I Am DB

February 22, 2014

The Year in Movies: 2013

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:00 pm
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2013 might go down as a great year for movies, but that wouldn’t be an entirely fair or accurate statement. Yes, there were a lot of excellent films, but most of them were released in the last third of the year. Before that, the bright spots were few. So can we really call it a great year for movies if most of the year offered little in the way of greatness? I suppose I’m arguing semantics. That, or scholars will debate this for eons to come.

I saw 100 movies that were released in 2013. In November, there was an eight day stretch during which, I kid you not, I saw 10 movies (two of those being earlier-in-the-year releases I was catching up with on DVD). Sure, that would never have been possible if I weren’t unemployed, and I would gladly relinquish that claim for a steady paycheck. But lemonade from lemons and all that, right? My friend Ryan said to me during that week, “You’re crazy. You’re a crazy person.” Yeah, well…four of those screenings were possible because Ryan is in the Writers Guild and brought me as his guest, so he’s totally an enabler in this situation; the guy who gives you a drink while driving you to rehab.

I mention the number because I know from past experience that some of you wonder how I see as many movies per year as I do. But while those among you will think seeing 100 movies during the year is unbelievable (and a sign of multiple social problems), it barely scratches the surface of what’s out there. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out when covering his favorites of the year, his newspaper reviewed 900 movies in 2013. Granted, he and his colleagues watch and write about movies for a living. But those of you who can’t imagine how I got around to 100 should realize what a small percentage that really is. There were some that I wanted to see but missed. There were many, many more that I had zero interest in seeing. And there were countless more that I probably had no awareness of whatsoever. Many movies only open in a few cities or less, and/or only play briefly. They aren’t accompanied by weeks of commercials, trailers and print publicity. They quietly arrive on DVD with the same lack of fanfare that accompanied their theatrical release. Or they go straight to DVD altogether (which is not necessarily the stigma it once was).

I’m not sure what any of this matters, but it was on my mind. Since I lack the assistance of an editor, this is what happens. I ramble. The point of this post is to cover my favorite movies from the year gone by. As always, I rank the top few, then run down the rest alphabetically. Strangely, despite there being a number of movies on my list this year, there wasn’t one that clearly rose to the top for me as a single favorite. A few came close, but none gave me that obvious “this is the one” feeling I got in past years for movies like The Departed, Precious and Inception. So instead, what follows are an alphabetical Top Five, followed by the rest as I’d usually do. And as always, there are many more that I would happily and enthusiastically recommend to people. Movies that I enjoyed, admired, that contained some of my favorite moments or scenes of the year, but that for one reason or another didn’t completely come together or linger in my mind as a whole. Inevitably, there will be movies I later regret not putting on my list. Or I’ll see something again down the line, and find it makes more of an impact on me than it did initially. And there may even be some that, with a little distance, I wouldn’t have included. These things happen every year. But at this moment in time, reflecting on the year that was, these are the movies that stuck.

Top Five

GRAVITY
From Gone With the Wind to Titanic, Lawrence of Arabia to The Lord of the Rings, there will always be movies that are best when seen on the big screen, but we accept that in order to enjoy them beyond their initial release, we’ll have to settle for a TV and hope that we have a set big enough to still do the movie some sort of justice. Unfortunately, I’m not sure any screen small enough to fit in a house can do justice to the astonishing experience of Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning film, over four years in the making, follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist whose first mission in space is compromised when her shuttle is destroyed and she is stranded above Earth with veteran astronaut Mike Kowalski (George Clooney).

There may not be a lot of plot at work here, but that doesn’t mean this should be mistaken for a hollow spectacle that indulges in breathtaking visuals but skimps on any sort of substance. Gravity doesn’t need to go deep to carry weight. The story is simple but primal, and the motivation is clear: survival. Such elemental stakes are enough to propel the drama, and Cuarón goes further than anyone before him in placing the audience in the vastness of space. Over a riveting 90 minutes, we’re right there in the void with Stone and Kowalski, held spellbound as our hearts pound and pray that the duo can somehow survive their seemingly impossible circumstances. Emmanuel Lubezki’s immaculately choreographed cinematography blends seamlessly with the groundbreaking visual effects, while Bullock’s understated, quietly powerful performance renders palpable Stone’s accelerated evolution from terror to resignation to determination. She provides the emotional anchor that makes the movie more than just a thrill ride. Firing on all cylinders, Gravity is dazzling cinema, and all the more special because its like just doesn’t come around very often.

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HER

Spike Jonze’s fourth film is easily the year’s most original, and perhaps its most beautiful as well. Set in a near-future Los Angeles, it casts Joaquin Phoenix as the acutely sensitive, gentle-hearted Theodore Twombly, a writer so emotionally reeling from his divorce that he can’t bring himself to sign the papers finalizing it a year after the separation. On a whim, he purchases an operating system to help organize his life. The omniscient artificial intelligence calls herself Samantha, and quickly bonds with Theodore, helping him overcome his hurt, becoming a friend…and then becoming something more.

When I first heard this premise, I wasn’t sure how it could sustain a feature length film, let alone maintain any dramatic credibility. Quite sufficiently on both counts, as it turns out. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson in a radiant performance) is as lovely and complex as any the movies have given us. This is the first film Jonze has written, but like all of his previous work as a director — Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are — it explores the rocky terrains of love and loneliness with aching, penetrating honesty. If that sounds like a bit of a downer, make no mistake, the movie is also full of joy and laugh-out-loud moments. Jonze’s fertile imagination presents a vision of the future that seems a completely logical extension for many of our current technologies, from Apple’s Siri to Nintendo’s Wii, as well as our technology’s influence on our growing disconnect from real human interaction. The entire visual fabric of the film, from sets to costumes to camerawork, form a cohesive vision that is colorful, sun-dappled and sharp as crystal. It’s a nice deviation from the more common depictions of a future — distant or not — that is cold and antiseptic. Jonze augments the world we’re familiar with to create one in which the existence of a character like Samantha and a relationship like the one she and Theodore share don’t seem so strange. With the groundwork laid, it takes actors of considerable skill and emotional openness for us to buy into the premise, so credit Phoenix and Johansson for transcending quirkiness or gimmickry and instead making the movie take flight as a rich and worthy love story. Their bond is so real and intimate that some moments are almost uncomfortable to watch; they feel too personal and private. Both actors are out on a limb in Her; Phoenix risking whether audiences will buy him running through the streets and laughing with a lover who exists in a handheld device, and Johansson trusting that people will connect with and be moved by a lead character who exists solely as a voice. But they’re in safe hands with Spike Jonze. And yet again, so are we.

