Why Quentin Tarantino’s work over the last decade really, truly matters.

Consider the panache with which Quentin Tarantino arrived into American culture. With the one-two punch of structurally revolutionary crime thrillers Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino set himself apart in endless ways: with his incredibly funny, elaborate dialogue, his French New Wave-meets-Looney Tunes aesthetic, shocking bursts of violence, and especially his gift for repurposing ‘70s grindhouse-movie sleaze into something a little more palatable for America’s critical elite. At age 31, he more-or-less grabbed early-’90s independent cinema by the balls. It was the best thing that ever happened to him — two decades later, he’s still riding on the momentum picked up back then — but it’s had something of an unexpected effect.

See, when one hears the name “Tarantino”, what comes to mind is exactly what I’ve mentioned: dialogue, violence, humor, et cetera et cetera. But what often goes unspoken in endless praise for Tarantino is that he’s become an incredibly humane artist, and has evolved from sophisticated showman to an unexpected champion of the underdogs of American culture and history. One of the reasons I’m so convinced of his greatness is that he’s developed this attitude while continuing to improve all that made him so appealing in the first place.

Uma Thurman's "Bride" starts out bloodied, beaten and objectified at the beginning of KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003).

Uma Thurman’s “Bride” starts out bloodied, beaten and objectified at the beginning of KILL BILL (2003/2004).

His references to genre (slasher, western, men-on-a-mission, martial arts) are only becoming more obscure, his naughty-boy, smart-ass dialogue is only becoming more outrageous, and his violent set-pieces are now comparable to the masterful action auteurs (Sam Peckinpah, Jackie Chan) that directly inspired him. Witness Kill Bill, Vol. 1’s near-balletic climactic fight, in which lead actress Uma Thurman lays waste to 88 (!) male (!!) swordsmen. Consider also Django Unchained’s infamous final shootout, in which Jamie Foxx’s uprising against dumb-fuck slavers genuinely transcends its roots as mere screen violence and becomes something closer to visceral, blood-soaked opera.

It could be argued that he’s gotten too good at this, to the point that audiences are missing the point as to why it’s being done — to confront the sins of America itself, and provide a sort of cathartic release against those sins.

The Bride at the peak of her combative powers, ready to take on the Japanese mafia in KILL BILL (2003, 2004).

The Bride at the peak of her combative powers, ready to take on the Japanese mafia in KILL BILL (2003/2004).

Kill Bill may be the greatest pivot point in his body of work — it was here that he picked up both his chapter-divided structure and strong fixation on cultural revenge. The lead character, known simply as the Bride, is a woman whose wedding rehearsal is ambushed, leaving her in a coma for years — during which she is stripped of her infant daughter, raped in her sleep, and nearly assassinated by the gang she once belonged to. She wakes up one day and begins to take revenge on all who wronged her.

It’s at once Tarantino’s most expansive film — around four and a half hours, front-to-back, yet probably his most focused. Rather than tackle entire racial/cultural groups (as he would later), he allows an outrageously defiled woman to reclaim her dignity and daughter.

The women of DEATH PROOF (2007) fighting for their lives against Stuntman Mike.

The women of DEATH PROOF (2007) fighting for their lives against Stuntman Mike.

He continued much at the same rate for 2007’s Death Proof, likely his most under-seen movie, and quite unfortunately so. It’s the story of psychotic serial-killer ‘Stuntman Mike’, whose main trade is luring young women into his ‘death-proof’ stunt car and creatively offing them.

Even for such a film with such sleazy qualities — frequent close-ups of womens’ feet, incredibly sexualized dialogue, an extended lap-dance sequence — when a group of young women take revenge on Stuntman Mike, it’s immensely satisfying all the same. The key image of the film is in the midst of the famous car-chase — where Stuntman Mike stops chasing a car full of women and instead, the women begin chasing HIM. It’s where victimization turns into empowerment, buried within one of the greatest car-chase sequences of all time. It’s great stuff.

The overarching villain of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) -- and 20th century history itself.

The overarching villain of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) — and 20th century history itself.

But with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino took his biggest leap forward in artistic maturity and thematic complexity. It’s a revenge movie (noticing a pattern…?) but one accomplished all too cleverly — imagining an alternate reality in which Hitler and much of his Third Reich are violently gunned down in a movie theater by a group of bloodthirsty Jewish-American troops. In essence, this distills his career’s entire thesis statement into one solitary sequence — proclaiming the power of cinema to correct cultural evils and prejudices. This decision to rewrite history drew lots of controversy — by design, it should be noted — but it’s total genius in my book; subtly implying that artistic freedom is a higher end to achieve than historical reverence. Why can’t fictional characters kill Hitler in a fictional movie theater? Why does adhering to history demonstrate any sort of higher ethical value than straying from it?

