I'm cutting it close for the last installment of the year 2011. The following is based on the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated December 31, 2011.
1. "We Found Love," Rihanna feat. Calvin Harris
You guys know how I feel about Rihanna. She is, in essence, the perfect pop star: completely devoid of any musical personality, therefore malleable to fit what trends come about, and reaping the rewards with hit after hit after hit. "We Found Love" marks Ri-Ri's 11th number-one hit, and it sounds like it was constructed to be just that. Yet something new is happening here: this sounds like a Rihanna song, not a "Rihanna" song. As in, this sounds like a song that was written especially for her, and she takes it on with gusto. The song actually does service her unremarkable pipes well, which fit in perfectly with Harris' staccato synths and thunderous bass. Sure, there's nothing particularly deep or life-affirming here; hell, it barely has lyrics beyond "we found love in a hopeless place." But this is what club-pop nirvana sounds like, a simple banger that sticks in your head long after the night is over. It's easily her best song since "Umbrella," and it may be even better than that. B+
2. "Sexy and I Know It," LMFAO
I still can't take a song with "wiggle wiggle wiggle" as the bridge seriously. For your listening pleasure, here's an example of how to do so-bad-its-brilliant pop deconstruction. F
3. "It Will Rain," Bruno Mars
The Twilight crew has finally gone for broke by having Bruno Mars provide the theme song for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Why Did We Split This Movie Into Two Parts Oh Yeah So We Can Make A Bajillion Dollars Off Of It Before We Have To Send These Actors Back Into Obscurity, Pt. 1. "It Will Rain" has all the moody romanticism that's marked the franchise and it's Pacific Northwest setting, and it actually wouldn't sound all that out-of-place on some cheesy '80s pop radio station, as it piles on the schmaltz. This isn't a particular high point for Mars, but he does his best at selling it, and he does seem to be either winkingly or earnestly following the tradition of bombastic movie themes that marked the '80s and '90s. Which one, though, is anyone's guess. B-
4. "Good Feeling," Flo Rida
Ostensibly, Flo Rida is a rapper. However, like his fellow Floridian Pitbull, he's a rapper in the sense that he strings a flow of words over a pop beat, then achieves massive success less in his merely passable talents as a rapper and more from the fact that his song can generate plenty of club play and appeal to the masses. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with this approach; though Flo Rida sells plenty more singles than he does albums, those singles are often ridiculously catchy earworms that are perfect for some mindless fun - he's a one-man Black Eyed Peas, essentially. "Good Feeling" doesn't stick out the way "Low" or "Right Round" did in the past, but as far as trifles go, it could be much worse. And it would fit in perfectly on some personal trainer's gym playlist. B-
5. "The One That Got Away," Katy Perry
In a year in which Katy Perry and Adele ruled the airwaves, this song proves to be the flip-side of the latter's "Someone Like You" (see #7). Here, Perry longs for a beau who's left, pining for him as she reminisces about how they used to steal his parent's liquor and make out to Radiohead (obviously, they were '90s kids). Despite the relatively snappy tempo, this qualifies as a ballad, and while its unlikely to become Perry's sixth consecutive number-one, it does tap into that melancholy feeling of remembering an ex. There is a sort of tonal problem here, since Perry clearly wants this to evoke an emotional response but can't commit to a full-blown ballad, and so decides instead to go for a dance-pity-party. It's not all bad, but its definitely not outstanding, either. C+
6. "Niggas in Paris," Jay-Z and Kanye West
Watch the Throne, for all its recession-inappropriate luxury rap, was one of the best albums of the year. And "Niggas in Paris" is probably the most unlikely hit to come off the album, only making sense from the fact that Jay and 'Ye do the song three or five times at every concert. But you can understand why, because this is two giants of rap operating at full power, boasting proudly about their success while also acknowledging the circumstances they've come from. This all comes over a bouncy, party-hearty beat cut with dialogue from Blades of Glory. There's nothing else like it on the radio, and bless these two for being the ones to do it. A
7. "Someone Like You," Adele