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MUD
The term “coming-of-age” gets used a lot; there are some other movies on this list that fit the bill. But there are few films that, for me, have embodied that description as quintessentially as Mud, the third feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols (whose sophomore movie Take Shelter I cited in 2011). Matthew McConaughey is terrific as the title character, but the movie belongs to its teenage star Tye Sheridan. He plays Ellis, an outwardly tough, inwardly sensitive Arkansas kid living on a river and making daily trips out to an abandoned island with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, also impressive), where they’ve located a washed-up boat to restore. That plan is complicated when they meet Mud, a fugitive hiding out on the island until he can reconnect with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis takes an immediate liking to Mud — particularly his devotion to his girl — and soon the boys are helping him execute his escape, which includes getting messages to Juniper, who’s staying at a hotel in town. There is a thriller component to the film, as some unsavory figures descend on the area in search of Mud, but first and foremost the movie is a beautifully etched story of Ellis, a good kid with naïve notions of romance, whose experience not only with Mud but with his parents’ faltering marriage, exposes him to the world’s hard truths.

Yet the movie is far from bleak or hopeless. Through Ellis, it explores decency, kindness and notions of love where similar films might bury such sentiments beneath a “cruel world” pessimism. It also values characters that other movies might condescend to or paint as caricatures. The inhabitants of this lower-income, Southern milieu are not rednecks. They’re rich and complicated, and are matched by performers who embody them with respect and nuance. It’s great to see Witherspoon doing this kind of character work again instead of paint-by-numbers studio comedies, and McConaughey continues to captivate as his career turnaround unfolds. Mud is a charming but enigmatic character, who is seen differently by Ellis than he is by Juniper, and differently still by an older man from his past (Sam Shepard) whose help Ellis seeks. That makes for a variety of conflicting viewpoints, but McConaughey’s portrayal captures them all. There’s nice supporting work from Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ parents, Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle, and Paul Sparks as a dangerous man on Mud’s trail. (Boardwalk Empire fans will recognize Sparks as goofball bootlegger Mickey Doyle, and will likely be impressed by this very un-Doyle-like performance.) But it all boils down to the outstanding Sheridan. So natural, so honest, so relatable, he pulls off the complexity of Ellis’ story with heartpiercing authenticity. It’s rare to see a teenage character this full, and even rarer to see an actor who can capture the necessary depth and subtlety to do it justice. But Sheridan has the goods. He gives one of the year’s best performances and establishes himself as an actor to follow.

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PRISONERS

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal lead a strong ensemble in this dark, intense story about the disappearance of two girls in suburban Pennsylvania. Jackman is the father of one of the missing kids, who becomes fixated on the guilt of a suspect (Paul Dano) who the police ultimately rule out. Gyllenhaal is the committed detective leading the case, backed by a perfect record but flustered as the days pass and the girls’ whereabouts continue to elude him. At two and a half hours, the movie is long, and as it goes on, you’re aware that it’s long. But it never feels overlong, never becomes boring or feels unnecessarily stretched. The circumstances continue to grip as the investigation grows more puzzling and the excellent script by Aaron Guzikowski takes some daring turns. I don’t want to even hint at what revelations do or do not ultimately come, but I’ll try to tiptoe around it by saying that even at moments when the plot drifts into what we recognize as conventional territory for a mystery like this one, the thematic continuity justifies and elevates what might seem like Perry Mason moments in a movie with less on its mind. Prisoners is the kind of story that poses moral questions about how we would handle ourselves in the same situation, and asks us whether or not we can condone behavior that troubles us at the same time that we might find it justifiable. There are no easy outs, and even if you’re feeling optimistic when the bold ending arrives, you can’t deny that whatever happens to these characters after the credits roll, their challenges are not resolved.

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SHORT TERM 12

Most people have probably never heard of this movie, which is a shame, because it deserves a Transformers-size audience. It takes place at a foster care facility for at-risk youth, and focuses on Grace (Brie Larson), the facility’s supervisor who must tend to the varied emotional needs of a range of kids, delicately balancing her role of disciplinarian with being a friend who is sympathetic to their troubles. She’s aided by an equally committed staff that includes her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), and as the couple deal with the daily ups and downs that go with such a challenging job, they contend with personal developments that unfold over the course of roughly one week. Among their charges are Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a fragile, budding musician about to turn 18 and age out of the program, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an aloof new arrival to whom Grace feels a connection.

The premise might not seem inviting to people who want their movies to be pure escapism, but the result is so accessible that it’s hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with it. Much of the credit for that goes to Larson and Gallagher, who create such a genuine bond together that they feel not like characters you’re just meeting, but like your friends. In fact, perhaps not since The Station Agent have I seen a movie that I so badly didn’t want to end because I just wanted to spend as much more time as possible with the characters.

That’s not to say that they, or the movie, are all happy-go-lucky. With subject matter like this, there are some hard moments. Even just the implication of what some of these people have gone through will make your heart hurt. There’s a scene in which Marcus sits with Mason and performs a rap he’s written that addresses his mother, and although it is brief and fairly quiet, it’s as much of a showstopper as a more traditional centerpiece number that a character in a musical might sing (I mentioned it last month in both my Oscar nomination predictions and reactions as a song that should have been nominated by the Academy). But the movie doesn’t wallow in the ugly circumstances of the characters’ pasts. It’s more interested in the hope for their futures. And over the course of the film, we learn how for Grace and Mason, this is not just a job, but a highly personal mission. Grace, in fact, may not be much more functional than many of the kids she’s supervising, but her commitment to them is passionate.

Short Term 12 was written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, expanded from his short film of the same name, and inspired by his experiences working at a similar facility. As such, it is steeped in the authenticity that confirms you’re in the hands of a storyteller who knows and understands the world he’s depicting. I can’t recommend this movie highly enough. There is hardship, but there is also such warmth, humor, love and kindness on display that I don’t know how anybody could watch and not be touched by the purity of it. Everyone in the cast is superb, but Larson has the most complex role, and she is outstanding at shifting between the multitude of emotional microclimates that Grace experiences from moment to moment. I’m offering a rare money-back guarantee on Short Term 12. If you don’t like it, I really don’t know what to do with you.

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The Rest:

12 YEARS A SLAVE
Steve McQueen, the uncompromising director of Hunger and Shame, depicts the horrors of slavery culture in a film that is all the more powerful and engaging for being based on a true, first-hand account. 12 Years a Slave is adapted from the memoir of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in New York, married with two young children. An accomplished violinist, Solomon’s nightmare begins when he accepts an offer from two artists to perform in Washington D.C. After a night of friendly drinking, he wakes up in chains, having been drugged and sold by his companions. He is transported to Louisiana and purchased by a man who is as kind a master as can be hoped for under the circumstances. But eventually he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal owner as devoted to alcohol as he is to the word of God. Most of Solomon’s time in bondage is spent on the Epps cotton plantation, where his fellow slaves include a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), on whom Epps has a warped fixation that results in her brutal victimization not only by him, but his viciously resentful wife (Sarah Paulson).