The hysterically clumsy, utterly doomed Klansmen depicted in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

The hysterically clumsy, utterly doomed Klansmen depicted in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

By the release of his most recent masterpiece, Django Unchained, popular consciousness began to catch up with the subliminal agenda Tarantino’s set out on for the last decade. (The film, probably his best-received since Pulp Fiction, took home two Oscars for acting and writing.) But this may be his first instance of copy-and-pasting his own themes from film to film. While it’s an incredibly impactful work and certainly among the best American films of its year, depicting the protracted payback of a slave against southern slave-owners, there’s not nearly as much value beneath the bloodshed as the films that came before it. Each new Tarantino film presents a new interpretation of revenge — whether it’s revenge as inversion of genre-film trope, revenge as cathartic release against millenniums of oppressive white male presence, or revenge as example of transcendent power of art. Rather than dig up anything new, Django just sorta cobbles all of these previous philosophies together. It works but it’s not new.

Where he will go next, no one really knows. There’s been whisperings of more Kill Bill offerings, as well as a script entitled Killer Crow, in which black WWII troops band together and slaughter their oppressive white ‘allies’. But for someone with such an incredible sense of cinematic history and context, Tarantino likely knows all too well what happens when directors repeat themselves far too much. With his work, he’s made an incredible collective statement on the value of recognizing cultural misdeeds and punishing those responsible.  But if he wants to exit the conversation for “best directors of the decade” and enter one more akin to “greatest artists of the last half-century”, the dude may need to start playing a new song.

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A few words on a man of many.

I’ve written hundreds of sentences tonight about the impact of Roger Ebert, on both my life and the filmgoing experience, at large.

I discarded them all.

They used many big words, pulled many great tricks, and ultimately didn’t amount to much. However, selfish as this may seem, I will comment that with his passing I feel many roles — journalistic mentor, utter inspiration, human standard of intelligence & decency — have been ripped from my life.

Ever since I first glimpsed his work — reading small fragments of his effusive “Toy Story 2” critique, aged three — I’d always hoped that one day, Ebert would read a Ryan Michaels review. Should the course of my life end up as I aspire, perhaps he’d even see a Ryan Michaels film. With his passing, I suppose I must move on from a pursuit that’s sustained me as long as I’ve held conscious thought.

But no matter. As long as our planet has a good pair of eyes, a healthy curiosity of art, or an abiding respect of passion and warmth, the work of this humble little Chicago man will be read and respected.

The very last sentence of his final published blog spot reads, word for word, “I’ll see you at the movies”. How prescient. Although today may have been the last time we woke up together, he’ll be there with me as long as I live.

1942-2013.

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My favorite movies of 2012.

No introductions. No pretense. These are, very simply, the films of last year that connected with me the most.

#10: Joe Carnahan’s THE GREY

Arriving at the tail-end of January, a month well-known for creative bankruptcy at the cinema, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey remains one of the boldest achievements of 2012 by a long shot. Don’t let the studio’s reductive choice to market this as a simple “Men Punch Wolves” thriller fool you. Using the famously masculine, authoritative image of lead actor Liam Neeson not to affirm action-movie tropes, but rather, to subvert them, this contained character-piece focuses on the efforts of a small handful of plane-crash survivors to make it out of the Alaskan wilds before they fall prey to any number of dangers: the freezing cold, the crafty packs of wolves that seem to close in on them from all corners, and the growing vitriol between themselves. The Grey uses these well-executed, if familiar concepts to make a bold statement on the helplessness of man, both to exterior dangers and to their own existential crises.

#9: Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern’s SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS

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When the final title-card of this film rolled up, it was perhaps the only time in 2012, movie-theater or no, where I felt like I’d lost everything. Full disclosure: Shut Up and Play the Hits appeals to me on a very personal note, as it chronicles the final days of James Murphy’s electro-dance-pop-punk-rock-joy band, LCD Soundsystem, an outfit whose music has proven a bittersweet soundtrack to a lot of my adolescence. Lots of Shut Up is simply footage of their famous farewell concert at Madison Square Garden in February 2011, and had this been as far as the film went, I’d still have been an immensely satisfied viewer. But in meditating on what exactly compelled Murphy to dissolve his (very successful) unit and watching his decision’s impact on those around him, it forced me to reflect on the value of artistic integrity and simply knowing when to walk away. For a long time, I’ve said to others that it’s an immense comfort, knowing in a few decades I’ll be able to pull an LCD Soundsystem record off my shelf and experience the same buzz of my youth. Shut Up and Play the Hits will be sitting right next to those records.

