Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

If I were to use one word to describe my philosophy as a film critic, it would be fair. What does this mean? Fundamentally, I would like to think that it means I look at each film on its own merits, and while I attempt to be as objective as I can, I’ll be the first to admit that a certain degree of bias can come into play.

This year, a lot of films tested my objectivity– or some might say, my lack there of –in different ways. Some challenged my objectivity with particular filmmakers (see “Cars 2,” which is the runt of the Pixar litter with a solid “B”, but still reasonably entertaining, and handsomely produced) or actors (“The Beaver,” with a career-best performance by Mel Gibson, was our first chance to see Mel on-screen since his image hit rock bottom in 2010). Other challenged me on thematic levels, and how they presented their subjects (yes, “Sucker Punch” undercut its ideas of female empowerment with its fetishistic costumes, but that chasm made me really consider Zack Snyder’s ultra-stylized action film beyond its surface). And others made me take a good, hard look at my way of assigning “grades” to films, and whether I would stand by my initial assessment down the road; this last one had more to do with older movies, but some 2011 movies had grade changes the more I thought about the films (some such films included “Your Highness,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).

This has been an interesting year in movies. I actually saw a Farrelly Brothers movie I genuinely liked (“Hall Pass”), even if it is kind of “out of sight, out of mind” now. My “filmmaker requested” screenings of movies hit an all-time high both in sheer volume and artistic quality (two films this year, and one from ’07, achieved that elusive “A+” rating, the first ones I’ve given out). Esteemed filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”), Werner Herzog (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), and Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin”) all lent credibility to 3D by stretching their creative muscles with the medium. And of course, one of the great franchises in movie history, one that started a mere decade ago, came to an end with one of its best and most emotional chapters to date (that would be “Harry Potter”).

As always, the late release schedule Atlanta is on leave many late-year arrivals unseen. That means it won’t be until January when I’ll be able to watch the spy thriller, “Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy”; “The Iron Lady,” with Meryl Streep as the iconic British Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher; the Iranian Foreign Film contender, “A Separation”; David Cronenberg’s psychological drama, “A Dangerous Method”; or Stephen Daldrey’s post-9/11 drama, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” which has high Oscar aspirations seeing as though the director’s three previous films (“Billy Elliot,” “The Hours,” “The Reader”) all ended up Oscar favorites. Will any of them end up in my own lists? Well, you’ll find out as the Oscar season commences. For now, though, here are the best (and worst) of 2011 as I saw them. Enjoy!

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

Brian’s Top Ten Films of 2011
As always with my end-of-the-year lists, there are a lot of films I either missed entirely, or have not yet had the chance to see yet. True, I don’t necessarily think my 10-best list is worse off for not having seen “Hop,” “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy,” “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” or “Final Destination 5,” but have I lessened its worth by not yet watching Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In?” Or John Madden’s “The Debt?” Or Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia?” Or not yet being able to see “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy,” or “The Iron Lady?” Only time will tell, and if you’ve read Sonic Cinema over the years, you know I’ll be updating the lists below from now until Oscar night. For now, though, here are the best I’ve seen of the 100-plus from 2011 that have played on-screen for me.

1. “Hugo” (Directed by Martin Scorsese)- “If his four-hour documentaries on film are graduate courses on the history of cinema, ‘Hugo’ feels like a film appreciation class, but taught in a way that will leave the students hooked and ready to dig deeper into what Professor Marty has to teach us.”

2. “The Beaver” (Directed by Jodie Foster)- “Foster—who has supported Gibson throughout his real-life breakdown—is more concerned with the emotional issues at the sad heart of this story, and she has the confidence as a director to not back away from them and to follow them through to some pretty dark places.”

3. “The Symphony” (Directed by Michael LaPointe)- “But in Ray’s final words, and in our own thoughts on what we’ve witnessed in the film’s 90 minutes, we learn that Ray’s album is not about embracing death, but in capturing life, and the experiences that make it worth living, although in the end, even Ray seems to wish that he had been able to follow a different path in getting there.”

4. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” (Directed by David Yates)- “In those eight words, Dumbledore gets right to the heart of why this franchise, especially since director David Yates took over in ‘Order of the Phoenix,’ has become a benchmark in cinematic adventure: at once, we still see, in his face, the boy that lived beneath the stairwell of his Muggle caretakers, the Dursleys, when we first saw him in ‘Sorcerer’s Stone,’ but in his actions, his convictions, and in his eyes, we see a man who has lived through the best and worst of what life can offer.”

