Monday, August 22, 2011

The Monday Musings #3 - End of Summer Movie Awards! The Best Performances and Films of Summer 2011

Can you guess which award
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Shittier (I mean, 'Stranger') Tides" won?
It's Monday, and I'm back with another Monday Musings column!  I missed last week’s column (personal reasons involving moving to College) but I think I’ve made up for the absence with today’s column, a massive retrospective looking back at the summer movie season!  This wasn’t the most memorable summer ever, but there were some very good movies playing in theatres; I would classify few of them as “classics,” but nevertheless, this was a consistently entertaining season of movie-going, and the best films of 2011 so far all came out in June and July.  In this week’s Monday Musings, I’m honoring the best films, performances, and moments from the summer movie season with a series of “awards” (we’ll also make fun of the worst movies).  Enjoy, and please use the comments feature to sound in with your thoughts – if you were giving out these awards, which ones would you pick?  

Read about all the Award Winners after the jump!

Before we get onto the awards, a quick bit of business: I saw most of the major releases this summer, but just for clarification, here’s a list of all the movies I watched that were in contention for these awards: Fast Five, Thor, Bridesmaids, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, The Hangover: Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, X-Men: First Class, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Super 8, Cars 2, Beginners, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bad Teacher, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, Friends with Benefits, Cowboys and Aliens, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Crazy Stupid Love, 30 Minutes or Less, The Help

With that out of the way, let’s get on to the awards!

Best Lead Male Performance:
Andy Serkis as “Caesar” in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

If 2011 didn’t boast the most overall memorable summer movie season on record, the last few months did give us a huge slate of wonderful performances, especially from actors in leading roles.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t exactly tough to pick a winner in this category – no actor was asked to play as demanding a part as Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Through a mask of CGI and without any dialogue, Serkis uses facial expressions and body languages to illustrate the hyper-intelligent ape Ceaser’s transformation from kindhearted young ape to an intense and fearless revolutionary leader.  It’s a remarkable, groundbreaking performance, and though the artists at Weta Digital should get plenty of credit for animating the character, it’s Serkis’ confidence and brilliance in a motion-capture suit that truly brings Caeser to life.  There’s never been a film quite like Rise, where the story is told from the point-of-view of a silent animal in the real world, and the number one reason the movie works is because of Serkis.  Let’s hope the Academy can overcome their motion-capture prejudices and at least nominate Serkis for an Oscar next year.

Runners-up: Michael Fassbender comes in at a very close second for this award thanks to his intense, spellbinding, and ultimately heartbreaking performance as a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class; Ewan McGregor work in Beginners was as emotionally open and honest a performance as any I’ve seen all year. Brendan Gleeson bared his heart and soul in The Guard, earning some big laughs along the way. Owen Wilson was more or less asked to play a young Woody Allen in the writer/director’s latest film, Midnight in Paris, but he did so wonderfully while adding his own distinctive style to the material. Liam Hemsworth and Chris Evans both gave very different performances as Thor and Captain America, and both proved as perfect for their respective roles as Robert Downey Jr. was for Iron Man. Daniel Radcliffe has gotten better and better with each successive Harry Potter flick, but he really proved he’s got what it takes to be a great actor in Deathly Hallows Part 2, saying goodbye to his iconic role with a stirring, emotional performance that overshadows all of his prior work. Finally, Steve Carell may have starred in a film I hated playing a character that baffled me, but he was still fantastic, as always, and it would be criminal not to mention him here.

Best Lead Female Performance:
Viola Davis as “Aibileen Clark” in The Help
Of all the acting categories, this one is by far the thinnest.  Hollywood doesn’t have nearly enough opportunities for women to shine in leading roles at any time of the year, but during the summer months, when studios primarily program action blockbusters, it’s difficult enough to find a woman headlining any movie, let alone to compile a list of outstanding performances.  That shouldn’t take anything away from my pick for the best leading actress in a summer film, however.  Viola Davis was utterly mesmerizing as Aibileen Clark, and her performance gave The Help the sense of gravitas and emotional realism it needed to really come alive on the silver screen.  Just watch the final scene of the movie, where Aibileen, hurt and betrayed more than ever before, spites the dastardly Hilly Holbrook with three impeccably chosen, perfectly delivered words.

