Monday, May 23, 2022

Archive for January, 2012

Oh, you think I’m already demented? Okay. I’ll accept that. But this week, it’s official (if temporary) as I guest on the Demented Podcast, hosted by Nick Jobe of Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob and Steve Honeywell of 1001 Plus. This has become one of my favorite podcasts to listen to, both because the hosts have a great dynamic with each other, and because the show doesn’t focus on new releases like most other movie podcasts out there. Instead, the guest chooses a genre and each host chooses a film, usually one the other host has not seen, though that’s not necessarily required. In this case, I chose film noir, Nick chose Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Steve chose L.A. Confidential. I’d seen both of those before, but had been meaning to rewatch both, so it worked out pretty well.

Oh, I forgot to mention. The second half of the show is a trivia game – probably the best trivia game I’ve heard on any podcast ever, thanks to the amount of work that Nick and Steve do actually writing a story to hang the questions on, a story that has something to do with the genre under discussion. There’s a lot of story that never gets read, too, since there are different ways the story could go depending on how well you do on the trivia questions. Yeah, it’s fun to listen to, and nervewracking (but also fun) to play. How well did I do? You’ll have to listen to find out. Which you can do below, on Nick’s site, or by subscribing to the show on iTunes. Which you should do.

Anyway, thanks for having me on the show, Nick and Steve! I had a great time.

I know it’s only a few weeks after my post about our engagement photos, but now there are wedding photos. As previously stated, our photographer is amazing and decided to put together a slideshow of pictures, blending preparations and wedding and reception all together in what is really a wonderful portrait of a wonderful afternoon. Everything turned out exactly how we wanted it, and I couldn’t ask for a better representation than Sarah gave us.

The song is “True Love Will Find You in the End,” a Daniel Johnston song as covered by Mates of State. We chose it not only because, well, it fits us pretty well, but also because Mates of State was the first band Jonathan and I saw together, back in July 2010. We weren’t dating yet at that point, but I think it was already on both of our minds. Mates of State were touring their Crushes album that year, a collection of covers of which this is the last on the record. They’re all great, but I think this one will always hold a special place in our hearts. Especially now, of course!

(for the record, the children are not ours – we had our whole church, which is about half kids, out for the wedding)

Long-time film buffs like me have seen a whole lot of films, but there are also a whole lot of films we’ve somehow missed…blind spots in our cinematic knowledge, if you will. There’s no way to ever see ALL the things we haven’t seen, or even all the things we “ought” to have seen, since what we “ought” to see depends in great part on who’s talking at any given moment. But even so, there are some omissions that feel more weighty than others, some films we haven’t seen that seem to stand as darker marks on our unseen lists than others. I have entire pages on this site dedicated to films I haven’t seen yet and want to – both a short list and a super long list. Even the short list is pretty long, though, which is why there’s a very short “list of shame” broken out from that, which is basically what this series is based on.

The major impetus for breaking it down to twelve films for 2012, though, is that a bunch of other bloggers are doing this, too, following James McNally’s lead over at Toronto Screenshots and choosing twelve films off their own lists of shame and vowing to watch and write about them over the coming year. Twelve is one per month, but that’s not a restriction – all twelve in December? Sure. Knowing my procrastinatory ways, that may be what happens. But I hope not.

Here are the twelve films I’ve chosen:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
A Place in the Sun
The Virgin Spring
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Cool Hand Luke
Army of Shadows
Solaris
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Eraserhead
Once Upon a Time in America
Requiem for a Dream

Other bloggers I know are participating: Ryan McNeil at the Matinee, David Brook at the Blueprint Review, CS at Big Thoughts from a Small Mind, and I’m sure many others. If you are, let me know! I’d love to keep up with you on this project. I won’t pin myself down to a specific publishing schedule (and some of my ability to finish this series probably depends on whether I subscribe to Netflix discs again or not), but these are twelve films I’d definitely like to have seen by the end of the year.

My Favorite Films of 2011 are posted here, but like any good film buff, I also watched a whole lot of non-2011 films. Here are some of my favorites of those first-time watches in loosely descending order (more favorites at the top). I didn’t limit this to a specific number. If I feel like it’s worth mentioning and I want to write a few words about it, it’s on here.

Le cercle rouge (1967)

I had a feeling I was going to like this film, just based on how much I’ve liked Jean-Pierre Melville’s other films, especially Le samourai, which, if I recall correctly, topped my favorites list in 2010. I had no idea I’d like it as much as I did. Melville weaves several plotlines together, involving a criminal just out of prison, the mob he steals money from, a detective chasing a different escaped con, a former sharpshooter cop who’s now an alcoholic, and more. Each of them has their own narrative rise and fall, and each character has their own arc, but they all interplay in an incredibly intricate way, as different ones join up on a heist (one of the best heist sequences in cinema) and others try to track them down for their own reasons. It’s hard to explain, but very easy and clear to watch. Brilliant work on all levels.

Blue Valentine (2010)

This film just missed my 2010 best of list (I saw it mere days after last year’s posts were made), but it would’ve ended up about #4 on that list. It might be even higher now. The film parallels the beginning and end of a single romance, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (both in career-best performances), juxtaposing the courtship and the break-up of this couple to incredible emotional effect. Despite the temporal contrivance, the film is incredibly raw and realistic, with no easy answers for what causes a couple who seem so perfect for each other to hit the skids so badly. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Why in the world did it take me this long to watch this movie? That phrase actually applies to the next two as well, but the prestige of those two be darned, this is the one that I can’t get out of my head. The tales surrounding it are as legendary as the film itself, playing on the long-standing bitter rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who here play two aging showbiz sisters who have a long-standing bitter rivalry. It may be high camp, but this is quite possibly Bette Davis’s best performance – it’s mean and grotesque and pitiful and naive. And the movie itself is quite possibly the best example of Hollywood gothic, yes, even giving Sunset Boulevard a run for its money.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

There is a reason I’d been avoiding watching this classic must-see. I’m not a big Brando fan. I’d seen On the Waterfront, Sayonara, The Godfather, and more, and I just didn’t really get the whole Brando thing. But I finally sat down with this one and suddenly GOT IT. He’s utterly magnetic here, and the film is far more stylistically interesting than I’d expected. It wears its stage origins on its sleeve, but in a heightened way that works, and the clash of Leigh’s old-school Hollywood acting with Brando’s muttering animalism is palpable. Now I want to go rewatch all those other Brando films – I bet I’ll like them more.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

And the reason I’d been avoiding this one was simply that I figured it’d be depressing and Important Movie-esque. (Also I dislike Steinbeck based on “The Red Pony” traumatizing me as a child.) Wrong on both counts. It’s certainly not a happy peppy movie, and a ton of bad things happen to this Dust Bowl family, but I wasn’t prepared for how gorgeously this is shot (Gregg Toland, should’ve known) and how intense it can be, sharing in this family’s troubles and little joys, as well as dealing with the subplot of Tom Joad’s fugitive status. His final speech is justly praised, but the whole thing is pretty great.

