2011 NOFF Award Winners

At the risk of upstaging tonight’s Oscar ceremony, today I am announcing the winners of the 5th Annual NOFF Awards. I usually write commentary for each category, but for several reasons, chief among them sheer laziness, this year I only got around to scribbling about the first three: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. I’m afraid I hastily threw most of the post together today.

No rule changes: for a film to be eligible it must have appeared, either theatrically, on video, or On Demand, in the U.S. for the first time during the 2011 calendar year.

I’ve seen the following 145 eligible films:

13 Assassins
50/50
Adjustment Bureau, The
Adventures of Tintin, The
Albert Nobbs
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Arbor, The
Armadillo
Arthur Christmas
Artist, The
Attack the Block
Bad Teacher
Beginners
Bellflower
Better Life, A
Bill Cunningham New York
Black Death
Bobby Fischer Against the World
Bridesmaids
Brotherhood
Buck
Caller, The
Captain America: The First Avenger
Carnage
Cars
Cave of Forgottern Dreams
Cedar Rapids
Certified Copy
City of Life and Death
Cold Fish
Cold Weather
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Contagion
Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Dangerous Method, A
Descendants, The
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Dirty Girl
Drive
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Film socialisme
Fish Story
Fly Away
Future, The
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The
Gnomeo & Juliet
Guard, The
Hanna
Happy Feet Two
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Help, The
Hobo with a Shotgun
Horrible Bosses
House of Tolerance
Housemaid, The
How I Ended This Summer
How to Die in Oregon
Hugo
I Saw the Devil
Ides of March, The
Innkeepers, The
Insidious
Interrupters, The
Into the Abyss
Iron Lady, The
J. Edgar
Jane Eyre
Kaboom
Kung Fu Panda 2
Last Lions, The
Last Night
Le quattro volte
Leap Year
Like Crazy
Lonely Place to Die, A
Man Who Collected Food, The
Margaret
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Meek’s Cutoff
Melancholia
Midnight in Paris
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Moneyball
Muppets, The
My Week with Marilyn
Mysteries of Lisbon
Myth of the American Sleepover, The
Neds
Nostalgia for the Light
Of Gods and Men
Page One: Inside the New York Times
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Paranormal Activity 3
Paul
Perfect Host, The
Poetry
Priest
Project Nim
Puss in Boots
Putty Hill
Rango
Rapt
Real Steel
Red State
Rio
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rite, The
Robber, The
Rubber
Senna
Separation, A
Shame
Silent House, The
Skin I Live In, The
Sleeping Beauty
Small Town Murder Songs
Soul Surfer
Source Code
Stake Land
Submarine
Super
Super 8
Tabloid
Take Shelter
Terri
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
To Die Like a Man
Tree of Life, The
Trip, The
Troll Hunter, The
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Tuesday, After Christmas
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Vanishing on 7th Street
Ward, The
Warrior
We Are What We Are
Weekend
Win Win
Winnie the Pooh
Woman, The
Young Adult

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BEST PICTURE

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Drive

Hanna

Margaret

Rango

A Separation

And the Noffscar goes to: Drive

The protagonist of Drive, an enigmatic, taciturn antihero named Driver, is descended from a long line of cine-mythical figures. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to swipe the inside of Driver’s cheek and extract a DNA sample for analysis. The results, shown below in a family tree, were startling:

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Shane – Driver’s great grandfather
Ethan Edwards and Joe Bradley – Driver’s great granduncles
The Man with No Name and Harmonica – Driver’s granduncles
Bullitt – Driver’s grandfather
The Driver – Driver’s father

(Note: the female side of Driver’s family is largely unknown, no doubt consisting of anonymous whores, saloon singers, honky-tonk waitresses, etc, though rumor has it that his mother is Ms. 45.)

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He’s called Driver. Why? Because he drives. He drives by day as a Hollywood stunt driver, by night as an ultra-slick getaway driver. In the opening getaway scene, in which he plays a game of vehicular cat and mouse with police, Driver displays two essential character traits inherited from his cinematic forebears: 1) the unparalleled driving skill of his grandfather, Bullitt, and 2) the laconic cool of his granduncle, The Man With No Name (whose famous poncho got handed down and refashioned into Driver’s scorpion jacket). Notice how he remains preternaturally calm behind the wheel, like a machine himself, an unemotional extension of his car, knowing exactly when to pull to the curb and when to make his move, when to slow to a crawl and when to floor it, outsmarting and outmaneuvering the cops at every turn.