I haven’t seen every movie about slavery, so I can’t make any claims as to this being the most accurate or searing depiction of its evils, but surely 12 Years a Slave is among the most immersive and accurate ever presented in mainstream film. McQueen often holds his camera in unflinching long takes that you may feel the need to turn away from, but you won’t be able to avert your eyes for long. The events compel you to watch, and the filmmaking commands your attention. This could not have been comfortable material for any of the actors, but they acquit themselves fully. In Solomon, Ejiofor finally has the high-profile leading role that he has long deserved, and he makes the most of the opportunity. He has always been an actor whose intelligence burns through the screen, and that quality serves him here as Solomon quickly learns how to navigate captivity…and learns that his intellect isn’t always an asset. Ejiofor’s natural grace allows him to believably wear Solomon’s stoicism as protective armor, and when that armor cracks, the actor will have you weeping right along with the character. Epps, meanwhile, is a truly wretched figure whom Fassbender makes just as frightening when he’s in a fiery rage as when he’s quietly threatening. Paulson’s screentime is limited, but she makes every second count with a finely-calibrated performance that is chilling in its matter-of-fact force. And Nyong’o plays Patsey with a child’s penchant for escapism, but of course there is no escaping the brutality to which she is subjected by both Master and Mistress Epps, which makes her moments of despair all the more poignant and crushing. Patsey endures horror after horror, and yet Nyong’o glows in the darkness.

This is one of those movies that many people feel they need to work up the nerve to see, or won’t see until they’re in the right mood. Or won’t see at all. Don’t be one of those people. You’ll never be “in the mood” to watch a movie that stares slavery in the eye. Instead, believe the hype and just know that after you’ve seen it, you’ll be glad that you did. Not because its subject matter is important, but because like any great movie, it will stay with you. And if you find it upsetting at times, well….good. It’s strong stuff, in every way.

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ALL IS LOST

Robert Redford is a man alone at sea, with no volleyball or Bengal tiger to keep him company when his sailboat is damaged in a crash and he has to fight for survival. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s unexpected follow-up to the talky, ensemble film Margin Call features no one but Redford, and the actor barely speaks. Instead, he must hold our attention through his silent actions and increasingly desperate efforts to overcome the adversity of the vast, solitary ocean. The movie makes for an interesting companion piece with Gravity. Its setting is less wondrous, but the isolation of the sea offers its own beauty and its own challenges, and Redford’s unnamed protagonist endures a series of intense, gripping events over several days as he battles not only the elements, but the ticking of time. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker like Chandor undertake such a narratively risky project, and to see a veteran actor like Redford rise to the varied and uncommon demands the film asks of its leading man. This kind of daring filmmaking deserves to be seen and rewarded.

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AMERICAN HUSTLE

If not quite the barnstorming work of brilliance that so many critics would have you believe, the latest from David O. Russell is still a damn fun movie with hugely entertaining performances. At the center of the story is Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a married con man who takes a mistress and a business partner in Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), bilking desperate investors out of their money. The buck stops when they’re caught in an FBI sting by wildly ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who offers them the chance to get off the hook by assisting him in a larger sting operation to take down corrupt politicians, beginning with Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Polito is an ironic target since he is actually a decent, straightshooting guy with genuine motives of helping his constituents, a fact which weighs heavily on Irving as DiMaso’s operation continues to grow more complex. Irving’s role in the con, as well as his relationship with Sydney, is complicated by his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a loose cannon and complete mess who plows ahead in everything she does with little thought or concern for consequences.

Without taking away from anybody in the excellent cast, which also includes Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola and Elisabeth Röhm, the standouts for me were Bale and Cooper. Always an enormously committed actor, it’s a treat to see Bale apply that level of dedication to a more comedic performance. Not that he plays Irving for comedy, but the situation is often so absurd, and Irving himself is such a vivid character, that Bale is just a thrill to watch. In a lesser actor’s hands, Irving could have been overplayed. Not so with Bale. And Cooper, who really came into his own under Russell’s direction with last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, brings a manic energy to Richie that differs from his work in that previous film, replacing that character’s craziness with a burning lust for glory and, as he sees it, justice. Renner does good work too, but if he makes less of an impression than his co-stars, it’s not a mark against him, but the result of his character being one of the few who is largely straightforward and devoid of eccentricities.

Comparisons have been made to GoodFellas, and that may true in tone (to a degree), but not in quality. So despite what so many critics seem to be hyping, don’t expect a masterpiece of that caliber. American Hustle certainly does owe a debt to GoodFellas and Casino, but the movie would be more accurately described as Scorsese-lite. That’s not intended as a knock, but just as a resetting of expectations. Among the shortcomings are occasionally wobbly script issues (particularly around the sequence involving an FBI agent posing as a sheik), and final payoffs that don’t quite meet the expectations promised by the increasingly twisty plot. But the movie’s many pleasures win the day, and David O. Russell once again demonstrates a thrilling directorial energy and a gift for helping actors shine.

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Stories of dysfunctional families are a gift that keep on giving, and August: Osage County arrives with the most impressive pedigree the sub-genre has seen recently. Based on a play that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, five Tony awards (including Best Play) and several other honors in 2008, and boasting one of the year’s strongest gathering of actors, the film version lives up to its potential. I suppose the material can be classified as dark comedy, but it’s not all laughs…and sometimes what’s humorous and what’s heavy are barely distinguishable. The troubled family at the center of this hurricane is the Weston clan of Oklahoma, presided over by Beverly (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic, once-famous poet, and Violet (Meryl Streep), who pops all manner of pills and continues to smoke despite suffering from cancer. Violet’s blunt “truth-telling” and vicious jabs at her loved ones set the tone for the reunion that occurs when Beverly goes missing, prompting the family to gather from near and far. Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson play the couple’s children, while Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin are Roberts’ husband and daughter, and Dermot Mulroney is Lewis’ fiancée. Margo Martindale plays Streep’s sister, with Chris Cooper as her laid back husband and Benedict Cumberbatch as their son. It’s hard not to shower praise on every member of this glimmering cast (which also includes Frozen River‘s Misty Upham), though my personal Best in Show would have to go to Cooper, who gets a handful of standout moments, both funny and touching.

The play was adapted for the screen by its writer Tracy Letts, and his material is packed with excellent, virulent dialogue as well as plot turns that will elicit gasps. If I have a disappointment with the film, it’s that the two hour running time is at least an hour shorter than the play, meaning we’re losing out on material that would enrich the drama that much more. While every character gets their moments to shine, you’re still left with the sense that some of them are not explored as fully as in the play, and I wish that Letts and director John Wells felt they could indulge the story instead of truncating it. I came away suspecting that the play offered more material for the characters played by Breslin and Lewis, and maybe Cumberbatch and Upham. I certainly wanted more of those characters. I wanted more of them all, really. These are not all pleasant people, but there is pleasure in watching them.

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BEFORE MIDNIGHT

Most sequels are unnecessary rehashes of their predecessor, attempting to cash in on its success and replicate its formula. But every now and again, a logical sequel born out of character exploration comes along. Such was the case with 2004’s Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprised their roles as Jesse and Celine from 1995’s Before Sunrise, answering the question of what happened after the two strangers on a train fell in love over the course of a day in Vienna and then parted ways. Like the first film, Before Sunset ended on an ambiguous note. Did Jesse leave Paris and catch his plane back to America, or did he stay with Celine? Another nine years have passed, and Hawke, Delpy and their director/co-screenwriter Richard Linklater have reunited again to give us a glimpse into the lives of these once young, now middle-aged lovers.

