The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)- A film of contradictions- epic yet intimate, cosmological yet earthbound, confusing yet crystal clear, similar to Terrence Malick's other works yet feeling like his most personal, but while personal, the film is extremely universal. The Tree of Life was one of the most polarizing films of 2011- and as a friend once told me, that may be a sign of greatness. Brad Pitt gives what is arguably his best performance as an authoritarian father, Mr. O'Brien, in 1950s Texas. Pitt expertly captures a particular type of father figure, very strict, yet with a deep love buried inside of him. Early in the film, we get a flashforward of him finding out his 19 year old son has died, he talks about his guilt at treating him so poorly. This confession reverberates throughout the film. Jessica Chastain is ethereal and gorgeous as the mother of the three children. She is the "grace" to Mr O'Brien's "nature." I don't think the the film has any fixed meanings. It's more concerned with asking questions about choices made in our childhood and throughout our life, as well as our place in the universe, and why we should act good even when people suffer.
The Descendents (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011)- Director Alexander Payne's first film since his excellent 2004 film Sideways, Payne chronicles the troubles of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney. Matt's wife is in a coma after a sailing boat accident, his two daughters are out of his control, and he has to decide to whom to sell the land his family owns. Payne does an fine job of taking Matt on a emotional journey without having to completely change him or making it seem he doesn't have to grow anymore. The film ends with a simple image of a family on a couch. They still have a lot to learn, but at least they each other.
50/50 (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2011)- 50/50 walks a tightrope between humour and sadness, levity and anger. The film manages to not have its humour make too light of Joseph Gordan Levitt's Adam's cancer, nor be so depressing it becomes a chore to sit through. It's actually the film's allowance of humourous moments which makes the quieter moments of anxiety and sadness hit quite hard. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky criticized the film as being a romantic comedy with a cancer gimmick, in regards to Adam's relationship to his young therapist, Katherine, played by Anna Kendrick. I actually admired the film for not going down that direction. Their relationship is only one aspect of the film and is allowed to develop throughout the film. It never takes precedence over the cancer dilemma. The performances are all strong. The only drawback is this: Seth Rogen is good in the film but it's easy to become too aware of the Seth Rogen persona seeping in.
Paul (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2011)- While not as funny as it should be, with the director of Superbad and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost writing, Paul, the story of two sci-fi buffs encountering a real life extra terrestrial, is still a enjoyable comedy. The chemistry between Pegg, Frost, Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Kristen Wiig, a christian fundamentalist who runs a motor park with her father, who finds herself in the company of the odd trio. The digs at her character's christianity seem a little gratuitous. I also didn't understand what was tying the together thematically. I think Mottola's previous two films Superbad and Adventureland were stronger movies on this front. At the end of the film Paul jokes about what the characters have learned throughout the film and I feel the movie has the same kind of attitude. It cares about its characters but doesn't develop them enough. Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio and Jason Bateman are all good as agents chasing after Paul and Blythe Danner adds some pathos as the older version of the girl who saved Paul when he first crash landed on Earth over sixty years ago.
The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar, 2011)- My first Almodovar film. It reminded of Hitchcock, not so much in tone or style but thematically. In Hitchcock's films, he shows that sexuality and obession can go hand in hand, particularly in the male psyche. Almodovar's film does the same thing and creates an even more twisted version of Vertigo for the 21st century. Antonio Banderas, miles away from Puss 'n' Boots, plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who has created a synthetic skin which resists damage. He has tested it on a mysterious woman named Vera (Elena Anaya). I don't want to reveal too much. It's best to go in without too much knowledge. I feel there could have been more development in some areas, particularly in Robert's relationship with his wife and daughter, but it's a film which, pardon the pun, truly gets under your skin.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2011)- A horror film grounded in the real life consequences of negligence and timidness, We Need to Talk About Kevin took me a while to get in to. But once I settled in, the character of Kevin, the child of Tilda Swinton's Eva, who even at a young age displays bizarre behaviour, truly unnerved me. My nerves weren't helped by Ezra Miller's performance as teenage Kevin. The film is about the lead up to going on a killing spree at his high school, a puzzle which as all the pieces come together, things become more complicated. This is because the film asks us about responsibility and whether blame is ever a simple solution.
Sherlock Holmes (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2009)- I actually enjoyed this more the second time I watched it. I like how the film allows Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) to be themselves. Holmes, the stuffy yet eccentric super slueth, and Watson, the dogged companion of Holmes. Of all American actors, Downey, Jr. is arguably the best choice for Holmes since Downey, Jr. can play the eccentricity needed for Holmes' character. The supernatural plot does pay off nicely at the end and I enjoyed this aspect of the film more the second time around. I liked Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler and thought it was interesting to have her and Holmes' relationship already established at the beginning of the film. The same goes for Holmes and Watson's relationship. The film doesn't waste time on being an origin story or being about the beginning of Holmes and Watson's relationship. The film centers on how their relationship is being broken apart by Watson's impending marriage. The film could almost be a sequel.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2011)- I had a really mixed reaction to this film, even more so than when I saw the first film. It seems like it can't decide if it wants to be large scale or small scale. Thankfully there's enough small scale stuff which allows the movie to breathe and, like the first film, it allows Holmes and Watson to be themselves. The film ends not with a big action sequence but with Holmes and Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) conducting a literal and figurative chess match. I also liked seeing Watson putting his deductive reasoning to the test. The ending has a great reference to the source material and the last scene is funny and suggests something...different for the future.