RetroSpecht.com Top 10 Films of 2011

Following tradition, I have created a list of my favorite films of the year for 2011. I suspect that there will be some films on the list you have never heard of, let alone seen. In that case I highly encourage you to seek these films out, either through NetFlix, imdb.com, or Google. Some are already available on DVD, while others may not have been released yet in your area. The Forgiveness of Blood, for instance is not due to hit theaters until February, but since I saw it at the 2011 AFI Film Festival I am including it on my list for this year. I welcome your comments. In fact, if this list doesn’t inspire some lively discussion I will be very disappointed. So, bring it on!

1) The Girl with the Dragon TattooI never read the book, or saw the original Swedish film adaptation of the highly acclaimed novel (I know, I know). Which I think gave me an unbiased impression of the American production. It was a wonderfully produced thriller/mystery, executed to perfection in every way. I predict the film will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (which it may actually win), as will Rooney Mara for Best Actress, and Trent Reznor for the music. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that when you do, just sit back, relax and enjoy. Some fans of the original hesitate to give credence to this remake, but that’s selling short a fine film that deserves praise in its own right.

2) The ArtistAlthough this film is in danger of being over-hyped, I can’t help but join those who have hailed The Artist as one of the best movies of the year. Yes, it’s actually a silent movie, but don’t let that dissuade you. You really won’t notice that much. It’s used to great advantage to tell the story of an artist who suffers through the challenge of Hollywood’s transition to sound. And it’s in black and white, but you won’t really notice that either as both devices only serve to enhance the atmosphere of the story. And if you know anything about the stars of the era, you’re going to absolutely love the last scene in the movie when the only words of the film are spoken.

3) Brighton RockOddly, I haven’t heard anybody talk about this film at all, let alone include it on a top ten list of the year. Did nobody else see this film besides me? It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film in the style of a classic noir, but in rich saturated colors. Sounds like an oxymoron, but in this adaptation of the Graham Greene novel the noir sensibility is represented in execution and atmosphere. A hard-edged Helen Mirren at the top of her game leads the superlative cast in a role that is not to be missed. Let’s just say that Mirren proves that sexy is not an age, but an attitude. And in Brighton Rock, Mirren is loaded with attitude.

4) The DescendantsOnce again, Alexander Payne lives up to his well-deserved reputation. The acclaimed director follows up Election, About Schmidt and Sideways with a delightfully subtle comedy about the difficulties of family, in all its forms. With its popularity it’s likely you’ve discovered the pleasures of this film for yourself. But if you haven’t yet, I recommend it for a New Years outing suitable for the family. After all, it’s always good for people to see the faults in other families in order to accept the oddities of their own. This could be a refreshing way to start the New Year off right.

5) DriveYup, I fell in love with this taught heist film as much as the next popcorn munching moviegoer of 2011. And yes, it lives up to the hype. Reminiscent of the flashy, stylized films of the 70s, Drive is a well-crafted suspense story with a strong plot balanced with just enough action. And just like the films in which it aims to pay homage, when things turn violent, they turn very violent. This film should garner some Oscar attention, particularly a well-deserved nomination for Albert Brooks in a role like you’ve never seen him before.

6) BeginnersAlthough this film came out relatively early in the year, it has remained in the consciousness of many reviews as one of the best of 2011, and for good reason. In addition to being a lovely and touching story about a man coming to terms with his father’s homosexuality, Christopher Plummer gives one of the best performances of the year as that father. If there is any justice in the world, Plummer will finally receive a statue come Oscar time.

7) A Better LifeI’m guessing you’ve never heard of this film, and that’s really too bad. A Better Life is an unusually universal story of family and financial struggles in America, focusing on the very real problems of an immigrant father. I particularly liked the way the teenage son was represented. It was fascinating to see how his Americanization, a thing his father sought, was literally pulling him farther and farther away from his parent and the traditions of family. Truly impressive is Demián Bichir’s performance as the father. It is a loving, and touching representation of a selfless parent unmatched by any other I have ever seen on screen.

