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My Best of 2011: Midnight in Paris & “Diet” Woody Allen…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Midnight in Paris is number four. Check out my original review here.

I’ve been mulling this over since I had the chance to see the film back in August. I think that Midnight in Paris might (just might) be my own favourite Woody Allen film, without any of the usual qualifiers attached. It is my favourite Woody Allen film of the decade, and my favourite one set in Europe, but I’m growing increasingly comfortable just stating that as an absolute. I, personally, prefer it to Manhattan or Annie Hall. I can’t explain it. As I noted in my piece covering True Grit as my eighth favourite film of year, perhaps it’s just that my internal “quality Woody Allen film detector” is broken. After all, I liked – rather than lovedVicky Christina Barcelona, so what do I know of Woody Allen?

Maybe it’s Paris. I love Paris, I’ll freely concede that. I think the city might just be my favourite place on the planet, dripping with romance and atmosphere, with culture present in every single step of the city. It’s a different city at different times of the day, but each one is beautiful in its own way. Paris is a city I will never tire of visiting, and I think Allen does a great job of capturing the reason I love it so in this film. I think there’s at least as a much of Paris in this film as there is of Barcelona in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

I know that Allen has struggled a bit to find an appropriate surrogate since he stopped casting himself in roles that he had obviously written for himself. Anthony Hopkins was grand in You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger, but he lacked that sort of strange combination of unlikeability and wit that Allen brings so effortlessly to the screen. Arguably Josh Brolin faced a similar problem in the same film. Larry David was too bitter in Whatever Works. Kenneth Branagh tried to photocopy Allen’s tics and stylings in Celebrity, which led to one of the most surreal leading performances I have ever seen. Nobody plays a Woody Allen stand-in quite as well as Woody Allen.

On the other hand, Owen Wilson is about as close you’re going to come to the prize, without going over. Wilson’s style is diametrically opposed to Allen’s, and I suspect that’s part of the key. Allen is a neurotic middle-aged mess, while Wilson is the surfer dude who never properly grew up. Despite this fairly fundamental difference, Wilson has that rare knack that makes Allen such a perfect fit for his own films: he can be distinctly unlikeable, and yet utterly charming at the same time. You can hate him, and yet find him somewhat intoxicating. It’s a fantastic paradox, and one not too many actors can pull off so smoothly. Allen and Wilson are skilled at bringing to life characters who might seem fun to talk to, but really seem like pretentious amoral schemers when we see them in action.

I mean that with no disrespect to Wilson, of course. It’s merely the type of character he tends to play in films, characters who generally seem too conceited or comfortable or at ease for the film around them. It arguably works will with Wes Anderson films, but I’d argue that Woody Allen has managed to harness that fantastic screen persona and put it to the best possible use. There is no way, before seeing the film, that I would ever have considered Wilson to be so perfectly suited to stand-in for Allen, but he just does it so very well.

There’s a great scene in the film, where Wilson’s character is preparing for a late night meeting with his muse and his crush. He steals a set of incredibly expensive earrings from his fiancé to give to her. While it’s hardly the most dickish thing that a Woody Allen protagonist has ever done, it’s a fairly douchebag move. However, thanks to Wilson’s strange goofy charm, we end up kinda rooting for him when his girlfriend and her parents return home early, as the situation (naturally) spirals out of control. It’s a move that would make any other character completely unlikeable, but we still remain slightly sympathetic to Gil for the rest of the film.

However, despite the wonderful and completely unforeseeable awesome Allen-Wilson combination, I think that the film’s lightness appeals to me. Allowing his aspiring writer to travel through time and meet artists like Dali or Picasso and writers like Hemmingway and Stein, Allen draws his supporting cast as relatively shallow caricatures. Played in a scene-stealing performance by Adrian Brody, Dali is just as strange as we might imagine, rather than portrayed as a nuanced three-dimensional character.

Indeed, most of the supporting cast are drawn as these sorts of rough sketches, reduced to a single easy-to-define character quirk. Dali has a quirky fascination with a “rhinoceros” and Hemmingway is hilariously focused on death and masculinity, spouting gruff clichés and gritty non-sequiturs. Aside from Adriana, the object of Gil’s affection, the only characters from the era who seem to have any tangible depth are Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as a couple in a rocky marriage.

A few commentators seem to attack Allen’s handling of these characters and the setting, suggesting that his approach lacks any real complexity, reducing real historical characters to mere archetypes to serve as comedic foils and to deliver humourous punchlines. This isn’t Allen at his most intellectually stimulating, it’s “Diet Allen” – all the taste, none of the substance. It’s a fair comment, to be entirely frank, but I suspect that it’s also entirely the point. Gil is a romantic. He’s a bit of a fool. He ends the movie essentially learning that he needs to stop (literally) living in the past.

However, in contrast to Gil, Allen introduces us to Paul – played wonderfully by Michael Sheen. In contrast to Gil romanticism, Paul offers arrogant pseudo-intellectualism, a history based around facts and dates and details. He’s so confident in his assertions and observations that he’ll challenge a tour guide (played by the First Lady of France) on her own commentary on her culture. Even ignoring the fact that many of the facts he boasts about are incorrect, there’s nothing appealing about Paul’s cold and dispassionate approach to these historical figures. While Gil’s romanticism might need to be tempered with the realisation that the present isn’t really such a bad place to be, Allen seems to have no time for Paul’s psuedo-intellectualism.

Despite his excessive preoccupation with it, at least the past is alive to Gil. At least these writers are more than a collection of facts and figures, cross-referenced like entries in some macabre database. Paul might know all the facts about them, but they never speak to him like they do to Gil. After all, this movie isn’t about Hemmingway or Fitzgerald, it’s about how these characters relate to Gil, and about how he understands them. It might not be a perfectly complex or accurate depiction of their personalities in great detail, but it’s a form of engagement that’s to be lauded.

Reading back over the other entries in this “best of” list, it seems like the bulk of the better films this year – to me at least – have been relatively optimistic fare, and I think that Midnight in Paris continues the trend. I think it might be the most romantic film that Allen has written, without completely tempering the writer and director’s wry wit and occasionally bitter skepticism. Those aspects are there – Gil is still a fundamentally flawed individual – but they’re tempered by a sense that Gil’s approach is somehow less flawed than that of those around him.

After all, if you can’t be romantic in Paris, then I guess you can’t be romantic anywhere.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) The Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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2 Responses

  1. Surprised to see Thor, The Adjustment Bureau and Black Swan on the list, but only because they would get anywhere near my own. Subjective as you rightly say. That’s why these lists are so fun. I’m glad Allen seems to have mellowed in his old age. Paris’ll do that.

    • As you said, what would be the fun if we all agreed?

      I think it’s been a great year, and I felt bad coming to even twelve titles. What of We Need To Talk About Kevin or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or The King’s Speech or Source Code? So many great movies, to choose. However, I thought I should at least be honest and put my own choices – ones I can stand by and defend, even if they are purely my own certifiably crazy ideas.

      I knew that The Adjustment Bureau and Thor would be the “WTF” choices on an otherwise conventional list. I suspect a lot of people will share your surprise. And, if I recall, you weren’t nearly as fond of Black Swan as I was.

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