So the time has finally come. After exactly two blog posts about the worst movies of 2011 (part one here
, part two there
) and an unexpectedly long rambling about the movies that just barely missed the cut of my top ten list
(yeah, all FOURTEEN came pretty close), it is time for me to talk in detail about the movies last year that I personally found to be the best of the bunch. The films that have stuck around in my head ever since I saw them and have left the biggest impacts on me as a film critic. As with my worst-of list, my picks will most likely cause a lot of controversy and some of them you will disagree with. I love hearing other peoples’ opinions and I always like a debate about movies, but like I said, this is MY list. Oh, and keep in mind I am the one guy in the world who didn’t lose my mind over “Drive
” and I have not yet seen “The Artist” because it is apparently too artsy for the dinky, uncultured town I live in (sarcasm), so those won’t be included. If my list comes off as shallow or immature…I really don’t care. I like what I like, and that’s all that I like. So with that said, here are numbers ten through six of my Top Ten Movies of 2011
10. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I can remember back before “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” came to theaters and it seemed that not only was nobody excited for it, but everybody was downright slamming it into the ground before it was even released. I guess there was just one too many prepositional phrases in the title for people to handle. Besides advertisements that boasted the same visual effects team that worked on James Cameron’s “Avatar,” there wasn’t much else to draw in a mainstream audience. I heard everything from:
“A movie about monkeys? Lame.”
“James Franco? Isn’t that the guy that screwed up the Oscars?”
“The original “Planet Of The Apes” is overrated, so this one must automatically suck, too!”
But then people saw the movie.
And let me tell ya, in an already pretty stellar summer for the movies in general (“Horrible Bosses
,” “Cowboys & Aliens
,” “X-Men: First Class
,” the “Harry Potter” finale
), “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” caught a lot of people off guard. It was exciting, thrilling, dramatic, smart, sometimes frightening, and always enjoyable. It is that rare specimen of a prequel that engrosses the audience so much that it places them in the moment and temporarily makes them forget about how the story will end up later down the line.
The film begins as a low-key drama as Franco’s Dr. Will Rodman secretly takes home an infantile chimpanzee after his laboratory loses its funding for developing a cure for Alzheimer’s and all of the test primates are ordered to be put down. This one chimpanzee was birthed from a simian subject who was injected with a special vaccine, and therefore, inherits the mother’s DNA. Rodman raises the monkey as his own, names him Caeser, teaches him sign language and observes his amazing development into a civilized ape.
After eight years in the Rodman household, Caeser begins to acquire the kind of attitude that rears its ugly head around any species’ adolescent years. After a brutal act of physical violence on an unsuspecting human, Caeser is repositioned to a prison-like primate preserve with a wholly detestable staff that maltreats the animals. Finally, the film culminates with the apes breaking free from the preserve and launching a revolution against the human race led by Caeser.
Tom Felton (better known as Draco Malfoy in “Harry Potter”) portrays the punky young employee who inflicts abuse on poor Caeser and is the most direct cause for the schism between apes and mankind, as well as the one easy person to blame for the inevitable uprising. John Lithgow is sympathetic as Rodman’s father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. But the real star here is motion capture veteran Andy Serkis, who breathes life and humanity into a monkey for crying out loud! “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is tremendous entertainment. No other movie I can think of this year has had a moment so heart-stoppingly intense that it was able to send the entire auditorium into deathly silence for a full ten seconds and then inspire an eruption of thundering applause immediately following the silence. If you don't know what I am talking about, go rent this movie right now.
9. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Sure, I was already gearing up to like this movie based solely on the fact that David Fincher was in charge. There are few other contemporary directors I can think of who can get me as excited for a movie as Fincher is able to. His track record is practically flawless. It should come as no surprise that “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is greater than or equal in quality to the original Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel, but what astounded me was the incredible star-making performance from Rooney Mara as the title character, Lisbeth Salander.