8 ) The Forgiveness of BloodThis is another film you haven’t heard of, but I’m betting that by this time next year you will. The Forgiveness of Blood was for me one of the highlights of this year’s AFI Film Festival. Shot entirely in Albania, using local talent, director Joshua Marston once again brings to the screen a story unfamiliar to the lexicon of the average American, but one that will undoubtedly resonate with the viewer long after its inevitable conclusion. I particularly encourage those with teenagers to see this film with their kids, as it will give the parent and child a better appreciation for the simple problems of their own relationship compared to those in this tale.

9) The Tree of LifeI know a lot has been said about The Tree of Life, in praise and otherwise. However, strange dinosaur/evolution footage aside, this is a very good film, and oddly enough another one concerning the complications inherent to family life. Brad Pitt gives his finest performance to date as a complex father full of contradictions. He is wonderfully subtle in his presentation of a man who is just as tenderly loving as he is coldly unapproachable. This is the film of 2011 that will stay with you for a very long time.

10) The Other F Word: Unless you’re a documentary fan it’s likely you missed this gem of a film. All about Punk Rockers and their foray into parenting, the other F word in this case is fatherhood. At times this brilliant exploration into the private world of alternative rock’s iconic front men is as achingly funny as it is tenderly heartbreaking. The Other F Word proves that when it comes to family, the most anti-establishment individual can be just as loving and giving as the average dad down the street. In fact, he just may be the dad down the street, just as active in PTA meetings and daddy/daughter dances as the next guy. He just looks a little different. By far, The Other F Word is one of the best examples of never judging a book by its cover as I have ever seen. Every father, and every one with a father will enjoy this film, and leave with a better understanding of what it means to be a parent.

So there you have it. The RetroSpecht.com Top 10 Films of 2011. As I read through the list once again I see the theme of family returning again and again. Who would have though that in this day and age audiences would still be interested in such a standard theme. Or maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so, and I am very glad to see the subject used to such wonderful and varied effect.

Guidelines for Being a Good Audience Member

It’s the holidays! And to paraphrase a popular seasonal song, it’s that time of year when the world falls in love with going to the movies. The kids are home from school, workdays are shortened, and lots of people are on vacation. It’s the ideal situation for catching up on all the films flooding theaters in preparation for Hollywood’s own favorite time of year: the awards season. So with so many people packing the theaters I ask you, as a fellow movie watcher, to remember a few common courtesies that will help keep the season bright for one and all.

I’m sure that you need no reminder of how to behave properly in a movie theater. However, you may find this list handy to share with your friends and family members. Ideally this list would be posted at the entrance of a theater, or handed out with the purchase of a ticket, but until that day comes we shall have to lead by example, and let it be known that some behavior, while perfectly acceptable in the privacy of your own home is best left there and is inexcusable in a public movie theater.

1) Don’t Talk:  This would seem to be an obvious statement to make, but we all know that people do it. I don’t care what the reason is it’s just plain inconsiderate to those around you. This includes talking during the opening titles. It may be no big deal to you, but the opening titles are a time to draw an audience into the mood of the picture. That’s difficult to do if people are talking. Far more annoying are the people who find it necessary to express out loud their thoughts during an important moment in the plot. It’s usually something that everyone in the audience is realizing at the same time. And since the filmmaker didn’t think it was necessary to provide an explanation in voice over, I don’t think anyone else should either.

2) Don’t Eat Like a Cow: I know it’s common to have a big bag of popcorn, some candy, or even a hot dog while watching a movie, but is it necessary to constantly shovel food into your mouth and then proceed to eat in a fashion you wouldn’t normally subject another living soul. We’re all aware of basic table manners. We should do our best to use them whether or not we’re actually at a table. This concept extends to drinks as well. I can forgive the accidental slurp of the straw, but when a drink is done, it’s done. Please remember the concession stand is only a few hundred feet away. You are not in the middle of the desert in danger of dying of thirst, so please don’t act like your life depends on getting that last drop from the bottom of the cup.