Runners-up: I had a tough time not putting Kristin Wiig’s remarkable turn as leading lady in Bridesmaids (a film she also co-wrote) in the top spot; in any other performer’s hands, the character would wind up unsympathetic and unfunny, but Wiig played the role so perfectly that we never really stopped rooting for her. I didn’t care for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but the number one reason to see the film (apart from the visuals) was Jessica Chastain, whose effortless humanity and grace manage to ground the proceedings even as other elements (such as the psychopathic kid) drive the film dangerously close to art-house parody.  I don’t know if there were any other truly amazing lead female performances this summer, but Mila Kunis was awfully good in Friends With Benefits, and I think I speak for many by saying I can’t wait to see what she does next.  Cameron Diaz, meanwhile, proved she can be a capable actress when given the right material, and while Bad Teacher didn’t work as a whole, Diaz herself was riotously funny, committing herself fully to playing a thoroughly detestable character.

Best Supporting Male Performance:
Alan Rickman as “Severus Snape” in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Well duh.  Rickman probably has more Oscar buzz than any other actor in a mainstream film coming out of the summer, and for good reason.  He has only three scenes in Deathly Hallows Part 2, yet he steals the entire show.  The key sequence – a series of flashbacks that reveals Snape’s love of Harry’s mother, Lily, and the subsequent grief that drove him to lead a dangerous life as a double agent – is one of the most well-constructed and emotionally devastating six-minute stretches of film I’ve ever seen, and Rickman drives it all.  In the book, Rowling had a good thirty pages to explain Snape’s backstory and transformation, but on film, Rickman is asked to show all of that, through the things he says and the way he acts, and in just six minutes, he completely rewrites the history of the character.  When Dumbledore asks whether or not Snape really loved Lily, Snape pulls out his wand, summons Lily’s doe Patronus, and then defines his entire character and personality by quietly but forcefully saying “always.”  That single word drove me to tears; it’s the single best line reading of the summer.  Please, Academy, give Alan Rickman an Oscar.

Runners-up: Another thick category; giving Rickman the award was a no-brainer, but consider Christopher Plummer a close-second for his heartbreaking and uplifting performance in Beginners; Tommy Lee Jones and Dominic Cooper both found humor and pathos in their supporting roles in Captain America, while Ralph Fiennes managed to discover new, terrifying levels of villainy as Lord Voldemort in the final Harry Potter (he should get an Oscar nomination along with Rickman).  Finally, Tom Hiddleston made a wonderful Loki in Thor, but I enjoyed him even more as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris

Best Supporting Female Performance:
Melanie Laurent as “Anna” in Beginners

This is the most competitive of all the categories – if women didn’t get too many chances to take the lead in summer films, they had plenty of opportunities to round out the ensemble – but there’s no doubt in my mind that Melanie Laurent, best known to American audiences for her powerful turn in Inglourious Basterds, delivered one of the year’s absolute best performances in Beginners.  The film calls for every member of the ensemble to be emotionally open and vulnerable, and Laurent, whose character is the film’s biggest enigma, met those demands and then some.  She spends the first act completely silent, but even when she does start talking (this is, I believe, her first role entirely in English, which is extra impressive), she still says more without words.  Beginners is full of devastating moments, and Laurent provides many of them, breaking the audience’s heart with a single glance.  

Runners-up: Super 8 is memorable for the amazing work director J.J. Abrams coaxed out of his child ensemble, and of the bunch, Elle Fanning is the most impressive, delivering a subtle but powerfully vulnerable performance.  Marion Cotillard, Alison Pill, Kathy Bates, and Rachel McAdams all impressed in different ways in Midnight in Paris; the always mesmerizing Cotillard provided the film’s most powerful and engaging moments, while Pill made me laugh the hardest with her impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald.  Rose Byrne shined very brightly in two great summer movies, finding the humanity (and humor) in spoiled Bridesmaids antagonist Helen, and making Moira McTaggert a three-dimensional, fascinating sidekick in X-Men: First-Class.  Relative newcomer Hayley Atwell burst on the scene in a big way as Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America, turning what could have been a one-dimensional love-interest into a spunky, compelling, and refreshingly original creation.  Octavia Spencer’s role as Minny in The Help was more comedic than Viola Davis’ part, and she nailed just about every joke, along with all the heavier moments.  Finally, the wonderful up-and-comer Emma Stone may not have gotten the meatiest parts in The Help and Crazy Stupid Love, but she made the most out of both roles, continuing a hot streak that everyone in and out of the industry is paying attention to. 

Best Music:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, music composed by Alexandre Desplat

I talked at length about the final Potter score in this article, so I’ll just say this: Desplat really brought out the big guns for the second half of Hallows, delivering a score that could be inspirational or stirring in one moment and intensely emotional in the next.  It seems like nearly everybody got misty-eyed watching this film, and I’d bet that Desplat’s music created a good 50% of those tears.  “Lily’s Theme” is my favorite composition of the year so far.