Adele, meanwhile, paints us a, in my opinion, more accurate portrait of running into an old flame: "Someone Like You" captures both the pain and the pride, as she reminds him that "for me, it is over," but she'll still find someone who can be there for her the same way. Its that feeling of longing and defiant self-assurance that she captures perfectly in this song, and that's why it went straight to number one, folks. A
8. "Without You," David Guetta feat. Usher
The Gallic DJ who produced the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" and became an international club superstar is back with "Without You," a dance-the-night-away declaration of love. To be honest, as with most Guetta songs, Usher's vocals are really just window-dressing added for the benefit of sales and radio play. The real star is Guetta himself, who crafts a thudding beat laced with spacey synths that's perfect for a night on the dancefloor. There's a reason why Guetta's one of the bigger names in club music, and this song is pretty ample evidence for why. B+
9. "Moves Like Jagger," Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera
What, exactly, are the moves like Jagger? From what I can gather, its Adam Levine's sexual prowess, and like a lion hunting a wounded, drunk gazelle, he's going to corner you and show you those moves. How is that Maroon 5 manages to be so dark yet cover it up as a dance-jam? And why do I still enjoy it? B
10. "5 O'Clock," T-Pain feat. Wiz Khalifa and Lily Allen
With T-Pain, Maroon 5, Rihanna, and Flo Rida all on the chart this week, I feel like I'm a senior in high school again. "5 O'Clock" is the first T-Pain single in a while, and it doesn't stray far from his usual R(obot)&B(ooty) ways. The song is an ode to coming home late from the club and having sex with his girl, which, yeah, that's T-Pain all right. Lily Allen is unfortunately underused on the hook, and Wiz Khalifa delivers a perfectly serviceable verse that doesn't add or take away from the song. T-Pain's overprocessed vocals are still distinctly his, but as AutoTune has seeped deeper and deeper into pop music, it doesn't set him as far apart as it used to. For the most part, this just feels like an attempt at a comeback through doing more of the same. And hey look, it worked. C
So now that we've seen the nominations and/or wins for the Golden Globes, SAGs, Satellites, BFCAs, and pretty much every critics' group in the country, we have a much better picture of what could happen on Oscar nominations morning. Even with all of that, though, the picture is still (wonderfully) fuzzy, with the chance for surprises this year fairly high in just about every category, either from strong competition (Best Actor and Best Actress are packed) or from their only being one or two dominating so far (Best Supporting Actor). So what's the shakeup resulted in?
*Fun fact: Since they took the year off to get married/have kids/be beautiful, this will most likely be the first year since 2005 that neither Penelope Cruz nor Javier Bardem will be among the nominees.
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
I honestly don't think we're going to get to 10 nominees this year; in fact, I'll go ahead and boldly declare that there will be eight nominees (the reds and the blues). With the outpouring of love for Hugo, I have a hard time seeing the Academy passing it up. Aside from Hugo, The Artist and The Descendants have dominated this discussion, so their nominations are probably locked up at this point. Though Midnight in Paris hasn't actually dominated in terms of wins, its received enough nominations and placed on enough Top 10 lists to convince me that it won't be passed over (plus, Woody Allen is an Oscar favorite, and his "comeback" year should be catnip for them). The Help's position as the top non-franchise film of the year at the box office should help, and its still generating plenty of buzz. War Horse is a bit more iffy; some love it, some don't, but it will probably still make the lineup for hitting the war-epic sweet spot. Moneyball and The Tree of Life still have passionate fans, which should lift them to nominations. Drive, too, has a strong base of support, but I'm not convinced that its large enough to nab the film a nomination here. As for Extremely Loud...now that its finally opened, critics have been mixed, and the film has failed to make a dent in any awards so far (not a single Golden Globe nod, for example). It could still be a film they like, critical reception be damned (see: The Blind Side, 2009), so its still in the mix as far as I'm concerned. However, J. Edgar and The Ides of March have, for the most part, seen their stars fall in this category, and its unlikely that either will make the cut.