5. “Hanna” (Directed by Joe Wright)- “Hanna finds herself alone in a scary world she does not understand, like something out of the Brothers Grimm. But Wright does not take pleasure in his young protagonist’s pain, nor does he exploit it for cheap thrills; just as in a fairy tale, good and bad are very clearly defined, and it is only through adaptation and emotional courage that Hanna is able to follow her heart to know what is right and wrong in this sometimes sick world.”

6. “Midnight in Paris” (Directed by Woody Allen)- “I shouldn’t give away everything Allen has in store for us with ‘Midnight in Paris.’ As with Spain in ‘Vicki Christina Barcelona’ and London in ‘Match Point’ and ‘Scoop,’ Paris brings out the best in Woody’s idiosyncratic style and storytelling gifts. It’s impossible to think that even those who long wrote Allen off as predictable and an old man more interested with pairing himself off with improbably young ingenues would be able to resist the charm of ‘Midnight in Paris.'”

7. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (Directed by Rupert Wyatt)- “Right away, it’s not hard to see some of the social commentary at work here: there’s the idea of experimentation on animals being bad (which, hey, it is), as well as the good old “doctors playing God” motif that is almost standard in such films. But director Rupert Wyatt runs straight at those cliches and stares them down with an energy and passion for the material that overcomes the sometimes stiff performances of the actors.”

8. “Missing Pieces” (Directed by Kenton Bartlett)- “Questionable morality aside (let’s face it, David has deeper issues if he considers kidnapping for the sake of learning about love), what Bartlett accomplishes in this film is a beautiful testament to how two people come to care about one another, and make the best of an extreme situation and connect with another individual.”

9. “Rango” (Directed by Gore Verbinski)- “But “Rango” (animated by effects house Industrial Light & Magic in a watershed akin to their work on the first two “Star Wars” films) is far from a misfire by finding its audience in an older demographic. That just makes it stand out more in a movie-going environment that still looks at animation as primarily a kiddie genre.”

10. “50/50” (Directed by Jonathan Levine)- “It’s the scenes between Adam and Kyle that result in many of the funnier, and sometimes outrageous, moments of the film, but in a way, they’re also some of the truest: Kyle is being the best friend he can be by not focusing on the gloom of the situation, but trying to lift Adam’s spirits by taking him out and trying to get him laid; by taking a piece of Dallas Howard’s artwork out back and destroying it; and by getting a prescription for medicinal marijuana they can smoke together.”

