As I formulate my year-end list of my Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2011, I've decided to highlight the first two: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Guard. For very different reasons, I enjoyed both these films immensely.
One defies the big-budget, blockbuster model while the other achieves a measure of genius, which I've come to learn, is far more prevalent in the world of independent cinema. You see, indies operate free of big studio control, which, while neglecting a seemingly limitless swath of funds, affords a certain artistic freedom. Blockbusters, existing within the dimensions of a self-fulfilling prophecy, are burdened by the mitigating tentacles of studio interference: marketers, producers, artistic or capitalistic, and hordes of other artistically-draining forces.
Independent filmmakers work within a manageable, focused center of control, which allows the director's message to work in concert with their technical proficiency. This is not to say blockbusters cannot achieve artistic excellence—look at Scorsese and Spielberg, just to name two—but more often than not, the bigger the budget, the greater the likelihood of a costly, unwatchable albatross (I don't think anyone in Hollywood has forgotten the legacy of Waterworld; certainly not Kevin Costner). So, in this spirit of polarity, I've highlighted the first two qualifiers in my Top Ten Movies of 2011 List. Enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.
10). Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Look, up in the sky...it's a bird, it's a plane, it's....another Hollywood reboot. Cue the exasperated chorus of boos upon which the disgruntled faces of anti-big-budget, Hollywood curmudgeons reside. These boos, quite frankly, accompany virtually every derivative, major franchise reboot. And they are deserved. But then, after reaching a crescendo, suddenly, in the wake of a metamorphosis as if touched by the hand of Scorsese, and drowned out by a rising tide of enthusiasm, the cacophony of boos disappears: A whisper of excitement, a nod of approval. And abruptly, without warning, a raucous thundering of applause. By George, I think I've got it, and by it, I'm referring to the cheat sheet for helming a successful big-budget blockbuster, which one could bypass by immediately hiring Andy Serkis, who voiced Caeser. This cheat sheet must encompass all that is wonderful about Rise of the Planet of the Apes and anathema to the glutton of big-budget fare: Humanize the protagonists, sublimate the special effects with authentic visuals, which, if housed in an immersive, visually inspiring world, point to a self-contained reality, a reality built upon a holistic framework, augmented by commendable ensemble cast, shrewd, stylish direction, and an emotive score. That does not sound like too much, now does it? After following this blueprint and incorporating your own storytelling niche, and unique stylistic flourish, you can successfully stake claim to engineering a meaningful big-budget blockbuster. Not just any hundred million dollar extravaganza, but a movie that simultaneously captures the hearts and minds of discerning moviegoers, whose refined, artistic sensibilities often go overlooked, and casual, I'm-On-A-First-Date-With-This-Girl audience members, who likewise get overshadowed by the one indispensable strata: the multiplicity of kids and, specifically, that holy grail of demographics known as the teenage male, whose importance to studio marketers peaks at about the age of 26. Though I hew closer towards the "refined, artistic" bend, many of my friends, not as serious about film, represent the latter demographic.
Needless to say, a film succeeding on both commercial and critical fronts is a rare phenomenon. Generally, a high-grossing film, like Hangover 1 All Over Again and Transformers: A How To Guide On Maximizing Michael Bay's Profits, fail miserably in the eyes of austere critics. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, boasts a Worldwide Box Office Gross of $481,234.439 and an all-important (but not really) RT Score of 83%, which is, I defy anyone to suggest otherwise, a remarkable feat. For these two reasons, and the very fact that I absolutely loved it, Rise of the Planet of the Apes earns the competitive tenth slot in my favorites of 2011 compendium.
9). The Guard
Seldom does a film come along with a trenchant awareness of cross-genre filmmaking—in this case, black comedy meets crime—and from this biting awareness arises a multivalent examination. The Guard, from little-known director John Michael McDonagh, stars two of the great circumspect talents of today, Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson. What seems meandering, in a world of drugs, cops, gangs, and prostitutes, is actually a rough-and-tumble orchestra of deliberate movement; a focused blend of action and comedy, which intimidates and inspires. Cheadle is his usual, captivating self, imbuing a straitlaced FBI agent, who operates by a rigid code of ethics, with uncanny sincerity. And Brendan Gleeson simply lives up to the legendary esteem of his famous surname (though spelled differently, it sounds just like Gleason, Jackie Gleason). Mr. Gleeson inhabits a sinister world of criminal mafia types, and, emboldened by his penal badge of honor, operates within a harrowing dualistic framework of good and evil. The end result highlights a certain secular brilliance: The idea that man is neither absolutely good nor evil, but a sort of personally acquired amalgam of the two. Together, Cheadle and Gleeson perform sensationally, highlighting a synergy that is often undervalued in modern films. Their onscreen chemistry underscores, without doubt, the single best quality of The Guard: A black man and an Irishman walk into a bar. What follows is the stuff of movie legend.
Black humor, social decay, gangster hysteria, and moral intrigue spearhead McDonagh's screenplay, and while the trajectory, which encompasses the peripheries of Ireland's bucolic mean streets, is tragic, the core focus is one of eternal optimism. Ultimately, McDonagh's taut, underground staple of black comedy earns ninth placement in my list, which, in a moment of self-criticism, is unbecoming the most successful independent Irish film of all time (in terms of Irish box-office receipts) because a film with that homegrown resume ought to be number one.