Mara totally immerses herself into this role with no reservations. She plays here a character with an aggressive, violent, unapproachable exterior, but also one who is vulnerable and clearly comes from a troubled upbringing. The actress is nearly unrecognizable underneath that face full of piercings and that permanent scowl that expresses utter contempt for mankind. The surly ex-girlfriend Mara portrayed in Fincher’s last film “The Social Network
” looks like Cindy Lou Who by comparison. Yet somehow, the audience is able to become fascinated with her, attracted to her personality, squeamish at the punishment she is forced to endure against her will, and finally sympathetic toward her as she admits to her legal guardian that she “made a friend” with her work partner Mikael Blomkvist. The final shot is kind of heartbreaking the more I think about it. I sincerely believe she has given one of the best performances of the entire year. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination out of the deal, I’ll be sorely disappointed.
But aside from Mara’s breakout role, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a tremendously engrossing and expertly executed thriller; clearly the mark of a Fincher film. Soon afterMillenium writer and co-owner Mikael Blomkvist gets in deep trouble for publishing a libelous article about an industrial tycoon and loses his court case, he is hired by a retired CEO of Vanger Industries to 1) write his memoirs about the Vanger family, and 2) investigate a 40-year-old unsolved case on the murder of his great-niece, who was only sixteen. Blomkvist will need to study the members of the detestable Vanger family. Some of them had connections with the Nazi party, others are just seriously corrupt individuals.
All the characters are intriguingly disgusting and vile in their own ways. But what is at the forefront of the film is its labyrinthine mystery story. Even for a film that runs nearly three hours in length, it is densely compacted with information and answers that ultimately lead to more questions. The script written by “Moneyball” co-writer Steven Zaillian is filled with dialogue that makes this thriller taut and involving. It isn’t always pretty. In fact, it probably isn’t EVER an uplifting viewing experience. But “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is first-rate filmmaking at its finest.
8. YOUNG ADULT
Like Diablo Cody’s Oscar-nominated script for “Juno,” “Young Adult” handles its subject with sharp dialogue and real humanity. Unlike “Juno,” “Young Adult” is quite a sour little picture about high school nostalgia. Jason Reitman directs this dramedy that chronicles the exploits of an aggressively pathetic main character named Mavis Gary, who is played exceptionally well by Charlize Theron. Theron gives an unflattering and wholly unpleasant portrayal of a particularly heinous walk of life. Mavis was crowned prom queen back in high school, the place where she cavorted with all the other cool kids and was adored and encouraged in her narcissism and bad behavior. Nowadays, she is a self-interested ice queen who drinks Coca-Cola straight from the two-liter bottle, suffers from alcoholism and ghostwrites a young adult book series that is near the end of its popularity.
Could it be that all the admiration sent her way in high school shaped her this way? Could all of the excessive attention and compliments on her beauty have carried into her adult life? It certainly sounds like a possibility. From my perspective, this is also what obstructs Mavis from developing into a sane human being. I imagine this is the type of self-inflicted state of arrested development that happens to a lot of popular kids after they graduate from high school. The most tragic part about Mavis is that nobody cares enough to save her from crashing and burning, nor does she really care that she'll wind up that way.
To retreat from her most recent case of writer’s block, she pays a visit to her home town with one goal in mind: to get back together with her old high school boyfriend Buddy Slate. The catch: he is already married. Not only that, but his wife recently delivered a baby. Nevertheless, Mavis is dogged in her highly conceited ambitions. Providing counterbalance to her unpardonable schemes is the benevolently geeky Matt Freehauf played by Patton Oswalt. Mavis ignored Matt all throughout high school, but the two hit it off and sorta become friends due in part to Matt’s steadfast ability to provide booze. Just what she needs.
In any other mainstream comedy, a girl like this would be cheered on in her disreputable ploys to nab the man away from his wife. Reitman, however, presents the situation for exactly what it is: a social trainwreck happening in super slow motion. But for as rotten of a character as Mavis is, the audience has a strange relationship with her. We do not want her to succeed in her own selfish goals, but we want to see her do the right thing, whatever it may be. I think instinctively, we as moviegoers want to root for our film protagonists, even if the character in question is damn near impossible to root for.
