Every year, critics start looking for award-worthy films as early as March, but 2011 kept chugging along with no clear candidates. As the year closed, still no runaway winners emerged, even though a lot of strong films were released. This leaves the Oscar for Best Picture wide open, and the acting awards are sure to be the most competitive in years.
Even though 2011 lacked the amazing films of years past, The Neelys (named for Neely O’Hara, the starlet in Valley of the Dolls) still manage to recognize ten great films and ten specimens best left at the vet’s office to be tested for worms.
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen hasn’t been this effortlessly hilarious in years. Owen Wilson plays a blocked writer who travels to Paris with his shrewish fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and magically finds himself transported back in time to meet literary giants like Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates)... and maybe true love. A brilliant and intelligently comic romance.
The Artist: The most gorgeous film of the year is also the most unusual. The Artist is an authentic silent film starring a pair of French actors who capture the magic of old-time Hollywood better than most American performers. George Dujardin plays a dashing silent film star who laughs at the idea of talking pictures, only to watch a young fan, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), become a huge star in the new medium. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ obvious love for classic movies shows in every frame of this amazing film.
Crazy, Stupid, Love: – The overlooked comedy highpoint of the year came from the crazy but far from stupid guys who made I Love You Phillip Morris last year. Steve Carrell plays a sad-sack dad who gets dumped by his unfulfilled wife (the luminous Julianne Moore) but “gets his groove back” when coached by a super-hot player played by Ryan Gosling with seemingly Photoshopped abs. Twists and hilarity abound as good girl Emma Stone decides to see if Gosling is worth the hype. Believe me, he is!
Hugo: Martin Scorcese isn’t known for children's films, but Hugo is going to change that. Like The Artist, Hugo is a gorgeously-filmed love letter to the history and magic of filmmaking. Hugo, portrayed by the talented Asa Butterfield, is a young boy who lives in a Paris train station, caring for the clocks while trying to solve a mystery his dead father left him. Hugo should be seen in stunning 3D, and it is the best use of the medium I’ve seen.
Win Win: Thomas McCarthy hit another home run with this funny and humane comedy-drama about a downtrodden New Jersey lawyer who discovers a star athlete under his nose and gets everything he wants... as long as no one finds out his secret. Paul Giamatti gives a great, understated performance along with the sexy Bobby Canavale as his brash best friend.
Sarah’s Key: Criminally overlooked, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s moving adaptation of the best-selling novel was one of the best dramas of the year. Kristin Scott Thomas played an American journalist whose investigation of the brutal 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup of French Jews by the French Vichy Government uncovers a tragic tale that hits very close to home.
The Help: This all-star women’s film was a tribute to the strong African-American women who kept Southern households running in the 60’s. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson gave unrestrained and powerful performances as the maids, while Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney and especially Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain bring the white women they serve to delicious life. Some decried the film’s reliance on a white protagonist to spur the maids to rebel, but one thing is for sure: you’ll never look at chocolate pie the same way again.
Weekend: Love stories are a dime a dozen, even gay ones, but Weekend upended the genre. Writer/director Andrew Haigh and his stars Tom Cullen and Chris New did this by keeping the budding weekend relationship of two British men so real, you feel like you’re a voyeur into their lives. The two men are distinctive characters who are not the type of gay men usually shown in movies, the kind who aren’t comfortable with labels and stereotypes. One of the most romantic films of the year.
Final Destination 5: Every diet needs a little cheese in it, and Final Destination 5 was Grade A 3D fromage that reinvigorated the campy series. A group of generically beautiful actors survive a suspension bridge disaster only to be stalked by Death in creative ways. Death by acupuncture? Check. Death by laser eye surgery? Ick! From its insane 3D-on-steroids opening to its jaw-droppingly brilliant twist ending, FD5 wins the Neely for Best Thrill Ride of the year.
Source Code: David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones followed up his acclaimed sci-fi drama Moon with this time-tripping suspense film. Jake Gyllenhaal was the perfect action hero who has to unmask a terrorist bomber in a fateful eight minute period through a scientific breakthrough. What sets Source Code apart is the intricate human drama that anchors the action. Tough questions about military service and our treatment of veterans, the nature of fate and free will, and the threat of homegrown extremists elevates the film beyond typical sci-fi fare like In Time. I am still haunted by the powerful image when Gyllenhaal’s real status is revealed.
2011 was unusual in the number of high-minded duds it produced. Rather than just pick on dreck like the one where Adam Sandler plays his own screechy matron of a sister, my Worst Neelys go to the biggest disappointments of the year. Some people might even have a few of these titles on their Best Ten lists. Those people are wrong.