3) Don’t Fiddle Around with Wrappers: Just as eating makes a lot of noise, so does unwrapping the food. It’s a simple thing to resolve; just open all wrappers before the movie starts. Worse case scenario, and you’ve forgotten to break open the cellophane ahead of time – unwrap quickly. Nothing appears to be noisier than someone trying to open a wrapper slowly and quietly. It only prolongs the agony. Just like the guillotine; a quick smooth movement is much less painful for all those involved.

4) Don’t Chew Gum: Chewing gum in general is considered to be a rude habit, particularly since these days most people are incapable of chewing with their mouths closed. And unless you are a cow on a farm, there is no excuse for sounding as if you have cud in your mouth. The same goes for chewing the ice from your drink. Both are impossible to do without making noise that is disruptive to others. Remember, you are sitting in close proximity to others, far closer than you normally would to a total stranger. Would you want to listen to them incessantly chewing?

5) Don’t Press Your Feet into the Chair in Front of You: It’s bad enough when people place their feet atop an unoccupied seat as if they were at home in a lazy-boy, stretching out their cramped legs. But it’s unforgivable to press any part of your appendages into the back of another person’s seat. You wouldn’t do it to someone driving a car, would you? You apologize when you knock the back of a seat in an airplane, don’t you? So wouldn’t you think it likely to be very distracting to someone trying to give their undivided attention to a movie? The same can be said to those who switch crossed legs. Not an offense in itself, but please make an effort to avoid knocking the back of the chair in front of you when you do it.

6) Don’t Bring Infant Children to the Movies: Again, this seems like an obvious no-no, but it’s done more and more often, particularly when one considers the cost of a baby sitter added to the growing expense of theater tickets. But everyone else in the theater paid to see a movie. Why should they have to sit through the disruption of a child incapable of controlling their own behavior? I actually think it’s partly the theater’s responsibility to discourage parents from such a practice. Some theaters have special days and times set aside as Mommy/Daddy screenings where a parent can bring a child and the fellow moviegoers are already aware of the likelihood of disruption.

7) Don’t Sit Directly in Front of Someone If Avoidable: Most theaters theses days have raked seating, and stager the rows for optimal viewing for all audience members. To that end it’s up to us to seat ourselves intelligently. It’s understandable if a theater is filled to capacity and there are no other options, but to purposely sit directly in front of another patron when there are plenty of other seats available is just plain inconsiderate. And remember, that if the person you sit in front of is forced to move because you’re too tall, too loud, or otherwise obtrusive, they just might move to sit right in front of you.

8 ) Don’t Spread Your Germs Around: There was a day when everyone carried a handkerchief, and adults always had a cough drop, or a lifesaver. You know, something they could suck on if their throat got dry. But it seems that these days it’s extremely common for someone to sniffle, sneeze and cough their way through a feature film. Meanwhile, not only are they disturbing fellow audience members, but they are exposing the entire audience to whatever bug they brought with them into the theater. If you have to go to the movies when you’re in less than perfect health, please be prepared. Better yet, just stay home until you feel better and we’ll all be better off.

9) Don’t Use Your Cell Phone, Period: It seems that moviegoers have made some progress regarding cell phone use in the past ten years. It’s actually been a very long time since I last heard the ring of a cell phone in a movie theater. However, I can’t remember the last time I made it all the way through a film without seeing the glow of a cell phone screen. Somehow, many people ludicrously believe that checking to see whose call they just missed is acceptable behavior. Let’s make it perfectly clear that it is not. The only screen anyone should be watching in a movie theater is the big screen used to present the movie. And by no means is it ever all right to text! If what you’re doing in life is so important that others must be disturbed by your communication then get up and go outside. You’re not paying attention to the movie any way, so why not be considerate of those who are and come back when you’re done updating your busy life.