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

Often cited as one of the prime examples of the haunted house mystery comedy, a genre that was apparently prominent in the silent era, and rightly so. Simply a ton of fun from start to finish, as a group of people gather in a long-deserted mansion to read the will of their crotchety old relative. There are threats of insanity, a murderer running rampant, an asylum escapee on the loose, plus various positive and negative interpersonal interactions among the varied potential heirs. Moody cinematography counterbalances the humor in the plot.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

I watched the Man with No Name trilogy all out of order (I’d already seen the other two…yeah, backwards), but Jonathan wasn’t about to let me get away with not having seen this one, which is his favorite. I still like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly more, but there’s a lot I did like about this one, especially the way the story really follows Lee Van Cleef instead of Clint Eastwood – that was an interesting touch. Also, the bank robbery segment is just awesome. Next up – watching all three of these actually in order. 🙂

The Godless Girl (1929)

I always enjoy Cinefamily’s Silent Treatment nights because I get to see films that are rarely if ever screened and aren’t on DVD, plus learn a bunch about silent cinema and 1920s Hollywood and chat with film archivists. I’m always appreciative of the films I see, but to be honest, a lot of times, they’re mostly of historical significance. This is an exception, because this film is gangbusters fun. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it’s the story of a clashing set of teenagers – one the leader of a group of young Christians, the other the leader of a group of Atheists. After the groups get in a riotous fight, they’re carted off to reform school, where they get to know each other. Frankly, there are like five or six sections of story (and tones!). But they’re all crazy and fun, and it ends with a massive escape/chase sequence followed by a climactic fire.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

Seems like every year a film I’ve never heard of wins Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, upsetting one I either wanted to win or thought was a shoo-in. And then every year when I get around to seeing the actual winner, I’m blown away. This is an extremely solid mystery/character study of a detective flashing back to that one case, you know that one he never quite managed to solve. It’s tough to find the balance between mystery and character in films, but this one does it wonderfully, and with a lot of style to boot – just wait for the seemingly one-take stadium shot. It’s incredible.

The Naked Island (1960)

I happened to be volunteering on a night when Cinefamily screened this film, which I’d never heard of and knew nothing about – I hadn’t even read the blurb on the Cinefamily schedule. I stuck around to watch it anyway, and I’m certainly glad I did. An almost silent picture, depicting the day-to-day lives of a family struggling to maintain their farm on an unwelcoming island. Much of the film is just watching them cart water from the mainland, carry it up a treacherous hill, and water their crops one at a time. Sounds boring, but it isn’t, and when larger events do happen, they hit you like a ton of bricks.

The Illusionist (2010)

A sweet and simple ode to the entertainments of the past, the pleasures that progress has robbed us of in search of bigger, faster, louder thrills. The main character, once a popular vaudeville magician, finds himself less and less wanted as rock bands and television replace his craft – all except for one little girl, entranced by his magic. Like Sylvain Chomet’s previous film The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist is almost silent – as befits its origin as an unproduced script from Jacques Tati. Charming, simple, warm, and wistful.

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Also known as Chloe in the Afternoon, this is one of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales films, and so far, I think it’s my favorite. Each of these films presents some sort of moral dilemma, but not in a didactic way – in this case a happily married man daydreams about other women, with no intention of taking action – until his friend Chloe decides to seduce him. Like most French New Wave films, it’s emotionally aloof in such a way that you actually end up supplying the emotions yourself, and this one presents its characters without judgement, but with a great deal of fairness and empathy. I love New Wave noncommital-ness, and this is right in my ballpark.

Night Train to Munich (1940)

I already knew director Carol Reed was more than just The Third Man, from having seen The Fallen Idol, but this would’ve clenched it – Night Train to Munich is a WWII spy story with double agents, concentration camps, undercover espionage, and daring mountaintop chases, all of which it does with a wit and panache that set it apart from most other spy films. It’s classy and silly and genuinely thrilling. Also, and this is not unimportant, it knows when to stop and doesn’t clutter everything up with needless denoument and codas.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Frank Sinatra may have already won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity two years earlier, but with this film he really cemented his standing as an actor. Pushing the envelope of the Production Code, the film tells of Frankie Machine, a card dealer and drug addict who just wants to get clean and play the drums, but he can’t get out of the gambling game – tied in by debts and drugs and a shrew of a wife. It’s not always easy to watch, and it does have an old-school realist melodrama angle, but when it’s on, boy is it on. The withdrawal scene gave ME the DTs.

The Descent (2005)

Director Neil Marshall continually impresses me with his genre films, and this one was no different – a group of girlfriends tries to reconnect after one of them experiences tragedy by going spelunking. But in an unknown cave, anything can happen, and everything does. This film is great on every level, with the dangers of the cave itself creating enough intensity, but the film is hardly content to stop with that. The pacing, the use of sound design, and the thematic content all raise this film above your standard horror thriller.

My Winnipeg (2007)

Easily the most accessible Guy Maddin film I’ve seen so far, and thus my favorite, at least until I get more accustomed to his extremely unique style of filmmaking – this time he takes us on an idiosyncratic tour of his hometown of Winnipeg, a surreal blending of his childhood, his attempts at recreating his childhood to deal with past trauma, and legends and stories of the town itself. It’s associative, bizarre, dreamlike, and definitely an experience.

Wayne’s World (1992)

I totally did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did – I had it mentally lumped in with a bunch of other early ’90s comedies that just struck me as stupid and juvenile, but Jonathan convinced me to watch it, and yeah. This one is much smarter than it seems on the surface, with a lot of clever writing and meta humor that worked like gangbusters for me. Jonathan already quoted this one a bunch (leaving me shrugging my shoulders in ignorance), but now we’re quoting it together ALL THE TIME. See our “He Says, She Says” post.

Changing Husbands (1924)

Another hit from the Silent Treatment folks at Cinefamily, this one has Leatrice Joy (no, I’d never heard of her) in a double role as a bored rich housewife who wants to be an actress and a poor browbeated actress who just wants some peace and rest. Yep, you guessed it, they run into each other and decide to switch places for a bit, since the rich woman’s husband is out of town anyway. Surprise, he comes back and wants to take his “wife” on holiday. More mix-ups ensue, with a lot of sly innuendo and some great comic timing from all involved. It’s frothy, but great fun, and one of my favorite new-to-me silents of the year.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

I hesitate to put this movie (a big-screen film to go along with the campy ’60s TV show) into the “so bad it’s good” category, because I think the people who made it knew exactly what they were making, and did it all – the cheesy line readings, the over-abundance of villains, the ridiculous plot elements – totally on purpose. There’s no way they didn’t, there are too many self-referential jokes (“some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”). If you go into this with the same kind of pure enjoyment of ridiculousity that they did, you’ll have fun. I sure did.

Woman in the Window (1944) / Scarlet Street (1945)

I’m lumping these two together because it’s hard not to. In 1944, Fritz Lang got together with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and made a quiet little noir film about a middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman and gets drawn into a crime because of her. It worked out so well. They all got together and did the same thing the next year. The details of the plot are different of course, but that trajectory is the same. Both films are solid noirs; it’s hard to rank them against each other, though, because WotW has a better and more interesting plot overall, but has a serious cop-out ending, while SS follows through on the ending beautifully, but has a less interesting/believable plot throughout. Both worthwhile, though, especially for noir fans.

Loves of a Blonde (1965)

Cinefamily did a series on the Czech New Wave a couple of years ago, but either they didn’t play this Milos Forman entry, or I missed that night. But seeing a few of those definitely gave me a taste for them, and I went into Loves of a Blonde with high hopes – which were not misplaced. With definite French New Wave influences, the film basically follows a young girl in a rural factory town in Czechoslovakia, who eschews the middle-aged men who remain in the town after most young men have been conscripted in favor of a pianist from Prague. But the story is less important than the individual scenes, vignettes like three leches macking on girls at a factory-sponsored dance, the girl getting lectured on propriety back at her hostel, and the encounter with the boy’s parents when she arrives unannounced on his doorstep. Take the focus on the youthtful and mundane from the Nouvelle Vague and add in a specifically Czech-under-communism austerity, and that’s this film.