#8: Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE

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Say some shit. Go ahead. Sure, Magic Mike may be one of the most homoerotic pieces of American filmmaking since the volleyball scenes of Top Gun, and sure, if you’d asked a few years ago, I’d have labelled lead stars Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey as overrated pretty boys. But guess what?! Magic Mike is a firm product of now, tapping into the cultural zeitgeist with both uncanny perception and a fairly large dose of cynicism. When caught between the lenses of soon-to-be-retired cinematic miracle-maker Steven Soderbergh, Channing Tatum’s exploits as a male stripper serve as both indicators of the twisted sexual dynamics of pop culture and the sort of financial desperation that the film’s surprisingly dark final act observes fully. Thus, as a viewer, we can have our cake and eat it too: noting subtly the distorted paths Magic Mike‘s hot young characters take, while appreciating the sort of gung-ho, all-out sleaziness that they exude.

#7: Steve McQueen’s SHAME

Shame

With the placement of this film, I am both cheating and have been cheated. See, as at this time last year, Steve McQueen’s unflinching study of sexual addiction was swallowing whole just about every other conversation in the film world: both for the extremely graphic nudity allotted by its NC-17 rating, and for the tremendous performances of lead actors Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. But as an Ann Arbor native, I was not allotted the opportunity to see the 2011-released film until it rolled around to theaters in mid-March. This said, the utter artistic bravery of Shame has stuck with me all year long, as has the memory of walking out of that State Theater screening and literally gasping for air, after 101 minutes of pummeling misery. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Shame again, but I’ll remember the restrained technical mastery, precise aesthetics, and unbearably sad face of Michael Fassbender as long as I live.

#6: Gareth Evans’ THE RAID: REDEMPTION and Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL

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Yeah, I’m cheating with two films in one spot. My house, my rules. In a particularly weak year for action cinema, these two monoliths stood head-and-shoulders above the competition despite their remarkably different origins — one is a $1.1 million Indonesian import, and the other is the 23rd entry into a world-famous franchise with the rumored price tag of $200 million. Chronicling a couple of noble cops’ attempt to fight their way to the top floor of a compound stacked with drug-pushing martial arts experts, The Raid is a bare-knuckle, utterly savage adrenaline rush of a movie. It doesn’t have the best fight scene of the year — it IS the best fight scene of the year. So spare is its direction, so singular is its focus. Skyfall, comparatively, achieves near-identical nirvana as entertainment, but by very different means. Lead actor Daniel Craig, who by now has surely entered most serious conversations about the best James Bond portrayal of all time, guides Skyfall as it both reflects on its franchise’s past identities while pushing it ever-further into more brutal, bold territory. American Beauty director Sam Mendes proved an inspired choice to direct this thing, as his combat sequences are superb. The way that cinematography Roger Deakins frames the final 30 minutes as a sort of burned-out, dim nightmare sends chills up my spine. The film also has, bar none, the best villain in Bond history in Javier Bardem’s effeminate Silva.

#5: David O. Russell’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

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As a romantic comedy focused on two emotionally and psychologically imbalanced individuals, Silver Linings Playbook always feels on the edge of disaster, as if the whole film will just collapse in on itself. Yet it never does. Writer-director David O. Russell has proven himself to be one of cinema’s most delicate, acute observers of family dynamics, and much of Silver Linings Playbook focuses on strife between the four lead actors, who it’s worth noting are the first quartet in 31 years to all be nominated for all four different acting Oscars. But by the end, the film reaches an unspeakably emotional catharsis that overwhelms the senses and warms the heart. In detecting the fatal flaw of most romantic comedies — the two leads being separated by arbitrary misunderstandings — and altering the strife into being motivated by a place of actual human imbalance, Silver Linings Playbook outdoes every movie in its genre for as long as I can remember. A triumph.

#4: Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED

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#3: Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski’s CLOUD ATLAS

CLOUD ATLAS

Cloud Atlas tried bigger, bolder, awesomer things than any other American film this year. But I’m not one to simply commend effort, but rather, product. And Cloud Atlas genuinely works. Consider the miracle of balancing six narratives with the same actors over thousands of years, in cutting between them fluidly, in ensuring they avoid monotony, in giving them a common thematic thrust, and in simply making them good. And while the conversation over its effectiveness has been wildly entertaining (Time Magazine declared it the worst film of 2012), I’m an unabashed adorer of all that this film did: reach for insanely melodramatic, often loony heights, while affirming a message about the basic decency of the human spirit.

