Best of 2011, #3, #2, and #1!

Hey, why am I rushing through this? Because my #3 and #2 favorite Hollywood movies of last year are both movies I’ve already covered extensively. #3: Cedar Rapids was an underrated movie, and #2: Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the topic of a whole week of Storyteller’s Rulebook posts:
  1. Create Reversible Behaviors
  2. Limit Your Hero’s Perspective
  3. Great Genre Stories Must Be Metaphors
  4. Reboots Must Re-Establish the Metaphor
Is there anything left to say? Nope! Let’s move on to #1: Crazy Stupid Love

The Story: When a disappointed wife (Julianne Moore) requests a divorce from her listsless husband (Steve Carrell), he seeks out the help of a local lothario (Ryan Gosling) to re-awaken his manhood, but just as Carell discovers his wild side, Gosling suddenly feels an urge to settle down with a straight-laced young lawyer (Emma Stone).

Why This One: Was this my favorite movie of the year? No, that was probably The Artist, but it was my favorite home-grown movie because, on a nuts-and-bolts level –-the scenework, the dialogue, the characterization–- it was so elegantly put together. It’s a master class in heartfelt writing, which is something Hollywood doesn’t know how to do anymore. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa knew a good thing when they saw it, so they shot Dan Fogelberg’s screenplay exactly as it was on the page

Rules It Drove Home:
  1. People only want what they want: This rule could have been the title of the movie, in which every character (the couple, their kids, their babysitter, their kid’s teachers, everybody) keeps getting walloped by their own unrequited, irrational desires, which they are helpless to ignore. Carrell and Moore have whole (beautifully-written) conversations where each one literally doesn’t listen to a thing that the other says. Yes, there are times when characters try to give each other advice, but every time, it’s hopelessly tainted by the advice-giver’s own frustrated desires and limited perspective.
  2. Build up false expectations beforehand: Let’s start with the first line of the movie: Carrell can’t decide on what desert they should have, so he asks his wife what she wants, and she replies, “I want a divorce.” From that point on, characters are constantly convincing themselves (and the audience) that something good is about to happen, only to encounter shocking reversals. Stone doesn’t get the proposal she expects, a PTA-meeting reconciliation that seems to be going great for Carrell suddenly turns hellish, an elaborate backyard romantic gesture ends in disaster… This movie toys with our emotions expertly.
  3. The twist must make sense immediately: This movie has a clever twist ¾ of the way in that forces us to re-interpret a lot of what we’ve seen, but we make that left turn very quickly (two quick questions are asked, along the lines of “Wait, but then how…”), then the movie charges forward. Fogelberg has very slyly been setting it up the whole time with little odd moments we don’t really notice… until it all suddenly clicks into place.

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #4: Bridesmaids

The Story: Like you don’t know! Broke former bakery-owner Kristin Wiig signs up to be the maid of honor for her best friend, Maya Rudolph, but can’t compete with a wealthy fellow bridesmaid who schemes to take over the planning. A series of meltdowns finally convinces Wiig that she has to get her life back on track.

Why This One: I haven’t watched SNL in years, but after I saw Wiig in two scenes in Knocked Up, I thought, “Wow, she could go far.” How nice that things actually worked out that way! Co-writing with Annie Mumolo under the direction of Paul Feig, Wiig created a shockingly authentic character in the middle of a broadly farcical plot.

Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Begin With A Self-Contained Interaction That Encapsulates the Theme: We meet Wiig and Rudolph as they do sit-ups in the park while hiding behind a tree, in an attempt to take advantage of a hardcore personal trainer’s class without paying him. We like them right away: they’re clever, resourceful, and engaged in physical exertion! But after he catches them and chases them away, a funny thing happens: he gets the most pitiful look on his face and whimpers: “It’s only five bucks!” Surprisingly, our sympathy shifts to him! This pre-figures the arc of the movie, as we go from rooting for Wiig to “win” to rooting for her to take responsibility for her life.
  2. Know Why Their Friends Like Them: Now let’s go to the second scene, as our heroines flee to a diner. This is one of the most likeably-goofy friendship scenes I’ve ever seen. Too many rom-coms sacrifice the friend on the altar of the lead’s likability. The friend is usually shrill, or air-headed, or super-slutty, in order to make the lead seem better by comparison. Wiig knows better, since the friendship is the heart of this movie, and this scene really sells that.
  3. Screw-Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long: In the comments sections recently, we’ve talked about how hard it is to make an audience care about self-loathing heroes, but Wiig’s character is an example of how to do it right. She hapless, but not hopeless: She’s sleeping with Jon Hamm, fer chissakes! That makes it clear that yes, she has pretty-good options in life, but she’s just hit a ceiling that she can’t get past. We want her to have more self-respect, because we think she deserves more self-respect.

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #5: Margin Call

The Story: Zach Quinto and Penn Badgley are minor analysts in a massive Wall Street firm. They survive a mass purge that claims their boss, Stanley Tucci, only to discover that he left behind a new risk-model that shows that the company is about to implode. They run this news up the chain of command, which causes their bosses to consider an apocalyptic option: trick their own clients into buying all of the firm’s toxic waste.

