2011 Year in Review: Movies

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INSANE FOR HUSSEIN | Dominic Cooper delivered the year’s most overlooked performance: A riveting dual role as Saddam Hussein’s gangsta son Uday and the doppelganger who impersonates him in ‘The Devil’s Double.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  
Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It took awhile, but 2011 ended up being a decent year for movies, with Hollywood actually financing some edgy stuff and even giving some heft to their high-concept tentpole movies (four of the best entertainments — Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, X-Men: First Class and Mission Impossible 4 — superhero actioners).

10. Midnight in Paris. After years of middling (sometimes unwatchable) films, Woody Allen finally found his avatar in Owen Wilson with this, his best comedy since 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite.

9. Anonymous. A huge flop in the fall, audiences failed to connect with this thrilling (though highly fictionalized) riff on whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays. The premise was compellingly told, however, mixing action, a love of language, political savvy and romance in a satisfying way. Biggest surprise of all? Gay director Roland Emmerich of mindless action films like Godzilla and 10,000 B.C. was responsible. Maybe that’s what critics couldn’t get behind it.

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Debate if you will the literary merits of Stieg Larsson’s rangy trilogy about a hacker and a journalist uniting to take down Fascists, but David Fincher’s thoughtful, well-paced thriller was faithful to the spirit of the book, while turning it into a cinematic mind-fuck of a movie, almost as bleak as his signature piece, Se7en.

7. Shame. British director Steve McQueen’s close-to-the-vest investigation of the modern male psyche was as unnerving to watch as it was captivating, delving into dark areas of sexuality with brilliant visual flourishes.

 

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MAID TO ORDER | Octavia Spencer, right, made ‘The Help’ one of the funniest and most poignant films of 2011.

6. Weekend. Two queer Brits spend a night together, but explore something more about the nature of gay relationships of today in this frank, compelling and sexy drama.

5. The Devil’s Double. Poor Dominic Cooper seems to have been all but forgotten by most critics, but his dual role as Uday Hussein and his body double was exciting and frightening, but also finely detailed — how many people get to play both the protagonist and the villain in the same movie? Vivid and energetic, this is the Scorsese film Scorsese should have made instead of the twee kid’s fantasy Hugo: It’s Goodfellas in the desert.

4. The Skin I Live In. Pedro Almodovar returned to great Hitchcockian form with this masterful mystery about a beautiful woman held captive by a perverse surgeon (Antonio Banderas). Layers upon layers are revealed on the way to a breathless, fantastical explanation, aided incalculably by Alberto Iglesias’ fantastic score — one of the best ever written for the screen.

3. The Tree of Life. It may sound like a cop-out, but Terry Malick’s tone poem of a film defies critical analysis. You simply allow yourself to be washed away by his experimental filmic mood shifts, or you resist. Giving over resulted in one of the dreamiest experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.

2. Beginners. Christopher Plummer gave perhaps the performance of the year, if not his career, as a septuagenarian who comes out and enjoys his final years embracing life. Mike Mills’ quasi-autobiographical film was humorous, poignant and delightfully quirky.

1. The Help. Along with Dragon Tattoo, writer-director Tate Taylor showed how to adapt a popular novel to the screen while retaining its literary merits and adding cinematic flair. One of the best shot movies of 2011, it was also exceptionally well-acted by the entire cast, but especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Movie Monday: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in wide release

Tattoo you

The Swedish-language film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while altogether serviceable, had a rocky time balancing those elements, but this territory is right up director David Fincher’s alley. His English-language remake is almost as bleak as his modern quasi-masterpiece, Se7en, but the topics and the tone? Pure Fincher.

He declares his own stylish mantra during the opening credits: Organic, abstract, even desultory and festishistic images to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating punk score establishes this as Fincher’s version of a Bond film. (It’s perhaps no coincidence the lead actor in the proposed trilogy is Bond himself, Daniel Craig.) Mechanical, urban, oppressive — welcome to the worlds of author Stieg Larsson and Fincher.

For the entire review, click here.

—  Rich Lopez

Movie Monday: ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’

‘Hornet’s Nest,’ the final film in the Millennium Trilogy, is a talky, gloomy affair

If you haven’t read one of Stieg Larsson’s books in the Millennium Trilogy, centered on a bisexual, semi-autistic, tattooed Swedish computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), you’ve missed the literary event of the decade. Since they emerged, Larsson’s books have sold better worldwide than John Grisham and Stephen King.

If you haven’t seen one of the film versions, however, you’re not so bad off. So far, the three films — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and the latest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — have been, at best, moderately entertaining disappointments. All are Swedish-made (American versions start coming out next year), and while the stories don’t require a Hollywood gloss to be interesting, they could use some punching up as movies.

Director Daniel Alfredson has created a style that’s gloomy but without a sense of moodiness. From the photography to the pacing of the courtroom scenes to the unsatisfying final moments, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest more closely resembles an installment in a rambling made-for-TV miniseries than a punchy feature film. Where’s the crescendo, the heart-racing action, the “big reveal?” Even a thinking man’s thriller can try to get the blood boiling. (Rapace, who had a steamy lesbian sex scene in Played with Fire, doesn’t have any sex this time — a definite hole in the structure.)