#2: Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

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It’s fairly difficult for me to write, let alone speak, about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master without quickly devolving into fervent hysterics and wild hyperbole. I’ll spare them. But the wild ambition and pure artistry on display with PTA’s sixth film is a sight to behold, as is the way in which he uses the massive scale of 70mm film to reveal the distorted souls of two men — one a drunken wanderer, one the leader of a cult-like spiritual movement. The off-beat rhythms of The Master may be mistaken for attempts at pretentious opaqueness, while ironically they serve perhaps the most basic function of all — worm itself fully into the clouded mind of Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.

#1: Rian Johnson’s LOOPER

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Perhaps the first thing that struck me about Rian Johnson’s Looper was how it was fully, for lack of a better word, formed. This is a film without a wasted frame or superfluous line, an unnecessary gunshot or an out-of-place pause. The premise starts knotty — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s futuristic mobster assassinates targets sent from the past, and one day sees an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) between his gun’s sights — and it only gets funkier and bloodier from there. But what sets this apart from both its science-fiction contemporaries as well as every other film of its year: it was the moment where our next great director, after flirting with excellent in past work, fully arrived. Rian Johnson with Looper has declared himself as one of the most original, talented writer-directors on the planet, a man capable of marrying shameless escapist thrills with thoughtful, somber meditations on the consequences of violence and of our actions, past and present. He’s made a classic of his genre and of his art form.

[It’s worth noting that the year of 2012 at large didn’t do much for this writer, who admittedly didn’t connect with many widely-respected films that others seemed to. Had this writer been able to expand the mathematical limits of 10, he’d probably have found room for William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, David Koepp’s Premium Rush, and perhaps most especially Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This writer should also like to note Leos Carax’s Holy Motors as the film with the most intriguing ideas and concept of 2012, that may well stick with him longer than any other on this list, despite overall mixed feelings about the presentation of said ideas.]

2011 in film, explored in exactly 2,011 words.

I watched roughly 14,400 minutes of new cinema in 2011. Picking and ranking 2-hour chunks above one another is an absolutely monumental, draining, and in some ways worthless task for a year that many would argue was lackluster. Hell, I would have — but then when making a shortlist of truly great 2011 films worthy of recognition, I jotted down thirty titles, no problem, no sweat. I considered going the Rolling Stone route and doing ten ranked mainstream films and ten ranked indies/foreigns — but even that proved too difficult. What I took away from this year is that the simplest and oldest of ideas, given the right approach and passion, can achieve the highest of highs. So without further ado, my 2,011-word-breakdown on what got me jazzed in 2011.

20. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love”.

This one seemed to transcend all genders and tastes to become the romantic comedy event of the year. Damn straight. “Crazy, Stupid, Love”, while falling prey to many tropes of its genre, goes to show just how far organic relationships and characters can elevate material. It’s a funny, touching, and surprisingly wise look at love in all its stages. Insert comment about Ryan Gosling’s shirtless scene here.

19. Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”.

Every ounce as sappy and corny as its many detractors will tell you. That’s what made it click for me. “War Horse” features some of Spielberg’s most well-directed sequences in a decade, and wisely focuses not on the eponymous horse, but his indelible impact on the humans around him. A gorgeously shot, lovingly made film that, if made 60 years ago, would probably be hailed as a classic.

18. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”.

It hurts my soul that this isn’t higher. Few films hit harder than “Hugo” did, or pulled out as many technical stops. Scorsese manages to combine a redemption story, a dreamlike fantasy, a film-preservationist-manifesto and a children’s film into one very tasty package, while also making the most cogent case yet for the existence of 3D.

17. Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult”.

From the “Juno” team, this is a comedy whose humor is by and directed towards very, very misguided characters, giving every laugh a really subtle but lasting burn. It’s acerbic in tone but thoughtful in nature, with some very fine performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt.

16. Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene”.

Girl is integrated into cult. Girl eventually leaves cult physically, yet not mentally. This simple, but terrifying premise made for some of the subtler filmmaking this year — but haunting filmmaking, nonetheless. The ending of this film will either soothe or shake you, and the way the film makes a cogent thematic argument for either interpretation makes it an uncannily unsettling work.

15. Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In”.

A lot of films’ twists leave you surprised to some degree — but how often do they make you re-evaluate what you just saw on every level, be it thematic, emotional, motivational, and yes, sexual. “The Skin I Live In” does that, using ’50s-esque pulp and modern paranoia to craft something totally undefinable. And brilliant.