Steven Spielberg, War Horse
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Spielberg, Allen, and Scorsese are the most-nominated living directors, and its very likely that this year all three of them will be nominated. Payne and Hazanvicius are almost locks at this point, having nabbed more than their fair share of honors so far this season. Scorsese, too, seems like a pretty sure thing. However, interestingly, it could be Spielberg and Allen that are on the shakiest ground. Both Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) have been singled out by various groups, and both of their films are seen as director-driven, which can only help them here. My guess is that Malick is in a better position to spoil, but I wouldn't count out either of them at this point.
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Michael Fassbender, Shame
For the most part, Clooney, Dujardin, and Pitt are locks in this category, having made almost every shortlist and claiming a majority of the prizes so far. Though his film (and, to be honest, DiCaprio himself) are mediocre at best, this kind of biopic role is exactly the sort of thing that Oscar goes nuts over, and I would be surprised if they passed over him. That fifth spot has a lot of competition: Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) has a very quiet, reactive role - not really grabby - but he could still make his way in if enough people cry "overdue!" Woody Harrelson (Rampart) has a meaty role as a corrupt cop - the exact sort of role that won Denzel Washington this prize 10 years ago - but he needs a lot more people to see his film if he's going to make it. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) is mesmerizing and has earned a few nods here-and-there, but he's going to need a lot more support if he's going to earn his second Oscar nomination. And Demian Bichir (A Better Life) surprised a lot of people by landing a SAG nomination, which could easily turn into a Oscar nomination as well if people support him. But I'm guessing that Fassbender will overcome his film's NC-17 rating and earn a nomination for a literally naked performance, topping off his breakout year.
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk about Kevin
The Iron Lady, Albert Nobbs, and My Week with Marilyn have all received middling reviews, yet Streep, Close, and Williams (respectively) have managed to squeeze into a multitude of honors anyway on their performances. Streep and Williams are playing the mimicry card, which makes them strong contenders here; Close, on the other hand, may be in danger of her film's poor reviews and her own understated performance. Davis remains a lock and a quite possible winner. Swinton has had a strange resurgence, particularly from some major organizations such as the SAG, and perhaps could earn her second Oscar nomination. However, her film has barely screened, and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Charlize Theron (Young Adult), and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) are all waiting in the wings and could easily snatch that last spot.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Albert Brooks, Drive
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
One thing is certain: Plummer and Brooks, who have won almost every prize so far, will be nominated. From there, though, this category is the fuzziest. Branagh seems like a safe bet for his (far-too-easy, given the comparisons) performance as Laurence Olivier. Every once in a while the Academy gets really excited about Nolte, and this year seems to be another one of those, which could result in his third nomination. And yes, it does seem strange to see Hill here, but he turned in a truly interesting and soulful performance. However, Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method), Max Von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Armie Hammer (J. Edgar), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Ides of March), and even Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) are all potential nominees as well.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
The ladies of The Help (Spencer and Chastain) should both score nominations, the former for her scene-stealing role, the latter as reward for appearing in practically every other movie this year (seriously, Jessica, you've earned a vacation!). This isn't particularly surprising, especially since this category has for three straight years produced two nominees from a single film. Woodley and McTeer have earned several nods, including Golden Globes, which will certainly help them maintain their momentum. Redgrave, unfortunately, is on shaky ground, particularly because her film has been sorely underseen, and she missed nominations from both SAG and the Globes. The Academy could still throw her a nomination, but if not, SAG nominees Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) or Berenice Bejo (The Artist) could steal a spot in the lineup.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Moneyball; screenplay by Steven Zallian & Aaron Sorkin (based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis)
The Descendants; screenplay by Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne & Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings)
The Help; screenplay by Tate Taylor (based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett)
Hugo; screenplay by John Logan (based on the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughn (based on the novel by John le Carre)
Moneyball and The Descendants are the only sure things here. Otherwise, it could go any number of ways. The Help continues to hold steady as a Best Picture nominee, and it seems likely to score a screenplay nomination as well. Hugo, too, seems likely to capitalize on its love-in to earn a spot here. And Tinker seems like the kind of twisty, complicated film that would be recognized for its screenplay (and the last le Carre adaptation, The Constant Gardener, also was nominated here). However, The Ides of March, War Horse, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo could also make their way into the lineup.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Midnight in Paris; written by Woody Allen
The Artist; written by Michel Hazanavicius
50/50; written by Will Reiser
Bridesmaids; written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumulo
Margin Call; written by JC Chandor
Excitingly, the Original Screenplay category is pretty competitive this year. The Artist and Midnight in Paris are sure-things at this point, and either of them are likely to win this year. The other three spots are more difficult to gauge. Bridesmaids was a big hit and a critical favorite, and this is the one category where it has the best shot at a nomination. 50/50 has claimed a surprising number of critics prizes, and it seems to have broken ahead as a likely nominee as well (though it has its detractors). Margin Call is the unexpected indie hit of the season, and it seems primed for a nomination for first-timer Chandor. However, Young Adult, The Tree of Life, Shame, Win Win, Take Shelter, Rampart, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Beginners, and A Separation are all contenders as well, and anything could happen.