Eleventh Place: When one sees as many films throughout the year as I do, it’s easy to see why people would want to eschew best-of lists altogether. My 11th Place selections this year are rife with Top 10 potential that got pushed aside because better films came around. This list of contenders includes: “Winnie the Pooh”, the lovingly animated and performed return of A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood to the big screen- the original songs here are some of the best in recent memory; “X-Men: First Class”, Matthew Vaughn’s fantastic Cold War origin story for how the mutant war started between Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender)– it’s a great return to form for Marvel’s mutants after a couple of less-than-stellar outings; “On Parade”, another smart and all-too-honest relationship drama from actor/writer/director Edgar Muniz, who keeps pushing all the right buttons to get his points across; “Beginners”, with career-best performances by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer as a father and son who finally understand one another when the father embraces his own sexuality at 75; “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life”, Werner Herzog’s heartbreaking examination at the circle of death that perpetuates surrounding a triple homicide case in Texas; “The Descendants”, Alexander Payne’s hilarious and heartfelt look at a businessman’s need to put his family back together after tragedy; “Viva! Saint Agrippina”, a documentarian’s look at an annual Boston festival that has meant so much to him that is remarkably objective in looking at its subject; “Izak’s Choice- Les Mains”, a wonderful short film about love, inspiration, and the gift of creative expression; “Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol”, the fourth entry in Tom Cruise’s action franchise, directed by animation master Brad Bird with the confidence and excitement only a great filmmaker can bring; “Madeleine Zabel”, a brilliant look at celebrity journalism told in a brief amount of time– one of the best shorts I’ve seen; “Shame”, Steve McQueen’s haunting look at sex addiction with career performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as siblings with demons to overcome; “Cedar Rapids”, with Ed Helms in one of the best comedic performances in years as a small-town guy unaccustomed to grown up fun when he goes to a conference with Anne Heche and John C. Reilly; “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, David Fincher’s dark, disturbing adaptation of the Steig Larsson best-seller that matches its Swedish counterpart in smarts and intrigue; “Drive”, with Ryan Gosling as a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man in modern day L.A., even though the film brilliantly evokes the mood of ’80s Michael Mann epics; “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”, Steven Spielberg’s endlessly inventive animated adventure about Herge’s beloved comic creation, Tintin, and his scene-stealing dog, Snowy; “Super 8”, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg’s personal journey back to youth as a group of friends attempt to make an 8mm film amid sci-fi chaos; “The Music Never Stopped”, with a beautifully powerful turn by J.K. Simmons as a father who connects with his brain-damaged, estranged son through music– specifically, The Grateful Dead; “Attack the Block”, Brit writer Joe Cornish’s terrific directorial debut, a sci-fi/horror hybrid that soars on subversive adventure; “Insidious”, the freaky, frightfully fun supernatural horror film from the team that gave us the original “Saw”; “The Adjustment Bureau”, an ingenious and intelligent romantic thriller in the Hitchcock tradition, with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt thrown together by fate, but torn apart by a secret organization looking to keep people “on plan”; “The Help”, a moving, if sometimes maudlin, comedy-drama about race in 1960s Mississippi with exceptional performances by the women at the heart of the story; “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”, a comedy about love coming in and going out of our lives with a career-best performance by Steve Carell; “I Saw the Devil”, a brutal thriller from South Korea about an officer who goes off the radar to exact vengeance on the psychopath who murdered his fiancee; “Super”, James Gunn’s darkly funny spin on superhero conventions with inspired performances by Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page; “Martha Marcy May Marlene”, an uncompromising psychological drama about a young woman (a stellar Elizabeth Olsen) and her inability to face reality after escaping a cult; “Perry St.”, a warm and witty romantic short about finding love during modern times; “The Ides of March”, George Clooney’s riveting political thriller about what happens when idealism and reality collide during a Presidential campaign; “Thor”, Kenneth Branagh’s exciting Marvel Comics epic about the God of Thunder; “There Be Dragons”, Roland Joffe’s intimate epic about a son trying to connect with his father while researching a recently-deceased priest; and “The Taint”, an uncomfortable and unforgettably dark horror comedy about a virus that turns men into misogynistic zombies, not like you’d need a virus to accomplish that.

Brian’s Favorite Films of 2011
When it comes to “favorite” films, quality is almost an afterthought. I say “almost” because, of course, I think a movie should be at least GOOD to be a favorite, but when I consider the movies that mean the most to me personally over the course of a year, my emotional reaction is a more important deciding factor. Starting with the 10 listed below, and continuing through a group of “honorable mentions” that, in another year, might have made the 10, along with other movies I couldn’t go without acknowledging here, you’ll find that a lot of very different movies made lasting impressions on me beyond their artistic excellence.

1. “Hugo” (Martin Scorsese)- “With ‘Hugo,’ Scorsese has made his most unorthodox film (and the first one that can truly be shown to children without shame), and arguably, his most personal one, as it tells the story not just of its main character, but also, is a reflection of the man who created it.”

2. “The Adjustment Bureau” (George Nolfi)- “While on the surface, the film derives its tension from the age-old concept of free will and predestination (Do we have a choice in life, or is there a bigger plan?), buried just beneath is a contemporary look at political campaigning. After all, isn’t it people behind the scenes who are making sure politicians like Norris make the right decisions while seeking office? Can you really tell me a writer as talented as Dick had just sci-fi philosophy on the brain when he wrote this story?”

3. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” (David Yates)- “It’s unthinkable to see anyone else in these roles, making the final image of ‘Deathly Hallows, Part 2,’ of Harry, Ron, and Hermione watching the train leave for Hogwarts, profoundly moving, and completely fitting.”

4. “50/50” (Jonathan Levine)- “The film’s most extraordinary accomplishment is not treating the journey of Reiser’s alter ego, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as a Lifetime movie of the week but rather an honest and sometimes blunt trip through trying to cope with an extraordinary situation. Reiser’s script carries the full weight of painful truth, while also making Adam’s story perversely entertaining.”

5. “Insidious” (James Wan)- “This is one of those films that causes fits of nervous laughter at moments when the viewer knows they should be screaming, like a brilliant scene in which a ghost is running around the house toward a climax that is unexpected and truly terrifying rather than just the same-old same-old. Wan, making his best film in a career that also includes the underrated ‘Death Sentence,’ has studied the craft of the scary movie well.”