But Driver cannot be defined by his driving alone. Other character traits emerge, including an unexpected romanticism, which finds unspoken expression when he and girl-next-door Irene meet cute and fall in love. Driver woos Irene into his passenger seat and, like a knight on shining chrome, whisks her off on romantic driving excursions set to catchy “neon-pop” love songs like College’s “Real Hero.” Refn likens their relationship to one from Sixteen Candles, and for a while the film threatens to turn into a storybook romance – until, that is, Irene and Driver run afoul of vicious gangsters and the story veers into territory dark and unsettling. Refn, it turns out, isn’t John Hughes. And Driver sure ain’t The Geek.

Driver strives to protect the imperiled Irene, like his gallant great grandfather Shane would have done, but although his motives are pure, his methods are anything but. He may have the nobility of Shane and the sweet romanticism of a John Hughes character, but he’s also got something to do with death like his granduncle Harmonica, not to mention the psychotic tendencies of his first cousin twice removed, Travis Bickle.

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Driver’s alarming capacity for ultra-violence manifests before Irene’s eyes when they find themselves sharing an elevator with a hit man sent to kill them. By the time the elevator reaches the ground floor, Driver will have stomped the man’s head to mush Tommy DeVito-style and effectively destroyed any chance he had with Irene in the process. But before doing that, before transforming into a skull-crushing angel of death, Driver shows his softer side in the most tenderly romantic moment of the year. He gently guides Irene to the corner of the elevator, the lighting softens, the music swells, and time stands still as they gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss for the first and last time. Refn emphasizes the significance of the moment for good reason: it is a farewell kiss, for Driver knows their romance is doomed after what she’s about to see him do. The scene, an instant classic, invites a complex emotional response, not only because it has hopeless romantics sighing in delight one moment, hard-boiled toughies recoiling in shock the next, but also because it underscores Driver’s tragic dilemma: he must act to save Irene, but doing so inevitably means losing her.

And so…

…like his forebears, Shane and Harmonica, who did what they had to do and then rode off into the sunset, Driver does what he has to do and then drives off into the neon-lit night…

…and straight into cinematic folklore.

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BEST DIRECTOR

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Asghar Farhadi for A Separation

Kenneth Lonergan for Margaret

Gore Verbinski for Rango

Lars von Trier for Melancholia

Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive

And the Noffscar goes to: Nicolas Winding Refn

The consensus is in. Terrence Malick was the best director of 2011. Fuck the consensus. If NOFFscars were handed out based on ambition alone, Malick would deserve it. His film, after all, aims for the heavens – literally. Standing in for The Almighty, Malick creates the universe, endows it with meaning, and shepherds us to eternity, all within 139 miraculous minutes. Ambitious, yes. Heartfelt, yes. Philosophically sound, no. The Twig of Life, whose concluding “shores of eternity” sequence ranks as one of the most embarrassingly schmaltzy sequences ever shot by a so-called master director, is about as deep and meaningful as a delusional clergyman’s Sunday sermon, but that didn’t stop Malick’s worshipful flock of critics from rapturously singing the film’s praises. Not all of us are converts.

Nicolas Winding Refn, on the other hand, made a believer out of me. I’d seen and liked Valhalla Rising, which garnered two NOFF award nominations last year, but Drive leaves his previous work in the dust and establishes him as one of the best pure genre filmmakers working today. Drive was originally intended to be a big-budget, high-octane Hollywood action movie à la The Fast and the Furious, but Refn, who came to the project at Gosling’s request, completely re-conceptualized the film, as auteurs are wont to do, and turned it into a stylish, existential thriller closer in spirit to Point Blank or Bullitt. Refn is a practitioner of pure cinema, a bold stylist who achieves his effects visually and aurally rather than verbally, which is why film critics still clinging to literary standards of artistic merit thought Drive “shallow” or “trivial”. Pay no heed to the detractors, for they can’t recognize great genre filmmaking  even when it drives over them and leaves tread marks on their faces.

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BEST ACTOR

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Michael Fassbender in Shame

Brendan Gleeson in The Guard

Choi Min-sik in I Saw the Devil

Peyman Moadi in A Separation

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

And the Noffscar goes to: Choi Min-sik in I Saw the Devil

Joo-yun, a sweet-faced young woman with a dulcet-toned voice, is stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere during a heavy snowstorm. She’s in the car waiting for a tow truck that will never come, talking to her husband for the last time about a future that will never be. A hooded figure approaches the car. The face that appears at her window is a doughy oval dotted with two beady black eyes. This man, this…thing, is not there to lend a helping hand. When Joo-yun looks down for a moment the man’s eyes scan the car’s interior looking for an entry point, identifying possible escape routes. When she looks back up those two unblinking black pools of nothingness are staring back at her. She gazes into the abyss and the abyss grins.

