Posted on Feb 1st 2012 by Steve.
Last night I basically talked about how angry I was over the fact that the only movie I saw in 2011 that had been nominated for Best Picture by the Academy happened to be terrible. Tonight, I’m going to tell you about the three films I expected to get nominated, and declare them the collective winners of the first ever Stevie awards. That’s right, they all win. Well, then, I’ve shot the suspense for you already, haven’t I? Then I guess this will be like Jeopardy and I’ll have to give you the questions in response to the answers.
I’m going to start with the only film I actively looked forward to this summer, and that is Drive. My excitement over Drive was mainly piqued by the premise: Ryan Gosling plays a Man With No Name who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood by day, but is a getaway driver at night. He becomes involved in the lives of a family living down the hall from him, and soon finds himself in big trouble with some nasty people. This all seems like a perfect recipe for a Fast and the Furious kind of romp with all sorts of car chases and one-liners. In fact, it was destined to be such a film, but after an $80 million project with Hugh Jackman attached fell through, Gosling would become involved and was asked to pick the director. After what will likely be remembered as a legendary Hollywood “first date” with Danish upstart Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive had a new direction as a tense, noir-inspired crime drama.
Distracted driving: driving while looking into Ryan Gosling's dreamy eyes
This new take on the tone of the story would produce one of the most refreshing Hollywood pictures in recent memory. Gosling evokes the cool of Steve McQueen throughout most of the picture. His character is able to find a real purpose in protecting the adorable Carey Mulligan and her little boy, and he doesn’t have to say much in order to get his point across. The cast is filled out by the likes of the great Brian Cranston, an hilarious Ron Perlman, the voluptuous Christina Hendricks, and a surprisingly intimidating Albert Brooks, who I felt was ROBBED when he wasn’t included among the nominees for Best Supporting Actor. I have always loved Brooks and wasn’t expecting his turn as a remorseless gangster.
One big element to Drive for me is its handling of its subject matter. Refn is a master of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it school of showing violence and bloodshed onscreen. People in this film get stabbed, slashed, shot, and stomped, and while it’s never pretty, it is masterfully executed and only shown for a split-second. If you’ve seen his previous work, especially Valhalla Rising and to a lesser extent the outstanding Bronson, you know what I’m talking about. And oh yeah, there’s a couple of car chases. Very, very good car chases.
On top of all of that, Drive is also a film that takes place in its own little world – a Los Angeles that isn’t quite the cleaner, friendlier city it is today, but not the street-gang warzone you might expect, either. To me, it’s the kind of world the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise has been creating for years. It’s a world you know doesn’t exist, but it damn well could if it only wanted to. Not to mention one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time, which only adds further personality to an already stellar picture. Definitely not to be missed.
I couldn't find a single production still that could say what I wanted, so have this instead
Now, here’s something that I hate to admit as a movie enthusiast: I don’t like Swedish films. I enjoyed Let the Right One In immensely, but from there, it’s like trying to watch Russian films. No matter how beautiful they might be, I just can’t stay awake. Ingmar Bergman puts me to sleep better than episodes of Modern Marvels on the History Channel. I couldn’t even make it through the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I tried watching over a year ago and fell asleep a half-hour in. I intended on revisiting, but kept putting it off until the inevitable American version surfaced. But this was more than just a Hollywood adaptation as far as I was concerned.
David Fincher is one of my favorite filmmakers. I have seen almost every one of his movies and I was very encouraged by The Social Network last year. He managed to step his game up considerably with that picture and ended up bringing his downer style to what so many people just assumed would just be “Facebook: The Movie.” After the considerable acclaim for the movies based on Stieg Larsson’s hugely popular mystery series, it was obvious that Sony Pictures had to do the right thing and get Fincher on board. What we got was “the feel-bad movie of the year.”
Fincher went back to Social Network‘s well and cast Rooney Mara (who played a brief but pivotal role in TSN) as the titular Lisbeth Salander and asked Trent “Nine Inch Nails” Reznor to score the film. Both decisions were good ones. Mara is convincing as the detached and disturbed Lisbeth Salander, hacker and private investigator. The big debate over whether her portrayal of the character is better than the original by Noomi Rapace, but from what I’ve seen of Mara and Rapace’s other work, Mara showed more range. Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the disgraced magazine editor whom Salander assists in solving a decades-old disappearance of a young girl in northern Sweden.
The plot is almost by-the-numbers mystery with a mostly British supporting cast (including Christopher Plummer, not Max von Sydow as I had originally expected) speaking English with British accents in Sweden, but none of that really matters. It’s also scary, shocking, and ugly, but still so damn good that I can’t give you details if you don’t know the story. After seeing this, you will know without a doubt why the original novel’s title literally translates to Men Who Hate Women. But it’s Fincher’s show. He made a huge splash with Se7en all those years ago and Dragon Tattoo is a return to that same territory. I certainly hope that if and when Sony asks for The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nestthat they pay Fincher however much he wants to stay attached.
Gary Oldman. That is all.
The third and final film I fully expected to get a best picture nod was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which does win the exclusive Stevie award for Most British Film. Gary Oldman heads a cast that also includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and the new Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch. Wow, that’s a lot of British people. But what’s this, Let the Right One In‘s Tomas Alfredson is the director… well, even with this Swede in the driver’s seat, I think it remains pretty damn British. In fact, that’s one reason I was very excited about this espionage thriller.
Well, “thriller” isn’t the right word. As intriguing as every character is, as mysterious as every clue might be, your heart never gets racing. Probably that Swedish director’s fault, but that’s fine. The slow pace lets you fully appreciate Gary Oldman’s incredibly understated performance as George Smiley, a retired member of British Intelligence. Smiley is a man who has devoted his whole life to two things: his estranged wife and his job. Upon retirement he can’t help but want to get back at it when a roguish young agent, played by a wonderfully hammy Hardy, shows up at his home asking for help tying up some loose ends to the very case that led to his dismissal. And so begins a complex Cold War mystery that demands your attention and your respect.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Tinker Tailor until it was over. It’s a movie that holds the cards close to its chest until the very end, but when it laid them down, I had to smile and say that I was thoroughly satisfied. I can say that I figured out who the spy was before he was revealed, although mostly through the process of elimination. I will admit that I found myself lost at a couple of points in the “who’s that guy, why is he doing that” way, but not nearly as lost as some people I’ve spoken with, who can’t seem to tell what a flashback is, among other things.
If you’re a fan of any of the fine gentlemen I listed in the first paragraph (even the Swede), an Anglophile in general, love 1970′s style, or want a clever Cold War spy chase, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will deliver. And if the film’s final shot doesn’t make you grin ear to ear, then you are probably a pretty crummy person who wasn’t paying attention.