6. “Super 8” (J.J. Abrams)- “At its core, ‘Super 8’ is about a passionate group of friends who love movies, and want to make their own. Yes, there’s a sci-fi monster story in there as well, but long before the monster is shown on-screen in all its ‘Cloverfield’-esque glory, we’ve become less interested in whether the kids and their small Ohio town will survive and more hoping that Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends are able to finish their 8mm zombie movie.”

7. “The Descendants” (Alexander Payne)- “The ups and downs of life, and the damage secrets can inflict on a family, are at the heart of ‘The Descendants,’ which is so thoughtfully crafted by Payne, and acted by his uniformly excellent cast (which includes Robert Forster as Elizabeth’s father; Matthew Lillard in an unexpectedly serious turn as a fellow realtor; and Judy Greer as Lillard’s wife), that even the minor lapses into sitcom are tempered by genuine warmth, wit, and feeling.”

8. “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” (Steven Spielberg)- “Spielberg keeps the film moving at a lightening pace, and with an energy I haven’t felt in one of his movies since ‘Minority Report’ or ‘Raiders.’ In many ways, animation was the only way Spielberg could properly visualize Herge’s world, and Spielberg embraces the freedom the medium gives him in creating set pieces and images he never could have accomplished in live-action.”

9. “The Beaver” (Jodie Foster)- “Part of what makes Gibson’s performance so remarkable is how much we wonder whether Walter’s outward appearance (i.e. his improved relationship with his wife and youngest son and his ability to lead at work) is truly leading to a happier and healthier mental outlook. We get the answer in two fearless scenes: One at a restaurant on Walter and Meredith’s anniversary and the other when Walter has lost himself in his emotions, leading to a violent confrontation that is all the more powerful considering what we’ve learned about Gibson through his troubling legal scrapes.”

10. “The Symphony” (Michael LaPointe)- “In a way, however, LaPointe has made a film that goes beyond what either of those directors have done by taking his ideas to the very limits; much like his protagonist, LaPointe’s limited resources provide remarkable inspiration, as Ray finds a guide in a spiritual man he meets on the streets (played by Bill Oberst Jr.), who will lead him on his final journey to complete his magnum opus.”

Other Notable Favorites: So many superb entertainments this year, too few spots in the top 10. That said, here are the movies this year that didn’t quite hit my 10 Favorites list, but sure as Hell deserve to be: “On Parade”, a character-driven drama from the ever-impressive Edgar Muniz about male narcissism– the sad part is, so much of it is on-the-nose true; “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, a new vision of those damn dirty apes focusing on the origins of their leader, Caesar (the incomparable Andy Serkis), and the revolt he leads; “Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol”, Brad Bird’s exciting, ambitious spy thriller with Tom Cruise in top action star mode; “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”, a major studio comedy with the smarts and sharp wit of an indie, and a great cast giving it their all; “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, with Rooney Mara as a complex, emotionally damaged computer hacker drawn into a serial killer’s deranged path; “Midnight in Paris”, Woody Allen’s lovely, funny ode to the good old days of 1920s Paris, which asks a fundamental question about preferring the past to the present; “Izak’s Choice- Les Mains”, a sweet and romantic short story about a pianist and his student; “Hanna”, an inventive and original thriller about a young woman’s dark path to the truth of her life; “Horrible Bosses”, a dark comedy about three guys working for complete tools– thankfully, those tools are played by the comedically gifted Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston; “Beginners”, Mike Mills’s nuanced and hilarious comedy-drama about learning to live, which has the beautiful absurdities of truth; “Rango”, Gore Verbinski’s sly animated Western with Johnny Depp as a lizard on his own in the desert; “The Music Never Stopped”, an “inspired by a true story” drama that earns every tear it illicits from the audience; “The Muppets”, with Jim Henson’s wonderful, comic creations coming back to the big-screen by way of fanboy Jason Segal; “Drive”, a moody, L.A. thriller with great performances all around, especially by Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman as hoods who understand how the criminal world works all too well; “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger”, the final pieces in Marvel’s ambitious puzzle before the forthcoming “Avengers” movie (see below); “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Werner Herzog’s fascinating 3D documentary examining the oldest cave drawings in the world; and “A Horrible Way to Die”, a fascinating character study masquerading as a dark thriller about an escaped killer (AJ Bowen) and his journey to find the ex-girlfriend (Amy Seimetz) who got away, and was responsible for his imprisonment.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): “Arthur Christmas”; “Attack the Block”; “Battle: Los Angeles”; “The Big Year”; “Cars 2”; “Cedar Rapids”; “Cowboys & Aliens”; “Drive Angry”; “Everything Must Go”; “Fast Five”; “Fathoms Deep”; “Glitch in the Grid”; “The Green Hornet”; “The Help”; “I Am Number Four”; “The Ides of March”; “In Time”; “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life”; “The Lincoln Lawyer”; “Madeleine Zabel”; “Missing Pieces”; “Moneyball”; “Obsolescence”; “Paranormal Activity 3”; “Perry St.”; “Puss in Boots”; “Real Steel”; “Red State”; “Scream 4”; “The Secret Friend”; “Source Code”; “Sucker Punch”; “Super”; “The Taint”; “There Be Dragons”; “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”; “The Tree of Life”; “We Bought a Zoo”; “Winnie the Pooh”; “X-Men: First Class”; “Young Islands”

