The Unsung Heroes (and Villains) of 2011

Critics, bloggers and awards circles are already beginning to reveal their thoughts on the year’s best movies and performances. Indeed, even Film Misery will be working very hard next week to share with you our picks the best and worst the 2011 calendar year had to offer.

As something of a precursor to that discussion, however, I wanted to shed some light on some movies, some movie moments, and some people that are less likely to rank all that highly on even our own “Best and Worst” lists, as they have not been given – in my opinion – their fair share of discussion during this end-of-year hoopla.

I am now going to share with you my picks for the Unsung Heroes (and Villains) of 2011 – in the film community. So without further ado, let’s jump right in:

The Unsung Heroes of 2011

Scott Weinberg, formerly of Cinematical
We’ve been hearing it for a long time: that film criticism as a profession has been in considerable danger for the last few years. As one who aspires to that “dying” profession, I can understand the desperation on the part of some to retain what fiscal security the job provides (if any). That’s what makes Weinberg’s move in March to leave his Managing Editor position at Cinematical so admirably gutsy. I can’t imagine many – myself included – sharing his audacity, or his commitment to a set of principles. Weinberg can now be found writing for Twitch and FEARnet, as well as providing one of my personal favorite Twitter feeds.

Jessica Chastain, Who was Also in The Debt
Jessica Chastain has given a supporting performance in four movies this year, three of which are more or less splitting the accolades bestowed up on the young actress this awards season. While Chastain’s performance in John Madden’s The Debt is not as strong as her turns in The Help, The Tree of Life or Take Shelter, she remains the strongest asset by far in that otherwise forgettable film. If people want to see what Chastain is capable of elevating in lesser material, they may want to see her in this post-WWII thriller.

Jack Russell Terriers
Arguably Hollywood’s favorite breed of dog had a great year, as it is featured prominently in two of the 2011’s most high-profile Oscar contenders. I was less affectionate of Cosmo for his role in Beginners, but that had less to do with the little guy’s performance than it did my feelings of Mike Mills’ overpraised film. But The Artist’s Uggie is not only the second-best animal performance of 2011 (sorry, top prize there goers to Miranda July as the cat in The Future), but his heroism in saving his master from a burning fire counts as one of the best moments of the Michel Hazanavicius film. To the left is a picture of those two amazing animals (courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter). Somewhere in doggie heaven, Eddie from Frasier is up there smiling.

Jodie Foster, The Beaver Director
The Oscar-winning actress-turned-director risked a lot when she cast her disgraced friend, Maverick co-star and noted ass-hat Mel Gibson in her black comedy The Beaver. Creatively, the casting decision paid off; Gibson’s performance, startlingly intimate and bordering on cathartic, is the highlight of the movie, which otherwise looks great yet is often cloying and indulgent. This film could have been an upward turn for Gibson’s career, were it not for an entirely new stream of horrible racist outbursts leaked to the press just as The Beaver was set to premiere. Rightly or wrongly, Foster stood by her leading man and her project seemingly as long as she could, but ger gamble failed to pay off. The Beaver grossed less than a $1 million domestically.

Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids Screenwriters
Much of the credit to Bridesmaids’ success is being directed toward its cast of leading ladies (led by Wiig), its director Paul Feig, and even its producer Judd Apatow. I feel less credit is being handed to Wiig and Mumolo for their writing efforts. That’s a shame, considering how much of why Bridesmaids succeeds as a comedic work depends on the characters the co-scribes have blueprinted. The insecurities of the character Annie are based on very relatable woes that range from economic to romantic to even existential. It’s hard for actors to bring as much depth to a performance if the written script doesn’t support it. Fortunately, the Bridesmaids screenplay supports this magnificently.

Bryan Cranston, Drive
I love how much attention Albert Brooks is getting as Bernie Rose, but my favorite supporting character in Drive would have to be Cranston’s flawed, good-hearted and hilariously sniveling mechanic Shannon. Perhaps Cranston’s not getting his due because Brooks’ is the louder, more flamboyant performance. Perhaps critics feel Cranston’s getting enough love in TV land for his superlative work on Breaking Bad. I’m not sure. What I do know, however, is that Shannon’s interactions with Driver (and even with Bernie Rose) were among my favorites in the film.

The Melancolgia of The Illusionist
The Artist may be getting all the accolades this year as far as 2011 movies about nostalgia are concerned, but this sophomore effort from animator Sylvain Chomet is worth a look too. Beautifully drawn and imbued with a joyous yet heartbreaking sense of melancholy, The Illusionist is a lot harder to digest and less “fun” than its black-and-white, soundless counterpart, but it is just as effective at evoking a romantic longing for an epoch long past.