14. Jason Eisener’s “Hobo With A Shotgun”.

You think the joke’s on you because this made my list? Nope. Joke’s on you for not seeing this endlessly inventive, blood-soaked grindhouse tribute. Available on Netflix Instant, this 86-minute monster is perfect viewing for the whole family, especially little kids who may derive enjoyment from watching people their age set on fire.

13. Gore Verbinski’s “Rango”.

Before you ask, that last sentence was a joke. What American families need to be watching is “Rango”, a Johnny Depp-starring film among the funkiest and most original genre-hybrids of the year. It’s also absolutely hilarious, filled with excellent action, and unlike many on this list, made hundreds of millions of dollars. Who loses here? No one.

12. Michel Hazanivicus’ “The Artist”.

By reaching to devices of the past, “The Artist” created an almost disgustingly charming, thoroughly entertaining dramedy. Its black-and-white, silent format has brought an entire filmmaking era back into public consciousness, an absolute miracle if you ask me. Oh, and that damn dog…

11. Jonathon Levine’s “50/50”.

Writer Will Reiser, drawing from his own experiences as a young man getting cancer, managed to create something with the raunchy charm of “Superbad” with the emotional weight of, well, “Terms of Endearment”. “50/50” owned me from the first frame, and though you may be laughing too hard to notice, some of the year’s most subtle, effective character-development is to be found here. Good movie. Great movie.

10. Kim Ji-Woon’s “I Saw The Devil”.

“I Saw The Devil” is the revenge movie to beat all revenge movies, and I mean this in both how much it breaks your heart and how freakin’ bloody it gets. There is nothing that these men will not do in this movie. But the way the film simultaneously provides outlandishly well-done action and, by its conclsuion, condemns what it’s done to these people’s souls, is as fascinating as it is contradictory. Good looks, South Korea!

9. Mike Mills’ “Beginners”.

An elderly man, coping with the death of his wife of 40 years and a cancer diagnosis, comes out as gay. His son struggles to cope and finds solace in his dog, who communicates with him via subtitles. There’s about a million different ways that premise could have derailed and become typical “indie” fare — but it didn’t. Miraculously, it’s one of the most moving, heartfelt movies of the year, with the nostalgic 1950s’ score making the story of a man’s exit from this world subtly devastating.

8. Brad Bird’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”.

After how long I’ve been yearning for a perfect action film, to finally receive it is the greatest of all pleasures. “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” has action that gets at the heart of what the genre, and popcorn entertainment at large, is really all about. And after due consideration and three viewings (IMAX is a must), the 30-minute Dubai segment is genuinely one of the greatest action sequences ever created. The fact that this film finally ended the ridiculous Tom Cruise backlash nets bonus points.

7. Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”.

If I were to tell you my own Hawaiian heritage didn’t make me hugely biased to this, I’d be lying. But the majority of America seems to be with me on this one – George Clooney turned in some of his best work as a Honolulu man trying, by any means necessary, to protect his newly-inherited responsibilities to his daughters, in the wake of a jet-skiing accident leaving his wife in a coma. Such a moving, hopeful work. If Oscar taps this one’s shoulder, I would not be surprised or displeased in any way.

6. Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”.

Unless you live in New York, Los Angeles, or have access to Academy voters’ screener DVDs (my secret, now not-so-secret weapon), you have not seen or probably heard of “A Separation”. And now you have. It’s an Iranian film pulsing with vitality and emotion, about a couple in the midst of a divorce and the effects it has on the people around them — their daughter, her teacher, and a couple who accuses the husband of something truly horrible. “A Separation” is a film whose greatness comes by way of revelations that cannot be spoiled — but, like the greatest of thrillers, language-barrier or no, this film gripped me totally and never dared to let me go.

5. Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.

If “Midnight in Paris” is a light, frothy dream, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a garish, bloody nightmare. Some of the most effective horror filmmaking in decades is on display here, with two utterly killer performances as a doomed mother-and-son duo. “Kevin” is a prime example of both the lows of humanity and the highs of filmmaking.

4. Joe Wright’s “Hanna”.

The story of a teenaged assassin and her destructive impact on the people around her as she traverses the globe towards an unknown mission. “Hanna” begins and closes with the title character taking a life. The first time I was in a state of shock. The second time I was in a state of utter awe, a state into which only the best motion pictures can exalt me. “Hanna” is some of the most energetic, propulsive mainstream filmmaking in a decade, with every element coming together totally and tightly.

3. Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”, tied with Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.

