Thursday, December 29, 2011

Looking back at film trends in 2011

In the past I’ve compiled lists of my favorite movies of a given year. This year I’ve decided to document certain positive film trends in 2011.

The thinking man’s sci-fi film

When most people hear science fiction they probably think of space battles, post-apocalyptic worlds or, perhaps, giant robots beating the crap out of each other, but good science fiction can be used to explore big ideas.

“Source Code” starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a military man who, through the marvels of modern technology, is sent into the last eight minutes of another man's life. This other man is on a train that is bombed, and it is up to Gyllenhaal to find the bomber in hopes of preventing a larger scale attack. “Source Code” plays like a condensed version of “Groundhog Day” with a mad bomber. The focus isn’t the bomber though, but Gyllenhaal’s conversations with Michelle Monaghan as a fellow passenger on the train.

“The Adjustment Bureau” was a high-concept romantic thriller about a politician (Matt Damon), who meets a dancer (Emily Blunt) and has an instant connection. The problem is the men of the titular bureau serve a higher power and Damon and Blunt being together is not part of the plan. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, whose work has been the basis for such films as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report,” the film explores fate versus free will in a way that is accessible. It also helps that Damon and Blunt have palpable screen chemistry.

“In Time” uses its sci-fi premise, a future in which time literally is money, as an allegory for current economic woes. In writer/director Andrew Niccol’s world all people have been genetically altered to not age past 25. The catch is you are given only one more year to live beyond 25. The rich can live forever. The poor die young. “In Time,” like “Source Code” and “Adjustment Bureau” has a romantic element to it with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried teaming up for some “Bonnie and Clyde” meets Robin Hood adventures. It is handled in a way that is clever and thought provoking.

The return of the romantic comedy

In recent years the romantic comedy has been a dire wasteland with films like “The Ugly Truth” requiring their female leads to be shrill, uptight control freaks. All romantic comedies have the same ending. It is how you get there that counts and that journey, of late, had been painful. It was a relief that 2011 marked a return of romantic comedies with intelligence and wit.

Much was written about “No Strings Attached” and “Friends with Benefits” being the same movie — friends who decide to have sex — but both films were well made and funny. “No Strings Attached” featured solid performance from Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher and a fine supporting performance by Kevin Kline as Kutcher’s father. “Friends with Benefits” was the better of the two, though, with the cute couple of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Patricia Clarkson, Woody Harrelson, Jenny Elfman and Richard Jenkins. The writing was a bit sharper and the characters felt more like real people with real problems.

“Crazy Stupid Love” was an ensemble film with humor and heart. Steve Carell is dumped by his wife Julianne Moore and gets a makeover by a womanizing playboy (Ryan Gosling) who takes pity on him. Gosling then meets Emma Stone and realizes he wants more than just flings. Carell and Gosling’s dynamic is the best thing about this film. Stone continues to reveal herself to be a shrewd comic actor able to also handle dramatic scenes.

Even Woody Allen returned to the romantic comedy genre with the wonderfully fanciful “Midnight in Paris.” Owen Wilson stars as a writer who idealizes Paris in the 1920s and magically gets whisked back there every midnight to hobnob with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Somehow the signature Allen dialogue coming from Wilson's typically laid back performance makes both familiar personas feel fresh.

Sequels and remakes that surprise

Every year we are bombarded with a seemingly endless parade of sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes. This year had its fair share of rubbish ones, but there was also a high quota of such films that were actually rather good.

“Rise of the Planet of Apes,” a prequel that showed how the intelligent apes that Charlton Heston first encountered back in 1968 came to be, proved to be surprisingly engaging. Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” gives another superb motion-capture performance as Caesar, the ape that will lead the revolution. The heart of the film is the relationship between Caesar and his surrogate father played by James Franco. It is a long time before ape revolt breaks loose and the film earns that final action sequence.

Horror remakes are often particularly barren land, but “Fright Night” and “The Thing,” which was half prequel/half remake, were made with clear affection for their originals. “Fright Night” in fact may actually be an improvement over the charming but cheesy 1980s original. Colin Farrell gives a truly menacing performance as the vampire next door and there’s a nice tongue-in-cheek tone. “The Thing” doesn’t surpass the 1982 version, but it does honor it. The film is aided by a strong performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

“The Muppets” proved to be the triumphant return of everyone's favorite felt friends. Co-written by human star Jason Segel and featuring fantastic songs by Flight of the Conchord's Bret McKenzie, the film captured the essence and magic of Jim Henson's creations.

“Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the fourth in a franchise many counted as down and out, may well be the best of the series, or at the very least matches the first. The masterful set piece of the film features Tom Cruise climbing Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

“X-Men: First Class” took the flat-lining “X-Men” franchise and brought it back to life by going back to the beginning. The strong cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the future Professor X and Magneto, a smart script and assured direction by Michael Vaughn made this high energy fun. If only all sequels, remakes and reboots could be made with this level of care.

Summer of the superhero

The superhero movie has become a mainstay of the summer movie season and this held true for 2011. In addition to “X-Men,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Green Lantern” all graced the silver screen. With the exception of “Green Lantern,” which was still watchable, these were all examples of high quality big-budget entertainment. These movies had style, atmosphere and substance. Looking ahead to 2012, the summer of superheroes will continue with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Avengers” which unites Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America.

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