Brian’s Favorite Performances of 2011
This year, I’m going to honor my favorite performances of the movie year a little differently. Rather than just rattle off the names of EVERY actor that I enjoyed watching this past year, I’m going to limit myself to listing the 20 actors (and their respective film) whose work either meant the most to me on a personal level, or just flat-out entertained the Hell out of me. (Note: These aren’t necessarily just the ones I’d like most to see Oscar nominated. Those will come in January.) If you would like to find out more about why these performances are my favorites, go back and read the reviews– most of them are there. And so, from top to bottom, my 20 Favorite Performances of 2011.

1. Mel Gibson, “The Beaver”
2. Andy Serkis, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
3. Ben Kingsley, “Hugo”
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “50/50”
5. Matt Damon, “The Adjustment Bureau”
6. Emily Blunt, “The Adjustment Bureau”
7. Emma Stone, “The Help”
8. Viola Davis, “The Help”
9. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
10. Seth Rogen, “50/50”
11. Anna Kendrick, “50/50”
12. Daniel Radcliffe, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2”
13. Snowy, “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”
14. Saoirse Ronan, “Hanna”
15. J.K. Simmons, “The Music Never Stopped”
16. Steve Carell, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
17. Jennifer Aniston, “Horrible Bosses”
18. Ewan McGregor, “Beginners”
19. Rooney Mara, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
20. AJ Bowen, “A Horrible Way to Die”

Brian’s Favorite Film Music of 2011
To these ears, every year seems to be a pretty great year for film music, and this year was no exception. Granted, I don’t know if it quite hits the level of the past few years on the whole, but the role music played in many of the best films of the year cannot be understated. Similarly to my Favorite Performances of 2011, this year I’m only going to single out the soundtracks and scores that meant the most to me this year. Honestly, you’ll find a lot of the old favorites, and unfortunately, I’ll be leaving quite a few off, but these soundtracks, and these composers, exemplify why, in 1995, I decided that the one thing I wanted to do in life was to write film music.

1. “Hanna”, by The Chemical Brothers. The year’s best score is also one of the boldest, as the experiment alternative rockers find quirky ways to bring out the emotions buried deep in Joe Wright’s action drama.

2. “Drive”, by Cliff Martinez and Various Artists. It’s debatable whether it’s the ’80s-sounding pop songs or Martinez’s haunting, synthesized moods that add more to this L.A.-based thriller, but if you take them combined, the effect on the viewer is a great throwback to the decade of dirty business and violent dealings.

3. “The Symphony”, by Rob Simon. The mantra says it all: “I cut. I burn. I hallucinate. And then I create.” In exploring life through artistic expression, Ray– the main character of this powerful, one-of-a-kind movie –looks to find a level of truth deeper than eyes can see. That required a dynamic, imaginative score, which Simon provided in one of the best films about creative inspiration, and the pain we go through to accomplish it, I’ve ever seen.

4. “Super 8”, by Michael Giacchino. This chameleon of a composer has had a busy year, between scoring “Cars 2,” “50/50,” and “Mission: Impossible– Ghost Protocol,” but Giacchino saved his best work for this exciting, emotional sci-fi drama by his long-time collaborator, J.J. Abrams. Not only is it a superb score in its own right, but the hints of John Williams-esque writing are note perfect for this homage to Steven Spielberg’s Golden Age of the late ’70s/early ’80s.

5. “Hugo”, by Howard Shore. Ahh…old school film music at its finest. For Martin Scorsese’s wonderful family drama about a boy discovering the secrets of early cinema in 1930s Paris, Shore writes an adventurous and distinctly French-sounding score that is pure delight from beginning to end. It lacks the originality of many of the previous soundtracks mentioned (I couldn’t help but compare it to Giacchino’s score for “Ratatouille”), but it’s arguably my favorite film score of 2011 nonetheless.