This past decade has seen a lot of change come to the spy genre, and the catalyst for that change has been one man: Jason Bourne. The Bourne Identity presented Bourne as a spy in the "real world," one where he doesn't have snazzy gadgets and complex schemes in order to take down over-the-top bad guys hell-bent on destroying the world. Instead, he runs, he fights with his fists/whatever object happens to be nearby, and his villains are people you wouldn't be able to pick out of a lineup. As a result, spy films have opted to emulate the franchise, forgoing the kitsch in favor of "gritty" realism. Even James Bond has gone for realism in the Daniel Craig years, and though neither have been terrible (well, Quantum of Solace wasn't necessarily a high note, but it was still good), the fun of the series has faded.
The Mission: Impossible franchise, however, remains delightfully digital in the increasingly analog spy world, throwing more exciting technology and whizz-bang, how-did-they-do-that action at the screen than any film in some time. Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in the series, is perhaps the best in the franchise so far. In this film, our hero Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, sporting a leonine mane of hair) and his team are accused of bombing the Kremlin in Moscow, leading to the end of his organization and the initiation of "ghost protocol," in which every agent is disavowed. However, Ethan knows that the bombing was really a cover for a man named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) to steal nuclear launch codes, which he intends to use to incite global nuclear war. Only Ethan, Benji (Simon Pegg), Jane (Paula Patton), and analyst-with-a-secret William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) can stop him and once again save the world.
On one level, sure, not a lot makes sense here. For one, Hendricks is a pretty lame villain, barely getting any lines and ultimately having a well-worn motive (blow up the world, really?). For another, if ghost protocol means no use of IMF technology, how did they end up with everything they needed for any situation? However, this is really unnecessary, since Mission: Impossible was never founded on plausible, real-world physics.
No, the main draw of these films is the stunts, or, more accurately, watching Cruise perform these stunts. And Cruise is fantastic, bringing his untouchable movie-star charisma to the proceedings and proving that he is indestructible by surviving a number of certain-death scenarios. The film moves at a breakneck pace (even for its 2+ hour run-time), moving from one great setpiece to the next with a great sense of fun. Much of the credit for this goes to director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant), in his first live-action feature. Bird has proven himself to be an old soul rooted in the groovy optimistic-dreamer '60s, and brings that attitude here, complete with Michael Giacchino's jazzy score and the Cold War vibe. He's also very adept at setting a great scene, especially the film's dazzling middle sequence involving the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building), a bait-and-switch, and a sandstorm. Bird could have a bright future as a live-action director as well as an animator.
Ultimately, Ghost Protocol wasn't meant to tickle the brain or challenge the viewer. This is pure, old-school action fun, fully aware of its purpose as entertainment and excelling at delivering the goods. It's a thrilling throwback to free-wheeling fun. B+
PS I didn't see it in IMAX, but man, I wish I had.
Just in case anyone was worried that I wasn't being productive over the long hiatus, I do have evidence here that I was keeping busy: I ended up with an A- in my American Independent Cinema class, and B's in my other classes this semester. But fret not, I've also managed to watch a few movies during this time too. I decided that instead of doing a separate review for each film, I'll just do some capsule reviews (I'm not completely crazy, you know).