The Change You Can’t Believe In Award goes to The Change-Up: – Like last year’s Dinner for Schmucks, The Change-Up takes a curdled premise and stews it in the worst R-rated “funny” bodily fluid gross-outs to the point that stars Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman better have awesomely follow-up films to get the rancid taste of this turkey out of audiences’ mouths. No wonder Scarlett Johansson dumped Reynolds; a character like his would turn off a nymphomaniac.
The Jack Kevorkian Award goes to Melancholia: Those people looking for an alternative to the late doctor’s assisted suicide machine now have their option. Insufferable Danish “enfant terrible” Lars von Trier praised Hitler at Cannes, but this piece of pretentious “serious drama” is even more offensive than his comments. Kirsten Dunst plays a hyper-depressed bride who finds peace only when a rogue planet shows up to destroy Earth. Then, she just becomes bitchy. Armageddon can’t happen soon enough to spare you.
The Cheap Sentiment Award goes to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: I was shocked that this piece of abrasively phony 9/11 exploitation was directed by Stephen Daldry, of The Hours and Billy Elliot fame. Thomas Horn the actor seems like a smart and engaging kid, but within five minutes of this drama about a boy who may have Asperger’s Syndrome seeking meaning for his dad Tom Hanks’ death in the Twin Towers, you may want to join the father to escape listening to him. Sandra Bullock has the thankless role of shut-out mom, and only Max von Sydow as a mute WWII survivor shines. The premise of a boy searching to make sense of his father’s death was already done right in Hugo.
The Is That All There Is? Award goes to Cowboys & Aliens: If you have the mash-up of cowboys and aliens and you have Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, you’d think the script would write itself into something pretty entertaining. Sadly, it doesn’t even feel like the script was written, only cobbled together from every other alien invasion film of the last five years. All that was missing was Bill Pullman as the mayor of Absolution, Arizona.
The Dim Bulb Award goes to Green Lantern: It takes a pretty bad movie to make Ryan Reynolds in a body suit boring, but this by-the-numbers superhero dud managed to succeed. It has the added humor of making Peter Sarsgaard even more repulsive than he already is, but that isn’t enough to recommend the film.
The Grimm’s Fairy Trash Award goes to Red Riding Hood: Fairytale characters are everywhere this year, from Grimm to Once Upon A Time to competing Snow White films coming out soon, but Red Riding Hood was the howler of the bunch. Amanda Seyfried leads a cast of Twilight wannabes through a pointless retread of The Village. Poor Julie Christie as grandmother probably wishes the Big Bad Wolf had eaten her to save her embarrassment.
The Bad Romance Award goes to Like Crazy: Mimicking last year’s sullen Blue Valentine, this much-improvised drama expected us to go, like, crazy over two deadly-dull leads (Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones) and their uninteresting romantic trials as they dealt with love and immigration woes. Sundance voters must have been drunk when they gave the film the Grand Jury Prize for drama.
The Animal Cruelty Award goes to The Future: To say that Miranda July is an acquired taste is like saying that ipecac is an acquired taste... and both will make you want to throw up. July’s latest expose of the insignificant troubles of vapid hipsters upped the nausea level by couching it in the story of a sickly pound cat named Paw Paw, who proceeds to narrate this nightmare in July’s scratchy baby-talk voice. Sarah Mclachlan should do a PSA against this inhumane treatment of fictional cats... and the audience.
The Mr. Ed is Weeping Award goes to War Horse (or Bore Horse, as I like to call it): Given the powerful theatrics of the stage version, one would have expected the film adaptation of the Youth Lit bestseller War Horse to be spectacular. It is… spectacularly dull, filled with forgettable characters and manufactured sentiment Stephen Spielberg can do in his sleep. While The Black Stallion was thrilling, War Horse should be put out to pasture.
Finally, the Neely for Worst Film is titled The Real American Horror Story Award and it goes to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: If you thought the murder house on American Horror Story was bad real estate, it is nothing compared to the devil-vermin-infested mansion starring in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Guy Pearce is the worst father on earth, Katie Holmes the most oblivious caretaker and young Bailee Madison the stupidest child in the world; why would someone stay in a house after unleashing killer tooth fairy goblins? This pointless remake of a 1973 TV movie had every element in place and squashed them like the trolls in the movie.
This year’s coveted Chloe Sevigny Award for Acting Beneath the Call of Duty goes to Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Palin. Kutcher deserves the award for basically playing the same character in every film, TV show and Nikon ad, and New Year’s Eve didn’t change the tradition. Palin, on the other hand, has been doing a terrible impression of a compassionate politician for years. This year, though, she attacked a teeny number of multiplexes as the dull-witted star of The Undefeated. As John Gielgud proclaimed in Arthur, “Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.”
By Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.