There’s a disarming lightness to this dramedy about love, life, death, cancer, marriage and Big Life Decisions. Ewan McGregor does subtle, intricate work as Oliver, a middle-aged guy whose life is rocked by the announcement that his widowed, 75-year-old father (the peerless Christopher Plummer) is gay. Our protagonist is about 90 percent OK with that. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the announcement that Dad’s also dying of cancer. Unsure of anything now, Oliver tries—perhaps unwisely—to start up a relationship with a groundless French actress (lovely Mélanie Laurent). The playfully disjointed narrative (which also throws in some sketchy illustrations and a dog that talks in subtitles) keeps viewers on their toes, skating back and forth through time and memory. What could have been navel-gazing introspection is instead warm, romantic and genuinely revealing.
Writer-director Alexander Payne has an unblemished record on film. (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways: every one near perfect.) The Descendants could be his best yet. Rarely have films used Hawaii as anything more than a background for bikinis and surfboards. This story, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, digs deep into the heart and soul of the islands, introducing us to a humble, half-native land baron (the magnificently understated George Clooney) sitting on top of a nine-figure real estate deal. This difficult conundrum (sell to developers or keep it wild) is only compounded when our main man’s wife ends up in a coma and he’s forced to deal with a pair of troubled young daughters. The film gives everyone on screen the opportunity to be a real person. Great as Clooney’s paterfamilias may be, he’s easily matched by Shailene Woodley’s rebellious teen and Judy Greer’s oblivious wife. Hell, even Matthew Lillard is fantastic here!
This film is both a love letter to the seedy, unsentimental action flicks of the ’70s and a thorough autopsy of their corpses. (Watch it on a double bill with Walter Hill’s 1978 film The Driver to see where it’s coming from.) Cool-as-fuck star Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love.; The Ides of March) was another MVP this year (alongside Jessica Chastain and Emma Stone), taking on the unnamed antihero of this existential crime flick from Danish-American director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, the Pusher trilogy). Refn knows how to lens a mesmerizing movie—I can’t look away from his stuff even when he’s doing his damnedest to frustrate me (Valhalla Rising). But Drive is pure, blood-pumping, clutch-popping neo-noir pulp wrapped in an icy steel shell.
If this resonant historical drama gets Oscar attention, it will be because it contains so many great female roles. In a way, that’s kind of a bummer. Firstly, because Hollywood should have more than a couple of strong female casts every year. (This and Bridesmaids are 2011’s offerings.) And secondly, because The Help has more to offer than just an abundance of estrogen. The remarkably well-balanced script isn’t simply a tale of civil rights as viewed through the enlightened eyes of select white folks. (As a few naysayers unfairly branded it.) Instead, it’s the emotional story of a whole generation (several, actually) of black women entrusted to care for the most sacred possessions (children) of their employers yet who are somehow not allowed to use the same bathroom. It is this unbalanced but interconnected relationship that provides our diverse ensemble—openhearted Emma Stone, stoic Viola Davis, nasty Bryce Dallas Howard, outspoken Octavia Spencer and entirely wonderful Jessica Chastain—with such vivid characters to inhabit.
Woody Allen has always been a filmmaker to wear his muses on his sleeve—be they women (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johanssen), cities (New York, London, Paris) or music (jazz and ... more jazz). In that respect, Midnight in Paris is pure Allen. It’s also his best film since he tricked us into thinking he was having a major creative revival with 2005’s meticulous Match Point. Allen’s “European period” has yet to live up to that high-water mark. But this seductive little comedy about an unhappy writer (Owen Wilson, playing Woody Allen without playing Woody Allen) who finds himself transported back to Paris’ Golden Era every night after midnight is vintage Allen. Who wouldn’t want to spend their nights chatting it up with F. Scott Fitzgerald, listening to Cole Porter, watching Josephine Baker shake a leg, getting romantic advice from Salvador Dalí and being challenged to boxing matches by Ernest Hemingway? Inviting as this fantastical premise might be, Midnight in Paris wisely understands that nostalgia is a trap that keeps us from moving on with our lives. Sure, it’s a trifle of a film—but it’s Allen’s tastiest trifle since The Purple Rose of Cairo.
2011 was, honestly, not the finest for art-house and foreign films. Standouts were few and far between. (Sorry, The Tree of Life and Melancholia just didn’t cut it.) But this low-budget, apocalyptic drama is a tornado blast of fresh (if not exactly comforting) air. Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, “Boardwalk Empire”) is gripping as a small-town Midwestern father and husband plagued by storm-tossed visions of the end of the world. What works so well is that the film treats him as neither clearly crazy nor patently prophetic. Our poor, confused hero proceeds as if both possibilities are true—seeking help from a discount psychologist and building a doomsday shelter in his backyard. Damned if Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life) isn’t here, too, providing significant support as our rain-fearing family man’s long-suffering wife. By turns ominous and illuminating, Take Shelter is a Stephen King novel turned upside down—the story of a man trying his level best to not find himself in the middle of a zombie-filled horror story.