Red State (dir. Kevin Smith)
The brouhaha surrounding Smith's Sundance stunt/self-release-strategy has garnered a lot more attention than the film itself. As a result, very few even noticed when it came and went through select theaters with barely a peep. But how was the film itself? Surprisingly, not all that bad. Sure, the tone was all over the place (a pretty common problem with post-Dogma Smith films) and it believes itself to be a lot more significant than it actually is. However, Michael Parks is magnetic as a Fred-Phelps-like preacher of a church hell-bent on punishing sinners, and gets a juicy 10+ minute monologue/sermon that's really the film's centerpiece. Everything else is pretty much window-dressing, but as far as window-dressing goes, you can do much, much worse than this. B-
Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)
Let's get this much out of the way first: Elizabeth Olsen deserves an Oscar nomination (perhaps even a win) for her beautifully restrained and complex performance as the titular character, a young woman who escapes from a cult in the Catskills with only a fuzzy idea of who she is. The confusing title refers to the three identities she assumes over the film; with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy), she's Martha, but among the cult, led by Patrick (a magnificent and terrifying John Hawkes), she's Marcy May. The film, from first-timer Durkin, is a gorgeously-shot and acted meditation on identity, and it graciously is very specific to the character without divulging too much information (very little is actually known about the cult, and the word "cult" is never actually used). It's a real beauty of a film that's easily one of the year's best. A+
The Future (dir. Miranda July)
Ah, yes, Miranda July. How much one can appreciate the "twee" will determine how much one can enjoy her newest film, which almost overdoes the twee, complete with being told from the point of view of Paw Paw, a cat in a shelter that Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July) have decided to adopt. This decision results in both characters re-evaluating their lives and their relationship, as well as other left-field developments. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, but Linklater and July are enjoyable in their roles, and repeat viewings only deepen the experience. It's a difficult film, but it ultimately pays off, if you give it a chance. B
J. Edgar (dir. Clint Eastwood)
J. Edgar Hoover's life is a gold-mine of psychological drama: he was obsessed with threats to national security to the point of unbridled paranoia, but as a result he built the FBI essentially from the ground-up and encouraged progress in the forensic sciences. He had renowned mother issues, was a rumored cross-dresser, and many have supposed Clyde Tolson was much more than his right-hand man. It's all too much for a single movie, but J. Edgar's problem is that it can't be bothered to focus on anything long enough to make it seem significant. The result is a film that presents Hoover's life as a puzzle with missing pieces and only part of the picture on the box. It doesn't help that Leonardo DiCaprio gives a half-hearted and uninteresting performance as Hoover, that writer Dustin Lance Black doesn't seem to know why he's bothered to even write the script, or that Eastwood brings nothing of interest to the table. (Judi Dench and Naomi Watts occupy roles that barely even have screentime, as Hoover's mother and secretary, respectively). At least Armie Hammer, as Tolson, is all charm and warmth, a loyal puppy of a man. C-
Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh)
Marvel's ultimate goal this summer was to pave the way for next summer's The Avengers, the big superhero team-up that's the comic-book-movie-equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys (or, more likely, those The Flintstones Meet The Jetsons specials). Thor, the first of the two films this summer, presented the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), and the result was...boring. Branagh did his best to turn this into a Shakespearean tragedy, but he struggles to balance the mostly dull, wooden characters and desperate attempts at humor. Marvel fans will enjoy a nice cameo appearance in the middle of the film, but otherwise it's Thor's brother-cum-nemesis Loki (a delightfully impish Tom Hiddleston, who's having a stellar year) who ends up stealing the show. Ultimately, it never rises above being anything more than a two-hour commercial for The Avengers. C+
Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)
Yes, it was hilarious. Yes, it was refreshing to see women in a comedy talk and behave like real women. However, it was even more refreshing to see hilarious actresses get the chance to dig into meaty characters that are organic and interesting, not limited to a single trait or worse, no traits at all. It was also refreshing to see humor that was character and story-based, rather than humor for the sake of humor. Sure, the film had its problems: several characters didn't get enough screentime to justify their implied importance, and at over two hours it could have definitely used some trimming in the editing room. Though Melissa McCarthy earned most of the raves for her riotous performance as no-nonsense Megan, it's Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote the script with Annie Mumulo) who grounds the film in a performance that's both funny and soulfully real. B+