Jesse and Celine are now living in Paris with twin daughters. But the reality of being together leaves no room for romanticizing what might be, so Midnight strikes a more bittersweet tone than its romantic, wistful predecessors by depicting the honest complications of staying together and raising a family. Jesse struggles with his absence from the life of his now-teenage son back in the United States who he rarely gets to see. Celine contends with career frustration and how motherhood has changed her. Taking place at the end of a summer vacation in Greece, this new chapter is a natural evolution for the characters, who prove they can still hold our attention in long, dialogue-driven scenes that find them voicing concerns that are even more universal than in the prior movies. Unlike before, their flaws are magnified, to each other and to us, and because their interactions are now prone to turning contentious, we find ourselves choosing sides at many points, and those sides are likely to flip back and forth. As with the two earlier installments, this one ends with a hint of what’s next, but no concrete answers. Will we pick up with Jesse and Celine in another nine years? Before Midnight leaves me hoping so.

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

Hmm…Tom Hanks in a true story about a guy in an enclosed vehicle far away from the rest of the world, unexpectedly confronted with a life or death situation that unfolds with extreme tension despite the fact that we know the  outcome. Sound familiar? The vessel in this case — a cargo ship called the Maersk Alabama, traveling in the Indian Ocean — isn’t quite as isolated as the shuttle of the Apollo program, but the ordeal is just as harrowing, and the execution of the film just as skillful. Hanks plays the ship’s captain Richard Phillips, who attempts to protect the crew when four Somali pirates seeking a big payday manage to board the vessel. Phillips is eventually taken hostage in one of the Alabama’s lifeboats, and over the next few days, as the U.S. Navy closes in, the situation on the claustrophobic boat unravels.

With The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 under his belt, director Paul Greengrass is an expert at depicting high-stakes drama from multiple points of view with a realistic approach. He puts us with the people in the thick of the danger, as well as with the people working to resolve it, often in military or government control rooms where radars are monitored, detailed information is gathered and risky decisions are made. Once again, Greengrass orchestrates it all with deft command, delivering an experience that is both clinical and, especially toward the end, highly emotional. Hanks does sturdy work as the prickly, regular-guy Phillips, and the four Somali actors playing his captors, none of whom had ever acted before, are excellent. That’s especially true of Barkhad Abdi as the group’s leader Muse, the smartest and most level-headed among them, increasingly aware that he and his companions are doomed, but too desperate and too proud to relent. The movie has the empathy not to treat the Somalis as alien villains, but as young men from an economically depressed region who are pressured by their elders to seize these cargo ships from the west and demand cash ransoms that will improve life for their communities. Even before they board the Maersk, there is friction among the quartet, and their prolonged episode with Phillips only causes more. This attention to the Somalis’ circumstances is an important component of the script by Billy Ray, which might have been neglected in a more action-minded approach to the story. Instead, we get a three-dimensional experience and a captivating central relationship between Muse and Phillips.

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DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a good ol’ boy electrician who likes to drink, screw, snort cocaine and gamble. When an accident on the job sends him to the hospital, doctors discover that he’s HIV positive. The year is 1985, and AIDS is still largely thought to be a gay disease, leaving the homophobic Woodroof to dismiss the diagnosis and the doctors’ warning that he has 30 days to live. But he is quickly forced to accept the news, and begins taking AZT, which seems to hasten the decline of his health. Upon visiting an American doctor working in Mexico, he learns that AZT does more harm than good, but a regimen of drugs not available in the U.S. improves his health significantly, extending his life well beyond the 30 day prognosis. Thus begins a new business venture to bring these non-FDA approved medications into the States and make a buck selling them to fellow HIV patients. Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender drug addict who Ron reluctantly takes on as a partner in order to establish the largely gay client base he needs. Waging battle with the government and local doctors — initially including Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) — Ron devotes himself to importing and providing drugs that allow himself and others to live with AIDS.

Prior to the film’s arrival, it was known as the movie for which McConaughey dropped nearly 40 pounds. That might have been the most it was ever known for if it didn’t deliver. But there’s more to Dallas Buyers Club than the headline-friendly story of McConauhgey’s (and Leto’s) weight loss. The performances delivered by the actors go way beyond just their physical commitment, as they breathe vivid life into characters who never fail to captivate. They are backed by understated work from a strong supporting cast that, in addition to Garner, includes Denis O’Hare, Michael O’Neill, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Dallas Roberts and Kevin Rankin. The movie’s smart, unsentimental direction by Jean-Marc Vallée lets the underdog story and the devoted performers shine, avoiding easy sentiment. One of the things I appreciated about the movie is its avoidance of any heavy-handed softening of Ron’s homophobia. Instead of having a telegraphed epiphany constructed to provide the audience with a manipulative, emotional beat, Ron’s move toward tolerance happens quietly and naturally through his business partnership with Rayon and exposure to his clients. In addition, he doesn’t necessarily become a better person due to being humbled by disease. He wasn’t such a great guy before his diagnosis, and although he can be charming — mostly illustrated in his developing friendship with Eve — he can also be acerbic and biting, and those qualities don’t suddenly melt away because he’s facing death. He does grow, but the growth is believable. Dallas Buyers Club is one of those movies — and there are many of them — that manages to be crowd-pleasing and uplifting even when dealing with downbeat subjects. There’s a great story here, and it could have been mishandled. Fortunately, it was done just right.

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DON JON

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a writer and director was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, an original take on the most formulaic of genres: the romantic comedy. Gordon-Levitt’s movie is sort of an anti-romantic comedy, in which he appealingly plays the title character, a church-going, family-loving, weight-lifting lothario who can get women into his bed with near-magical ease. His problem is that none of the sex fulfills him as much as watching porn, which allows him to escape in a way that nothing in the real world can. Then he meets Barbara Sugerman (an excellent Scarlett Johansson), who has no intention of being bedded without making Jon put in the time and apply the full court press. She wants their friends to meet, she wants their families to meet, and she definitely does not want him getting off in front of the laptop. Yet she has her escape too. Just as Jon’s proclivity for porn has established unrealistic expectations for his relationships, she has an unhealthy fixation on romantic comedies, and her outlook is governed by the rom-com rulebook. Meanwhile, Barbara isn’t the only person that causes Jon to rethink his lifestyle. While attending a night class, he meets the awkwardly direct Esther (a lovely turn by Julianne Moore). Initially put off by her frank approach, he eventually warms to her and finds her friendship to be eye-opening.

Gordon-Levitt has been acting since childhood, and his years of experience on the set (as well as the opportunities, surely, to work with filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson and Spike Lee) has taught him well. He exhibits command as a director, and has written a smart, original script that slyly examines the conventions by which the media conditions each gender’s expectations of the other. His own likability and earnestness as an actor help keep the somewhat douchey Jon from becoming too much of a pinhead, and he draws terrific performances from his cast, which includes Glenne Headley and Tony Danza as his parents.

