Country Strong, Final Destination and Other Noteworthy Surprises of 2011

Surprises too are often tied to expectation, or lack of it. The first film I saw in 2011 surprised me in part because it was the first film I saw in 2011 -- that is, a film shunted onto the whistling heath of the January release schedule.

It was Shana Feste’s Country Strong, and it got a raw deal. Casting Gwyneth Paltrow as a country superstar is either a brave decision or an incredibly timid one -- regardless, Paltrow stepped into an outsized role and very nearly filled it out. The supporting cast of Leighton Meester, Tim McGraw, and especially Garrett Hedlund give the celebrity melodrama human ballast, and Feste manages to pace a pretty slick story with moments of believable intimacy and alienation.

When it comes to horror films and especially on-screen gore (I suppose off-screen gore as well), I am -- as Justin Timberlake’s character pronounced it in the reasonably surprising Friends With Benefits -- a huge pu-ssay. Seeing Final Destination 5 next to my name on the assignment slate was a definite short straw situation, but I fancy myself a professional, and so cleared my schedule and my appetite and headed to midtown. I had never seen a Final Destination, which accounted for the formula’s novelty for me -- the villain here is death itself, manifested in the trickle down economics of excruciating coincidence -- but the film, shot in 3-D, is also brilliantly choreographed and possessed of the kind of tension -- outrageous but not totally gratuitous -- that directors rarely bother with anymore, when splatters and shakey cams do just as well. Not that there aren’t -- heaven knows -- plenty of guts a-squishin’ in Final Destination 5. But it was worth a few pounds of flesh to be reminded how pleasurable it is to be both really and truly scared and perfectly safe in a crowded movie theater.

So a quick check-in on the Friends alumni: Most promising cast member Jennifer Aniston seems resigned to debasing herself in Adam Sandler shitshows like Just Go With It; Matthew Perry, always rebounding in my heart, is as ever poised for a comeback; Lisa Kudrow keeps launching hothouse comic series that feel too cringey to last; Courtney Cox has a network show and yet seems to spend her days fastened to a mirror; Matt LeBlanc came up with something interesting in the meta-TV cable series Episodes; and David Schwimmer pretty much killed it directing his second feature film, the internet predator drama Trust. Clive Owen gives a powerful and difficult performance as a father reckoning with his daughter’s role in her own victimization and Liana Liberato makes a frankly astonishing debut as a young girl drawn into the emotional confusions of abuse. In deploying real emotional toughness against easy accusations of after-school special-dom, it is Schwimmer who emerges as the mature and still-promising talent. I was surprised, anyway.

Though it’s not strictly movie-centric, I feel compelled to note one of the most pleasant surprises of my favorite new television series -- the venue, after all, to which so many of our movie stars have migrated. Luke Wilson hit an inexplicable rough patch in the late aughts, his endearing, chronically bedazzled comic presence and magma-deep melancholy wasted on minnow-ish indies like Middle Men and I Melt With You director Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole Was Here. And then his disheartening appearance in the ads that cannot be named. But in playing the innocuous waster Levi Callow in Mike White’s HBO series Enlightened, Wilson seems to have not only returned to form but raised his game. White cast the role perfectly, and dispenses the character of Levi in precise and exact-right doses: Initially seen through the warped lens of Laura Dern’s Amy -- a recent inductee into the narcissistic cult of well being -- he emerges as more than a pathetic fallback and projection screen for his ex.

In the exquisite Robin Wright episode, by making Levi’s exasperation his own White brings Amy’s desperation into clearer view. In a later confrontation with Amy’s mother (Diane Ladd) Levi is finally unleashed as a whole, seething person. Wilson makes what might be an ordinary role feel risky, and in his fringy yet essential presence sets up the question of whether Levi is a poignant satellite in Amy’s orbit or she is a moon to his Melancholia. I’m really happy to be watching Luke Wilson again, is mostly what I’m saying -- on any screen. Happy and a little bit relieved.

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  • Glebe says:

    I'm glad you liked Final Destination 5 even though you hadn't seen the others. The ending works even better if you've seen the first!

    And hooray for the Trust and Liana Liberato love!

  • Kendra says:

    LOVED country strong!! SO did my entire family. Critics got that one WRONG!!