Runners-up: I talked at length in my Captain America review about how reverential the film was towards Raiders of the Lost Ark, and nowhere was that more apparent than in Alan Silvestri’s effective musical love letter to the work of John Williams.  Meanwhile, Alan Menken’s contribution to the film, the “Star Spangled Man” song, probably made me laugh harder than any moment in any film all year.  Steve Jablonsky has always been a promising composer, but he really brought his A-game to Transformers 3, delivering a rousing score that complemented the action perfectly.  Finally, I have to mention the eclectic, jazzy compilation of songs that gave Midnight in Paris a pitch-perfect atmosphere. 

Biggest Disappointment:
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I love the original Pirates of the Caribbean.  It’s one of my favorite movies.  I also have a certain fondness for the sequels.  So when I say this movie hurt me – not just emotionally, but I’m pretty sure physically, thanks to the headache that lingered for hours afterward – please understand the depths of my disappointment.  How did they take a franchise as fun as Pirates and wring out every last bit of life?  How did they take a concept as imaginative as the Fountain of Youth and make it so needlessly convoluted?  How did they rip all the bite and personality out of Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa?  How did they allow a version of Blackbeard played by the great Ian McShane to be so incredibly boring?  How did they make zombies and mermaids lame?  How did they spend $150 million on the production and come out with a final product that looks laughably cheap and half-assed?  But most importantly of all…how did they take all the fun out of Captain Jack Sparrow?  How?  HOW!!!!!

Runners-up: Cowboys and Aliens had a fun premise, John Favreau in the director’s chair, and icons Dainel Craig and Harrison Ford in front of the camera.  What the hell went wrong?  Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life certainly wasn’t horrible, but over the course of its two-and-a-half hour run time, it went from “ambitious and meaningful art-house theatre” to “cruel parody of art-house theatre,” and given all the talent involved on and off screen, that’s very disappointing.

Worst Film of the Summer:
Crazy Stupid Love

To call this film a steaming pile of shit would be an insult to fecal matter.  I don’t even want to think about this movie – just go read my review.

Runners-Up: Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and Cowboys and Aliens, for reasons mentioned above.   

Biggest Surprise:
Fast Five

Having never seen a Fast & Furious movie, I went in expecting some empty but fun car antics.  I got a hell of a lot more than that.  Fast Five isn’t a masterpiece or anything, but it is a delightfully entertaining and clever heist movie with strong characters, fun performances, and some of the greatest car chases of modern times.  It also gives us Vin Diesel and The Rock going head to head multiple times, and eventually teaming up; lots of dream-team celebrity pairings, like last year’s The Expendables, are tremendous let-downs, but Fast Five made the most out of these two modern action legends.  There’s so much to love about Fast Five, and considering most people didn’t expect much out of it, myself included, that makes it the summer’s most pleasant and invigorating surprise.  

Runners-Up: When one utters the phrase “compelling drama,” one doesn’t usually think of “CGI Chimps,” yet the makers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to connote the two in spectacular fashion.  The Hangover: Part II, meanwhile, is the rare comedy sequel that managed to out-do its predecessor (at least in my mind) by repeating the successful formula of the first film verbatim. 

Best Action Film:
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Is Transformers 3 a great movie?  No, but it is a great action movie, boasting some of the most impressive set-pieces I’ve ever witnessed.  Shooting in 3D for the first time, director Michael Bay finally calmed down, stopped shaking the camera, and planned each action scene meticulously.  The result is a rousing, awe-inspiring hour-long climax where our favorite robots tear Chicago apart.  The realism – ILM’s effects have never been better – make this action stand out, especially when you have 3D to make the world really come alive.  Transformers 3 still has some of the same problems as its predecessors, but the action is so amazingly good that I have no problem letting those flaws slide.  The fact that Bay finally unleashed the true, full badassery of Optimus Prime (or, as we might want to call him after seeing what he does on the bridge, “Optimus Motherfucking Prime”) unto the world?  That’s just icing on the cake.

Runners-up: Until Transformers 3 came along, I felt sure no action sequence could top the ridiculously fun climax to Fast Five, wherein Vin Diesel’s character fight off a monstrous horde of cop cars using a bank vault strapped to the back of his car, and that’s just the last of many great set-pieces throughout the film.  There weren’t too many other straight action films this summer, so I may as well talk about the action in two of the year’s best superhero movies: Captain America director Joe Johnston gave us quite a few stirring set-pieces, ones that, like Cap himself, were unique from other superhero movies, and almost disgustingly fun – I doubt anything this summer was more invigorating than watching Cap take down Nazis with his patriotic shield.  Thor, meanwhile, didn’t make full use of the possibilities dueling Gods provides, but it came very close; Thor’s hammer is an incredible action tool.