I’ve heard plenty of people vocally expressing their anger towards “Young Adult” on the basis of its main character alone. I knew it would be a polarizing film. To me, it is a delightfully acerbic character evaluation. That, and it is also pretty funny to boot. Call me crazy, but I think “Young Adult” is a triumph on Reitman and Cody’s part, even if triumph sounds like an inappropriate word choice to describe a work that is such a celebration of human dysfunction.
7. SOURCE CODE
Seeing the Duncan Jones’s thriller “Source Code” for a second time a few months ago was like seeing it for the first time all over again. And I am sure that the third time I see it will be just as fulfilling as the first two viewings. It is such a mesmerizing piece of work executed with grace and intelligence that even if you completely understand every last detail in it, you still somehow find yourself gazing in awe the second time around, as if you are a born-again virgin to this science fiction mindbender. At least I felt that way.
Jake Gyllenhaal is cast as a decorated airman named Colter Stevens who mysteriously wakes up strapped into some kind of contraption, dark and freezing, receiving instructions over a television screen by Vera Farmiga. She informs him with deadpan solemnity and businesslike urgency that he is the most important component involved in a computer simulation program called Source Code. The organization is using Colter under duress to identify the person responsible for bombing a commuter train in Chicago earlier in the day, which killed everybody. By obtaining such data, a future terrorist attack may be prevented and the criminal assailant will be detained by the authorities. But how will our hero gather up the facts?
This organization makes use of this unbelievable technology that allows test subjects to relive the final eight minutes of another person’s life. So Colter is repeatedly sent into the body of Sean Fentress, a man who happened to be onboard the train at the time of the explosion. He gathers clues and new developments with each venture into the parallel reality, and the large-scale story similarly reveals itself inch by inch, all through the eyes of Colter Stevens. And every time he is sent back, he sees a girl played by Michelle Monaghan who carries on casual conversations with Fentress, an indication that the two are well acquainted. After each experience in the simulation, Colter feels closer to this girl. He wants to save her, even though she has already been destroyed in the real world. So “Source Code” is essentially a cross between “Inception” and Harold Ramis’s comedy “Groundhog Day.”
The film is a continual experience of discovery from start to finish. Using Colter Stevens as the main character was probably the best decision that could have been made on a project like this, as the audience is usually just as puzzled as he is by what the heck is going on. How is he here? Why is he here? How did this organization find him? What happened to his job serving the country? The series of events is certainly complicated and the ending will probably leave most viewers asking questions, but it is a very good kind of perplexing. The kind where the viewer anticipates surprises around every corner. A deft fusion of science fiction, action, drama and romance, “Source Code” entertains the mind as well as the eyes.
6. THE IDES OF MARCH
Honestly, I walked into this movie kinda expecting to dislike it. I generally do not enjoy political thrillers as much as the next person, and I wasn’t as astonished by George Clooney’s previous drama “Good Night, and Good Luck” as most other critics were. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It was handled intelligently and the idea of McCarthyism still remains embarrassingly relevant today (particularly in politics), I just didn’t love it.
But I digress. I don’t get serious political movies mostly because I myself am not a very scholarly person on the subject. Sure, I hold a certain set of beliefs and morals and I would even consider myself quite a passionate person in regards to some issues. But I hate the idea of anchoring myself to an exclusive way of thinking. Why do I have to belong to one party or the other? To me, every politician is as capable of screwing up in a big way, morals be damned. They are all human, flawed, placed in a position of considerable power and therefore bound to slip up sooner or later. No matter whether you to the left or right wing agendas, you cannot simply say that one side is perfect and the other side is evil. After all, every belief system needs the occasional moment of doubt.
