Monthly Archives: September 2011

TAKE SHELTER

Writer-director Jeff Nichols’ latest turns inward to pit his star Michael Shannon (in this follow-up to their masterful 2008 debut collaboration Shotgun Stories) against psychological demons more frightening than anything in the outside world. Curtis Laforge is a rural Ohio construction worker who begins having visions of a coming apocalyptic storm. These visions negatively and profoundly affect his behavior and begin to frighten his friends (Shea Whigham especially) as well as his wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and children. Are these visions portents of things to come or merely a figment of Curtis’ broken mind? After all, with his mother in a mental hospital for paranoid schizophrenia, who knows what can be trusted? Powerful visuals lend great support to an emotionally overwhelming performance by Shannon; as someone who has lived with the mentally unstable, I found this almost too much to take. I guess it was just an apocalyptic kind of year – this film joins Bellflower and three others on this list (see below) as brilliant cinematic representations of the apocalypse (four others if you count real-world metaphor).

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MONEYBALL

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is having a financial crisis. The professional baseball team left in his charge, the Oakland A’s, don’t have the money to keep up with other teams in the MLB. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball brilliantly dramatizes Billy’s struggles, focusing on a near-championship season in the early 2000s when Beane and company triumphed over adversity to go from laughing-stock of the professional sports world to championship contenders thanks to the analysis of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a chubby recent university graduate with a background in statistical analysis who finds the financial trend that will help build a franchise. The performances are top-notch, the writing (by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian), razor-sharp. In a lesser year, this would be in my top ten no question.

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DRIVE

Nicholas Winding Refn’s neo-noir won the Danish action filmmaker the directing prize at Cannes and why not? The Pusher trilogy director’s edgy, gorgeous neo-noir is an existential crime film for the ages with style to spare. Ryan Gosling stars in perhaps the best of his four roles this year (most of which made my list; see below) as the unnamed stunt driver and apprentice mechanic (working for Brian Cranston as a cripple in over his head) turned getaway driver for hire in the seedy yet glossily filmed underbelly of Los Angeles. Wearing his white satin, gold-embossed scorpion jacket like a coat of armor and chewing on toothpicks like they’re going out of style, Gosling’s antihero cruises the streets to a synth-pop score embodying all that is mysterious and cool with just a hint of danger until his waitress neighbor (Carey Mulligan) finds her husband (Oscar Isaac) in trouble with a couple of Jewish gangsters (Albert Brooks in chillingly great form, with ample support from Ron Perelman). The results are brutal, bloody and brilliant.

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CONTAGION

Steven Soderbergh and his The Informant! writer Scott Z. Burns have made a movie that will make you obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness forever after. An unfaithful wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) makes a stop in Chicago for a romantic rendezvous with her lover before returning home to Minneapolis from her business trip in Hong Kong. She soon comes down with a fatal illness which spreads like wildfire affecting her husband (Matt Damon), who is put in quarantine, and those around him. Soon, the CDC (represented by Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle), the World Health Organization (represented by Marion Cotillard) and a lone conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) are involved, and the results are a truly chilling hyperlink film shot with typically cold, calculating flair by the analytic Soderbergh. This is a thinking man’s horror film.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is to the viral horror subgenre as Traffic (2000) was to the drug war epic. Depicting the transmission of a deadly virus by an unfaithful wife on a business trip (Gwyneth Paltrow) and its spreading to various cases throughout the U.S., somehow managing to avoid her immune husband (Matt Damon), the film also examines the various implications of its story, aided and abetted by an all-star cast (including Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and a stand-out Jennifer Ehle as World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control investigators and Jude Law as an alarmist conspiracy theorist and blogger). The results are uncannily believable and truly horrifying; you will never wash your hands the same way again.

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