You probably think my use of tie is cheap and lazy. You’re totally right. But see this hypnotic duo and tell me you could choose one over the other. Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick have crafted lush, gorgeous tone poems that make 2011’s strongest case for film as a pure sensory art form. My reactions to these films were totally indescribable, characterized only by the joy I feel when I stumble upon projects very near and dear to their maker’s hearts. The fact that these films are about both the end and the creation of the world ties it together nicely.

2. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”.

Woody Allen takes absolutely no risks with “Midnight in Paris”, exploring very few themes and using very few characters he hasn’t before. All the better for it. When a Woody Allen film clicks together, as seems to be the case less and less these days, there’s absolutely nothing like it. “Midnight in Paris” is a film reflecting on love and memory’s potential to deceive us, but as time has gone on this year my adoration for this has only gotten stronger. It’s an utterly charming, wonderfully romantic tribute to one of the world’s great cities.

1. Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive”.

I’ll keep this final entry short and sweet. “Drive”. The film of the year, the film of my dreams. I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it on my first go-around. So then I went for seconds, with thirds, fourths, and fifths not far behind. The premise is simple: Ryan Gosling drives getaway cars for criminals, gets romantically involved with a neighbor, and things crash and burn for everyone involved, bloodily. But the approach taken to “Drive” is everything, making a film whose every moment puts a spell on me — one unlike anything else this year, last year, any year. This is as tense, mysterious, satisfying, sensual, shocking, good, and just plain cool as movies can get.

Thank you to the films and the readers that made 2011 unforgettable. $10 to the first person who provides a count of the adjectives in this column. Cheers.

-RM

Note: I didn’t yet see “Shame” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”, two films that have dominated this year’s cultural discussion. Ten further films that barely missed the cut on this list, and broke my heart in doing so: Takashi Miike’s unbelievably epic samurai romp “13 Assassins”, J.J. Abrams’ utterly joyful Spielberg tribute “Super 8”, Spielberg himself with the animated entry “Adventures of Tintin”, George Clooney’s “Ides of March” whose killer ensemble brought a haunting political and moral dilemma to life, the funniest film of the year “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”, Tomas Alfredson’s paranoia-infused espionage drama “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, Steven Soderbergh’s virus-documenting thriller “Contagion”, 2011-pop culture’s biggest event in the final “Harry Potter” film, one of the great contemporary youth romances “Submarine” and finally, Kevin Smith’s “Red State”, which incurred the hatred of most critics but was truly the biggest leap ahead for any filmmaker all year. 

Note post-other note: The worst film of the year was “Battle Los Angeles”. Everything these above films are not, totally incompetent “action cinema”, and not even filmed in Los Angeles…Not far behind is the stoner medieval-comedy disaster “Your Highness”. The pandering racism of “The Help” was every ounce as disgusting as the film’s complete success and probable Oscar wins. “The Hangover: Part II” was Hollywood at its copy-and-paste worst. “The Rite” was utterly rote. “Breaking Dawn: Part I” fully validates the complaints of every die-hard “Twilight” hater, which it’s worth noting, until I saw it, I was not. And I fully apologize to the theater janitors who swept up the popcorn I threw while watching “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”.

10 films you should look forward to in 2012.

As I begin prepping all my end-of-2011 stuff, I can’t help but gloss over the release schedule for next year and get really excited. What 2011 has lacked in blockbuster fare 2012 looks to equally match, with some really strong indie fare scattered throughout the year. Without further ado, the 10 movies of next year that are highest on my radar.

10: The Cabin in the Woods (April 13)

“Cabin in the Woods” has faced multiple release-date shifts (it finished filming about three years ago), but the word-of-mouth on this 3D horror project from “Cloverfield” screenwriter Drew Godard has only been ecstatic. I’m going out of my way to avoid all trailers and posters for this flick, as the last 30 minutes of this film are reputed to be on a whole other level of insanity.

9: Lincoln (undecided winter date)

Steven Spielberg’s third film in 12 months, “Lincoln” focuses on the last couple years of the life of our country’s greatest president, enlisting perhaps the only actor massive enough to handle such a role — Daniel Day-Lewis. Based off of Doris Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a wonderful historical account gripping enough for ME to get into, expect “Lincoln” to be the talk of the Oscar season next year.

8: Les Miserables (December 7)

Tom Hooper took the Oscar this year for his work on “The King’s Speech”. “Speech” to me was massively overrated, but it was also unmistakably the work of an artist beginning to develop his own voice and passion. His adaptation of the great musical “Les Miserables”, with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman among the leads, is looking very strong.