6. “The Adjustment Bureau”, by Thomas Newman. There are a few songs used in this smart thriller from the mind of Philip K. Dick and the co-writer of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but it’s the score by Newman, a composer still shamefully without an Oscar (even though his filmography includes stellar music for “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “American Beauty”), that gets to the romantic heart of this philosophical love story about free will and destiny. In terms of sound, it’s nothing we haven’t heard from him before, but who cares when it nails the feeling of this gem so well?

7. “Captain America: The First Avenger”, by Alan Silvestri. First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alan Menkin’s wonderful “Star Spangled Man,” which plays over when Steve Rogers is trying to sell bonds at the outset of American involvement in WWII. That said, the rest of the musical love belongs to Silvestri, who writes his best score since “Forrest Gump” for this origin adventure of Marvel’s most beloved Avenger. So impressive was his work that he was hired for 2012’s Marvel mega-epic, “The Avengers.” I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.

8. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2”, by Alexandre Desplat. Like Giacchino, here’s another composer who has had a busy, busy year, between scoring this final “Potter” film, “The Tree of Life,” “The Ides of March,” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” Although I was decidedly unimpressed with Desplat’s first big breakthroughs as a composer (namely his Oscar-nominated score for “The Queen”), he has definitely become one of the most interesting composers in modern films with his emphasis on emotion over cultivating an original sound, a talent that came in handy as he brought the “Harry Potter” franchise to a close after a decade of great scores by composers like John Williams, Patrick Doyle, and Nicholas Hooper. His gentle musical touch brought young Harry’s adventures to a close with excitment and genuine dramatic weight.

9.-10. “The Adventures of Tintin” & “War Horse”, by John Williams. At this point in their careers, Steven Spielberg and his long-time composer have the ability to choose any project they’d like. For five-time Oscar winner Williams, that seems to mean that he only works for Spielberg, whose films have inspired several of Williams’s finest, most iconic scores. Their last collaboration was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” and screw the haters, I still enjoy the work both artists did on that film. That said, their newest collaborations are the team’s best since their 2002 two-fer of “Minority Report” and “Catch Me if You Can.” Those comparisons aren’t necessarily coincidental; “Tintin” has the same jazzy, adventurous qualities of “Catch Me if You Can” blended with the excitement of an “Indiana Jones” movies, while “War Horse” has the composer pulling the heartstrings while exploring different sounds within his typical palette. The resulting scores are two of his best, and even in listening to them before the films came out, we get the sense of two master storytellers who still have a lot of passion and imagination for their respective mediums.

Brian’s Worst Films of 2011
I think I’ve hit on why I’m more likely to look more favorably on even the most predictable films than professional critics are. The first reason is that I’m more apt to look at the positive in a movie than the negative, and rate it from the top of my grading scale, and slide down. The second reason is because, I’m still a movie fan first; my biases are still based on a sense of wonder, and since I haven’t had quite the level of experience with older films others have, I haven’t quite succumbed to cynicism about modern films yet (that doesn’t mean I don’t lose hope when it comes to certain types of films, however). It also helps that if I have no real interest in a film, I don’t have to see it, since I don’t have any professional responsibilities to adhere to. These films, however? Whether it was a jumbled sense of theme and execution or, simply, ridiculous predictability, the worst films of 2011 left me wanting more, or in one particular case, less. Way less.

The F’s:
=“The Sitter”– Nothing about this Jonah Hill vehicle, which is merely a vulgar riff on “Adventures in Babysitting” without that movie’s youthful joy, and of course, Elizabeth Shue as the babysitter, surprised me. That I can’t say the movie disappointed me says as much about my own expectations for this comedy as it does the film itself, which is the second comedy of this year directed by David Gordon Green; the first one was “Your Highness,” and as you’ll see, it didn’t fare much better, although at least that one had a whacked-out sense of pervesity that gave me something to write home about. Oh, where are the glory days of “Pineapple Express” for the once rebellious, independent director?

=“Your Highness”– “There’s nothing wrong with going lowbrow—Monty Python did it brilliantly in their retelling of the search for the Holy Grail—but when all the film turns into is a parade of vulgar laughs going for the lowest common denominator (I mean, really, did we need an erect minotaur penis?), one wonders if the filmmakers have their priorities in order.”