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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
The second installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy unfolds with an urgency that wasn’t found in the first chapter, which saw hobbit Bilbo Baggins, wizard Gandalf and a company of 13 dwarfs beginning their quest to retake a dwarf kingdom inside the distant Lonely Mountain, which has long been occupied by the fearsome dragon Smaug. As this film begins, the mountain is no longer so distant, and time is of the essence, supplying the narrative momentum that the first film lacked (though I was less bothered by its more meandering nature than so many others). This leg of the group’s journey brings them into contact with a new group of elves, ruled by the haughty King Thranduil (Lee Pace), who turned his back on the dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain two generations earlier. They also encounter a weary river trader called Bard (Luke Evans), who lives in the ruined town not far from the mountain, and fears that their quest will incur the wrath of Smaug. If Bilbo takes more of a backseat during the adventure than seems to befit a movie called The Hobbit, he is not without his moments in the spotlight. That is particularly true of the movie’s final third, which finds him entering Smaug’s lair alone in the hopes of going undetected by the beast as he tries to recover a precious jewel that will help the dwarfs reclaim their kingdom.

While still not matching the gravitas of the first trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug more often feels evocative of its predecessors than last year’s An Unexpected Journey, perhaps because the stakes feel higher now that the dwarfs’ goal is within reach. The subplot involving Gandalf’s solo trip to a decrepit, supposedly abandoned castle furthers this connection, and continues the last movie’s similar effort to weave in the encroaching return to power of Sauron. Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage are once again terrific as, respectively, Gandalf, Bilbo and dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. Standout performances also come from Lee Pace as Thranduil, who has a darker streak than any elf we’ve previously met; Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a decent and fierce elven warrior who serves Thranduil alongside his son, our old friend Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and Luke Evans as the conflicted Bard. The movie’s most anticipated new character is of course Smaug himself, wondrously realized by the visual effects artists of Weta Digital and the motion capture performance of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Jackson once again stages some rollicking fun action scenes, including one with the dwarfs escaping captivity by riding wine barrels down a raging river while orcs attack from all sides. Set pieces like this one stretch the limits of believability to their extreme (much more so than anything in the LOTR trilogy), but they’re so much fun, the choreography so delirious and inventive, and the evisceration of orcs so savagely satisfying that it’s easy to roll with. More so than any of Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptations, this one ends with a true cliffhanger, leaving us with the familiar-by-now frustration of a year’s wait to happily continue the adventure.

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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Brothers Coen have always marched to the beat of their own drum. With Inside Llewyn Davis, that drum beat has been replaced by a guitar strum, but their singular voice remains vital as ever. Their latest is a thinly plotted, character driven story of a folk singer in 1960’s New York who just can’t catch a break. Llewyn is a gifted, soulful performer, and so must be the actor who plays him. Cue the outstanding Oscar Isaac, whose musical bona fides combine with the acting prowess that has made him a standout supporting player in movies like Drive and The Bourne Legacy. It was only a matter of time before he graduated to leading man, and this film provides a rich showcase for his talents. The picaresque story unfolds over the course of a week, as Llewyn scrapes by for money, a place to sleep, and a chance to make his mark on a music scene that can’t find a place for him. While his luck never seems to catch, he doesn’t do himself any favors either. He’s impatient, stubborn, rash, unfiltered…he could be an easy character to dislike. But prickly as he is, we root for him because he has genuine talent and believes in his art, and because Isaac taps into a sort of decency underneath the rough edges.

As he drifts to and fro like a rolling stone, we meet his musician friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), who do what they can to help him despite Jean’s unbridled anger at his irresponsible behavior, which may have left her pregnant after a one-night fling. Mulligan is hilarious, glaring contemptuous daggers and cutting Llewyn down to size with every bitter word. We also accompany him on a lengthy interlude to Chicago, traveling in a car with a monosyllabic driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a pompous jazz musician (John Goodman, sensational) who, when he isn’t asleep with his mouth comically agape, won’t shut the hell up.

The Coens’ frequent collaborator T Bone Burnett has assembled an impressive soundtrack of folk tunes, and the Coens allow songs to be performed in full, which not only highlights the talents of the cast, but serves the story by immersing us in Llewyn’s world. The movie looks as good as it sounds, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel standing in for the brothers’ longtime cameraman Roger Deakins, who was tied up shooting Skyfall. Delbonnel brings a distinct palette to all of his films, which include Amelie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. There’s a quality to his work — it’s not quite desaturated, but it’s a little blown out, just enough to lend a ghostly pallor befitting the story of an artist haunted by the encroaching reality of failure. His lighting enhances the movie’s wintery milieu, as well as working nicely in tandem with Mary Zophres’ costumes and Jess Gonchor’s production design.

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NEBRASKA

The latest from director Alexander Payne finds him back in About Schmidt territory, telling a simple story with simple filmmaking about simple people. Not that Payne has ever made a fussy or complicated film, but Nebraska is his most stripped down effort yet, shot in stark black and white and trusting that plot can take a backseat to behavior and relationships. Veteran character actor Bruce Dern gets a rare and welcome moment as star playing Woody Grant, an elderly man who believes he’s won a million dollars through the Publisher’s Clearinghouse-like sweepstakes notification he receives in the mail. Determined to collect his winnings despite efforts by his wife and adult sons to convince him that he hasn’t really won anything, he repeatedly tries to walk from his home in Montana to the company’s office in Nebraska. His son David (Will Forte) finally decides to drive him so he can discover the truth, and on the way they stop in his hometown and reconnect with family members and an old business partner, all of whom think they have a piece of the money coming to them. It doesn’t sound like enough to sustain a nearly two hour movie, but expect to be surprised and delighted by the results.

Dern doesn’t necessarily say much during the movie — his lines tend to be brief and to the point — but his eyes say plenty, and there are occasions when those eyes suggest that he’s not entirely the doddering, absent-minded old man he appears. On the contrary, he shows us that Woody remembers quite a bit about the past; probably more than he’d care to. For him, this journey is fueled by regrets and by a life of goals unfulfilled. Forte, meanwhile, makes an impressive transition from the exaggerated comedic characters he’s best known for on Saturday Night Live to the more dramatic demands of a film like this. The movie doesn’t challenge him with an especially difficult role, but he does nice work as a man hoping for one last shot at connecting with a father who, like many men of Woody’s generation and Midwestern upbringing, was never particularly open. The movie’s highlight may be the hilarious, scene-stealing performance of June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, who in contrast to her husband, barely seems to have a thought that she doesn’t say aloud, no matter how insulting to the living or dead. Payne has worked with Squibb before; she had a small role as Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt. Here, she’s a much bigger presence, and Payne lets her fly. She’s a bawdy riot.

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THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Last year, The Perks of Being A Wallflower attempted to recapture the spirit of the John Hughes teen classics, and here’s a movie that would make for a nice double-bill, though this one would more accurately be described (and has been by many) as a cousin to Say Anything. Miles Teller (who sounds uncannily like Jonah Hill, for what it’s worth), plays the chronically extroverted, chronically drinking high school senior Sutter Keely, who lives for the moment, with zero regard for his future. A chance encounter with Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a pretty, unassuming classmate not previously on his radar, leads to a relationship which opens doors Sutter is unprepared to walk through. His motives with Aimee are questionable, and complicated by lingering feelings for his ex (Brie Larson), from whom he recently split. But there’s no confusion for Aimee. She’s nervously excited by Sutter’s attention and falls hard for him, plunging into the relationship so quickly that she can’t see how he might not be good for her.