49 Up (2005)

This can kind of stand in for the entire Up series of documentaries – it’s difficult to judge them separately, and this is the most recent one (though if they stay on schedule, 56 Up would be out this year). The premise of the series is that in 1964, a TV production team got a group of fourteen British 7-year-olds from different regions and class backgrounds and interviewed them on various topics. Every seven years they’ve gone back and interviewed the same people (though not all of them have agreed to be in every episode). It’s fascinating, both in the ways it upholds the original premise that a child’s future is set by the age of seven, in terms of societal status, and the ways it subverts those expectations – not to mention how it delves into the nature of documentary filmmaking itself. I don’t like documentaries that much, and this one is largely talking heads, but it is absolutely entrancing.

Vagabond (1985)

After being a huge fan of Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 last year, I wanted more Varda, but I put off seeing this one for a good while, largely because it just looked freaking depressing. And yeah, it kind of is. It’s about a twenty-something girl who roams the roads, hitchhiking, sleeping wherever she can, working for a while or living with people as she’s able. But the film opens with her dead in a ditch, then backtracks to how she got there, so you know it isn’t going to romanticize the life of the open road. Even though this was made long after the New Wave’s heyday, it does have that same kind of non-committal sympathy that works so well for me – Varda isn’t going to manipulate you into feeling sorry for the girl, she’s just going to show you want happened and allow your feelings to grow naturally. She’s not always an attractive character – often being rude or dismissive to those who would help her, until it’s too late – yet Varda’s technique works. It’s a really powerful, often hard to watch, but very rewarding film.

Robin Hood (1922)

I couldn’t pass up a chance to see a bunch of Douglas Fairbanks silents at Cinefamily earlier this year, and I think this was my favorite of the lot – it tells a good bit of the backstory to Robin Hood, depicting Robin of Locksley’s friendship with King Richard and his falling for Maid Marion before Richard ever went off to the Crusades, allowing Prince John to oppress the people and create the need for Robin Hood. Some of that gets a little long, but it’s a nice setup that most versions of Robin Hood skip over. After that, it’s really pretty similar to the Errol Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Fairbanks is even more athletic and exuberant than Flynn.

Zazie dans le metro (1960)

I still don’t quite know what to make of this early Louis Malle film, but I know I enjoyed watching it, and will likely enjoy it even more on future rewatches. Taken from a Raymond Queneau book (he was a prominent literary experimenter), the film is delightfully absurd, with basically no plot stringing along its series of nonsensical vignettes. It’s definitely got that New Wave sensibility that appeals to me so much, but I’m sure there are also satirical elements that slipped by me entirely. Even so, it was a whole lot of fun.

Carrie (1976)

Finally got around to this horror classic this October, after meaning to for the past two Octobers and failing. Despite knowing all about the bullying and the prom scene already, this film was a LOT different than I was expecting. The crazy mother, for one thing, and then the whole ending that went on much past the prom scene and complicates it a lot. In some ways, I didn’t like where the ending went, but I am highly intrigued by it and wish people would talk about it more, rather than just accepting the film as a pro-feminist revenge-on-bullies story. In any case, the film is really effective at putting us on Carrie’s side through Spacek’s wide-eyed performance and the agonizing yet lovely leadup to the climax at the prom, even if DePalma does overdo the visual flamboyance when he doesn’t really need to.

A Man Escaped (1956)

I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Bresson. I love Pickpocket, but really dislike Lancelot du Lac and felt pretty ambivalent towards Diary of a Country Priest. This one seemed more on the Pickpocket wavelength, and sure enough, it joins the “love” side of Bresson’s filmography for me. The film takes its time, as the main character is member of the French resistance imprisoned by Nazi forces, who works carefully and patiently to plan and execute an escape. Despite the slow pace, though (something Bresson is known for generally), this film maintains tension perfectly, and doesn’t get dull at all.

Back to the Future II (1989)

When Jonathan found out I had only seen the first Back to the Future film and that I hardly remembered any of that, he sat me down with the whole trilogy almost immediately. Not only did I enjoy the first one a lot more than I initially had, but Part II instantly joined the ranks of sequels that are better than the originals. The way that II coils back on I with amazing intricacy is great, but I was also really taken by the future world (which is NOW, by the way, if you work the dates out…I’d say we failed to progress in certain areas quite as much as expected, but maybe we’re better off in other ways). Of course, being the history nut that I am, I also really enjoyed Part III, but not quite enough for it to make this list. It’s hovering right below it.

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Long before David Lynch (Blue Velvet) or Sam Mendes (American Beauty) satirized the underbelly of American suburbia, Nicholas Ray brought this scathing attack against suburban values – or the veneer that suburbia tries to uphold to hide the darker things lying beneath. Here James Mason secretly works two jobs to support his family, but a malicious disease takes its toll on him, the only thing that helps being large doses of painkillers – which he becomes addicted to. He eventually devolves into madness, and yes, there’s quite a bit of melodrama in the film, but if you go along with its excesses, you’ll find one of the darkest films about the ’50s ever made.

Born to Kill (1947)

I’d never heard of this noir film until a friend lent it to me, but hey, Robert Wise usually makes good pictures, right? Right. The always-impressive Claire Trevor leaves town after she finds a friend murdered, not wanting to get involved, but unbeknownst to her, the murderer (her friend’s jealous boyfriend) is insinuating himself into her life, ALSO not knowing that she knew the victim. It’s a crazy mess of fate, mutual attraction and repulsion, double-crosses, and both a femme fatale AND an homme fatale. Plus, Elisha Cook Jr. in a meaty supporting role. A lesser-known noir this may be, but that’s a mistake – it’s definitely one of the more interesting ones I’ve seen.

Taking Off (1971)

After making a splash with the Czech New Wave (see Loves of a Blonde, above), Milos Forman made his way to Hollywood success with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. But first he did this little-known film, his first in the United States, about a teenage girl who runs away to be part of a group of hippies, and her parents trying to find her. It’s got its ridiculous parts (which have a strange tendency to turn sublime, like the scene where all the parents learn how to smoke a joint to try to understand their children better), but it’s ultimately a quite moving and wistful portrait of two generations, and the longing of both to find meaning and connection.

The Constant Nymph (1943)

Long kept out of circulation due to rights issues, TCM finally got it worked out to show this Oscar-nominated Joan Fontaine film at the TCM Film Festival this year, and it was pretty great to see it with a whole crowd of people who’ve been waiting for it for a very long time. It’s a bit of an unusual film, though, with Fontaine a spright of a girl who breathlessly falls in love with a family friend who still thinks of her as a child. It’s chockfull of melodrama, but Fontaine plays it all with such eager naivete that it’s impossible not to like her, despite the underlying ick factor their ages make kind of hard to ignore.

This is the Night (1932)

Hyped up at the TCM Festival for being Cary Grant’s debut feature, there’s a lot more than that here to like. Basically playing second lead to Roland Young’s hapless gentleman, Grant is an athlete whose wife Thelma Todd is stepping out with Young (no, it’s not believable, just go with it), but in order to keep Grant from finding out, Young hires an actress to pretend to be his wife. It’s convoluted, but thanks to a stellar lead and supporting cast and a solid script, it’s as witty and charming as any 1930s movie – it’s unfortunate that it’s so little known. Definitely deserves a look.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Silly and nonsensical story? Check. Ridiculous line readings? Check. Cheesy stop-motion effects? Check. Actually, the special effects are kind of awesome, I love watching stop-motion animation. It’s not believable, but it has a tactile charm that CGI loses along the way. The story here is basic fantasy adventure stuff with sorcerers and princesses and giant monsters, but it’s all in good fun, and I had a great time watching it.

Good Morning (1959)

I’ve tried to watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (generally touted as his best/most important film) at least two or three times and always failed, getting bogged down in my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture and the film’s deliberate pacing. A friend suggested I start with Good Morning instead to get into Ozu, and that was an excellent suggestion. This is a sunny, funny film, the loose plot centered on a pair of kids who want a television more than anything, but with plenty of time given to other vignettes around their apartment area. Charming and breezy.