Then comes along “The Ides Of March,” a film that manages to speak my language about the duplicity that inevitably lies beneath the surface of political campaigns. I would have never expected this kind of message from an outspoken liberal and humanitarian activist like Clooney, but even he acknowledges the amount of hypocrisy, cynicism and downright amorality that fills any and every political platform. It paints neither Democrats nor Republicans as the “wrong people,” but rather paints the whole canvas in a gooey, sordid layer of icky black sludge. The canvas resembles reality more than most people would like to think, and the goings-on depicted in the film are hardly exaggerated from the unflattering headline stories we see all the time about sex scandals, shady dealings, blackmail, press associations, and the crooked routes candidates will take just to nab a vote.
Ryan Gosling, who seems to be unstoppable this year, plays a junior campaign manager named Stephen Meyers, who is championing Mike Morris (Clooney), a liberal Pennsylvania governor, for the Democratic presidential primaries. Essentially what the race comes down to is who can get the popular vote from the state of Ohio, which can have a strong chance of influencing the outcome of the primary. Like Stephen states in the film, he is married to the campaign. He is dedicated to scoring a victory for his administration. Unfortunately for him, he seems to be the only optimistic soul in a sea of unbridled corruption and callousness. The audience views the competition through Stephen’s eyes, and let me tell ya, what this kid sees is not too pretty.
He gets approached by the opposing candidate’s slimy manager, who offers a more rewarding and successful job as strategist in his administration. He falls for a young intern, but later finds out that she is concealing a deep, dark secret about Morris. An inquisitive reporter bleeds him for new developments, but establishes just how futile friendships and close relationships are in the game of politics. Secrets are revealed, reputations are at stake and alliances are shattered. All the while, “The Ides Of March” is a well-written, well acted, extremely tense political drama that hits the nail on the head. The final ten second stretch of the film, in which the camera lingers on somebody’s face for an extended period of time, is one of the most chilling shots I have seen this year. To call this film a disparaging look at the world of politics would be an understatement.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Volume 1,” “Hanna” isn’t much more than a director’s exercise in style and cinematic flair…but oh my goodness, this is an action film that MUST be seen. The story is entrancing, the actors hit all the right notes and each scene demonstrates how first-rate filmmaking is done. It is frenetic, exhilarating and fascinating, and needless to say, I loved every second of it. Who would have thought that Joe Wright, best known for adapting elegant and sophisticated literature like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement” to the big screen, could double as a masterful action director?
Saoirse Ronan plays the sixteen-year-old title character Hanna Heller, who has been training in a snowy Finland environment with her father (played by Eric Bana) for her whole life. She has developed a set of skills that would put five Jason Bournes to shame, including hand-to-hand combat, defense, stealth, quick reflexes and hunting. She can also speak fluently in several languages, has memorized entire encyclopedia entries, and has established fake identities and backgrounds for herself. “Adapt or die” is the phrase spoken between the two characters, which basically means that if you cannot prepare yourself for any potential bind you might get caught in, you are screwed.
So what is this “home-school program” preparing Hanna for? Well, it is all part of an elaborate mission conceived by her father, the intricacies of which I will not spoil. I will say that this dicey operation is initiated with the simple flick of a switch, which triggers a radio signal, catching the attention of a cunning CIA agent who recruits several allies and takes countless measures to guarantee that she retrieves Hanna and her father before they complete their mission. Like with most ingenious thrillers, “Hanna” is filled with all sorts of surprises and twists that are better left a mystery. Lots and lots of chaos ensues in getting from point A to point B.
The film is a masterpiece of technical prowess. The action scenes all have a special kind of artistic craft to them that makes each thrilling to watch, while the original score composed by The Chemical Brothers is a stimulating tour de force in its own right. Of course, the film has fun with the fact that Hanna is a girl who has been deprived of human contact all her life, as in a brilliantly staged scene where she becomes exposed to modern technology for the first time. She is frightened by all sorts of commonplace advancements, such as a flickering fluorescent light, the sound of a television and the whooshing of the blades on an overhead fan. Instinctively, she regards all of these foreign objects and utilities as threats and the film does a terrific job of illustrating the degree of sensory overload she is experiencing at that moment in time. “Hanna” is a nearly perfect thriller.
Martin Scorsese? THE Martin Scorsese? Arguably one of the greatest American directors of all time? Whose career has spanned over four decades now? The guy who helmed “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Departed,” “After Hours,” “Gangs Of New York,” “The King Of Comedy” and “Shutter Island
?” And he’s making a FAMILY film in 3D? This is the general reaction everybody had upon hearing that the acclaimed director was adapting the bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret
. But surprise surprise, “Hugo” still ends up being one of the best films of the year. No, there aren’t any sequences of mob violence, gunfights, challenging questions about morality, or other gritty tropes and features common to the typical Scorsese picture here. Yet, it remains a true work of genius and one of the most unconventional, inspired and insightful family films to come out in a very long time.
It follows a young boy in 1930s Paris named Hugo, who lives and works inside of the maze-like network of clocks in a train station after his clockmaker father dies in a museum fire. Though the boy spends most of his spare time stealing food from the train station services and avoiding capture from a bumbling inspector, he is also smart and resourceful, possessing an incredible mechanical expertise and a gift for invention inherited from his father. He is driven to repair his father’s two-foot-tall mechanical automaton, which may or may not hold some kind of secret message.
In hopes of making progress, he swipes gears and spare parts from a furtive old man’s toy shop. One day he gets caught red-handed and the old man snatches the lad’s notebook full of designs and engineering notes for the automaton, threatening to burn it when he gets home. Young Hugo befriends the man’s goddaughter, the verbose and fanatical Isabelle, and the two begin to investigate whether or not the given state of affairs are more than what they seem.
Part of the film’s splendor lies in just how unpredictable the story is. Unlike many trailers and TV commercials, the ones for “Hugo” gave away very little about the film’s secrets outside the basics. Perfect! This is the kind of movie that REQUIRES the audience to approach blindly. It begins as a compelling, Dickensian-style mystery drama with the two children embarking on their own detective adventure to put together the scattered pieces of a backbreaking puzzle. The long riddle is intriguing and every new discovery is a surprise. However, the second half is something even greater as it reveals itself to be a film ABOUT films and the magical impact they have on the world.
It is hard to imagine in this age of CGI explosions and millions of dollars in production values, but silent movies were once equally capable of thrilling audiences and taking them to worlds far, far away. The more I think about it, this is also a sad reflection on just how spoiled moviegoers are now. Every time I go to see a movie, people are checking their cell phones, talking out loud like they are at home, and just all around not paying attention to what’s happening onscreen. In “Hugo,” the moviegoers of the 1930s are on the edge of their seats as silent movie star Harold Lloyd helplessly dangles from the hands of a clocktower high above ground. They jump and scream in alarm as a train rushes into the foreground in the Lumiere brothers picture titled “Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat.” It’s practically inconceivable to picture such reactions to movies nowadays in an age where attention spans are at their absolute shortest and the demand for cheap thrills, instant gratification and lazy sequels is through the roof.
The film chronicles the innovation of “true” movie studios where filmmakers could shoot extravagant projects, the idea of injecting color into the average black-and-white silent picture, and essentially the pioneering of special effects as we know it. There is admirable craftsmanship in the early, now cheesy looking visual tricks seen in classic films. “Transformers” would no doubt be nonexistent without them. An enchanting visual experience and a thought-provoking look at the history of film, “Hugo” is a great work of art that could have only been done by a great artist like Martin Scorsese.
3. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
76-year-old Woody Allen has released a LOT of movies throughout his career, and a lot of great ones at that. “Midnight In Paris” is like a pleasant little charmer that stepped out of a time machine from the 1970s or the 1980s when some of his best movies were made, including my personal favorites “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” With a flawless script and gorgeous cinematography, this is trés magnifique in my book.
Owen Wilson gives an endearing performance as Gil Pender, the imperative Woody Allen-type character, a hack screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiancée Inez and her parents. The man is on a mission to finish up a novel he has been working on about a nostalgia store owner who yearns to have been alive in France during the 1920s, the very definition of a ‘golden age’ in his mind. Of course, this pipe dream is not all that distant from Gil’s own mindset. He is a classic kind of guy; a romantic who loves to absorb the beauty of his surroundings in Paris (I don’t blame him), dislikes pedantic pseudo-intellectuals, and doesn’t appreciate being the outcast of the group. Inez, on the other hand, is on the different end of the spectrum entirely. All she sees in Paris is another place to shop heavy and eat fancy.
However, Gil is granted the opportunity to experience the golden age for himself when the clock chimes midnight on the Parisian streets. He gets whisked away by a mysterious vintage automobile and is taken to a different time or place, where art icons such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his wife Zelda), Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Gertrude Stein all seem to coexist, converse and attend roaring parties every single night. How does Gil stumble into this world? Is it time travel? An alternate dimension? An alcohol-induced figment of his imagination? It is never quite clear, but that doesn’t mean our hero can’t learn a few things from each visit. Of course, wherever learning is involved, there is likely to be a number of challenging trials and tribulations to inspire such epiphanies.
The cast is uniformly excellent here. Owen Wilson puts his own spin on the Woody Allen character mold, Marion Cotillard is radiant as the lovely Adriana who is irresistible to every man in the 1920s, and Rachel McAdams departs from her niche as a plucky leading lady in her role as Inez. “Midnight In Paris” is a dazzling piece of American filmmaking that acts as a meditative and poignant glance at why no time period will ever perfectly meet expectations, because as Gil says, “[the present] is a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying.”
Must I reiterate that when it comes to sports of any kind, I am about as knowledgeable as a dead squirrel? I haven’t the faintest knowledge of the rules, regulations, statistics, records, players, teams, etc. of any sport in particular. And in the state I live in, people would likely go as far as to say my ignorance of America’s pastime is downright un-American. Yet, here is just how powerful an impact “Moneyball” had on me as a film critic: I willingly paid to see it again. And if I weren’t on such an urgent, no-pay schedule, I probably would have seen it a third time. I love this movie.
Sure, most sports movies don’t even center on the sports themselves; they are more obsessed with their characters than they are with competitive action. But “Moneyball” is surely not your average feel-good baseball movie. Instead, it concentrates on facts and figures, applied data used for business strategies, the savvy language of the head honchos in charge and the overall business approach to the game.
Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane in a performance that is destined to earn him an Oscar nomination. Beane is a former ball player who lost his skill and self-assurance when the moment came for him to transition into the Major leagues. Now divorced, this man presides as the general manager for bottom tier Major League baseball team, the Oakland A’s. The team has one of the smallest payrolls and most conservative budgets of any professional sports team. This poses a major problem when three of the star players’ are lost to higher-paying teams and Beane must fill their slots with new players.
However, a momentous visit to the Cleveland Indians introduces Beane to a bright but timid Economics major from Yale named Peter Brand. Though this kid’s number-crunching, glasses sporting image doesn’t immediately register as ‘sports intellectual,’ he has developed an unconventional but theoretically brilliant strategy based in the concept of sabermetrics that may benefit Beane in preparing a full line-up for next season. So Beane hires Brand to become assistant general manager to the Oakland A's. Scouting agencies like hone in on player imperfections, including their personal lives, addictions and physical irregularities. Brand, however, turns Beane’s attention to on-base percentages. With this tactic in mind, Beane makes the most of the small budget he is working with, much to the uncertainty and flat-out opposition of specialists, including team manager Art Howe. Everyone thinks this risky team arrangement is like “buying a ticket on the Titanic,” but Beane is so extremely driven by his desire to win (or even more by his hatred for NOT winning) that he is willing to see Brand’s gameplan through to the end.
Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network
” writer) and Steve Zaillian (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
” writer) teamed up to adapt the sports geek stats book of the same name by Michael Lewis into the most impeccably written screenplay of 2011. It is pure perfection, intuitively written to where even I can instantly understand the geeky facets of sports culture being discussed. Yet the movie isn’t dumb about its subject in the slightest. It is intelligent entertainment infused with heart and sharp wit. Pitt is mesmerizing and Jonah Hill as Peter Brand proves that the actor can effectively branch outside of the Judd Apatow circle of comedy and hold his own in his first big dramatic outing. Everyone involved truly hit a homerun with “Moneyball.”
I know for sure my number one pick will come as a shocker to just about everybody. Sure, a lot of people really liked this movie, but it didn’t end up on too many end-of-the-year lists and it isn’t a strong awards contender like “The Artist” or “War Horse”. To be honest, I am just as surprised that it topped my list as well. Upon leaving the theater after initially seeing “50/50,” the words ‘number one movie of the year’ never crossed my mind. But now that a few months have passed by, I think back to which movies have stuck with me the most. I think to the movies that have resonated with me after months of reflection and analysis. I think of what movies got me the most emotionally involved. I think of the movies that changed my outlook on life, movies that made me ask myself questions about my friends and family, and movies that have allowed me to appreciate life a little more. All signs brought me back around to “50/50,” which I do believe is the best movie (in my opinion) to be released in 2011.
Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Seattle public radio employee who is a straight arrow if ever there was one. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he exercises regularly, he isn’t promiscuous. He doesn’t even own a car or a license, as he believes driving is pushing the boundaries of what qualifies as ‘safe’ with him. So how could a guy like this not be shocked to hear the news that he has somehow contracted a cancerous tumor in his spine?
According to an informational website, his chances of beating his particular form of terminal illness are 50/50. And over the course of a few weeks, Adam goes through all the normal stages one might go through upon hearing such tragic news, beginning with denial and making its way to anger and depression.
Adam’s best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) attempts to console him by taking his crisis and spinning it into something positive. He says it’s a sure-fire opportunity to meet some fine ladies at the bar out of sympathy. It’s the last thing Adam wants. To help Adam interpret his thoughts and anxieties is a bright and affirmative young psychiatrist named Katie McKay (Anna Kendrick). She may have only had two patients before him and she is still working toward her doctorate, but she remains confident that she can somehow help him out. Psychiatry is the last thing Adam wants. And what’s worse, his exasperatingly worrisome mother (Angelica Huston) doesn’t react lightly to the news that her son’s days on the planet might be numbered. She relentlessly smothers Adam as if she is in a suspended state of denial herself. Smothering is the last thing Adam wants.
In fact, the only thing Adam gives a damn about anymore is his girlfriend, a painter named Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard). She seems nice enough, but sort of on the uneasy side. One day, she brings home an emaciated former race dog (lovingly named Skeletor), which she says will help him overcome these difficult times. Another companion is the last thing Adam wants.
In case you cannot tell, the film has less to do with Adam coping with cancer than it does with the miscellaneous reactions of everybody else around him, which different as they are, represent some form of personal grief for a loved one. In many films dealing with cancer, the character stricken with the disease is made out to be like some kind of blameless person, free of sin and immune to persecution. Adam, on the other hand, is surly, sarcastic, pessimistic and easily irritable. He would probably rather willingly die than go through each day in uncertainty about his condition. The character is a more flawed and frankly more realistic portrayal of a cancer patient.
It is in these dire circumstances that one gets a firm awareness of the people that truly care about them, and the results might come as a surprise when you get down to it. The film shrewdly and effortlessly earns its audience's sympathy rather than beating them over the head with sentimentality like the typical tearjerker. Screenwriter Will Reiser based this work upon his own personal experience of being diagnosed with a malignant tumor and seeking comfort in one of his close friends (who was indeed Seth Rogen in real life). I wasn’t prepared for a script with so much insight on human relationships of every kind, and how one person’s crisis can leave even larger impressions on the people surrounding them. “50/50” is a sweet, funny, and deeply moving film. One that remains relevant whether or not you've lived through a similar situation.