Avoiding contrivances, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — and director James Ponsoldt offer a compelling drama about two teens on the verge of a new phase in their lives, each coming to terms with how they feel about each other while also dealing with loving but damaged families. Woodley, who played George Clooney’s headstrong daughter in The Descendants, plays a different kind of girl here, but embodies her with just as much emotional honesty and appeal. Teller has the charisma of Vince Vaughn, but without the  hard edge, and he never overshoots the truth of Sutter’s surfacing insecurity and pain. The two actors, who won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Acting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, are excellent together, and they’re aided by a lovely supporting cast that, in addition to Larson, includes the always welcome Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler and Andre Royo (a.k.a. The Wire‘s Bubbles, whose appearance caused me to let loose an audible exclamation of joy).

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SPRING BREAKERS

The latest from director Harmony Korine — his most mainstream project to date, yet still bearing his avant garde stamp — follows four coeds feeling bored and trapped in their normal lives, seeking something more, convinced that spring break in Florida holds the key to their happiness. Unable to afford the trip, Candy, Brit and Cotty (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine) rob a restaurant to come up with the cash. They collect their friend Faith (Selena Gomez) — whose strong sense of religion stands in contrast to their wilder tendencies — and the quartet head for St. Petersburg, where the party scene initially seems to offer all they were craving. Until they get arrested in a drug raid. At their arraignment, they catch the interest of a local rapper and self-described “hustler” calling himself Alien (James Franco), who bails them out. Faith is suspicious of Alien’s intentions, but the other three are easily seduced by his charm and money, both of which he has in spades.

Spring Breakers showcases plenty of the bacchanalian behavior you’d expect from a movie about hot college kids cutting loose. Kegs and bongs abound, as do tits and ass. But there’s more going on here. The movie is a rumination on consumerism, self-delusion and the shallow side of youth culture. Candy, Brit and Cotty talk themselves into committing a dangerous robbery by pretending its a video game. Brit has a black squirt gun that she’s constantly shooting into her mouth, as if enacting a small gesture of badass gangstadom. The girls are lost in the wildnerness, but they’re not in an out-of-control spiral. They’re aware that they’re lost, and especially for Candy and Brit, Alien’s hedonistic world of big guns and big money is where they want desperately to find themselves.

What really captures my attention about the movie is the style Korine brings to it. I have to steal a reference from a friend, because he perfectly encapsulated the movie’s sensibility: Spring Breakers feels like a Terrence Malick movie. It’s a tone poem in which plot and traditional narrative are emphasized much less than mood and atmosphere, and to which Korine then adds a fever dream beauty all his own. There’s a hallucinogenic quality that is achieved through the brilliant cinematography and editing by Benoît Debie and Douglas Crise, respectively. Debie and costume designer Heidi Bivens douse the movie in bright colors that pop off the screen like bubblegum and illuminate the night scenes like neon. Crise then enhances these dreamy visuals with elliptical editing, artfully slicing scenes into fragments and using the pieces to move us forward and backward through short spans of time, with voiceover often serving as the compass that keeps us going in the right direction. Indeed, it’s a distinctly Malickesque approach, applied here to the unlikeliest of subject matter.

The movie can’t be discussed without briefly mentioning Franco as Alien, an outstanding creation that ranks among the year’s best performances. The actor gets under Alien’s skin and somehow presents him as both a legitimate gangster and a parody of one, making completely believable a character that could so easily have been a caricature. Alien is no joke, but he’ll definitely have you laughing, especially in the memorable scene that finds him showing off his bedroom to Brit and Candy, constantly repeating the phrase, “Look at my shit!” as he points out individual items to be admired, from his nun-chucks to his dark tanning oil. Priceless.

Spring Breakers will not be to everyone’s taste, existing at a strange intersection of teen exploitation flick and art house abstraction. But those who give it a shot can expect an intoxicating movie that boasts one of the year’s most vibrant directorial visions.

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THIS IS THE END

Put Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, James Franco and Danny McBride in a room together, and hilarity is a guarantee. So no surprise that one of the funniest movies of the year finds these six actors playing themselves, barricaded in Franco’s house while something that looks an awful lot like the biblical end of days (with the possible exception of dogs and cats living together) consumes the world outside. “Playing themselves” isn’t totally accurate, since really each actor is playing an exaggerated — and not always flattering — version of himself, with certain interpersonal dynamics that are not at all true to life. Franco, McBride, and Hill in particular all seem to relish playing with their public image, as does Michael Cera, who appears early on. The tension of waiting out the apocalypse in a contained space would be challenging enough, but throw in all the drama that exists within the group, and the stage is set for an endless series of comedic arguments and anxieties.

The movie marks the directorial debut for Rogan and his creative partner Evan Goldberg (they also wrote it, incorporating some great shout-outs to their earlier collaborations Superbad and Pineapple Express), and the duo ensure that each member of the company gets their chance to shine. And if not everybody makes it out alive by the end, well, they meet their maker in satisfyingly comic ways. In This is the End, celebrity is skewered (and some are actually skewered), but mass death and destruction has never been so funny.

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THE WAY WAY BACK

Perhaps because I can relate to a kid who’s not cut from the mold, there was a lot for me to enjoy in this very funny movie about an awkward, gloomy 14 year-old named Duncan, played by Liam James. (Game of Thrones fans: is it me, or does this guy look like a young Theon Greyjoy?) Duncan’s divorced mother Pam (Toni Collette) is dating Trent (Steve Carell), but Duncan thinks Trent is a jerk, and could not be less enthused about spending the summer at his beach house. His misery abates when he finds an unexpected oasis in the local water park, and an adult he can actually respect in Owen (Sam Rockwell), an amiable slacker who supposedly runs the place, but spends most of his time fooling around, avoiding work and firing off rapid sarcasm so dry that Duncan can’t even recognize it for humor. Under Owen’s influence, he begins to come out of his shell and find his confidence, which he’ll need as things at home grow increasingly unpleasant. There are a lot of solid laughs throughout this well-cast movie, but it also achieves an underlying melancholy that comes not just from Duncan’s despair, but through Collette’s portrayal of a woman whose desire for companionship clouds her good sense. Allison Janney gets big laughs as Trent’s extroverted neighbor, and AnnaSophia Robb hits some nice notes as her daughter who befriends Duncan. But the heart of the movie is Duncan’s relationship with Owen, who Rockwell embodies with all the scene-stealing charm he always delivers so effortlessly. This one will leave you smiling.