Gremlins (1984)

I mostly snuck this one in here just because I was shocked at how much fun this film is – I thought it was just gonna be a horror film (and I knew the basic “don’t feed them after midnight” premise), but it’s REALLY goofy, and that’s what I liked about it. I loved all the inventions, I loved the gremlins having fun at the movies, I thought all that stuff was great – even more so because I had no idea it existed.

I don’t post too much solely personal stuff around here, though I do let it seep in a lot when I’m talking about movies or music or whatever else. This is worth its own post, though. My boyfriend Jonathan and I are now engaged, but not for long – we’re getting married this Sunday. “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible,” right? (When Harry Met Sally… is one of the few romantic comedies we both actually like.)

I’ve never been very good with decisions. It’s part of my INTJ personality type, I know – we like to have all the options open and continue gathering data as long as possible. After all, we may find out a piece of data that totally changes what we think and affects that decision. Choosing schools, choosing places to live, choosing where to eat dinner, choosing what movie to rent – they’re all things that take me a long time and I second guess myself constantly.

Marrying Jonathan is the easiest decision I’ve ever made in my life. The idea of NOT being with him is just…unimaginable. Thankfully he feels the same way! Now Sunday can’t come fast enough.

Yesterday, our friend and photographer Sarah took us out for some engagement photos. In a parking garage. But it fits, because we’re both city people now, and the parks and fields she often shoots engagement photos in wouldn’t really fit us. Plus, this particular parking garage has really great mountain backdrops. She was able to find all the cool patches of light seeping through the edges of the garage. An unlikely location, perhaps, but I think it turned out beautifully.

Here are just a few of my favorite shots. Click here or on any of the images to see more at Sarah’s site.

My Top Ten has already appeared over on Row Three, along with all the other contributors’ lists. It’s a good mix, you should check it out. Or, you could just read mine below, copied essentially verbatim, but with added pictures. Below the top ten are a loosely ordered (favorite to less favorite) assortment of other films from 2011 that I think are worth mentioning. Still to come: A post listing my favorite things I saw in 2011, but weren’t released in 2011.

 

TOP TEN

10. Winnie the Pooh

I hoped against hope that Disney would do right by the beloved Pooh bear, and they surpassed all my expectations. With a simple but charming story pulled together from a few of A.A. Milne’s most beloved entries in the series, lovely hand-drawn animation, and a sense of wonder and childlikeness that’s missing from most overly hip children’s films these days, Winnie the Pooh is like a breath of admittedly nostalgic fresh air. Little bits of cleverness like the integration of physical text and the animation style shift for the Backson song just add to the joy of this unpretentious delight. Full review on Row Three

9. Hanna

Joe Wright, of high-quality but relatively staid literary adaptations like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, is doing an action movie about a teenage assassin? O…kay… But Wright pulls it off in spades, crafting one of the finest genre mashups of the year. With influences from James Bond to La femme nikita and from Run Lola Run to M (okay, it’s a stretch, but it’s there), plus a healthy dose of well-played coming-of-age story, it’s easy to accuse Hanna of not knowing what it wants to be, but on the contrary, it knows exactly what it wants to be – everything. And it manages all that with panache and an exhilarating sense of cinematic space in the action sequences. Great performances, action, editing, music, and immensely entertaining to boot.

8. The Artist

It’s no secret I’m a fan (an emerging one, anyway) of silent cinema, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating 2011′s B&W silent throwback since I heard about it. But films that attempt imitation like this can fail in so many ways, either getting things subtly wrong or failing to capture the thing that made the original so pleasing. Thankfully, The Artist comes through with flying colors (or lack of color, heh), pairing its simple romance and tale of silent cinema’s demise with a charm and vivacity that approximates the joys of silent films quite well. The acting is stylistically believable without feeling forced, the film tone-switches like a pro (as many silent films do), and the bits of gimmickry related to sound end up working better than I feared. It’s ultimately a breezy film, though not without its bits of melodrama, but there hasn’t been as charming a celebration of 1920s Hollywood since Singin’ in the Rain. Scorecard review

7. The Innkeepers

If you want to know what kind of horror hits all my buttons, look no further than Ti West’s supremely enjoyable haunted hotel film. Not only does it succeed with jump and reveal scares as the two ghost-hunting hotel employees spend the inn’s final days investigating the potential presence of the rumored ghost, but it’s just as solid in the more comedic sections of the film, bringing these two characters to life so when shit starts going down, it matters. In addition, West proves a wonderful understanding of cinematic space, using the character and location set-up in the beginning for some fantastic payoffs in the rest of the film. I don’t outright love very many horror films, but I loved this one. Full review on Row Three

6. Attack the Block

By the time I finally saw this, it had been so hyped by bloggers around the country that I was sure I would be in for disappointment. Not this time, though; the hype is pretty much deserved. From the gutsy move of having our heroes be South London thugs who start the film by mugging a young woman to the fantastic creature design of the monsters, Attack the Block succeeds on all levels. The character arcs work, thanks to solid writing and performances from the mostly unknown cast, the social commentary works even when it’s a bit on the nose, the thrills and chills work, and the comic relief works as well, for the most part. Sure to be a staple for genre-lovers for some time to come. Scorecard review

5. Melancholia

Leave it to Lars von Trier to somehow make a film about depression that is gloomy as hell, but actually NOT that depressing, when it comes right down to it. In a role that finally showcases that talent that she’s shown so fleetingly throughout her career (how’s that for a backhanded compliment!), Kirsten Dunst plays Justine first as flighty and fun, but that’s just a veneer shallowly covering her deep depression, which is soon paralleled (manifested?) in the approaching blue planet dubbed Melancholia. Yet it is she, in the second half, who is far better equipped to deal with the end of the world, an eventuality that formerly stable Charlotte Gainsbourg is unprepared to face. It’s self-consciously arty, but that’s part and parcel of the von Trier experience, and this is probably his most accessible and overwhelming film to date. Scorecard review

4. Drive

One of the most stylish films of the year for sure, and maybe it’s a case of style over substance, but I don’t really care. From the hot pink title lettering to the movie-LA locations to the mishmash of genre film references to the laconic main character himself, I was totally enthralled with this film. Ryan Gosling cements himself as an actor to be reckoned with, doing a lot with a very subtle role, and managing to stand out against a stellar supporting cast of more over the top supporting characters. Already an arthouse favorite thanks to his earlier films, Nicholas Winding Refn delivers a slam-dunk calling card to Hollywood without losing the personal aesthetic that he’s known for. I’ve seen this twice in theatres, and that wasn’t enough. Full review on Row Three

3. Certified Copy

A heady yet emotionally grounded inquiry from Abbas Kiarostami into the nature and value of originals and copies played out in a most unusual way – a couple of strangers (or are they) who have been discussing the ramifications of copies in an academic fashion suddenly begin acting as if they’ve been married for years (and perhaps they have). How does a simulcra of a marriage related to a real marriage, and if the fake becomes real, what is real? The film is thoughtful, cerebral, and academic, yes, like its male protagonist. But it’s also warm, heartfelt, and resonant, like its “Elle” (a wonderful performance from Juliette Binoche) – though these roles are no more set in stone than their relationship. I’ve still only seen it once, but I’ve pondered it perhaps more than any other film I saw in 2011, unable to get it out of my head. Full review on Row Three

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

My first Lynne Ramsay film, but certainly not my last, and hopefully not hers, either. (One worries when filmmakers take 9-year breaks in between films.) One of the most disturbing and terrifying films of the year, yet with essentially no on-screen violence or gore – Ramsay conveys everything through unsettling sound design, jarring structural juxtapositions as she tells the story out of chronological order yet with a perfect thematic flow, and the wonderful central performance of Tilda Swinton as a woman who embodies the worst fears of parenthood in one tightly wound little ball. The film is assaultive in many ways, and one thing’s for sure – whether the parents who need to talk about Kevin do so or not, audiences certainly are and will be. Scorecard review

1. The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is an intensely personal film, despite its ambitious scope. It depicts the whole history of the universe, yet affirms the importance of humanity even when faced with the enormity of the cosmos – we are tiny, but an endless summer in small-town Texas can be all-important. The film is clearly a passion project for Terrence Malick (as all his films are, really), and much of its pleasure is in how much it resonates personally with the viewer – it hit me dead-on, to the extent that I drank it all in and couldn’t really process anything else for several hours or even days. It was one of the great cinematic experiences of the year for me (and that’s really what it is, an experience, privileging associative resonance over narrative drive), and that’s why it’s remained at the top of my list all year.