Elizabeth Olson’s Face and Jeremy Irvine’s Eyes
Or, the part of this post wherein the Casting Directors get their due. We are so often afraid to admit it, as it reeks of implicit superficiality, but the physicality and the physiognomy of an actor can go great lengths in allowing us to buy into their performance on an emotional level. Part of what made the performance of Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olson (Casting Directors Randi Glass and Susan Shopmaker) so compelling to me was the fact that I could not take my eyes off her face the whole time. At once plain yet lovely, expressive and world-weary, I caught every emotion she put out there.

In the case of War Horse’s Irvine (Casting by Jina Jay), those big, blue watery eyes served not as a window to his character Albert’s soul, but to his unadorned love for his horse, and as a tool of bestowing upon Joey a sense of majesty. Call that Spielbergian manipulation, if you must. But it’s damn effective manipulation.


Meek’s Cutoff’s Wreckage Scene
Forget Drive. Forget Fast and Furious. If any 2011 film featuring a moment of car wreckage left me tightly clenching the armrests of my theater seat, it was watching in horror as that single wagon tumbled down the steep hill in Meek’s Cutoff. The reason why this moment is more effective than seeing a million cars all crashing into each other at once is because director Kelly Reichart knows it is stakes – not spectacle – that is truly enthralling. Her characters traversing the desolate path westward have taken everything that they own, chucked it on their wagon, and hope beyond hope for the best possible outcome. When you see those characters’ livelihood literally plummeting from their grasp, you’re left desperately wondering what they could possibly do to find an out. A dumber, more expensive blockbuster, on the other hand, always has another car to blow up real good.

Attack the Block’s FX Team
When you observe the extraterrestrial beings in Joe Cornish’s terrific sci-fi flick, you get the sense that the reason they look as they do was a compensation for the production’s shoestring budget. What you do not think, however, is that those beings look cheap and ill-conceived as a result. Amorphous yet domineering, striking despite their lack of texture, Cornish and his team find a way to inject a sense of fearsomeness into its villains that, in lesser indie monster movies, would otherwise look implausible and maybe even hokey.

The Villains of 2011

The Certified Copy Trailer
Do me a favor. Go see Certified Copy on Netflix Watch Instantly, take a day or so to bounce its ideas around in your head, and then come back to watch this American trailer. Once you’ve watched it, ask yourself a very simple question: “Was the Certified Copy I just saw anything like the Certified Copy this trailer is selling me?” If your answer is anything other than, “Oh, God, no! What kind of a stupid question is that?!” you are wrong. This Certified Copy trailer takes a beautifully complex character study and perfectly wrought study on the role of art in our lives, and reduces its conceit to romantic-drama treacle. The trailer shows movie marketing situated at its absolute nadir.

Iñárritu and Bier: The Misery Pornographers of 2011
In January, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences informed the masses that two of the greatest pieces of world cinema to have made it stateside were Alejandro González Iñárritu ‘s Biutiful and Susanne Bier’s In A Better World. The latter film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar the following month. Finally getting a chance to see these movies, however, I saw not shining examples of what world cinema looks like, but rather middlebrow and gleeful depictions of human misery.

Bier’s work feels more disingenuous than Iñárritu’s, ultimately choosing to cop out with an ending that felt unearned, not redemptive. Biutiful, while more sincere, is laughably overstuffed with awful things befalling its characters. For a movie that shows bad things happening to well-intentioned people without cheapening its own meaning, check out A Separation instead.

People Like Me: The Hypocritical Star Wars Fan, and their Abusive Relationship with George Lucas
Like so many of you, I waxed vitriolic about the entirely new onslaught of unnecessary changes being made to one of the most beloved film sagas of all time in preparation for its Blu Ray release. I even indignantly declared it would be a cold day in hell before  I even considered purchasing the updated versions. As of this date, however, I have in my collection one VHS set of the original Star Wars Trilogy, the 1997 Special Edition set, the 2004 DVD collection, and the 2011 9-disc Blu Ray collection of the entire saga. I am not proud of this. But I promise you I won’t see The Phantom Menace this April

…Don’t you believe me?

That War Horse Goose
Would somebody please tell me what on earth that goose is doing in War Horse? Is it for comic relief? Is he supposed to be Joey’s friend? Whose idea was it to bring him in? Did Michael Kahn not see how badly that stupid goose brings viewers out of the movie?