Hornet’s Nest really doesn’t stand alone, at least not as well as the other two. It’s a direct sequel to the second film, with Lisbeth recovering from injuries after she fought off her father, a Russian gangster who survived her attack. If any of that confuses you, it’s not much clearer watching it onscreen.

For more about the film, click here.

DEETS: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist. Rated R. 145 minutes. Now playing at the Angelika Film Center Mockingbird Station.

—  Rich Lopez

The Bjorn supremacy

‘Hornet’s Nest,’ the final film in the Millennium Trilogy, is a talky, gloomy affair

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

SWEDISH MEATBALLS  |  An assassin tries to kill muckraking journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, right) after bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander ‘Kicks the Hornet’s Nest.’
SWEDISH MEATBALLS | An assassin tries to kill muckraking journo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, right) after bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander ‘Kicks the Hornet’s Nest.’

If you haven’t read one of Stieg Larsson’s books in the Millennium Trilogy, centered on a bisexual, semi-autistic, tattooed Swedish computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), you’ve missed the literary event of the decade. Since they emerged, Larsson’s books have sold better worldwide than John Grisham and Stephen King.

If you haven’t seen one of the film versions, however, you’re not so bad off. So far, the three films — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and the latest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — have been, at best, moderately entertaining disappointments. All are Swedish-made (American versions start coming out next year), and while the stories don’t require a Hollywood gloss to be interesting, they could use some punching up as movies.

Director Daniel Alfredson has created a style that’s gloomy but without a sense of moodiness. From the photography to the pacing of the courtroom scenes to the unsatisfying final moments, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest more closely resembles an installment in a rambling made-for-TV miniseries than a punchy feature film. Where’s the crescendo, the heart-racing action, the “big reveal?” Even a thinking man’s thriller can try to get the blood boiling. (Rapace, who had a steamy lesbian sex scene in Played with Fire, doesn’t have any sex this time — a definite hole in the structure.)

Hornet’s Nest really doesn’t stand alone, at least not as well as the other two. It’s a direct sequel to the second film, with Lisbeth recovering from injuries after she fought off her father, a Russian gangster who survived her attack. If any of that confuses you, it’s not much clearer watching it onscreen.

All of Larsson’s books, and the movies from them, are concerned with social justice as much as crackling plots. And while set in Sweden, many of those issues feel influenced by American politics (although cultural differences, such as the legal system, make the story much harder to identify with): Creepy older men abound, all corrupt, conspiratorial doctors, policemen, lawyers, cops or politicians. It’s easy to tell the good buys from the bad guys — the only good guy is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist out to uncover all the baddies targeting Lisbeth.

Nyqvist makes for an implacable, slightly dull leading man. When the first real action of the film comes 90 minutes in, his cred as an action hero starts to emerge, but it’s a little too late.

Almost more intriguing is Christer, the gay co-owner of the magazine Millennium, who is upstaged by Blomkvist even though he craves some action.

I know how he feels.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

You go, ‘Girl’

Sequel to ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is a mostly smart actioner

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace)
SWEDISH FISH | Lesbian and slightly loco, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) sets out to clear her name and exact some revenge in ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire.’

3 out of 5 stars
THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE
Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist.
Rated R. 105 mins.
Now playing at the Angelika Film Centers
……………………………..

There’s more to the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — three novels written in rapid succession but unpublished until after the author’s death in 2004 — than Nordic settings of American-style crime fiction, although there’s certainly a pulp sensibility to his plotting. Larsson writes about arcane subjects, but unlike Dan Brown, there’s nothing sexy or even hot-button exciting about his topics (business intrigue and sex trade, for instance). They’re also nothing like Dan Brown in that he writes, by and large, well.

So what accounts for the huge popularity, not only of Larsson’s books (he was the second-bestselling author worldwide in 2008) but also of the movies of his books goes beyond prurience and into legitimate cult. The Brits have Jane Tennyson and Prime Suspect; the Swedes have Lisbeth Salander.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first movie of a series made in Sweden last year, is the biggest foreign-language film in the U.S. so far this year; the second installment, The Girl Who Played with Fire, hopes to follow in its footsteps.

Serials have become so common nowadays in movies — from Star Wars to Harry Potter — that most filmmakers barely even try to fill you in on what’s happened already, but you don’t need to be a fan to enjoy or even follow it … though it wouldn’t hurt.

Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is the lesbian ass-kicking computer whiz with a mysterious past. She’s suspected of three murders, but the only person who thinks she’s innocent is Miske Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a crusading journalist who takes a fatherly interest in her. Lisbeth remains on the run while she hunts down shady men from her past.

There are dark alleys and menacing blond behemoths in the tradition of cheesy Hollywood actioners like Lethal Weapon — there’s even a racy girl-on-girl sex scene — but without huge a budget or big-name stars, it’s largely tone that carries the day. And the tone here is Eastern Promises by way of Lost: Moody, but despite the sex and violence, TV-friendly.

It veers dangerously into camp with unlikely twists near the end, but Rapace’s fearless performance and the cool, smart intrigue make it seem like a throwback to paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. Add a little disco music and Liza at Studio 54, and like reliving your childhood with adult eyes. And nobody gets burned.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 9, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens