Directed by: Dee Rees
Written by: Dee Rees (screenplay)
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis and Kim Wayans
Pariah is the remarkably honest if not groundbreaking first feature from writer/director Dee Rees, who adapted it from her own short film. It charts the partial repression and eventual emergence of a young Brooklyn teenager’s (Adepero Oduye) lesbian sexual identity. All of this takes place in a deeply religious, patriarchal African American household where girls are meant to be “girly” and where parents, especially the father (Charles Parnell), are not questioned.
It’s not the father, though, but the mother (Kim Wayans) who challenges and puts down Alike (pronounced Ah-lee-kay) the most. Like in the more recent and more watered-down animated film Brave, Pariah pits mother/daughter against each other and lets the father largely remain peacekeeper. The key difference, though, is that the peace is not kept.
The Skin I Live In
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar & Agustín Almodóvar (screenplay), Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes and Jan Cornet
The art of the surprise twist is something you just don’t see a lot of in modern movies, but Pedro Almodóvar sure as hell pulls one off in The Skin I Live In (assuming that like me you haven’t read the source novel beforehand). Almodóvar makes his horror debut with this film, though his aesthetic touches from recent films like Broken Embraces and Volver remain well in tact.
Beautifully art directed sets and the lusciously costumed stars combine quite well with the truly deranged story. Antonio Banderas stars as the demented plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who is keeping a woman named Vera (Elena Anaya) hostage in his home to do synthetic skin experiments on. After the tragic death of his wife, who committed suicide after seeing what she looked like after being burnt in a car crash. Ledgard becomes obsessed with recreating Vera in her image.
My Week With Marilyn
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Written by: Adrian Hodges (screenplay), Colin Clark (books)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench
The most poignant moment in My Week With Marilyn comes and goes so quickly that the viewer will soon be sedated back into the confines of its unchallenging, riskless story. Ms. Monroe (Michelle Williams), gliding down a staircase clutching her flavor of the week (Eddie Redmayne), turns to him as she sees a crowd forming and says, “Shall I be her?”
“Her” of course is the Marilyn Monroe that burned into the screen and the collective imagination of the world in the mid-20th century; the suit of armor that a deeply insecure, troubled woman named Norma Jean donned to deal with that fame. My Week With Marilyn is sadly less concerned with moments like these than it is in ultimately keeping that shroud of secrecy over Monroe.
Directed by: Andrew Haigh
Written by: Andrew Haigh (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Cullen and Chris New
Weekend is a film that many have used to herald the honesty of independent cinema; a film tackling the subject of homosexuality where the characters are no longer grappling with that identity, but arguing about it. Andrew Haigh’s debut feature is an incessantly political work about being gay in contemporary England whose dueling moralities surface through Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Guy New).
Haigh begins and ends his feature with Russell, who is seen going over to hang out with his friends at a dinner party before going to a gay club. That dinner scene is important in that it reveals absolutely nothing about Russell’s sexuality. The camerawork is deliberately grungy, evoking a sense of documentary-like realism in that dinner scene and many of the ones that follow. On a subway ride, Russell and Glen are filmed conversing as passengers bob and weave in front of the frame while the train hurtles down the tracks.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin (screenplay)
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy
Many prominent American indies have started to favor the Before/After plot device. Blue Valentine and the more recent We Need To Talk About Kevin are both examples of that style being used as a substitution for substance. Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene shows that device finally being used in excruciatingly well-done ways.
Along with Margin Call, this film about a young woman traumatized by her time in a cult marks the best American writer/director debut of 2011. Durkin’s films is decidedly less slick than J.C. Chandor’s drama about the financial collapse in 2008, but they both become unflinchingly honest if very different portraits of American identity. The point of relation in this film comes from Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), whose strength after escaping the cult seems impossibly strong.
Directed by: Vera Farmiga
Written by: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe (screenplay), Carolyn S. Briggs (novel)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes and Taissa Farmiga
Vera Farmiga often has such a calming presence on a movie, which makes those times when emotions pour out of her all the more affecting. In Higher Ground, she brings that talent not only as the movie’s star but as its director. It is the story of the devout Christian woman Corinne and her lifelong grappling with faith.
Adapted by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from Briggs’ book This Dark World, Higher Ground transcends preaching to either side of the issue because nobody involved in its construction is laying judgment. Corinne may be seen as a rebel by her congregation when she asks probing questions about the teachings of the Bible, but to an outsider in the audience they seem perfectly fine.
Directed by: James Bobin
Written by: Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller (screenplay), Jim Henson (characters),
Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen
The entirety of this reboot of The Muppets franchise is about why it’s necessary. The Muppets will be duking it out with Scream 4 for the title of “Most self-reflexive movie of 2011,” and sadly it’s the same mess of mixed quality and mediocre execution.
Jason Segel and Amy Adams play Gary and Mary, two people who, along with Gary’s Muppet brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), attempt to get the Muppet gang back together for a farewell show. Segel co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, and it’s unfortunate that such a worthy premise oddly can’t decide if it wants to be funny or not.
In structure and (sometimes) tone this reboot resembles the Seinfeld Reunion season of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Kermit The Frog (voiced by Steve Whitmire) joins the oddball trio to reassemble his Muppet posse, with Curb’s Seinfeld reunion line “We’ll do it in a way that won’t be lame,” being implied instead of spoken. The Muppets are battling to be relevant, and the visual gags and several self-reflexive references are made to do battle with forced pathos instead of being front-and-center.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller and Nick Krause
Snap reactions and the surprised double-take have always been two important tools in George Clooney’s acting kit. Alexander Payne is noted as a director for having actors explore realms outside of that familiar skill set. Perhaps most infamously, Payne stripped Jack Nicholson of his raised eyebrows and charisma in About Schmidt and had the actor play a shy, desperate man. It’s one of his best performances.
In The Descendants, Payne has Clooney blend in. His washed-out mess of hair and beach bum attire look misplaced and familiar at the same time. Emerging from that sly, smirky facade is an actor capable of true grit.
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom
Written by: N/A
Starring: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan and Margo Stilley
The Trip blends the line of fiction and reality so seamlessly that by the end you’re left uncertain of what you’ve seen. As it unfolds it is clear that you’re watching a movie, but there’s something different about it. It could be that there was no actual shooting script and that the actors are playing themselves (in a Curb Your Enthusiasm kind of way), but it’s not just that.
What Michael Winterbottom’s film does so brilliantly is comment on reality with a very close fictional version. Its comedy is born out of deep personal truth. This undertaking requires tremendous efforts from the two lead performers, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Steve is asked by The Observer to travel around the UK and try the finest restaurants. His semi-girlfriend backs out, so he asks Rob, who is happily married.
Directed by: Richard Ayoade
Written by: Richard Ayoade (screenplay)
Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor
Richard Ayoade will probably emerge as a “unique” new voice of independent cinema after this debut feature. Submarine is exactly the kind of movie that can be a cross-over hit in America. It’s got everything critics and its built-in audience adore: a spunky sense of humor, an aesthetic flare and a sensitive young male protagonist.
Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a younger version of Harold, though this movie contains no Maude. Instead, there’s a younger Lulu out of Something Wild, bob haircut and all. When Oliver meets Jordana (Yasmin Paige) he’s immediately drawn to her. To win her over he must take part in the cruel bullying of a larger girl. He does, and he feels subsequently guilty, but he views it as something he had to do for his muse.