7: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (June 29)

Don’t ask why this is here. I don’t know myself. The sequel to a 2009 film I cited among the worst of that year, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” looks to retain all the high-octane action of that first entry, but with a sharper sense of direction and goofier sense of fun. Chalk that up to the “Zombieland” writers taking control of the franchise. When a movie trailer has samurai running on a cliff-side with a rope in one hand and a sword in the other, you could say I’m hooked. Plus, Bruce Willis! (!!!!!!!)

6: Skyfall (November 9)

The third go-around with Daniel Craig as James Bond has a lot riding on it. The backing studio’s financial troubles and large-scale disappointment in the last film “Quantum of Solace” mean that Craig and co. really have to step up their game to create something distinctive in the scope of things. But with a cast including superb actors like Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes and a script reportedly equaling 2006’s amazing “Casino Royale”, I’m feeling confident that “Skyfall” will be a Bond to remember.

5. Prometheus (June 8)

Ridley Scott, though his recent output has been mixed, can put together a damn good science-fiction film. “Alien” and “Blade Runner” are among the defining classics of the genre, and “Prometheus” is a thematic and spiritual prequel to the original “Alien”. Set towards the end of the 21st century, it details humanity’s first encounter with those flesh-eating, acid-bleeding little buggers. The creepy, evocative posters suggest the results won’t be pretty, but the talented cast, including Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, will make the blood-bath one a compassionate one.

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14)

An immaculate blending of spectacle, faith, character and scope, when all is said and done “Lord of the Rings” is easily one of my favorite films. Much of the original cast, the director Peter Jackson, and the same storytelling magic seems to have been brought to this two-part adaptation of “Rings”‘ prequel, the second part of which drops in 2013. This could be the event of the year.

3. Gravity (November 21)

“Children of Men” auteur Alfonso Cuaron has promised a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen before with “Gravity”. A film reportedly told in only a handful of shots, it’s the story of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney frantically trying to stay alive after their space station explodes. I expect it to take full advantage of its IMAX 3D format, in both technological and storytelling capacities.

2. Django Unchained (December 25)

Let me break this down for you. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, RZA, and reportedly even Lady GaGa in a Civil War-era slavery revenge epic from Quentin Tarantino himself. Having read the script myself, I promise you “Django Unchained”, which releases Christmas Day, will probably be better than most presents you’d receive that day.

1. The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)

You know you’re looking forward to a film where watching a trailer you get chills in your spine, tingles in your feet, and a massive freaking grin on your face. “The Dark Knight Rises” looks to conclude Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga in absolutely massive fashion, and considering he’s only been developing as a filmmaker (last year’s “Inception” in particular), this movie is going to rock your world. Now, excuse me while I watch this trailer for the 23rd time.

The Michaels Canon: “Nashville” (1975)

The Michaels Canon is a new column in which I construct something of a personal film canon. Although recognized, widespread classics will be given their due, I hope to shed some light on perhaps quirkier, more obscure, but equally strong films. 

If I were to picture traditional cinematic conventions as a wall, I’d envision director Robert Altman as a vivacious, rebellious youth throwing firecrackers at that wall. In his 35-year career (he worked up until his death in 2006), he was many things — revolutionary, obnoxious, profound, and on more than a few cases, failure.

But it’s the burning passion that he clearly holds for characters, and unique eye for the ways in which they play off one another, that separates him from other directors.

The pinnacle of his career, and I argue, one of the pinnacles of American cinema, is the 1975 film “Nashville”. Set in the titular city, the 160-minute film is set over the course of five days. What’s the story, you ask? Well, there isn’t a story. And at the same time, there is one, 24 different ones in fact.

See, it follows 24 different individuals, ranging from an exhausted country singer, to a coping widower, to a sleazy campaign-organizer, to Elliot Gould and Julie Christie, playing themselves. My personal favorite is a young, pre-“Big Chill” Jeff Goldblum as a perpetually high biker who is in almost every frame of the film, yet never utters a word.

What ties these people together is that they all have a role to play in a political rally-cum-concert, which serves as the film’s conclusion. Yet another unique thing to “Nashville”s credit — it has about an hour of wholly original (and quite good, if I do say so) country music written and performed by the actors.

Throughout “Nashville”, you grow to adore or, at the very least, take interest in, all 24 of these people. And why shouldn’t you? They’re funny, recognizable guys, brought to life by an outstanding ensemble cast. None are trying to one-up the other or have their “grand moment”. They simply, exist, some with more attention paid to them than others. And given that most of the dialogue is improvised, you feel the actors literally giving themselves into their parts.

