The Descendants (2011) Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash Directed by Alexander Payne
It would take six years after Sideways before Alexander Payne released another film. His longest gap to date between movies. During that time, Payne would get divorced from his wife Sandra Oh; they were together for around six years, married for three. I am no psychoanalyst, and everything I say is complete speculation, but…it sure does seem like the divorce did not sit well with Payne. I say that because from this point on, women, who appeared to have a special place in his previous work, suddenly take on a much darker tone. This film and the next two all feature female characters that are “nags” and absurdly vulgar for no apparent reason other than to add levity to the movie?
Madea’s Big Happy Family (2011) Written & Directed by Tyler Perry
This is my personal favorite of all the Madea films we watched. It’s all the elements coming together to make what feels like a genuine feature comedy. While it was based on a stage play produced the previous year, Big Happy Family is presented more as a film. It has the highest budget to date of any Madea film at $25 million though it would make considerably less at the box office than the previous entry, Madea Goes to Jail. Here we have Madea at her most animated, doing both physical comedy and some amusing improvised scenes as Tyler Perry brings in Mr. Brown & Cora and introduces Aunt Bam into the mix.
The Skin I Live In (2011) Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Most of the legendary filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s films are overflowing with warmth & color. They may touch on sensitive subject matter, but the characters within these stories are usually ones we like and want to be around. This is not the case with The Skin I Live In, Almodovar’s first foray into science fiction/horror. Instead, he has made a cold, desaturated movie that is beautiful in a dark & disturbing way. The film reflects how one of its central characters has become desensitized, literally feeling nothing any longer. Sex in this picture is not an act of love & beauty but discomfort & suffering. There’s no farce or melodrama here. Unlike the rest of Almodovar’s filmography, this is a work that comes out of a dark, angry place.
Limitless (2011) Written by Leslie Dixon Directed by Neil Burger
If you could take a pill that would make you a super smart guy, would you do it? This month’s patron pick was explicitly chosen to irritate me, and I love it for that. Would I have ever voluntarily chosen to watch Limitless? Hell no. Am I looking forward to writing this review? Of course, I am! This film is what a stupid person thinks an intelligent person is like. It’s Michael Bay’s concept of what a genius would be. The people that fawn over Elon Musk and think he’s a god among men while ignoring that he’s the child of privilege probably rank this picture as one of their favorites. It is absolutely hilarious in how much it gets wrong and in its perception of succeeding is.
The Color Wheel (2011) Written & Directed by Alex Ross Perry
I can’t imagine many people would like this movie. I’m still ambivalent about my own feelings. But that’s the point, I think. Alex Ross Perry is Noah Baumbach but angrier. He’s Wes Anderson without the sentimentality & cuteness. I don’t for a minute think The Color Wheel is Perry’s best film, but he would show marked improvement on his second try. The Color Wheel is an interesting film, grating but very short so you won’t have to endure the unpleasantness for too long. What makes the film so hard to get through is the quality of acting and its deeply unlikeable main characters.
Attack the Block (2011) Written & Directed by Joe Cornish
In the wake of Edgar Wright’s success with Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there was suddenly a demand for smart takes on genre movies, and it seemed like the British were very talented at writing these stories. Joe Cornish was a comedian who co-hosted the popular Adam and Joe Show, a skit comedy series that ran on Channel 4 for five years. He went on to do a radio show with his writing partner Adam Buxton and that ended when production on Attack the Block began. After being mugged by youths from a housing project, Cornish started to wonder how these very tough kids would handle an alien invasion in their neighborhood, and the story was born.
Contagion (2011) Written by Scott Z. Burns Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Things are feeling a bit tense and anxious these days. Coronavirus or COVID-19 is dominating the news cycle and for a good reason. It is an extremely contagious disease that is spreading at a rapid rate. The most vulnerable to its worst effects are the elderly and people who already have severe health conditions. However, it is vitally important that even people outside of those categories practice smart hygiene to prevent the spread even further. There is a slight pressure on the American population to self-quarantine if possible and enact “social distancing,” keeping away from large gatherings of people. With no vaccine on the market, these are scary times, waiting to see if we can respond before it gets out of control. People have died, and more will die before humanity manages to fight back COVID-19. In 2011, Steven Soderbergh directed a film that imagines such a virus getting loose and wreaking havoc.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) Written by Lynne Ramsay & Rory Stewart Kinnear Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Who do we blame when something terrible happens? It’s becoming fairly common in the United States for there to multiple school shootings every year. When this happens, there is a strong innate human need to place the blame on someone. Parents are typically the focus of the public’s ire. In the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, the mother of the shooter literally gave him the gun thinking it could be a hobby to help with his mental illness. I’m sure if you are reading this outside of the United States, you are thinking, “Why would you give someone with mental illness a high powered killing machine?” and you are right to question it.
He Took His Skin Off For Me (2014) Written by Maria Hummer and Ben Ashton Directed by Ben Ashton
He Took His Skin Off For Me walks that line between grotesque and beautiful, a contemporary fairy tale with relationship dysfunctions working underneath. The story is told entirely in voice-over from the unnamed female protagonist. She explains that she asked her male partner to take his skin off for her, a move that is never questioned and makes sense in the magical realist logic of the narrative. He does so but immediately encounters problems. There are bloodstains everywhere, sanguine footprints and crimson smears on the floors and furniture. His job is public-facing, and he tells her clients are pulling their business because of their discomfort with the man’s appearance. The woman tries to look on the bright side of all these setbacks, but her partner is withdrawing. During a dinner party, he answers in monosyllabic single word responses, a behavior that is very unlike him.
Monsieur Lazhar (directed by Philippe Falardeau) From my review: The film contains messages about multiculturalism and the themes of mentors & proteges, but it does this without feeling didactic. The way Lazhar adapts to the Quebecois culture and how his students learn from him is done organically without speeches or exposition. Offscreen events occur as we move through the winter and into the spring, but we are shown enough to get a sense of growth happening in Lazhar’s classroom. The performances by Mohammed Fellig (as Lazhar) and Sophie Nélisse (as Alice) are rich and layered, without being maudlin. As I watched the film, I kept thinking about how a Hollywood version of this would get so much wrong and essentially already has in so many other teaching centered movies.