Best Comedy:
The Hangover Part II

I’m probably going to get some shit for this, but I really enjoyed Hangover II.  Maybe it stems from the fact that I didn’t enjoy the first film quite as much as the rest of the world, but I really do believe that the sequel made better use of the creative premise than the first film.  That could just be my taste in humor – I’m a sucker for dark laughs, and the comedy in Hangover II is often horrific – but I also think that if you’re going to make a comedy about people blacking out and losing a night of their lives, then you may as well go all the way and wring real tension and stakes out of the ordeal.  Hangover II did that, and was funnier because of it.  No movie this year made me laugh so hard, so it wins the top spot. 

Runner-Up: Obviously, most people would name Bridesmaids as the best comedy of the summer; I don’t necessarily disagree.  It’s certainly a much better movie than Hangover II, but as a comedy, it simply didn’t make me laugh as hard or as often.   

Best Superhero Film:
Captain America: The First Avenger

Given the number of superhero films in theatres this summer, I thought it only proper to give Captain America special recognition as the best of the bunch.  Tightly constructed, thrilling, heartfelt, and delivering more amounts of fun than any movie should be allowed to dole out, Captain America isn’t just Marvel Studios’ best flick so far, but one of the best comic-book adaptations of all time.

Runners-Up: X-Men’s First Class was populated with some underwhelming d-list mutants, but as a whole, the film is a triumph.  Matthew Vaughn’s direction, calling back to sixties Bond flicks, is assured and inspired, and the doomed relationship between Charles and Eric – Professor X and Magneto – is captured perfectly.  I didn’t love Thor, but I admire it on many levels, and am excited to revisit it on home video; at the very least, it introduced one of Marvel’s more complex characters quite effectively.  Finally, the trailers scared me away from Green Lantern, and based on the reviews, I think I made the right choice.

Best Drama:
Midnight in Paris

This is the runaway cult hit of 2011, and for good reason – Midnight in Paris is a masterpiece.  Classifying it as a drama may be confusing – like most Woody Allen films, it’s filled with comedy – but when I think about the movie and why I love it, the humor isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  I think about how expertly Allen delivered his message about an artist’s soul, how he cleverly weaved in so many historical characters, and most of all, I remember the emotionally devastating sequence where the main character’s bohemian love interest, Adriana – played by Marion Cotillard – gives in to the lure of the past she admires and stays behind.  It’s the film’s crucial turning point, wonderfully acted by Cotillard, and delivers Allen’s message – that we should admire and learn from the past without getting lost in nostalgia – in a very powerful way.  It hit me hard, as did much of the film.  Midnight in Paris engages the mind and the soul in equal measure; it’s witty, wildly intelligent, meaningful, and undoubtedly the best-acted film of the year.  Is it really a drama?  Maybe not, but it’s not quite a comedy, so I say it earned this award.

Runners-Up: Mike Mills’ thoughtful, dark, and chronologically-playful Beginners may have hit me even harder that Midnight in Paris; it’s not quite as memorable overall, but it packs one hell of an emotional punch, and is easily the second-best acted film of the year.  The Help isn’t a great drama, but it is a very, very good one.  Super 8 isn’t quite a drama, but it’s also not a comedy, action film, or superhero flick, so I thought I might as well mention it here.

Best Film of the Summer:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

First things first – I don’t think Deathly Hallows 2 is actually, critically speaking, the absolute best film released during the summer season.  I don’t even think it’s the best Potter film, and I may even prefer the atmospheric, thoughtful, and character-driven Part 1 to the more intense second half.  But I also know that my emotional reaction to Deathly Hallows Part 2 was stronger than any other film released this year, let alone in the summer.  It’s the end of an era, especially for those of us who grew up with Harry, and though I have certain nitpicks about how the filmmakers wrapped up the franchise, on the whole, they did an amazing, inspiring job.  I actually cried watching this movie, something I’ve never really done before, but I also laughed, cheered, and felt exhilarated, depressed, and every emotion in between.  Film is art, and in many ways, art is all about our instinctive emotional responses; judged on those terms, Deathly Hallows 2 really is the best film of the summer, and a true cinematic masterpiece.  Everything I felt about the movie was shared by others – it was more or less universally acclaimed – and I think it’s so special, in this day and age, to see something as simple as a movie bring so many people together.  How could I possible give any other movie this award?

Runners-up: Midnight in Paris, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Beginners

Do you agree with my picks?  Sound off below in the comments with your thoughts on the summer movie season.  What were your favorite films, performances, and moments of the last few months?

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