The Year In Film: 2011's Biggest Movie Controversies

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Every Wednesday in December, Flavorwire will take a look back at the year in film — the stories, the performances, the movies that we were talking about in 2011. For this week, let’s revisit some of the year’s movie controversies, shall we?

We film folk can get worked up pretty easily, so while we found plenty of things to get all a-tizzy about in 2011, the assembled list of 2011’s film controversies doesn’t exactly read like end-of-the-world, stop-the-presses stuff. But these things are important to us! We’re easily excitable! Thus, ratings and posters and Oscars and Darth Vader’s scream were well worth talking about — then, and now. Join us after the jump to relive some of the year’s very big deals.

10. A Dishonest Trailer?!

Back in October, we told you about Michigan moviegoer and Certified Smart Person (TM) Sarah Deming, who sued distributor FilmDistrict over its acclaimed release Drive. Ms. Deming’s objection? That FilmDistrict “promoted the film Drive as very similar to the Fast and Furious, or similar, series of movies,” but actually, “Drive bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film… having very little driving in the motion picture.” Yep, a moviegoer sued a distributor for not delivering on the promise of high quality she’s come to expect from Fast and Furious-style movies. And the Internet issued a collective face-palm.

9. The Black Swan Body Double

Did you know that sometimes, when you’re watching a movie, the things a character does aren’t always actually done by the actor doing them? I know, it’s a mind-blower. But often, when the rugged action star goes to step out of that airplane/outrun that fireball/flip that car, they’re not actually the one doing it — thanks to clever movie “editing,” a “double” steps in (a specialist in skyjumping/fireball-running/car-flipping) and takes over. And when an actress is playing a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, but only has a few months to prepare for the role, then a dancer will be brought in, to serve much the same function. Can you imagine such a thing? Sarah Lane, who served as Natalie Portman’s body double in Black Swan, decided to break this deception wide open. “I don’t want people to think that I’m here to trash Natalie and get fame for myself,” she insisted, to the Wall Street Journal . “I do want people to know that you cannot absolutely become a professional ballet dancer in a year and a half no matter how hard you work.” Great, noted. Anything else?

8. Tree of Life: No Refunds, Numbskulls

When Fox Searchlight released Terrence Malick’s tone poem The Tree of Life last spring, it was greeted with rave reviews, a Palme d’or at Cannes… and a lot of head-scratching. It’s the kind of difficult, challenging film that rarely gets made these days, much less with marquee stars and a significant budget, but plenty of moviegoers just plain didn’t take to it, and many asked for refunds. But the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut wasn’t hearing it, posting a notice to its patrons that urged them to “read up on the film before choosing to see it, and for those electing to attend, please go in with an open mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy once you have purchased a tickat to see one of our films.” And everyone spent a few days contemplating our collective responsibilities as moviegoers and engaged viewers… before then queuing up for Transformers 3-D.

7. The Muppets — Vulgarians, Or Communists?

Few films this year have been as universally beloved as the comeback movie The Muppets, though not everyone has warmed up to the Kermit and the gang’s return. First, original Muppeteer Frank Oz and a few of his fellow purists voiced their dislike for the Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller’s script, with Oz grousing, “I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.” Hey guess what, he didn’t!

Once The Muppets made it into theaters, though, it met its true enemy: Fox Business News. There, “Follow the Money” host Eric Bolling decried the film as liberal propaganda and class warfare, because the villainous Tex Richman is (gasp) an oil tycoon. Comical as the whole things is, at some point you have to stop laughing and pointing and wondering if the whole thing is a Saturday Night Live sketch, between the laughable lower-thirds (“ARE LIBERALS TRYING TO BRAINWASH YOUR KIDS AGAINST CAPITALISM?”) and Bolling’s McCarthyesque hyperbole (“We’re teaching our kids class warfare — where are we, Communist China?!”), and realize that they’re talking about The Muppets. Was Doc Hopper, the villain of the original Muppet Movie, a stealth attack on entrepreneurship? How about Nicky Holliday in The Great Muppet Caper — he must’ve been the franchise’s subtle jab at the thieving 1%, right?

6. Shame’s NC-17

Movies for grown-ups are in short supply these days, so when one comes out that’s geared specifically for an adult audience, it makes news. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s Shame, the candid tale of a successful New York business type with a crippling sex addiction. The film caused a stir when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, not only for the no-frills nature of its sex scenes, but for the full frontal nudity of star Michael Fassbender — which, as history as proven, is pretty much an automatic trigger for an NC-17, the “kiss of death” rating that keeps films out of most chains and video stores (and from advertisement in many media outlets). Fox Searchlight’s decision to keep the film intact and accept the NC-17 prompted the usual round of “will the NC-17 finally get respect?” columns, but the verdict is still out on box office; Shame did gangbuster business (per screen, anyway) in its opening weekend, but only in a limited release on ten screens in big markets.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Poster (and the Great Embargo Break)

The sexy, naked Lizbeth poster has prompted some spirited discussions around here — first upon its release, when Judy Berman voiced some concerns about character misrepresentation (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about a survivor of rape and other abuse who has grown tough and seeks revenge. The dynamic in the poster suggests that Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander is sexily vulnerable and in need of Mikael Blomkvist’s fully clothed protection”), and then when we included it in our list of memorable movie poster controversies, where the commenting got a little heated.