I’ve heard “Nashville” praised as a film that fills one with hope for humanity, for society, and our eventual ability to all co-exist. I respectfully disagree. “Nashville” is a film that wants to capture the essential human experience, for all of its love and all of its heartbreak, all of its quirkiness and all of its rigidity. And just as life leaves one a little confused and a little hurt, “Nashville” leaves one confused, hurt, even angry.

Consider the final scene. One of the more beloved characters is gunned down on-stage, in a random, unprovoked act of violence. It’s shocking, unpredictable, and seemingly pointless. But then a meek, fragile woman takes her place on-stage. She’s been waiting all her life, for her moment to prove her talent to everyone. This is it. She, growing in confidence and stature, delivers a rousing rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me”. The crowd is united, the torch is passed, life goes on.

2011: Best Of, Mid-Way Through

2011 in film, thus far, has been a year in which expectations have been defied and then spat on. Approaching the 2011 spring and summer season, five films stand out from most others in terms of either prestige or potential fun factor: “Battle: Los Angeles”, “Green Lantern”, “Cowboys and Aliens”, “Your Highness”, and “Sucker Punch”. I then watched as all five of those films colossally misfired, having only faint memories of anticipating what could have been to counter the disappointment.

But then, look at some of the best films of the year: Who would have thought a Nickelodeon-produced animated film about a chameleon would turn out to be one of the ballsiest, trippiest, and ultimately coolest films in years? No one did, which is what gave “Rango” an under-dog status that better carry it to Best Animated Film, come Oscar season.

Even though it delivered on perhaps the lowest possible intellectual level, “Fast Five” claimed an odd feat — the most number of installments it took for a franchise to actually become good. Now that all of the big tent-poles of the summer have come and gone, I find that the pinnacle of no-brains, fast-paced summer spectacle was in fact at the very beginning — “Fast Five” opened the season on April 29.

Though I never reviewed it, major props to Korean director Kim Ji-Woon’s revenge epic “I Saw the Devil”. In it, a detective’s wife is brutally murdered and the killer quickly traced. But rather than kill him, the detective opts to slowly draw out his death through a series of catch-and-release encounters. In the process, he loses himself and in some ways, descends lower than the killer himself. Near-unbearable to watch at points, but not because of the gore or blood, a la “Saw” or some other torture porn. No, because Ji-Woon’s direction and presentation of his characters makes you feel every punch, every bullet. This thing is readily available on Netflix Instant, as is the hysterical exploitation-film-tribute “Hobo With A Shotgun”. And yes, it’s 86 minutes of exactly what the title suggest.

Next time you spot an 8:45 showing of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, be sure to waltz in right around 10: Numbing and cloying as the first hour may be, the last 75 minutes of the presumably final installment are a wonder to behold. It’s rare to see as masterfully — and at a quarter-billion budget, expensively — choreographed chaos as this movie. May Chicago rest in peace.

Frequenters of the State Theater were sure to have caught “Beginners”, a dramedy in which Ewan McGregor’s father, after decades of marriage to his now-deceased mother, comes out as gay. “Beginners”, with its laid-back, jazzy score, poignant love story, and talking dog, was a melancholy reflection on the pain of memory and need for companionship. I’m not kidding about the dog, by the way.

Woody Allen’s fantasy-comedy “Midnight in Paris” somehow reeled me in and back again four times. It’s positively wondrous, a 100-minute salute to the golden age of the City of Light. It stars Owen Wilson in a career-saving performance as a writer who, through an odd twist of fate, gets to spend drunken nights amongst his literary idols. With some of Allen’s sharpest dialogue ever, this movie’s a delightful little treat that’s guaranteed a spot amongst my favorites by year’s end.

One wonders if there’s really much point in me telling you that “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is a perfect conclusion to one of the all-time great pop culture phenomena. But in case you were unaware then well, there you are.

Though it swept Cannes, “Tree of Life” was received somewhat indifferently state-side. Damn shame, as it’s some of the most emotionally powerful 140 minutes I’ve seen on celluloid in quite some years. Terrence Malick’s opus juxtaposing 1950’s Americana with the creation & origin of life sports a 20-minute sequence I consider one of the best in cinema, an interlude in which the cosmos swirl, forces converge and our planet is born. Totally unforgettable.

But the best film 2011 has yet offered us, one that has stuck through my mind for months and literally haunted my dreams — “Hanna”. Guided by Saorise Ronan’s assured, agile performance as a teenage assassin, director Joe Wright strikes an odd hybrid between fairy tale, spy thriller, and Shakespearean family drama. “Hanna”, more than any film of 2011 thus far, is brimming with ideas, energy, and pure mastery of form.

That’s all for now. I’ll offer a more conclusive list once the year is over with, as always.

-RM