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He is Kyunk-chun. The world is his abattoir. Watch him dispossess Joo-yun of her head.

Choi Min-sik is not the first to play the “personification of evil”, but few have done so with such head-bashing, limb-hacking gusto. He doesn’t just eat the scenery – he rapes it, slaughters it, and eats it, then regurgitates it in your face. And I lapped up every deliciously repellant morsel.

But the tables (or should I say butcher-blocks?) are turned on Kyunk-chun by Joo-yun’s husband, a cop named Soo-hyun who dedicates his life to inflicting as much pain and suffering on Kyunk-chun as Kyunk-chun inflicted on Joo-yun. Soo-hyun subjects Kyunk-chun to a sadistic game of catch-torture-and-release, in the process of which he breaks Kyunk-chun’s left wrist, slices his right Achilles tendon, and pummels his head, back and chest, turning the predator into the prey, the maimer into the maimed, the butcher into the butchered, the victimizer into the victim. Soo-hyun does unto Kyunk-chun what Kyunk-chun did unto Joo-yun. Eventually Soo-hyun reduces Kyunk-chun to a limping, semi-immobilized mess – and this is when Min-sik, who’s called upon to act with his entire beaten, battered and bloodied body, is at his best. The highlight of his performance comes near the end, after his character has endured yet another thrashing: as he limps toward the camera, chuckling over the irony of his situation even as he cringes in agony from his injuries, conflicting expressions of pain and amusement cross his face at the same time. That’s when he sealed the NOFF award.

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BEST ACTRESS

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Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy

Mónica del Carmen in Leap Year

Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry

Anna Paquin in Margaret

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna

And the Noffscar goes to: Anna Paquin in Margaret

The trailer below doesn’t do justice to Paquin’s magnificent performance, but it’s better than nothing.

Click here for the lowdown on the film’s troubled production history.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

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Albert Brooks in Drive

Bruce Greenwood in Meek’s Cutoff

Tom Hardy in Warrior

James Hong in Kung Fu Panda

John C. Reilly in Terri

And the Noffscar goes to: Albert Brooks in Drive

The clip doesn’t show the highlight of Brooks’ performance – when he slices Cranston’s wrist and reassuringly says, “Don’t worry, that’s it. It’s done. There’s no pain. It’s over, it’s over.” To hear that voice say those words in the same cadence that has made us laugh so many times in the past is more unsettling than seeing him commit the dastardly deed itself.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

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Jeannie Berlin in Margaret

J-Smith Cameron in Margaret

 Carey Mulligan in Shame

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia

Juno Temple in Kaboom 

And the Noffscar goes to: J-Smith Cameron in Margaret

Cameron plays Paquin’s mother in the film. Wanna see great acting? Watch the vicious mother-daughter spats. Alas, clips from the film appear to be nonexistent on the Web.

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BEST SCREENPLAY

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Certified Copy

The Guard

Margaret

Rango

A Separation

And the Noffscar goes to: A Separation

Farhadi’s complex, multi-layered screenplay beautifully develops the escalating antagonisms among the characters.

Click here to watch a couple of clips.

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BEST EDITING

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Drive

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Rango

The Tree of Life

Warrior

And the Noffscar goes to: The Tree of Life

God only knows why the Academy snubbed The Tree of Life in this category.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

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Drive

Hanna

Meek’s Cutoff

Melancholia

The Tree of Life

And the Noffscar goes to: The Tree of Life

I enjoy bashing The Tree of Life, but there’s no denying its visual beauty. Below is my favorite shot, which last all of 2 seconds. Lubezki captures the film’s essence in one haunting image – shadows dancing on the ground, the transient nature of life.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

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 Drive by Cliff Martinez

Listen

Hanna by The Chemical Brothers

Listen

Hugo by Howard Shore

Listen

Rango by Hans Zimmer 

Listen

The Skin I Live In by Alberto Iglesias 

Listen

 

And the Noffscar goes to: Hanna by The Chemical Brothers

Director Joe Wright briefly discusses the memorable score at the 1:20 minute point:

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BEST ART DIRECTION/SET DESIGN

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Hugo

Jane Eyre

Rango

The Skin I Live In

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

And the Noffscar goes to: Hugo

Dante Ferretti’s art direction, which includes a painstaking recreation of George Méliès’ fifty-five by twenty foot glass-enclosed studio set, is as crucial to the visual world of Hugo as the 3D. It’s fitting that such accomplished art direction was put in the service of a film about Méliès, arguably cinema’s first art director.

