the sole purpose of keep on milking a nearly exhausted cow, repackaging and selling it to younger audiences or absent minded fans of the originals. Recent examples, though, fuelled by Batman’s incredible success, have seen some studios taking biggers risks by hiring challenging new teams of writers; directors or actors. And some of them seem to work. The Muppets were clearly an endangered species, but thanks to this new approach provided by part of the team from cult TV series ‘Flight Of The Conchords’, its reboot has become the family film of the year. Everything about it looks fresh and successfully updated; from the choice of cameos and guests (David Grohl; Jack Black) to the silly and stupidly catchy songs by Brett Mackenzie. The ever charming Amy Adams and Jason Siegel as their human colleagues managed to pull what seemed an impossible trick, to get Jim Henson’s ageing creations ready for the audiences of the XXIst century.

6-The Loachs: Like Father, Like Son

Newcomer Jim Loach brought one of the most accomplished debuts of the year in “Oranges And Sunshines”. A compelling drama revealing the shady program between the government of the UK, Australia & Canada, dedicated to relocate children of the poorest backgrounds, separating them from their families with the promise of a better future overseas. The kids often ended up as cheap labour, victims of all sorts of abuse in the hands of the Catholic Church. The story of the Nottingham social worker who discovers by chance one of those cases and makes it her personal goal to reach to the bottom of the scandalous affair, putting to shame everyone involvedin the process, was assertively told with the help of an excellent performance by Emily Watson. The same kind of social cinema that Ken Loach, Jim’s father, has made an unrivalled career from. No doubt Ken will be proud by the way his descendent has taken the baton of an impeccable filmmaking legacy.

5-Indie Gets Sentimehtal

Quite a large number of works of what normally would be filed under independent cinema, this year felt a bit less arty and closer to a level of sentimentality traditionally embraced by more mainstream fare. From Sundance winner ‘Like Crazy’ and its tale of long distance relationship turned sour by the problems that separation entails; a superior romantic comedy that somehow couldn’t escape to fall on the verge of overtly emotional ground; to the critically acclaimed return of Alexander Payne, ‘The Descendants’, which shared with the rest of his work a trademark brand of oddball comedy, but this time softened through a story of wealthy man dealing with family troubles after the accidental death of his wife. Around the world, indie sentimentality was also on the rise; from the tragic three-sided relationship of Murakami’s most celebrated novel ‘Norwegian Wood’, taken to the big screen by Vietnamese art-house giant Tran Anh Hung; to the Canadian siblings going back to their Middle East origins to face the dramatic past of her just deceased mother in the Foreing Language Oscar nominated, ‘Incendies’ .

4-Sisters Are (Nearly) Doing It For Themselves

2012 will go down in history as the year of vindication, if not total revenge, for female stars. After years of continuous complaints about the lack of interesting roles for experienced actresses in Hollywood and how stereotyped the few available were, this year’s crop felt as if the wheels were turning. Impressive impersonations of Marilyn Monroe by Michelle Williams in “My Week from Marily” and Meryl Streep’s “Iron Lady” ; Rooney Mara’s recreation of Lisbeth Salander in the totally unnecessary US version of “The Girl Of The Dragon Tattoo”; Charlize Theron adding layers of complexity to the role of an immature bitch returning to her village to claim his now married college love in “Young Adult” or the whole cast of “The Help”, they all managed to transcend the limitations imposed by their roles and the movies they belong to, taking them to heights only reserved for masters of their craft; becoming those film’s redeeming feature. Well done, ladies.

3-Rocky Revisited

It could have been the right candidate for guilty pleasure of the year. A story of two working class brothers coming from a broken family, alcoholic dad included; both taught to fight and both forced by the different circumstances oin their lives to fight against each other in order to win a world championship in Vegas. Not short on any of the typical stereotypes in boxing movies, widely abused since Rocky; but maybe because last year’s ‘The Fighter’ put this rather discarded subgenre back in the table, ‘Warrior’ not only felt refreshing against a backdrop of Hollywood remakes, but its full throttle pace and emotionally ridden screenplay elevated it beyond the most optimistic expectation. Boasting two impressively physical performances by soon to be huge Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and earning an Oscar nomination for veteran Nick Nolte on supporting duties; it may have left a familiar taste in our mouth, but it was a most welcomed one.

2-Masters In 3D

Right when 3D is being heavily questioned as many 2D versions have outgrossed their 3D originals at the box office and IMAX looks set to be the next big industry bet (Batman), two of the greatest cinema living legends had a very successful go at it. Martin Scorsese went well out of his comfort zone, releasing ‘Hugo’, a family movie that merged fantasy with an early chapter in the history of cinema; set in 1930s Paris and based on the life of inventor and cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. Steven Spielberg also revisited a French icon, Hergé’s creation “Tintin” was finally adapted for the big screen to great acclaim, helped by a team of British comedy writers and experienced actors, including Andy Serkis, who thanks to his latest roles, including Caesar in “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’, has established himself as Hollywood’s motion capture’s actor of choice. They all helped to find the right tone for one of the most popular comic characters of all time. ‘The secret of The Unicorn’ was by far the best Spielberg movie of the year, a work that can proudly stand next to his best, unlike his rather cheesy “War Horse”.

1-The Golden Age Of Documentaries

But perhaps the biggest surprise of them all is the unstoppable rise of the documentary, both in quality and quantity. Not only they are conquering a bigger share in exhibition theatres, pleasing an adult audience in search for alternative propositions to the merely entertaining, but the sheer diversity of their subjects and some new expanding approaches have turned it into one of the most exciting genres in contemporary cinema. There are five titles featured among our Top 40 favourites of the year. Apart from those, the list of equally deserving works is endless. From the criminally overlooked ‘The Interrupters’, focused in the everyday actions of a volunteering group formed by redeemed violence inflictors trying to re-educate the kids of their Chicago neighbourhood to stop the circle of violence that’s hampering life in American cities; or the excellent footage compilation from the Swedish archives about the struggle for equal rights within the African-American community, “The Black Power Mixtape”; A moving account of the origins and development of AIDS in “We Were Here” or the fascinating experiment ‘Project Nim’, created to research the similarities between the chimpanzee and human species with revelatory results. Tributes to well-known (George Harrison made by Scorsese; Pearl Jam by Cameron Crowe) and not so so well-known musicians, such as the Congolese collective of disabled performers Benda Bilili; a look at the challenges faced by veteran press institutions such as The New York Times in ‘Page One’; plus a number of festival only releases that include such well received works as “Darwin”; “Better This World” or Werner Herzog’s chilling examination of the final days in the life of a convict awaiting death row and the crime he committed in “Into The Abyss”, hoping they’ll get a theatrical release during 2012.

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