Why This One: When I read this script I thought it would be too talky and uneventful to work as a movie. What I wasn’t taking into account was debut writer/director J.C. Chandor’s ability to impart all that talk with a compellingly eerie sense of gravity, making this the best straight-up drama of the year.

The Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Every Main Character Must be Volatile: Quinto and Badgley go to say good-bye to Tucci, but they’re really just checking that their own jobs are secure. After an awkward moment, they let him get on the elevator and Penn excuses himself… …but then Quinto decides to try again with a more sincere farewell. Only at this point does Tucci takes pity on him and leave him a copy of the new risk model. This story doesn’t just land in our hero’s lap, it happens because he takes a stop that his colleague wouldn’t take.
  2. Hey, look, it’s yesterday’s rule, Make the Backstory Ironic: I fell in love with this movie when big boss Jeremy Irons quizzed Quinto about where he came from. We find out that, rather than being a trained stock analyst, Quinto started out as an actual rocket scientist, then jumped into finance because the money was so much better. Not only does this give Quinto an ironic backstory, it reveals the theme of the movie: that our cleverest minds have been set to work cannibalizing America’s wealth, rather than building it up. (Irons’s backstory, on the other hand, is never revealed, because we can basically guess where he came from.)
  3. Be Incomprehensible: This is a dizzying maelstrom of unexplained jargon, so why doesn’t that ruin the movie? Doesn’t the audience have to understand the options the heroes are juggling, so that we can play along? To a certain extent, yes, but something delightful happens here: We don’t understand the fine print, no, but that allows us to step back and see the broader picture. This is just as well: If they had held our hands and forced the characters to explain themselves every step of the way, then we still wouldn’t have understood any of it, and we have rolled our eyes at how unrealistic that dialogue was. Instead, Chandor relies of the performances of his stellar cast to sell the emotion, even when we don’t understand a word they’re saying.

Best of 2011, Runners-Up / Storyteller’s Rulebook # 122: Only Reveal Ironic Backstories

Long-time readers may remember that I ended 2010 with five entries about my favorite Hollywood movies of that year, though I failed to do so at the end of 2011. The problem, of course, was an itty bitty baby that kept Betsy and I home most weekends, starting in June.

But between screeners and normal DVD releases, I’ve now caught up on most of the movies I wanted to see (Still not seen: Tree of Life, Moneyball, Mission: Impossible 4, a few others) So I figured, as long as we haven’t gotten to the Oscars yet, there’s still time to talk about last year’s movies, right? So let’s get to it!

Today we’re going to start with three runners-up, Thor, Captain America, and X-Men: First Class, all co-produced by Marvel Studios, which, like its Disney teammate Pixar, has shown a remarkable amount of brand-wide quality control. None of these movies was anywhere close to perfect, and each had at lest one moment that drove me crazy (I mention one here), but ultimately they were all very entertaining.

Rather than do what I normally do in these pieces and point out how they display pre-established Storyteller Rules, let’s mint a new rule from scratch that all three of these movies exemplify: Find an Ironic Backstory.

Lots of gurus such as Syd Field insist that you know everything about your characters right down to where their parents went to school. That’s okay, I guess, but usually, you’re never going to use that stuff. Before you come up with all that, you first need to ask yourself: When, if ever, am I going to reveal this backstory, and why?

If your hero became a cop because he came from a long line of Irish cops, or became a preacher because he was always the most pious kid on his block, you don’t need to tell us that. We can guess. The best reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory: if your cop comes form a long line of college professors, or your preacher used to a gang member, for example.

Marvel Comics’ superheroes always did a great job at this. As opposed to a DC hero like Green Lantern, who took a small step from hotshot flying pilot to hotshot flying superhero, Marvel heroes tended to take much wider leaps into greatness. Let’s look at these three examples:
  • Captain America is the most typical example. The strongest and boldest man in the army has a surprise backstory: he was the weakest and sickliest kid in the country, but then some smart generals saw his potential and gave him a sci-fi whammy that turned his life around.
  • The original Thor comics had a similar dynamic, with Thor’s secret identity being a crippled doctor named Don Blake. The movie eliminated that secret identity, but it still made use of ironic backstories: This is ultimately the story of two brothers competing for their father’s love, so how does it begin? Thor is the cocky asshole who has contempt for all of his father’s rules, while Loki is humble and lovable.
  • X-Men: First Class pushed a similar dynamic to the extreme. In this case, we’ve already seen the original trilogy, where Professor Xavier was a saintly father figure and Magneto was a marauding terrorist. So now we get their backstories: Xavier is a swinging ’60s cad who uses his powers to get laid, while Magneto is a righteous Holocaust survivor on a quest for justice.

In each case, these ironic backstories give these heroes an embarrassing secret that affects everything they do. There’s a hidden gap between their private self and their public self. That irony adds subtext to every scene, which adds fuel to the whole story. In tomorrow’s pick, we’ll look at a great use of an ironic backstory in a non-superhero setting.