 

OTHERS WORTH MENTIONING

The idea that only ten films a year are worth mentioning seems pretty ridiculous to me, so even though I go along with it for list posts and such just to conform to some sort of standard, I really feel like end of the year posts should highlight other worthwhile films of the year as well. So this is a non-numbered listing of other films I really really liked this year. Largely ones I like better are toward the top, ones I like less well toward the bottom, but this is pretty much every film from 2011 (or 2010 in a few cases, like Attenberg, which released in Greece in 2010 but still hasn’t hit the US outside of festival screenings) that I really liked/loved. They all deserve recognition.

Attenberg

My first exposure to the current wave of Greek cinema was a very good one, with just enough oddness in its coming-of-age and dealing-with-death story and stunted-growth characters to go along with its stark Czech New Wave stylistics, without falling over the deep end of weirdness. Austere but also quite relatable. Full review on Row Three

Café de Flore

An absolute marvel in terms of using music and editing for maximum emotional impact, the last section of Café de Flore floored me (no pun intended). The French Canadian film parallels two stories of love and potential loss, one of a modern-day Montreal DJ torn between his ex-wife and his new, younger lover, the other of a mother in 1960s Paris raising her Downs Syndrome son. How they come together will make or break the film for you; it totally made it for me. Scorecard review

The Dynamiter

A tiny film from an indie director out of Mississippi, starring all unknown actors. Checking these types of films out at festivals is always a risky proposition, but this one paid off for me like crazy, with its tender but unsentimental coming of age story balanced by some charming performances from the young actors, not to mention some gorgeous cinematography. Full review on Row Three

Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt’s prickly Western gets across the hellish nature of cross-country pioneering with devastating claustrophobia. Potentially lost, nearing the end of their supplies and sanity, trusting themselves to a guide who may not know anything more than they do – yet no other choices are better. A hard film to get close to, and yet a hard one to get out of your head, with an evocative metaphysical layer as well.

The Adventures of Tintin

I don’t like 3D and I don’t like motion capture. Yet I really, really enjoyed this film. It’s a whiz-bang adventure film in the style of 1930s serials, with a breathlessly gung-ho young hero, his adorable dog, and great comic relief from all the supporting characters. The one-take motorcycle chase at the end is the obvious highlight, but the camerawork is great throughout, as is the use of space within the frame. Scorecard review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

After loving the Swedish version of this, I was a little wary of this one, but trusted Fincher to come through, and come through he did. A bit edgier, a bit slicker, a bit tighter, and a bit more expansive, his version of Dragon Tattoo stands on its own as a solid and hard-hitting thriller. Scorecard review

Kill List

On a purely visceral level, this film is one of the best experiences I had all year – a slow-burn opening following a former hitman trying to get back into the game to support his family turns into something much more sinister, with some heart-pumping scenes that’ll keep your heart racing long after the movie is over. There are some large plot holes, but the film is remarkably effective anyway. Scorecard review

Jane Eyre

Yet another version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic gothic novel? Yes, and one that does a remarkable job of getting those moody gothic elements onscreen. Switching the narrative around a bit works to escalate cinematic tension, and Mia Wasikowska cements the promise she showed in Alice in Wonderland (being in a much better film helped) with a performance that captures both Jane’s willfulness and her reticence.

This is Not a Film

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been placed under house arrest and banned from making films by the Iranian government. So he calls a friend over to film him talking about the film he was intending to make before the ban. From there we get not only a surprisingly humorous yet desperate documentary about Panahi’s situation, but a treatise on filmmaking itself – what a film is and isn’t, and how artists find ways to express themselves even under suppression. Full review on Row Three

Extraterrestrial

Waking up from an awkward one-night stand, a pair of near-strangers realize that an alien ship has taken up residence above their city. But the threat of her boyfriend finding out about them and the annoyance of a next-door neighbor are more immediate in this hilarious and original film from the writer/director of Timecrimes. Full review on Row Three

Rango

One of the most uniquely-designed and entertaining animated films of the year, with a Johnny Depp-voiced chameleon setting himself up as a gunslinger to a thirsty town, but then he’s expected to follow through to save the town. Loads of sly, well-placed references to cinema history just add to the fun.

Midnight in Paris

With lovely Parisian locations and a charming story both playing on and debunking nostalgia, it’s really hard to dislike Midnight in Paris – obviously so, as it’s become Woody Allen’s highest grossing film ever. It doesn’t totally all work for me, especially in the modern-set scenes, but the travels back in time are fantastic.

The Guard

Both a hilarious caper of an old-school Irish policeman forced to partner with a black American FBI agent to take down a group of drug smugglers, and a sober and insightful character study, and better than both those bald-faced descriptions would suggest. The combination pays off just as well or better here for John Michael McDonagh as it did for his brother Martin McDonagh in In Bruges. Both have the advantage of a terrific Brendan Gleeson. Full review on Row Three

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh tries a lot of different things, and I don’t always think they’re successful, but this time he takes on an ensemble drama following the spread and attempted treatment of a deadly disease and pulls it off wonderfully – even if the frequent criticism that the film makes it a bit hard to connect emotionally with the many different people involved is probably accurate, as a thriller showing what could be a very real event in a detached way, it works like gangbusters. Full review on Row Three

Familiar Ground

This is a comedy, though it’s so extremely dry that sometimes it’s hard to tell. It took me a little while to get used to the particular brand of awkward and slow-to-pay off humor, but it was well worth it in this French Canadian dysfunctional family tale. Capsule review on Row Three

Super 8

Super 8 does an awful lot of things right, especially the casting of the kids, who are all simply fantastic. Getting the sense of nostalgia and childhood wonder right is essential for this kind of film, and it does a great job of it until the very end, when J.J. Abrams can’t resist going a little too bombastic and a little too CGI with the fight against the monster. Still, there are shadows of greatness here.

The Future

Miranda July’s films (she’s only made two features, including this one) leave me feeling a bit uneasy, but in this case, I think that’s utterly intentional. A couple faced with their own mortality give up their work-a-day jobs to follow their creative dreams, but that just reveals a lot of their personal insecurities and drives a wedge between them. A bit of a downer, perhaps, but one that certainly speaks to thirty-somethings, especially creatives, who feel like they’re drifting. Full review on Row Three

Take Shelter

A tour-de-force for Michael Shannon (though Jessica Chastain holds her own against him) as a loving husband and father tormented by recurring dreams of an impending storm. Real portents of the future, or the sign of a troubled mind? Either way, the lengths he goes to try to protect his family actually threaten to tear it apart. Scorecard review

The Bad Intentions

Ten-year-old Cayetana is firmly convinced that when her announced baby brother is born, she will die, a cynical fantasy she uses to cope with her aloof parents and the raging of terrorist activity surrounding her home in Peru. Perhaps a spiritual cousin to Pan’s Labyrinth – nowhere near as visionary and breathtaking as that film, especially in its overly-meandering third act, but solid and often quite funny. Capsule review on Row Three

Captain America: The First Avenger

I totally wasn’t expecting to enjoy Captain America as much as I did, but maybe that’s why I did. This is the sort of whiz-bang wide-eyed fun I want from a comic book movie, with gorgeous BioShock-infused set design, a hero who’s earnest in all the right ways, and a treatment of alternate history that pleased me very much.