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WHAT MAISIE KNEW
Adapted from an 1897 novel by Henry James and updated to a contemporary setting, What Maisie Knew centers on a 6 year-old girl whose self-involved parents — rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan) — bitterly divorce and then fail to balance shared custody with their professional obligations. Her care often falls to her kind nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), who marries Beale after his split from Susanna, or to Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a bartender friend of Susanna’s who she marries so that he can help with Maisie. As if the custody struggle between Susanna and Beale doesn’t create enough negativity for Maisie to experience, the addition of Margo and Lincoln into the equation often makes things even more complicated despite their good intentions. Lincoln initially seems ill equipped to handle a child, but quickly proves to be a loving and devoted caretaker, and it’s when Maisie is with him or Margo that she experiences childhood as she should. Her parents may love her, but have no idea how to engage with her. Even to the more affectionate Susanna, Maisie is more a prop, a vessel, than a child. It’s Margo and Lincoln who understand how to relate to her and seem most concerned for her welfare.

If you question how Margo could see the problems between Susanna and Beale and then marry him, you won’t get an answer. Nor will you get much insight into Susanna and Lincoln’s relationship prior to their marriage. The story puts the audience in Maisie’s shoes, and we are privy to events only to the extent that she is. The movie exists in fragments, little pieces of Maisie’s life that add up to show us how she is affected by the turmoil of the adult world around her. Maisie is played by Onata Aprile, an utterly enchanting little girl so adorable, natural and sweet that I’m pretty sure I felt my biological clock ticking. Just as Mud rests squarely on the shoulders of Tye Sheridan, so too does What Maisie Knew rely on the strength of its young star. The movie has stayed with me because Aprile is unforgettable, and because watching Maisie with Margot and Lincoln (Vanderham and Skarsgard are both wonderful) as they become better parents to her than her biological ones offers satisfaction that maybe there’s hope this girl won’t be screwed up by her circumstances. Maisie is surprisingly self-reliant and confident for her age, traits she surely developed out of necessity from living with her petty, inattentive parents. Aprile radiates authenticity, such that your heart will break for every time she becomes the casualty of adult failures. But it will also swell during pretty much every moment she’s onscreen.

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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
If you haven’t seen the trailers or paid much attention to the commercials, you might expect a Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration about the rise and fall of a Wall Street hotshot to be a drama in the vein of previous collaborations like The Departed and The Aviator. But The Wolf of Wall Street is, by and large, a comedy. Not all comedies are the same of course, and this is not Judd Apatow territory (despite the excellent presence of Jonah Hill). Instead, DiCaprio, Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (an Emmy-winning writer on The Sopranos and the creator of Boardwalk Empire) give the GoodFellas/Casino treatment to the financial industry, turning a sharply satirical eye to the story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker in 1980’s New York who figured out a way to get obscenely rich by selling stock in worthless, rinky-dink companies to high-rolling investors who took a dive while he collected huge commissions. Jordan and his cohorts, chief among them Hill’s putzy Donnie Azoff, are engaged in all manner of illegality, but as far as they’re concerned, the money they reap outweighs the risks they take. Jordan learns early, from a Wall Street mentor played by Matthew McConaughey, that cocaine is the key to survival in the high-pressure world of stockbrokers, and that white powder is just the gateway to so much drug abuse it’s a wonder Jordan lived to see 30. (There’s an extended sequence late in the movie that will forever keep company with the adrenaline needle scene from Pulp Fiction and the Rahad Jackson scene from Boogie Nights as an absolute classic of drug-related intensity, insanity and hilarity.)

DiCaprio gives a performance so fun and ferociously committed that he almost distracts you from what an enormous asshole Jordan is. He talks at one point about deserving his wealth more than “regular” people because he’s better at spending it, and you realize that his sense of entitlement, and this disdain for blue collar workers, let alone the poor, is truly how many of the super-rich “one-percenters” see the world. And yet here we are, laughing at his antics and enjoying the ride (well, not all of us; given the controversy the film has generated, there are obviously many people who aren’t amused). But those of us who enjoy the movie might feel a little guilty, which Winter has said is exactly the intention. Our entertainment comes at a price: complicity. Hopefully not too much, though; hopefully, we’re smart enough and decent enough to see the movie not as an endorsement of Jordan’s lifestyle, but as a cautionary tale. My smiles and laughter were expressions of disbelief at the brazen hedonism exhibited by the characters, and of appreciation for Winter’s words and Scorsese’s filmmaking. So I disagree with those who have criticized the movie for glorifying the behavior of Jordan and his colleagues, but I also think it could have spent a little less time on celebration and a little more on condemnation.

The movie is three hours long, and often so manic that it seems to be hopped up on the same drugs that its characters ingest by the ton. Along with orchestrating the craziness, Scorsese draws good performances from a large cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi and P.J. Byrne. It’s great to see that at age 71, Scorsese is still making movies that pulse with this much energy and humor, and that he can still connect with audiences viscerally enough for his work to become a cultural lightning rod.

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As usual, I like to celebrate the best of the year in film by proposing nominations for some Oscar categories that don’t exist…give or take the number of nominees an actual Oscar category would have.

BEST POSTER



(Larger versions: Blackfish; Escape From Tomorrow; Gravity; Hell Baby; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Lee Daniels’ The Butler; Nebraska; The Wolverine; You’re Next)

BEST CASTING
Blue Jasmine – Juliet Taylor
Inside Llewyn Davis – Ellen Chenoweth
Mud – Francine Maisler
Nebraska – John Jackson
Spring Breakers – Laray Mayfield

BEST ENSEMBLE
12 Years a Slave; American Hustle; August: Osage County; Out of the Furnace; Prisoners; This is the End; The Way Way Back

BEST BODY OF WORK
Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Star Trek into Darkness)
Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Kill Your Darlings, Lone Survivor)
Rooney Mara (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Her, Side Effects)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Sam Shepard (August: Osage County, Mud, Out of the Furnace)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A NEWCOMER…THAT DIDN’T GET AN OSCAR NOMINATION
Chadwick Boseman – 42
Elizabeth Debicki – The Great Gatsby
Jacob Lofland – Mud
Tye Sheridan – Mud
Nat Wolff – Admission; Stuck in Love

BEST TRAILER
Gravity; Inside Llewyn Davis; Machete Kills; The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST SONG SOUNDTRACK
American Hustle; Inside Llewyn Davis; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Wolf of Wall Street; The World’s End

BEST OPENING CREDITS
Crystal Fairy; The Fifth Estate; Monsters University; Oz the Great and Powerful; World War Z

BEST CLOSING CREDITS
A.C.O.D.; August: Osage County; Epic; Gangster Squad; Saving Mr. Banks; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
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At the end of every year, you can find a slew of videos on YouTube that pay tribute to the movies of the previous 12 months through an extended, comprehensive clip montage. I always enjoy them, and like to include some in this annual post. I usually use at least two, because inevitably one might not feature certain movies at all, or only for a split second. I like all the bases to be covered, and between these three, 2013 is pretty well represented.


(Click here for list of movies)
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February 19, 2013

The Year in Movies: 2012

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 2:10 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ve always responded to movies on an emotional level as opposed to an intellectual one. That’s one of the reasons I was never interested in being a critic and writing movie reviews. (That, and I don’t want to waste my time watching stuff I know is going to be bad and that I have no interest in.) Though I wish it were otherwise, I’m not much of a critical thinker, and rarely do I have a lot of analysis to offer about the movies I see. My reactions, even the most positive ones, tend to be on a gut level, and I’m usually not great at articulating why I respond to this movie or that. So the obsessive fan in me always approaches this annual post with mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m compelled to say something about the movies I enjoyed most during the year. On the other hand, I hate actually writing about them, and I’m almost never happy with what I have to say….which is a really convincing argument for you to go ahead and read it.