The Steve James-hating Oscar Committee
The Oscars have an ugly history of omitting the very best documentary features released to the public. Their most notorious flub in this category, of course, was their decision in 1995 not to nominate Steve James’ masterpiece Hoop Dreams. James has given voters in the Feature Documentary category a chance to redeem themselves this year, with his latest film The Interrupters ranking among the most powerful and truly moving social docs in recent memory. What does the Acedemy do with this second chance? They squander it, of course. The Interrupters was nowhere to be found on the 2011 shortlist for feature length documentaries. Some of the documentaries that made the cut are very good, like Project Nim and We Were Here, but they simply cannot match the power of Steve James’ wonderful film. See it, even if the Academy seems not to care about what it has to say.

What are your picks for the Unsung Heroes (and Villains) of the 2011 Calendar Year?

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  • My Picks are Jessica Chastain – The Debt, Bryan Cranston – Drive, Elizabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Beaver (Gibson and the movie itself) and The Guard. There aren’t many i can think of right now!!!

  • Heroes: the cast and crew of Drive and Kevin Smith for giving us Red State.

    Villain: Adam Sandler for taking people’s money with Jack and Jill. Go over to Red Letter Media and watch the last Half in the Bag episode. It’s a really funny review of them ripping it apart and explaining their conspiracy theory for why it cost 79 million dollars to make.

  • Calvin

    Heroes:
    Carol in Bridesmaids. Produced my favorite film quote of the entire year which is frankly too profane to put here.
    Jessica Chastain for being Jessica Chastain.
    Rachel McAdams for stealing scenes in a way I hadn’t seen from her since Mean Girls.
    Villains:
    Michael Bay for turning everything he touches to scheisse.
    The otherwise loving family that made me watch said director’s new film twice.
    Annie’s seatmate on the plane in Bridesmaids: a hilarious if brief performance, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that she was “One time she punched me in the face” girl from Mean Girls.

  • Glad to see we agree on the wagon crash in “Meek’s Cutoff”. After such a long time spent in a slow starvation, this was a greater gut-punch than any massive explosion. The situation had officially become dire, and it’s a moment amongst many significant moments in a film that’s an unsung hero in itself. From production to performance, it’s simply brilliant.

  • Jose

    Villain: John Williams and his overbearring score in War Horse which practically shouted “Hey! Hey! HEY! Pay Attention! This is pretty!”

  • I agree with that scene in Meek’s Cutoff. It’s a devastating scene because it leaves them nothing.
    As for Jeremy Irvine, I think the most manipulative part of his performance is his lips. Those lips. Whether he’s smiling, laughing, crying like a baby, or plowing, still those lips.

  • I think Bridesmaids could easily get a screenplay nomination. It may not, but I think it has gotten some attention (I may be wrong here, I haven’t been following too closely). But I was under the impression that they may well get sung.

    Other than that, I couldn’t agree more. Lovely post, Justin!

  • Excellent write-up! I would add Fabrice Luchini’s brilliant comic performance in the underseen ‘Potiche’ and the marvelous sound editing of ‘Trollhunter’ to the unsung heroes category.

    In the villain category goes Donald Kushner and Elie Samaha, new owners of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, who have decided that Taylor Lautner and Kobe Bryant are more worthy of iconic handprints than Groucho Marx. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-et-graumans-20111229,0,5878832.story

    I would also throw the entire American movie audience into the Villain category for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated by rubbish like ‘Transformers’ and ‘Twilight.’ Come on, country.

    • Jose

      LOL, I wanted to include the last part for making Breaking Dawn a $280 million hit but they made Hugo a flop and The Muppets a financial dissapointment.

  • For unsung heroes, how about a shout-out to the always increasing visual beauty of television? TV’s storytelling potential has always been equal to that of cinema (in many ways it’s better due to the longer time frame with which to tell the story), but even a lot of the best shows the medium has ever produced haven’t necessarily been as visually brilliant as a a lot of the good to great movies released in the same year. But over the past few years more and more shows have begun to rival cinema in terns of top-notch work creating their visual landscapes. This current year brought us two shows in particular that were perfect examples of this: “Louie” and “Breaking Bad”. The latter is farily traditional (and magnificently so) in its lush visual presentation and camerawork, but there are also moments of astonishing technical brilliance. “Louie”, meanwhile, feels a bit more fresh and modern: trying out some inventive things with stuff like color and the way certain scenes are shot, all in service of a particular episode’s (they’re all almost completely self-contained) storytelling goal.

  • Also, I’d like to be the latest person to voice my agreement about that “Meek’s Cutoff” scene (though I didn’t much care for the movie). An unforgettable, horrifying moment.

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