Looking back at 2011: A year at the movies

I’ll admit to this being half of a cop out. I was already writing this piece about nostalgia when I realized that “nostalgia” was pretty much the theme of movies in 2011 and that with a little tweaking it would work just as well as my year-in-review. A two-fer!

Many people have stated that 2011 was a shit year for movies. While it wasn’t a revelatory year (like 2008), it wasn’t the worst year movies have ever had. The central problem we’re having with movies right now is that the movie industry is undergoing a tectonic shift and we’re in a generation gap of filmmakers—the old can’t let go and the new aren’t quite here yet. More on this another time. I think the main problem with 2011 is that film critics were not united behind one movie, hailing it as an “instant classic”. Opinions are divided on the movies of 2011. My top 10 comes out tomorrow and we’ll fight about it. I know we will. This was not a year in which people agreed.

What 2011 was, though, was an actor’s year and a year about looking back fondly at what cinema used to be. First, the actors. 2011 won’t be defined by a directorial triumph, though we had a few exciting new directors make their mark in the US (Sean Durkin, Nicolas Winding Refn, John Michael McDonagh, Paddy Considine, Lynne Ramsey), and a living legend, Terrence Malick, finally got The Tree of Life into theaters. No, what 2011 will be remembered for were the performances. Ryan Gosling in Drive, Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Brendon Gleeson in The Guard, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Adepero Oduye in Pariah,  Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, Viola Davis rising above the schmaltz of The Help, and Jessica Chastain turning in six top notch performances.

Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame will define him for the rest of his career while Gary Oldman had a late-stage career shift with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Olivia Colman, Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan delivered the best ensemble work in Tyrannosaur and the ladies of Bridesmaids recast comic archetypes for a post-Sex and the City world. 2011 is the year Brad Pitt gave not one but two excellent performances (Tree of Life and Moneyball) and that everyone saw Jonah Hill as something more than just the fat funny guy (Moneyball). Not to mention all the stellar work on television—Benedict Cumberbatch reinventing Sherlock Holmes for the technological age, Amy Poehler & Co. handing in the best ensemble work for television week after week on Parks & Rec, Peter Dinklage redefined “rooting for the little guy” on Game of Thrones, and Louie remains the most pure expression of comedic art, courtesy Louis C.K., on television.

This is not to belittle writers, directors or any other behind the scenes efforts in 2011, it’s just that when we look back in ten years, we’re going to remember the performances more than anything. Not everyone liked Drive; everyone can agree Gosling was phenomenal in Drive. 2011 was truly the year of the actor and the movies that will matter from the year will matter for their performances more than anything else.

2011 will also be remembered as the year that filmmakers either yelled, “Get off my lawn” to digital cinema or embraced it. Martin Scorsese spent two hours in Hugo telling me stories about how when he was a kid, movies had to walk three miles through snow, uphill both ways, to just to be movies and how kids these days have no appreciation for the art that came before. Meanwhile Steven Spielberg got out-Spielberged by the Super 8 fanboys while simultaneously showing us that motion capture still can’t fully replicate expressions of emotion (The Adventures of TinTin). 2011 had a distinctly nostalgic flavor. Some of it worked—The Muppets and Super 8—but most of it didn’t—Hugo, The Artist War Horse, and TinTin.

Nostalgia is the longing for something that, once gone, can never truly be had again. Charles Foster Kane can have Rosebud itself but he can’t have what Rosebud represented ever again. The Muppets and Super 8 were essentially “Rosebud” movies. After seeing Super 8 over the summer, I wondered if modern audiences weren’t a bit too cynical for such a movie, and I thought the same again after seeing The Muppets. They’re both good movies, both have their charms, and their problems, but ultimately, they left me thinking that what they each represented, as movies, cannot be truly attained. This was especially apparent in The Muppets as, despite a very sincere effort from the cast and some excellent songs, the movie fell a bit flat. It didn’t quite work because in order for the Muppets to be relevant to a modern audience they have to be not the Muppets. We’re too cynical, too hard for such wide-eyed optimism. It’s cute and fun to visit that memory, but The Muppets is not going to restart a trend. Nor is Super 8.

But at least those two movies worked, in and of themselves. They may have made me realize that the eras that originally brought us the Muppets and movies like Super 8 are well and truly over, but they were still good movies. Hugo and The Artist on the other hand… Well, technically they’re proficient. Beautiful, even. And the acting was solid, especially in The Artist where Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo gave stand-out performances. And they’re not bad like The Three Musketeers was bad. It’s just that they aim to make me feel something and failed. Hugo is, essentially, a technologically-advanced lamentation over the death of traditional cinema. Does anyone else think it’s ironic that in his opus to the beginnings of cinema, Scorsese utilized the very digital processes that are helping to kill 35mm?

But the more guilty party here is The Artist, the silent film, because it was actually a good silent film. The Artist made me realize that if we wanted, we could still be making entertaining silent films. It’s just that we don’t want to do that anymore. Why? Because it’s fucking pretentious, that’s why. My specific issue with The Artist is that it’s essentially a super-pretentious mash-up of Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard but I’m supposed to applaud it for its ingenuity. The larger issue, though, is that writer/director Michel Hazanavicius (France’s popular and funny OSS 117 movies) made an above-average good silent film. How am I supposed to accurately miss something that, if we so wanted, we could have again? It’s basically like telling Kane, “If you hold onto Rosebud, it will transport you back in time and you can be a child again.” It’s the having and the eating of the cake.

In ten years, most of what happened at the movies in 2011 won’t matter. Only a handful of these movies (The Tree of Life, Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and maybe Pariah) will survive in any meaningful way. Mostly what we’ll remember are the great performances that were given and a swan song sung before the true death throes have begun. You think the backlash against the onset of digital cinema is bad now? Oh…just wait.

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3 thoughts on “Looking back at 2011: A year at the movies

  1. Kaylie

    “Some of it worked—The Muppets and Super 8—but most of it didn’t—Hugo, The Artist War Horse, and TinTin.”

    That’s funny because I would reverse the movies in this sentence. The ones that worked for me were Hugo, War Horse, and TinTin, while The Muppets and Super 8 failed to make me feel anything and were just blatant ploys for nostalgia. Since I wasn’t a Muppets fan growing up, I don’t get the raves for that movie at all. It was alright.

    And I don’t get you calling Hugo a “technologically-advanced lamentation over the death of traditional cinema.” I don’t think that’s the point of the movie at all. It’s about appreciating where you came from. And honoring one of the very first filmmakers whose movies were lost. He’s not suggesting that “this is how we should still be making movies.”

    1. This is exactly what I mean about 2011–no one agrees on anything, which is why everyone’s like, “This year sucked.” Because there’s no clear “winner”.

      I wasn’t a huge Muppets fan either, so the reviews kind of mystified me, too. I liked it ok, but it wasn’t the best movie I saw all year. Not even top 20. Or 30. I just thought that, like Super 8, there was something essentially “muppety” that we can’t quite replicate for a contemporary audience. I think it’s because we’ve grown too cynical.

      As for Hugo, I didn’t mean Scorsese thinks we should be making movies exactly like Lumiere did. Hugo was very “film is great! Everybody use film!”, which was funny coming from a movie that used so much 3D, a highly-digitized process these days. And the use of that technology, as with TinTin, left me cold.

      The Lumieres’ work has recently had a lavish and expensive restoration of their surviving works. They’re not all lost. Which again, if people *wanted* to see Lumiere films (outside of film school classrooms), they could. How am I supposed to miss something that isn’t really gone?

  2. Elle

    So basically you’re saying The Artist is a retro gimmick? I’m looking forward to the film, but you may be right.

    Also, I don’t know if many people in the US have actually seen the OSS movies, but they are hilariously silly (in a good way). I can’t believe the two clowns who made them are tipped for oscars… surreal!

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