Feb 21 2012
by David R.
In case you forgot, the Oscars air this coming Sunday. There’s a pretty decent list of movies making up the nominations, and as always, there are plenty of movies that I wish had been better represented. Of course, every year has gems falling through the cracks, so this is my small effort to bring your attention to five movies from 2011 that I think deserved more attention than they got.
1. Margin Call
Now, this movie has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but it’s not really in contention. It should be, though. Margin Call follows the employees of an investment firm over the course of one long night as they have to make a choice between good ethics and good business. Sounds like a drag, I know, but the writer keeps the focus on the people, not the business. Midway through the movie, one man climbs onto a rooftop railing, considering a suicide jump. He looks down at the street, then climbs back down. “Not today.” Stark moments like this enliven the seemingly dull subject matter.
No matter how good a script is, though, you need the right cast to bring it off. Margin Call is stacked with big names: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker and Paul Bettany all put in good performances. The story as a whole revolves around a character played by Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto, who actually manages to hold his own with each of these powerful actors. Throughout the movie, the writer throws in several memorable, chilling monologues, giving pretty much every actor (minus the observer Quinto) a great scene to chew on. The sum total of all this is that Margin Call is a movie that could have been preachy or tedious but is in actuality very, very sharp and engaging.
2. Meek’s Cutoff
Of all the entries on this list, this is probably the one that has the most “artsy” vibe and intent. It’s not perfect, nor is it for everybody. There were only six other people in the theater when I saw it, and four of them didn’t care for the movie at all. All that said, Meek’s Cutoff is nothing if not a change of pace. It follows a wagon train heading west as the people on it deal with obstacles both physical and emotional.
One cool thing about this movie’s approach is that it manages to draw suspense from tedious, mundane activities. A great example would be the scene where one of the main characters has to signal a group of people with two musket shots. She discharges one shot, and then we watch her frantically load and fire the weapon again – a process that takes almost a minute. The amount of effort required to do simple things like that, or getting a wagon from the top of a hill to the bottom, or fixing a wagon wheel, makes the journey all the more harrowing for the characters AND the audience. If you don’t mind a movie built upon silence and realism, check out Meek’s Cutoff.
3. Jane Eyre
Like Meek’s Cutoff, this movie thrives on silence and small, subtle moments. Unlike that movie, though, Jane Eyre takes these small moments and — over the course of a couple hours – builds them into a fairly expressive gothic melodrama, complete with a tragic romance. The book is a classic, obviously, but I personally haven’t had the urge to read it since high school; I went into the movie cold. So believe me when I say it works on its own terms and has a few story turns that will catch you off guard if you aren’t ready for them.
The story may be classic, but what elevates this particular version of it is the brilliant acting. Mia Waikowska (Alice in Wonderland) is a pitch-perfect blend of passion and plainness in the title role, and actor of the year Michael Fassbender delivers a brilliant, complicated performance as Mr. Rochester. Other able performers fill out the movie, delivering medium-to-small roles capably, helping the story along the slow build to its grand finale. If you need a moody antidote to something like Pride & Prejudice, look no further.
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