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BEST SOUND

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Drive

Hanna

Melancholia

Rango

The Tree of Life

And the Noffscar goes to: Hanna

Director Joe Wright intentionally blurred the distinction between sound and music so that “the sound effects become ordered into rhythm and harmony.” Indeed, it’s often difficult to tell where the sound effects stop and the music begins, and vice versa – e.g., when the helicopter rotor blades function as the rhythm section during the raid on the cabin.

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BEST FOREIGN FILM

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Certified Copy

Fish Story

Poetry

A Separation

13 Assassins

And the Noffscar goes to: A Separation

Easily one of the best films of the year. Just saw this two nights ago. Still processing it.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY

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Bobby Fischer Against the World

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

How to Die in Oregon

Senna

Tabloid

And the Noffscar goes to: Senna

Eschewing the usual talking head approach, Senna rivets the attention by examining the life and death of Formula One racer Ayrton Senna entirely through archival footage.

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BEST ANIMATED FILM

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Rango

 

Winnie the Pooh
And the Noffscar goes to: Rango

Director Gore Verbinski discusses his inventive, richly detailed animated homage to the Spaghetti Western (and Chinatown):

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BEST ORIGINAL SONG

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“Fish Story” from Fish Story by Kazuyoshi Saitô

“Hanna’s Theme” from Hanna by The Chemical Brothers

Listen

“Man or Muppet” from The Muppets by Bret McKenzie

Listen

“Rango Theme Song” from Rango by John & David Thum

Listen

“Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger by Alan Menken

Listen

And the Noffscar goes to: Fish Story

Here’s a rarity: a film song that’s integral to the film’s story. It also stands alone as a pretty good (and in the film’s world, long forgotten) punk rock song.

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BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS

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Melancholia

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Real Steel

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The Tree of Life

And the Noffscar goes to: The Tree of Life

Despite the unfortunate appearance of that merciful Malickosaurus, the “creation of life” sequence boasts the year’s best visual effects, courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s effects wizard Douglas Trumbull.

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BEST SCENES

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 Arthur Christmas:

The age-old question is finally answered: How can Santa possibly deliver gifts to children all over the world in one night? Watch how he and his ninja-like elves manage it in the opening scene.
(It’s all downhill from there, but the opening is wonderful.)

 Watch

Drive:

Vehicular cat and mouse chase: the opening getaway.

Watch

Drive:

Kissing and killing in an elevator.

 

Drive:

Vehicular homicide set to Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love.”

Watch

Hanna:

Hanna escapes from underground compound, with assistance from The Chemical Brothers’ propulsive music.

Watch

Continue to watch

 

 

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I Saw the Devil:Psycho-killer mayhem in a moving taxi.
(Scene features amazing camerawork in a confined space).

Watch

 Kaboom:

“Dude, that’s a vagina, not a bowl of spaghetti.”

 Margaret:

Pointless death on the streets of NYC

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol:

With his suction device malfunctioning and a giant dust storm heading his way, Tom Cruise scales Burj Khalifa.

He’s really up there, folks.

Rango:

Best action scene of the year:

Bad guys on bats chase Rango’s stagecoach through the desert – set to “Ride of the Valkyries” arranged for fingerpicking banjo!

 
 

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 Rubber:

“No reason.”

Watch

Super:

60s TV Batman meets Taxi Driver: the concluding massacre.

The Trip:

Whatever Michael Caine impression you can do, I can do better.

Watch

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil:

When bigoted teenagers attack: mistakenly thinking Tucker and Dale are Deliverance-like hillbillies who’ve kidnapped one of their friends, a group of teens organize an attack and rescue operation, with disastrous (and hilarious) results – through no fault of Tucker and Dale, one teen ends up headfirst in a wood chipper, another chest-first into a spear, etc.

Watch

Warrior:

Macho emotionalism at its most irresistible:
brothers Tom Hardy and Jeff Edgerton go mano a mano.

Watch

And the Noffscar goes to: Drive – kissing and killing in an elevator

What else?

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