The Adjustment Bureau

This, to me, is what the average Hollywood wide release film should be – not necessarily in story, though I did quite like its combination of thoughtful sci-fi and chemistry-laden romance, but it’s a solid, adult-aimed film that knows how to use its stars (Emily Blunt in particular makes great use of a character that could’ve been really flat), knows how to blend its genres together, and comes out with a satisfying whole that still gives you something to think about when it’s over.

Headhunters

An extremely solid genre thriller with a nice bait-and-switch plot as an art thief ends up embroiled in a corporate plot much bigger than he is, having to overcome his innate cowardice to survive and get his life back. Lots of OMG and WTF moments punctuate a well-written character arc. Scorecard review

Here it is, my top ten albums of 2011. If this looks familiar, it may be because you saw this exact list on Row Three when we published our music picks earlier this week. But! I did change one video from a live performance to the music video. So there’s that.

10. Blondie – Panic of Girls

Blondie have been making music for longer than I’ve been alive; when I heard they were coming out with a new album, I was only mildly interested, since most of the time older bands who come back to make new records don’t always work too well for me. But this album both sounds recognizably “Blondie” and also quite current. I guess that makes sense, because even Blondie’s 1970s and 1980s music sounds fairly current right now – so many indie bands are picking up their style and using it themselves. Blondie pays back the favor, even, covering Beirut’s “Sunday Smile” but giving it their own flavor that makes it almost sound like a sequel to “Sunday Girl.” The band is showing their age a bit in the video for “Mother” (below), but they can still rock it out and sound great.

9. The Raveonettes – Raven in the Grave

Each new Raveonettes album and tour stop is definitely an event in my home – they put on one of the best live shows I’ve seen – and after their previous In & Out of Control neared the top of my 2009 charts, I was particularly excited for this one. It’s not quite the instant favorite with me, but its quieter and more melancholic riffs have a way of haunting me when I least expect it.

8. Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Somehow despite my obvious hipster-ish music tastes, Death Cab always passed me by until this album, which I mostly picked up out of curiosity to see if they still had whatever it was that made them such a household name in my circles. Technically, I still don’t know, because I haven’t done enough listening to their back catalog yet, but holy crap did I fall for this insanely catchy album immediately. It pretty much just took the main guitar riff from “You Are a Tourist” (see below) and I was gone. So much so, you’ll note this is the only all-male band on my whole list. 🙂

7. Vivian Girls – Share the Joy

I have a thing for all-girl bands (and co-ed bands, as you’ll notice), so whenever I hear about one, I usually give it a listen, but I really didn’t like Vivian Girls’ 2009 release Everything Goes Wrong – a little too noisy and unfinished-sounding for me. This time around, though, they’ve cleaned it up, giving a much brighter, clearer sound without sacrificing too much of their fuzzy roots. More mainstream-friendly? Sure. But that’s not always a bad thing. From the bait-and-switch opening of “The Other Girls” to the self-consciously ’60s-pop of “Take It as It Comes” (below) and the minorly-inflected “I Heard You Say,” I’m with this album all the way.

6. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

My fiance introduced me to this band last year, and I’d just gotten really into their earlier album (which at 8 or so songs is much too short) when their first real full-length dropped – perfect timing for this trio of epic Welsh rockers to blow me away. So many of these songs are great, it was hard to pick just one, but “I Don’t Want to See You Like This” has a great video as well, so that barely got the nod. Whenever I just need to kick back with some densely-orchestrated, big sounding tunes, this is what I reach for.

5. Givers – In Light

An EP from Givers last year had me intrigued, but not totally sold – songs like “Up Up Up” are infinitely catchy, and the rest of the album bore out the promise of that initial single (which is included on both last year’s EP and this year’s album). The band is out of Lafayette, Louisiana, and Southern charm radiates from them – there’s nothing but joy on this album, and that comes through every note.

4. The Submarines – Love Notes/Letter Bombs

The Submarines are one of my favorite bands, so I was pretty sure they’d feature somewhere on my list when I heard they were releasing an album this year. The story of the now-married couple’s lives is basically told obliquely through their albums (courtship, breakup, reunion, marriage), and with this third one they settle into married life and the challenges and joys that come along with that. Their music is adorable and upbeat, but the lyrics always have unexpected depth – it’s not surprising to learn that Blake Hazard is F. Scott Fitzerald’s great-granddaughter.

3. Grouplove – Never Trust a Happy Song

This album has been steadily climbing my charts (just a week or so ago when we started putting together this post, they were in 6th place), because I cannot get their songs out of my head for the life of me. I’d heard but not been impressed with their EP last year, but the full-length takes all the things that were good about that EP, trimmed off the things I didn’t like, and ended up with an album that hits all my buttons, including ones I didn’t even know I HAD.

2. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes

I’ve moved this around on my list a lot, too, but every time I pop it in, I’m overcome with the raw emotion that Lykke Li has captured this time around. I’ve tried to like her earlier album Youth Fiction without success, but this one – every lyric, every musical choice, every orchestration is simply perfect. And this video has Stellan Skarsgard in it. So there’s that.

1. Cults – Cults

Last year, Cults’ 3-song EP would likely have been on my top ten list if I didn’t resist putting EPs on my top ten list. This year, they have a full-length (with a couple of the same songs as the EP), so it’s not surprising that it’s on here – it does surprise me a little that it ended up this high! But if I mess with the list any more, I’m going to go insane, so here it stays. The indie pop catchiness of “Go Outside” and the retro ’60s stylings of “You Know What I Mean” are clearly up my alley, but there’s not a song on here I don’t like. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got some of the more intriguing music videos, too – especially the one for “Go Outside,” which places the band Cults inside an actual cult, blending new and archival footage to put them at Jonestown.

You probably thought that Honorable Mentions post was my 11-20, right? Wrong! I couldn’t squeeze everything into a top ten or fifteen this year, so I did a top twenty, split into two parts. My top ten will post tomorrow, though between you and me, you could hop over to Row Three and see it now.

20. The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade

The first album from local sibling act The Belle Brigade was a self-produced collection of solid and sweet folksy songs. This time around, they have a label, a bunch of promotion (I’ve even seen them featuring on some big-name year-end lists!), and a bigger, bolder, more rollicking sound. Los Angeles musicians have their own take on country, sort of an indie-country hybrid, and I like it.

19. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Every time I hear The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, I really enjoy them (also lead singer Kip is like the nicest guy ever). They don’t stick with me for that long, though, which is the main reason this album isn’t even higher on my list. This one’s even catchier and more fun than their previous stuff, if possible, and the video for “Body” is a great tribute to the endless summers of childhood.

18. The Dodos – No Color

I quite liked The Dodo’s first album Visiter, but didn’t care for the second at all – with No Color, they’re back in form, with intricate arrangements and exuberant drumming backing up soaring vocals. Plus, this time they’ve got Neko Case on background vocals, which lends an extra air of awesome to many of the songs, especially “Don’t Try and Hide It.”

17. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

The most surprising thing about this album is that Los Campesinos! haven’t used this title before. Yes, you won’t find much new on here if you’re a long-time Los Camp! fan, but if you are a fan, you’re probably okay with that. It continues the slightly slower, gloomier tone that characterized the second half of Romance is Boring, with lyrics that are slightly more mature and considered. Losing more original members is starting to take its toll, though – nothing against the replacements, who are solid, but Aleks’s sunny counterpoint to Gareth’s desperation is missed.

16. Wild Flag – Wild Flag

A band combining former members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, the Minders, and others, I knew I had to check Wild Flag out as soon as I heard about them. I don’t love all of the songs (some tend toward the same noisiness that makes Sleater-Kinney just a sometimes band for me), but the ones I do like I like a LOT. Especially “Romance,” which also has a really fun video – basically a short film, really. Carrie Brownstein is also active as a comedienne (currently on IFC’s Portlandia with Fred Armison), and that sense comes through here.

15. Ida Maria – KATLA

Somehow I missed until a few weeks ago that Ida Maria had a new album out this year! Thankfully I got hold of it in time for this list, because this is one fun punk throwback album. There’s a few songs that tend a bit too abrasive for me, but for the most part, KATLA is immediately and unavoidably catchy. Throw in Ida Maria’s sly wit, and this is at least as fun, maybe more so, than her debut. “Cherry Red” is one of my favorite songs on the album; this version is acoustic, but the album is not.

14. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

I didn’t give Florence + the Machine’s debut album Lungs nearly enough listening time when it came out, beyond the two or three singles that got a lot of play, but I tuned into this one more. I’m still not totally sold on the whole package – her voice is amazing, there’s no doubt of that, but it often overpowers everything else that’s going on. I think that’s part of the point. But there’s a lot to appreciate here, and there are several songs definitely standing out to me on here.

13. Mates of State – Mountaintops

It’s so great to hear Mates of State back doing original music again after an admittedly-great cover album. I need more time with this one; the second half starts to get a bit same-y to me, and they’re definitely moving into a more melodic and pared-down style that I like, but doesn’t excite me as much as Bring It Back, which remains my favorite of their albums. That said, songs like “Palomino” and “Maracas” are right up with their best.

12. Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls

A friend has proven to me he shared UK band Veronica Falls with me last year, which I don’t remember at all, but after stumbling across them on Stereogum earlier this year, I find myself more taken with Veronica Falls’ eponymous debut LP every time I hear it. The combination of gentle vocals with melancholic chord progressions, tight harmonies, and just a hint of medieval intervals feels fresh and unique, and imminently pleasing.

11. Dum Dum Girls – Only in Dreams / He Gets Me High EP

The EP He Gets Me High was my #1 of the first half of the year. I still love it, and I quite like Only in Dreams as well, but it’s a lot less noise-poppy and a lot more polished than their previous album, which is throwing me off. With more time to get used to Only in Dreams, I’ve little doubt this pair of excellent discs would jump back into my Top Ten, but as of right now, I’m not getting the same exhilaration from Only in Dreams that I got from the EP or their previous album, so I’m reluctantly bumping them down here.

Over the next few days, I’ll be listing out my favorite things of 2011 – music, movies, games. I’d do books, but I only made it through a pitiful number of books in 2011, not even worth listing. All this stuff is listed on my 2011 Favorites page, which I’ve been keeping updated all year, but calling my favorites out with a bit of explanation is something I always look forward to doing.

To start things off, here are ten albums (in no order) that I really enjoyed, but didn’t quite make my favorites of the year.

Neon Indian – Era Extraña

I came across Neon Indian via NPR’s First Listen – I often check First Listen to preview albums I’m planning to buy a week early, but once in a while I find something I’d never heard of before. Neon Indian are a bit heavier on the electronic-sounding distortion than I usually like, but something about their sound really pleases me, especially when it falls into fuzzier distortion. Both “Hex Girlfriend” and “Polish Girl” would rate among my favorite songs of the year, but the rest of the album left me colder – kind of same-y and unmemorable, knocking it down into the honorable mentions.

St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

I can easily see this album being in my top twenty if I’d given myself more time to get accustomed to it, but I find St. Vincent something of a tough sell, personally. I don’t know why; lots of people whose taste I generally share love Annie Clark a lot, and I can see the appeal, but she just doesn’t grab me immediately. Like I said, with more time to let it seep in, it might.

An Horse – Walls

The third album from this Australian duo takes their basic sound and polishes it up a bit – not quite so much reliance on the fourth interval, for one thing, which is welcome.

Braids – Native Speaker

A January release, so this one has had plenty of time to earworm me, but only the opening song “Lemonade” has succeeded in sticking with me very long. That song is killer, a pop-happy experimental number that promises more than the rest of the album can quite deliver.

The Pauses – A Cautionary Tale

It’d be disengenuous of me not to mention that I’m pretty good online friends with this Florida band’s drummer; I wouldn’t know they existed otherwise. They have a very pleasing indie pop sound, with strong vocals and a bit of experimentation around the edges that sets them apart from the crowd.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical

I’ve not really liked Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s previous albums all that much, but listened through this one on a whim and was duly impressed. It’s tighter and stronger than what I’ve heard before, with catchier hooks and a great sound.

Pepper Rabbit – Red Velvet Snow Ball

I saw these guys opening for another band several months ago and remembered enjoying their set, so when I saw they had an album out now, I figured why not check it out. Often I enjoy opening bands at the show because, well, live music is awesome, but Pepper Rabbit followed through in the studio.

Feist – Metals

Most people who like the bands I like put Feist way up at the top of their lists. I like her all right, but I just can’t quite love her stuff (aside from her vocals with Broken Social Scene, of course – those are awesome). It’s a little too spare, a little too quirky, or something. That said, I enjoyed listening through Metals more than I’ve enjoyed her other albums. Maybe next time is the charm?

The Violet Lights – Sex & Sound EP

Another band I’m friends with, but I think this EP is really strong aside from that – an LA-tinged throwback to Britpop, like a touch of Oasis mixed with a dash of the Libertines, and then a sprinkling of Jack White thrown in on top.

Twin Sister – In Heaven

A bit of an electropop touch layered in makes this album really listenable; with a bit more time it might’ve risen higher, but on the other hand, it’s maybe a tad forgettable outside of definite earworm material like “Bad Street.”

Only eight new-to-me films in December, thanks to a busy schedule moving, going home for Christmas, and, oh right, getting engaged (to this guy). But we were able to knock out a few more end-of-the-year films, including The Artist – one of my most highly anticipated films of the year – plus some other random stuff. Not a big month, but a strong one; I liked/loved pretty much everything I saw.

What I Loved

The Artist

A black and white silent film coming out in 2011? Sign me up for that, if only for curiosity’s sake. Thankfully, there’s more here than just the gimmick, even if the film does follow some familiar ground (specifically Singin’ in the Rain) in its story of a popular silent film hero – named George Valentin, but much more based on Douglas Fairbanks than Valentino – who resists the transition to sound, quickly falling into oblivion while young starlet Peppy Miller shoots to the top of the sound cinema food chain. Generally films like this tend to just make me want to watch the real thing (cf. The Good German), but The Artist succeeds better than most at capturing the sense of fun, excitement, humor and melodrama that characterize silent cinema, without seeming pandering or imitative; the actors don’t really even seem like modern actors pretending old styles, which is really difficult to pull off. The little bit of sound that is used is quite effective, as long as you remember that we’re seeing through Valentin’s silence-centered understanding of cinema, and thus the world. It’s a light and breezy story, but incredibly charming and likable.
2011 France. Director: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, John Cromwell.
Seen December 17 at Arclight Hollywood.
Flickchart ranking: 230 out of 2865

