Six years of Saturday Night Live was threatening to calcify Kristen Wiig's brand of highly physical yet conceptual comedy of awkwardness. Turns out she was working on a second act all along: As cowriter and star of the summer blockbuster Bridesmaids, Wiig proved, first and foremost, that female-fronted comedy can fuel mainstream box office, which is, to date, nearly $170 million. She also proved that she can carry a film (and that she can write a career-changing role for costar Melissa McCarthy). Next up for Wiig: a starring role in the indie drama Imogene, directed by American Splendor pair Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
Sentenced to house arrest in his Tehran apartment and banned from filmmaking (his crime allegedly was planning to make a film about postelection unrest in Iran), writer/director Jafar Panahi collaborated with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who himself was just released from Evin Prison after three months in jail) to make This Is Not a Film, a video diary documenting a day in Panahi's life, his struggle to come to terms with his restrictive situation and reconcile his identity without breaking the law. This stunning "not-a-film" was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake so that it could premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, which it did, to huge praise. The movie won't be released stateside until 2012, but Panahi's ongoing persecution and remarkable act of resistance was the world cinema story of 2011.
Netflix began 2011 riding high on the popularity of its Watch Instantly service, the industry standard for legal movie streaming that the company offered as a "free" benefit added to all DVD-by-mail subscription plans. The first of a string of PR disasters came in July, when Netflix announced that subscribers would now have to pay for DVDs and streaming separately, amounting to as much as a 60 percent price hike for some customers. In an effort to quiet the public outcry, CEO Reed Hastings wrote a late-night blog post fashioned as an apology, explaining that he was spinning the DVD service into a new company, Qwikster, to justify the two charges. A month later, in response to further backlash, Hastings killed the Qwikster plan — but left the price hikes in place. With Netflix's stock price plummeting and subscribers fleeing, the 12-year-old company, a survivor of numerous tech and e-commerce bubbles that itself had a major hand in the decline of Blockbuster, suddenly seemed to combine the worst of two worlds: the inexperience of a start-up with the cash-gouging hubris of a corporate titan. In a climate when companies are failing without such major fuckups, the impetuous Hastings presided over the Unnecessary Industry Meltdown of the Year.
The "Cast" of The Interrupters
One would be hard-pressed to find scenes in any drama this year with as much impact and resonance as those in Steve James' documentary The Interrupters. Following a group of former Chicago gang members who now act as intermediaries in disrupting street violence, the film approaches main subjects Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra not so much as heroes but as humans, capturing the ways each of them is trying to get right with the world. The film's straightforward style is immersive and overwhelming, overflowing with heartbreak, insight, startling access, and hard-won uplift. After the legendary snub of his landmark Hoop Dreams, that James has again been left out of the race for the documentary Oscar only proves that the category is in need of its own intervention.
After many rounds of layoffs at the company that bears his name and a failed 2010 bid to buy back Miramax, we can safely call 2011 Harvey's comeback year, although he's been here for years. Weinstein began 2011 by ending a nearly decadelong Oscar slump with a Best Picture win (and perhaps more controversially, a Best Director win) for The King's Speech. He was back to his old buying ways by Cannes, where he picked up current Best Picture frontrunner The Artist. And as distributor of both The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher) and My Week With Marilyn (Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe), he almost certainly stands to benefit from an expected impersonation race in the Best Actress field. The only thing missing from Weinstein's 2011 has been a media scandal. For that, we turn to...
If Weinstein is the mogul return-to-form story of the year, superproducer Rudin gets points for building on what was already a pretty great 2010, when both The Social Network and True Grit finished big with critics and audiences. This year, in addition to the Broadway smash The Book of Mormon and the three Rudin productions now vying in the year-end glory sweepstakes (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Moneyball), Rudin is also wrapped up in the season's three critical hullabaloos: the controversy surrounding the pitiful barely-release of the Rudin-produced film Margaret, the absence of Incredibly Loud screenings for most critics, and The New Yorker's embargo-breaking review of David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo. While he has remained mum about Margaret, Rudin so publicly battled the embargo-defying critic David Denby that, while inside baseball to the extreme, the whole exchange could be seen as some kind of genius PR setup. Contrived or not, it worked, steering public opinion away from the journalist and toward the massive corporation (Sony) and some of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Net win?
Lars von Trier
Leave it to Lars von Trier to make a film that finds favor even with his legion of detractors, only to undermine his own achievement with a publicity gambit gone way wrong. Such was the case with Melancholia — a film that turns depression into a literal apocalypse as a meteor hurtles toward Earth — and the director's subsequent self-destruction in front of an international Cannes press corps that found him answering a question about aesthetics by tying himself into a rhetorical knot and then unraveling it with the world's worst punchline: "OK, I'm a Nazi." A filmmaker of astonishing technical mastery in service of a prankster's impudence and a darkly vulnerable soul, von Trier is like his own mismatched-roommates sitcom all in one person—That's Our Lars!
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was received largely as a playful travelogue and nostalgia piece, a waxworks tour through the cultural history of Paris as Owen Wilson brushed shoulders with Zelda, F. Scott and Ernest, Gauguin and Degas. But Allen's sucker-punch is to conclude that rather than fetishize the past, one should cherish the present tense most of all. Coming from a man who still uses a manual typewriter, this was a counterintuitively radical notion. And an unexpectedly popular one, leading to Allen's biggest box-office hit since 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh's award-winning quasi-documentary Greek Pete completed its gay film festival run in 2009, then quietly vanished. No one could have predicted that his follow-up would win raves most directors spend a lifetime chasing. Haigh's Weekend is a smart, erotic, melancholy chamber piece about what happens when a one-night stand between two British men stretches into a weekend of conversation, tackling everything from the soft homophobia of "enlightened" straight friends to the ways gay men cripple themselves in relationships. It swept awards at gay and mainstream film festivals around the world, won gushing reviews from mainstream outlets (it has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes), grossed half-a-million dollars in extremely limited run, and quietly but forcefully broadened the definition of what makes a romantic leading man.
He turned in flawless performances in four wildly different films this year, starring as the young Magneto in Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, Rochester in Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, and spiritually hollow sex addict Brandon in Steve McQueen's art-house scold, Shame. The 34-year-old actor, who has been pegged the thinking cinephile's sex symbol, is still not a household name. Next year's roles in a Steven Soderbergh thriller and a Ridley Scott sci-fi should quickly fix that.