The D’s: Two unfortunate raunch comedies from David Gordon Green aren’t the only films that tried to break my spirit this year; they were just the two that sucked most (from what I saw, that is). There was “Shark Night”, a ridiculous teen shark thriller that was so bad, it inspired a second pan from Sonic Cinema; “A Glaring Emission”, a comedy about corrupt business practices when it comes to climate change that was so unfunny it bordered on tragedy; “The Roommate”, a teen version of “Single White Female” that was too tame to even qualify as a “guilty pleasure”; “Priest”, a vampire hunting thriller that tried to hide a shallow narrative with 3D and visual style; “Emasculation”, a short film with quite an identity problem– is it rewarding the man’s unsympathetic view of a woman’s crisis of identity, or condemning it?; and “Bridesmaids”, the R-rated comedy that made the best impression with moviegoers, but just seems too tragic in its view of Kristen Wiig’s main character to be a lasting entertainment.

Brian’s “Must-See” Movies for 2012
1. “The Avengers” (5/4)- 2012 is shaping up to be the year of Joss Whedon, with this big-budget bringing together of ALL of Marvel’s superheroes from the cinematic universe the comic giant has been establishing over the past four years– Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk –coming together to face an evil that is too big for any of them to face alone. Granted, anything Whedon has to offer is going to peak my interest, but the idea of the “Buffy” and “Firefly” creator taking on a movie with several of Marvel’s biggest characters, let alone him directing a cast including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mark Ruffalo, is just too much for me to pass up.

2. “Lincoln” (December)- In many ways, Steven Spielberg’s work has slowed down since his watershed drama, “Schindler’s List.” In many ways, though, he hasn’t seemed to stop working. With the exception of his stand-alone return to the “Indiana Jones” franchise in 2008, he’s gotten into a fascinating pattern of having three movies released in an 18-month span. In 2012, Spielberg follows up this Christmas’s 1-2 punch of “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” with his long-in-development film about Abraham Lincoln. Taking his cues from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Team of Rivals, Spielberg looks at the man widely considered our greatest President, and his struggles to rebuild our nation in the time leading up to his assassination. For a long time, Liam Neeson was to play Honest Abe, but because of the long development, Neeson dropped out, leading the way for Daniel Day-Lewis to take over the role. Just the thought of America’s most successful director collaborating with arguably its greatest living actor is enough to give cineastes hope that this is gonna be worth the wait.

3. “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (January)- Fifteen years after documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first released their landmark documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the team and their subjects (the West Memphis Three) got an unexpected “ending” to their saga when Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were freed by using a rather obscure legal plea that allows them to maintain their innocence, but still acknowledges guilt in the murders they were accused of. Most people who have followed the case still maintain that the three are completely innocent of the crimes, and were railroaded into their convictions through bias and hyper-religious extremism. This isn’t the last we’ll hear of the case (Peter Jackson has produced his own documentary about the case, and a dramatic film is to be made by Canadian director Atom Egoyan), but for now, it’s a relief to see that some justice has been done in this tragic story.

4. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (12/14)- Speaking of Peter Jackson, how great is it that in 2012, we will FINALLY be seeing the director’s long-hoped-for adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original journey through Middle Earth, as a younger Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman) goes of on an adventure with a group of dwarfs searching for treasure? Well, just seeing the initial trailer on this first film of Jackson’s two-part filming (the second film is due in 2013) has my stoked to return to Middle Earth again.

5. “The Dark Knight Rises” (7/20)- Christopher Nolan ending his “Batman” trilogy; how can a fan NOT be excited by that prospect after the haunting vision in “The Dark Knight?” The trailers have me stoked to see what the director has in store with Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) and Bane (Tom Hardy), who looks like he might be capable of breaking Batman’s back, even if it’s difficult to understand a damn word he’s saying. With Nolan and Christian Bale both being done with the Bat after this film, I can’t imagine who will be able to continue this series as DC still tries to figure out how to bring its characters together on the big screen like Marvel has, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was intrigued to find out.

6. “The Cabin in the Woods” (4/13)- If it weren’t for “The Avengers,” this would, unquestionably, be my #1 most anticipated film of 2012, if only because of how damn long it’s taken to finally be released. Along with an ill-advised remake of the quintessential ’80s teen thriller, “Red Dawn,” this deconstruction of the age-old teen horror concept has languished in limbo for years while MGM, the studio that financed it, has suffered through financial collapse. Finally, 2011 saw the venerable studio find its footing (sort of), and along with that came the studio’s handing over of this Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard thriller over to Lionsgate for release. So far, the other lion in the major studio den hasn’t disappointed, with an inspired poster (and trailer) that makes it obvious that Whedon and Goddard have something special up their sleeves with this one.