The Adventures of Tintin

Chalk this up as one of my favorite 3D experiences so far – the format and I don’t get along very well, with me usually ending up with splitting headaches, strained eyes, and great irritability. This time, no headache, no irritability, just an enjoyable old-fashioned whizbang adventure film, with subtle but effective use of 3D and better than expected motion capture (something else that usually turns me off). The approach here is to make the film both realistic and cartoony at the same time, a difficult balance, but one the film pulls off, making Tintin himself relatively realistic looking, but characters like detectives Thomson and Thompson much more over the top and silly. It works. It’s visually interesting all the way through, with much better composition and camerawork than 3D movies usually even attempt, let alone pull off. There are things in the margins, cutting down on the focal problems I usually have with 3D, and some sequences, like the motorcycle chase toward the end, that are positively breathtaking. The story is straight out of two or three of the Tintin comics, but could easily be direct from 1930s film serials – I won’t go so far as to say this film is in the same league with Indiana Jones (the characters are a little flatter, the pacing a little more ragged), but it’s definitely drinking from the same water fountain, and I enjoyed it immensely. And the dog is awesome.
2011 USA. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost.
Seen December 29 at Regal St. Louis Mills.
Flickchart ranking: 331 out of 2865

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

When the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out here, I was a huge fan and lamented the fact that an English-language version would surely follow soon – lamented because the Swedish one was so good and so accessible there should be no need for any pandering to American audiences. And on the one hand, I was right. That version was solid and in fact, fairly popular in the United States. But on the other hand, this version is tighter, fuller, and every bit as good if not better than its foreign counterpart. It does a better job with the Wennerstrom subplot (which ties off Blomkvist’s arc more fully), it fleshes out some of both his and Lisbeth’s backstory, and as much as I loved Noomi Rapace in the role, Rooney Mara brings a much different and just as effective take on the character here. It’s a star-making performance for her. Fincher could do this stuff in his sleep, but I’m fine watching him do it. I’m really curious how the next two in the series will turn out, since the quality of the Swedish films took a real nose-dive after the first one.
2011 USA. Director: David Fincher. Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Robin Wright Penn.
Seen December 28 at AMC Chesterfield Mall.
Flickchart ranking: 332 out of 2865

The Naked Island

New rule: Whenever Cinefamily is playing something I’ve never heard of when I’m there volunteering, I should definitely watch it, because more often than not, it’s something pretty amazing. This film is an essentially silent document of the daily lives of a family eking out a meagre existence on their island farm. The parents paddle to the mainland before dawn each day to bring back heavy buckets of fresh water, carefully carrying them up the treacherous path to their home and fields, each step a potential disaster. They’ll do that trek three or four more times during the day, metering out the precious water to each plant, any spilled drop a cause for despair. Other times are more enjoyable – a trip to the city with their two sons after harvest, joy over a fish the boys caught. Still others are deeply traumatic, as when one boy falls ill, necessitating an anxious voyage to find the doctor. It’s a very simple film on the surface, and excruciatingly paced at times, but it adds up to one of the more emotionally resonant and profound films I’ve seen all year.
1960 Japan. Director: Kateno Shindô. Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama, Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto.
Seen December 21 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 407 out of 2865

Wayne’s World

I had this linked in my head with Dumb and Dumber, likely because they both came out in the early nineties, had a pair of guys as the main characters, and starred comedians I don’t generally care for that much. But Jonathan promised me I would like this one much more than Dumb and Dumber (which we watched a few months ago, and I didn’t hate, but isn’t really my thing), and he was totally right. This one is smart, funny, and meta, and I’ve already taken to quoting it almost as much as Jonathan does. Definitely one we’ll return to a lot, I bet. Read our He Says, She Says entry
1992 USA. Director: Penelope Spheeris. Starring: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Tia Carrere, Rob Lowe.
Seen December 3 via Zune on Xbox Live.
Flickchart ranking: 454 out of 2865

What I Liked

The Hudsucker Proxy

With this one crossed off my list, I now have only The Ladykillers on my “unseen Coen” list. I’ll get to that one eventually, but this one I’ve actually been meaning to see for quite a while and fortuitously popped it on on New Year’s Eve – fortuitously because it’s actually set on New Year’s, at least for the climax. I’ve heard it said that this was one of the Coens zanier, cartoonier films, so I was expecting something along the lines of the farcical Burn After Reading, and it’s definitely that side of the Coens. But here, they’re pulling tropes from 1930s-1940s films galore, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Christmas in July to His Girl Friday to Bringing Up Baby to It’s a Wonderful Life. Not everything totally works (Leigh’s Katharine Hepburn attempt comes off as grating more often than endearing), and it’s a fairly superficial pastiche, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that, and I enjoyed it a lot, right down to the art deco production design. The only major nitpick is by following the Wham-O line of products (hula hoop, etc.), the film forces itself into 1957, when all the styles it’s borrowing are at least 10-15 years older than that. Not a dealbreaker for me, but rather distracting.
1994 USA. Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 502 out of 2865

Gremlins

Yes, I’ve never seen this. Until now! 🙂 I’m really glad someone mentioned that Gremlins is actually a Christmas movie; I’d meant to watch it in October as part of my month of horror, but we watched it on Christmas, and had a lot of fun with it. I knew the basic “don’t feed it after midnight” premise, but it’s the details that really got me. All the father’s whackadoodle inventions, and how supremely goofy the film gets, culminating in the scene I screencapped above, when all the gremlins stop terrorizing the town and settle in to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I totally didn’t expect it to be so goofy, and I loved that.
1984 USA. Director: Joe Dante. Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Keye Luke, Corey Feldman.
Seen December 25 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 965 out of 2865

Dogtooth

What a bizarre little film. I honestly don’t know what I think about it yet, and may not until I rewatch it at some point. Very little story ties together a series of vignettes showing the strange version of child protection practiced by this family – they keep their young adult children (late teens/early twenties) confined on their isolated estate, telling them it isn’t safe to leave until their dogtooth (made-up, but the kids don’t know that) falls out and regrows. It’s a disturbing look at extreme forms of indoctrination and “training,” none of which the children seem to question until an outsider’s brief interactions with them begins to tear the parents’ program apart at the seams. It’s a prickly film, not particularly enjoyable, but somehow continually fascinating despite its off-putting tendencies.
2009 Greece. Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 1709 out of 2865

Rewatches – Love

Charade

I just bought the Criterion Blu-ray of this and popped it in just to check the transfer (which is gorgeous; definitely the best way to own this public domain film, which is often sold in highly degraded prints) and then ended up watching the entire thing. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, but never in this kind of picture quality, and that just made the film – already supremely enjoyable due to the winning combination of a twisty espionage story, cutesy romance between Hepburn and Grant, and a script both witty and goofy – that much more fun to watch. If anything, I like it more every time I see it.
1963 USA. Director: Stanley Donen. Starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy.
Seen December 1 on Criterion Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 79 out of 2865

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

I first saw this over a year ago when it played a one-night show at Cinefamily (to a sold-out crowd that included Alan Tudyk, who did a Q&A, and Nathan Fillion, who was there to watch – okay, I’m done name-dropping) long before it had any distribution of any kind. I loved its parody of cabin-in-the-woods horror movies, even if it is a bit on the nose at times, and couldn’t wait to share it with Jonathan, but didn’t get a chance until last night. He loved it as much as I thought he would, and though I feared it might suffer without a full audience, it was just as much fun as I remembered.
2010 USA. Director: Eli Craig. Starring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 584 out of 2865

Stats

Films seen for the first time: 7
Rewatches: 2
Films seen in theatres: 4
List of Shame films: 2
2011 films: 3
2000s films: 2
1990s films: 1
1980s films: 1
1960s films: 2 (1 rewatch)
American films: 6 (2 rewatches)
French films: 1
Japanese films: 1
Greek films: 1

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