10) Don’t Be An Ass: If someone should catch you breaking one of these rules and asks you to stop, please be gracious enough to stop the offensive behavior. I was very impressed with the conduct of a young woman recently. She had been talking to a friend in a very animated conversation, and even though the lights had gone down, and the credits had begun, she continued as if she were not prepared to stop. Someone nearby very succinctly asked her to be quiet. She was noticeably embarrassed and apologized. More importantly, she didn’t talk the rest of the film. This is a far cry from the time when someone responded to my similar request with abject rudeness and a threat of physical violence. Obviously, most reactions are not as militant. But, most people naturally respond negatively to criticism of their personal behavior. It’s not necessary to apologize, but there’s no need to go to the other extreme either.

I don’t think any of the above rules are unreasonable. Although, I do understand it may be a lot to expect from a modern movie going audience. After all, it’s a known fact that the nature of film audiences have changed over the years, and will continue to do so as movies and how we view them expand beyond the scope of today. Home movie watching has had a noticeably adverse effect on the general behavior of audiences, and it seems that online streaming, and a virtually inexhaustible access to media through a plethora of personal devices will inevitably continue to contribute to this phenomenon. The result is the loss of a unique cultural event, and the transformation of what was once an ideal group experience into a battle for personal space. But in the meantime, if we can manage to adhere to some rules of common courtesy, then we can all enjoy a great American pastime without getting on each other’s nerves – at least for 90 minutes or so.

Outrage, The Latest Yakuza Film From Takeshi Kitano, Is Not To Be Missed By Any True Fan of the Genre

Anyone who is a yakuza movie fan will love Outrage, the latest US release written and directed by Japan’s legendary Takeshi Kitano (The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Brother, Violent Cop). Besides being a fine example of the ultra violent Japanese mafia genre, Outrage features the director, also acting on screen utilizing his trademarked, stone-faced personae to maximum effect. One only wishes there was more screen time with “Beat” Takeshi’s hardened veteran of the gangland world and less time spent on the many peripheral and less interesting characters. In fact, the one fault of the film is that there are too many other gangsters to keep track of. But in this tale of power struggles and petty vengeances, fans are likely not to notice. The true yakuza movie devotee will revel in the abundant number of revenge killings and inventive deaths as the full blown yakuza war leads to its inevitable end.

True to form of any crime organization, Outrage focuses on the constant struggle for power: who has it, who wants it, and who can get it. As expected, it is a ruthless battle as clan leaders all vie for the favor of the most powerful family in the Japanese underworld. These rival under bosses seek to rise through the ranks by scheming and making sworn allegiances, regardless of the legitimacy of their oaths. Betrayal is constant and vengeance expected, as the never-ending struggle plays on to see who ends up on top. However, in this corrupt world there are no heroes, just a whole bunch of bad guys spiraling out of control until the struggle for power becomes one of mere survival with very few winners.

Rated R for violence, language, and brief sexuality, Outrage is presented in Japanese with English subtitles, but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing this powerhouse piece of cinema. The film has already played to great acclaim at the AFI and Cannes Film Festivals in 2010 and the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year. Along its celebrated run it has caught the attention of such critics as Maggie Lee of the Hollywood Reporter, who exclaimed that Outrage “bursts with direct cinematic power”… with, “humor as mean and dry as a straight-up martini”. And Rob Nelson at Variety called Outrage, “visually stunning. A beautifully staged marvel that confidently reasserts [director] Kitano’s considerable cinematic gifts”. I’d have to go along with those assessments, especially the one about the humor, which at times is so dry you’ll wonder if you really should be laughing or not.

Although the film may be a challenge to those unfamiliar with the yakuza style of movie or the director, I can’t emphasize enough how well Takeshi serves the genre. I first discovered his work when I saw an earlier film of his, Fireworks, at a film festival in 1998. I remember I was blown away with the amount of information Takeshi was able to convey with such straightforward performances and carefully crafted shots, utilizing very little movement from either the camera or the actors. There was clarity of intention present in every frame. After seeing Outrage, I was pleased to see that this ability has not waned over the years and I enjoyed the film for what it is and intended to be – a sold yakuza film. With that in mind, I am sure you will not be disappointed.