The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011). I think a strong, important movie can (and arguably should) be made about the continued racial-based social inequities imposed in the American South–really all over the country, but those below the Mason-Dixon line had a special skill for it–in the early nineteen-sixties as the power of the Civil Rights movement was beginning the much needed push back against the monied classes that wanted to maintain some diluted but still despicable variation on the slavery system abolished about a century earlier. The Help, for all its noble intentions, simply isn’t that movie. Even putting aside the film’s antiquated notion that the best way to structure a story about the plight of a minority group is by telling it through the eyes of a sympathetic white ally, the whole thing is laden with clichés and single-note characterizations so insipid that they smack of stereotypes that were seemingly buried decades ago. As the first mistreated maid willing to tell her tale of woe to Emma Stone’s fledgling journalist character, Viola Davis labors mightily to instill inner stirrings of humanity in her blandly totemic character, but the material repels subtlety. And I still don’t get the praise heaped on Octavia Spencer’s performance from all sorts of quarters, including, of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The role–not the character’s place in life, but the actual role–is marginally more progressive than the one that won Butterfly McQueen an Oscar in the same category over seventy years earlier. She even punctuates one scene by taking a big, defiant bite out of a piece of fried chicken, a gesture done with no sense of irony or meta-commentary. Tate Taylor directs the film with the perfunctory, artless gloss of an old TV movie, the sort that were shot fast and without overt care. Jessica Chastain is the one person who can point to her efforts here with properly placed pride. She invests her eager, unsophisticated, underestimated Southern wife with a vivid sense of personality and ascending strength.
The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011). In theory, I think it’s great that George Clooney is dedicated to reviving the filmmaking principles of nineteen-seventies American cinema. Increasingly, though, it seems that he’s transposing all the wrong parts, embracing the solemn inertness that sometimes plagued the most self-serious material while eschewing the unapologetic intelligence that made the stiffness easier to forgive. Based on a stage play, The Ides of March is nestled in the intensity of a hard-fought campaign for U.S. President, and yet it never feels like there is anything meaningful at stake, even as the specter of awful scandal intrudes. For his cast, Clooney has assembled some amazing actors (and Evan Rachel Wood, too!) and given them almost nothing to do. For anyone wondering what one of Aaron Sorkin’s politically-driven projects would look like with all the clever dialogue stripped away and replaced with thudding exposition and bland pontificating, Ides of March provides the sad answer.
X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011). After letting Brett Ratner drive the otherwise creatively admirable X-Men movie franchise straight into a wall fashioned from unbreakable adamantium, maybe the only choice (aside from developing a horrendous solo spinoff, that is) was a drastic reinvention. For that, the title and basic concept of a fine retro comic book series written by Jeff Parker was pilfered: the film focuses on the very beginnings of Charles Xavier’s efforts to rescue mutants from a fearful society and give them safe haven in an upstate New York school. The film is set in the early nineteen-sixties and structures at least one major sequence around reimagining actual historical events, a playfulness that the film could frankly use more of. Sometimes it seems the filmmakers want to have fun with nostalgic costumes and set design, equipping the more villainous mutants, for example, with the sort of mobile headquarters that would make any Bond baddie of the era highly jealous. Unfortunately, the default mode is a dull plod through an origin adventure that ultimately has far too many characters to allow any of them to develop much past dully simple iterations. Michael Fassbender is the only actor who creates a compelling character, in part because he has the most to work with as the man who would be Magneto, but also through sheer force of fierce, dark charisma.
Conviction (Tony Goldwyn, 2010). One of the hungriest of the Oscar-hungry movies from 2010, Conviction got some gentle attention all through the lead-up to the main attraction only to be completely ignored by Academy membership. Good call on their part, as the film is toothless and almost entirely devoid of energy. Based on a true story, the film stars Hilary Swank as a woman who is motivated to pursue a law degree in order to help her brother, who she’s sure was wrongly convicted of murder. The script by Pamela Gray consistently focuses on the wrong details, racing past the daunting educational climb undertaken by the main character in favor of an utterly predictable trudge through the twists and turns in the reexamined case. By the numbers work like this is why I often need to remind myself that Swank completely deserved both of those Oscars she won. How there can be such vast distance between her performances in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby and damn near everything else she’s ever done on screen is one of the modern cinematic mysteries that I’ve never been able to crack. She’s entirely outpaced here by Minnie Driver as a brusque, forthright classmate and Juliette Lewis, intricately alive as ragged, impoverished woman who is a key witness in the case. Tony Goldwyn directs the whole thing as if he’s worried about upsetting someone.
Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010). I’ve already expounded on my appreciation for Abbas Kiarostami’s delicate narrative sleight of hand. The primary pleasure of the film derives from its devoutly unassuming nature. Kiarostami uses his decision to shift the reality of the central relationship at the midpoint of the film not as means to cover up a lack of emotional integrity but rather to for a deeper exploration the tricky interpersonal terrain that exists between people. Both Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are strong in their lengthy duet with the former especially adept at developing a personality that is at once brightly unpredictable and wholly understandable and clear. Though those American moviegoers that recoil from subtitles are oblivious to this fact, Binoche has spent recent years taking her acting to remarkable new levels, making a claim with performances in Caché, Breaking and Entering, Flight of the Red Balloon, Summer Hours and this film towards being considered the finest actress working today.