7. “Django Unchained” (12/25)- Quentin Tarantino taking on yet another genre-splicing revenge thriller with a controversial subject– in this case, race relations. The cast includes such heavy-hitters like Jamie Foxx (in the title role), Leonardo DiCaprio, Christophe Waltz, Sascha Baron Cohen, among many, many others. QT hasn’t missed yet (“Four Rooms” not included); the question is, how do you follow up a triumph like “Inglourious Basterds?” I’ll definitely be there to find out.

8. “Prometheus” (6/8)- For one thing, this is Ridley Scott returning to the sci-fi genre he helped redefine with landmarks such as “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” For another thing, this film began life as a prequel to Scott’s seminal sci-fi classic, “Alien,” only to become something far more ambitious. Whether it’s a true addition to the “Alien” franchise or not is still up in the air, but having the great director film in 3D, and working with a cast including Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, and Charlize Theron, is reason enough to see what prompted the return to that most visionary of genres.

9. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (7/3)- What a way to alienate a fanbase, Sony. First, you give Sam Raimi free-reign on “Spider-Man 3,” resulting in a flawed end to one trilogy. Then, you give him and star Tobey Maguire the boot because you can’t get behind their ideas for how to continue the franchise. Finally, you reboot the whole damn series, taking Peter Parker back to high school with a new actor in the role (“The Social Network’s” Andrew Garfield”), and a new director at the helm (“(500) Days of Summer’s” Marc Webb). Still, what we’ve seen of the web-slinger’s newest adventure, as well as Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy and Rhys Ifans’s as the man who would become Lizard, has this fan intrigued.

Other Movies to Look Forward To: Starting off my list of “others” for 2012, I have one more Whedon project to give a shout-out to: a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (N/A) that he’s been developing for years, and shot in twelve days with a cast of several of his favorite actors, including Nathan Fillion, Alexis Denisof, and Amy Acker– doesn’t this guy EVER sleep? Still, Whedon isn’t the only one with some promising tricks up his sleeve, starting with the makers of “Act of Valor” (2/17), a military thriller that has real Navy Seals playing the main roles in what looks like an intriguing and realistic look at life in the trenches; “John Carter” (3/9), an ambitious live-action directorial debut by Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E”), based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s famous pulp sci-fi novel; “Brave” (6/22), Pixar’s first film with a female heroine– so far, it’s looking like a beautiful epic, and a return to form for the studio after the cash-in that was “Cars 2”; “Dark Shadows” (5/11), Tim Burton’s latest collaboration with so many of his past misfits, this time bringing the legendary, Gothic soap opera to the big screen; “The Raven” (3/9), a fascinating thriller casting Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) as a detective– it’s directed by “V for Vendetta’s” James McTiegue; “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” (3/30), a looney-looking pirate tale as only the lads at Aardman animation can tell it; “Red Tails” (1/20), a long-in-development passion project for producer George Lucas about the Tuskeegee Airmen in WWII; “Haywire” (1/20), a high-wire thriller from director Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs, who wrote two of Soderbergh’s best and most original films– “Kafka” and “The Limey”; “Dr. Suess’s The Lorax”, a beautiful-looking CG-animated take on the good Doctor’s tale from the studio that delivered “Despicable Me”; “Skyfall” (11/9), the newest Bond adventure with Daniel Craig, timed just in time for the 50th anniversary of “Dr. No’s” release; “Man on a Ledge” (1/27), a crime drama with Sam Worthington as a criminal who may have been setup by his mark (Ed Harris); “Gravity” (11/21), a long-in-development sci-fi epic from Alfonso Cauron, the director of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and “Children of Men”; “Wanderlust” (2/24), a entertaining-looking comedy with Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston leaving the fast-paced life behind for a zen-like existence; “Men in Black 3” (5/25), with all of the old collaborators back to (hopefully) bring back the fun of the first film– the first trailer certainly seems promising; “The Bourne Legacy” (8/3), with Jeremy Renner filling the spy shoes of Matt Damon in a thriller that looks to continue the smash series without Jason Bourne in it– I’m curious as to how that will work; “Frankenweenie” (10/5), with Tim Burton returning to one of his earliest works, this time in stop-motion animation form; “The Great Gatsby” (12/25), Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan; and finally, there’s the untitled military drama by “The Hurt Locker” team of Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, due just in time for another Oscar run (12/19, to be exact). Whether the world ends next year or not, movie fans will certainly have a lot to talk about.

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