Over the past week, the film has summoned up a bit more controversy, albeit of the “inside baseball” variety, when New Yorker film critic David Denby broke the film’s embargo date for reviews. Sony and producer Scott Rudin raked Denby over the coals, Denby responded with a lame explanation (roughly paraphrased: “It’s sooooo haaaaard to fit in all the movies at the end of December”), and then director David Fincher took the opportunity to cut down film critics in general: “Nothing against film criticism. I think film critics are really valuable. But the most valuable film critics are usually those people who come see a movie with their Blackberry and then text their friends ‘It sucked.’ or ‘It’s awesome. You should see it.’ You know what I mean?” Oy.

4. George Lucas Screws with Star Wars — again

It should come as no surprise that George Lucas, everybody’s favorite tinkerer, decided that the September Blu-ray release of the Star Wars films was a fine opportunity to go back and add in some little things that they were missing — y’know, like blinking Ewoks and screaming Vaders. This was after the widely-disparaged changes he’d already made for the 1997 “Special Edition” theatrical reissues (when the “Han Shot First” meme was born), and the subsequent additional alterations created for the original trilogy’s 2004 DVD release.

As we pointed out at the time, it’s almost as if Lucas — who is well aware of the widespread fan outrage over both his endless tinkering and his poor treatment of the original, unaltered versions — is to the point now where he’s doing it entirely to piss off his fans. Not that it mattered; the Star Wars Blu-rays were immediate bestsellers, and we can only presume that the upcoming 3D theatrical releases (um, yay?) will have even more new garbage smashed in.

3. Kevin Smith’s Red State Strategy

Oh, Kevin Smith — you’ve given us so much to talk about this year. The trouble started clear back in January, when the divisive indie filmmaker premiered his latest film, Red State, at Sundance. Regular distributors the Weinstein Company had passed on the picture, so Smith announced that he would sell it for distribution in a live auction following the premiere — where he proceeded to buy it himself (for twenty bucks) and explain his eliminate-the-middle-man distribution strategy. First, he would take the film out on a premium-priced roadshow tour, where fans could pony up $50 (and more) for a first look at the film, followed by a Q&A with Smith and his cast. After that, he would release it in the fall to regular theaters (and regular moviegoers), but still doing it himself, via the “four-walling” method of buying out the house and pocketing whatever comes through the door.

It seemed like a good idea, an interesting way to shake up the distribution model, and the first half of it went well; the low-budget pic basically recouped its cost on the tour, which got some extra publicity when Smith invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church (which vaguely inspired the story) to a screening. But once the tour was over, Smith dropped the ball on the second half of the plan, forgoing the regular theatrical run for viewers outside his circle of fans and instead dumping it straight to DVD and VOD. And thus, one of his best films to date never went beyond the people who see all of his films anyway.

2. The Help and Race

With a total box-office haul of nearly $200 million (on a $25 million budget), Tate Taylor’s film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help was a surprise summer hit. But this story of a young white woman’s relationship with two black maids in the early years of the Civil Rights movement was also criticized in some corners for (if you’ll pardon the pun) whitewashing some troublesome truths about race relations. Ida E. Jones released “an open statement to fans of The Help on behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians, noting that, “despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.” Roxane Gay took to The Rumpus and declared, “The Help is billed as inspirational, charming and heart warming. That’s true if your heart is warmed by narrow, condescending, mostly racist depictions of black people in 1960s Mississippi, overly sympathetic depictions of the white women who employed the help, the excessive, inaccurate use of dialect, and the glaring omissions with regards to the stirring Civil Rights Movement… The Help, I have decided, is science fiction, creating an alternate universe to the one we live in.” MSNBC contributor Melissa Harris-Perry spoke up as well: “The fact is that the lives of these women in The Help continue to be imagined through the perspectives of the narrator and not revealed in what their historical complexities and contemporary complexities actually are.” These criticisms may not have stifled The Help’s box office, but they very likely put the skids on the film’s Oscar hopes (outside of Viola Davis, who, let’s face it, should get an Academy Award every year.) And while we’re on the topic of the Oscars…

1. Brett Ratner Blows the Oscars

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was clearly hoping to reinvigorate the Oscar ceremony with a shot of “youth” or “edge” or whatever when they hired Rush Hour director Brett Ratner to co-produce the 2012 festivities. Ratner immediately brought in his Tower Heist star Eddie Murphy to host (even though Murphy hadn’t made a funny film in over a decade), and got to work on the show. Then Ratner proceeded to do to the Oscar gig what he’d done to the Lecter and X-Men franchises: he just screwed it all up.

Tower Heist came out, and Ratner embarked on his promotional tour — which, in his case, involved trash-talking Olivia Munn, getting explicit on the Howard Stern show, and insisting at a post-screening Q&A that “rehearsal is for fags.” Classy! Though Ratner apologized, and the AMPAS initially stood behind him, the filmmaker ultimately stepped down from the gig, with Murphy following suit. Their flirtation with “youth” and “edge” in flames, the Academy hired veteran Brian Grazer to take over producing duties, and Billy Crystal to do his wheezy, tired Bob Hope shtick as host.

So those are our picks — do you agree? What movie controversies got you talking in 2011?