Anyway…my usual approach is to single out and rank the few movies that rose to best of the best for me, and then list my remaining favorites alphabetically, even if some really rank higher than others. This isn’t a top ten list, but rather a rundown of the movies – however many –  that left the biggest impression on me…with the full disclosure that over time, others that aren’t included here may grow on me to the point that I’ll regret leaving them off. C’est la vie…

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LINCOLN

There are countless stories to be told about the life of our 16th President, and a movie titled Lincoln might suggest it will try to tell a lot of them. Instead, director Steven Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tony Kushner hone in on one: the effort to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery. That decision to focus on a crucial and dramatic moment in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency – it was a month-long period, roughly, just before his second inauguration – allows for a focused, compelling story that still offers a fascinating insight into a legendary but mysterious figure in our country’s lore. The subject matter, while certainly interesting and dramatic, is not inherently exciting fodder for a movie, yet the result is completely riveting. Credit goes to Kushner’s phenomenal, language-rich script adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s nonfiction tome Team of Rivals, and to the ever astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis.

As soon as it was announced that Day-Lewis would be playing this part, I knew we were in store for something special, and the actor does not disappoint. His Lincoln is every bit the immersive, hypnotic portrayal you would expect, as he presents the many complicated facets of a man leading the nation in the most troubling of times. We expect Lincoln to come across as intelligent, powerful and guided by an admirable moral compass. But the film also gives us a man who is warm, witty, sly, compassionate and haunted, and Day-Lewis embodies every nuance with such command, honesty and integrity that it seems like what we see on-screen isn’t a performance, but a resurrection. I could happily have continued watching him play the part long beyond the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour running time. And yet as much as Day-Lewis is key to the movie’s success, he is also absent during the lengthy scenes in which the amendment is debated in the House of Representatives. These sequences are as electrifying as any others in the movie, offering up great performances from Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie as the two most vocal opponents to the Amendment, and Tommy Lee Jones as its staunchest supporter. Jones, Pace and McRobbie are just a few among the deep reserve of talented character actors contributing to the movie’s success. Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley…the list goes on, and they all deserve credit for their contributions, no matter the size of their part.

Kushner’s script may be as near a work of art as a screenplay can get. The time period calls for a formality of language, but Kushner makes the dialogue crackle and sing. It’s a joy to listen to these great actors speak such exceptional dialogue. There’s a scene in which Lincoln’s Cabinet discusses whether or not the amendment is necessary given the existence of the Emancipation Proclamation, and finally the president weighs in on why that order may or may not be legal, and why it is unsustainable as a solution to slavery. It’s easy to imagine the scene playing like a talking head moment in a documentary. But Kushner’s dialogue is so eloquent, and Day-Lewis so charming and incandescent, that we’re held spellbound, hanging on every word, oblivious to eating our vegetables because they’ve been so carefully crafted to taste like cake.

The movie’s flaws are few. The first scene (well, the second actually, in which Lincoln talks to some Union soldiers in the field), could have been omitted, as it indulges Spielberg’s tendency for over-earnestness. The movie also should have ended a few minutes earlier than it did (there’s a blatantly obvious moment at which to fade out), rather than including a coda that feels tacked on and out-of-place with the rest of the story. But everything in between works wonderfully, and Spielberg seems to be holding back and allowing the script and the actors to do their work. In collaboration with Kushner, Day-Lewis, and countless others in front of and behind the camera, he has brought an essential chapter of American history to vivid life.


2.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
David O. Russell has directed six movies, and there isn’t a weak one among them. His latest is stylistically similar to his previous, 2010’s outstanding The Fighter, in the way he brings the audience into such close proximity to the characters that all artifice seems to melt away and we’re left with something raw and real. The achievement is especially impressive here because the story has more than a few indie-cute trappings. The movie begins with Bradley Cooper’s Pat Solitano Jr. leaving a mental hospital after an eight month stay prompted by a violent reaction to discovering his wife’s infidelity. He moves in with his concerned parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), determined to get his mind healthy and win back his now estranged wife. Those efforts are complicated when he meets his friend’s recently widowed sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has issues of her own. Oh, and in case you can’t tell from that brief synopsis, it’s a comedy.

A less talented filmmaker would not have been able to get past the more constructed elements of the plot; things that might have come off as overly quirky. But Russell has a way of teasing out the naturalism, allowing the film to transcend what could have been gimmicky. It starts with guiding his entire cast to sensational performances. The manic energy and brilliant timing and delivery brought by Bradley Cooper appear so effortless that it might be easy to overlook how great he is. This is his best performance to date. Jennifer Lawrence matches him move for move, locating the softness and vulnerability lurking just below Tiffany’s hard, no-bullshit exterior. Jacki Weaver’s loving mother trying to bring peace to the household is a great counterpoint to the equally loving but cunning matriarch that earned her an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Animal Kingdom. And De Niro…where has this guy been? His rich performance as Pat Sr. is a welcome reminder of what one of our greatest actors is capable of when he has material worth investing in. It’s an overdue return to form that allows him to play the kind of comedy, drama and at times even scariness that recalls glory day performances in films like Midnight Run, GoodFellas and Stanley & Iris. Just as essential to the mix are John Ortiz as Pat’s put-upon neighborhood friend Ronnie, Julia Stiles as Tiffany’s sister/Ronnie’s materialistic, controlling wife, Chris Tucker as Pat’s buddy from the mental hospital and Anupam Kher as his therapist.

Russell also deftly employs cinematography and editing to bring us up close and personal into Pat’s physical and mental space, creating an immediacy that infuses the entire movie. That stroke of inspiration by Russell, along with the performances he coaxes from his cast, make Silver Linings Playbook a comedy with a rare, exhilarating intensity.


The Rest:

ARBITRAGE
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki pulls off a surprising trick in his crafty dramatic thriller: he gets the audience to root for, and at moments even empathize with, a crooked billionaire who represents the 1% that most of us have vilified in these troubled economic times. Jarecki’s equal partner in this feat is the perfectly cast Richard Gere, whose smooth performance as hedge fund manager Robert Miller is among his best ever. Miller’s charmed life faces a rapid unraveling when he falls under police suspicion for walking away from a fatal car accident, just as the impending sale of his company hits a roadblock, threatening to expose the fraudulent adjustments he’s made to its finances to cover a failed investment. What Jarecki and Gere capture so well is the bubble of wealth and privilege in which people like Miller are so deeply ensconced. He’s obviously extremely intelligent, but at the same time utterly clueless about the realities of life that average people face day to day…a fact that comes out in honest and sometimes amusing ways, particularly in his dealings with Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young man from Harlem who becomes unwittingly involved in Miller’s troubles. The strengths of Jarecki’s script lie in believable details of Miller’s privileged world, in the contrast between that world and the one Jimmy occupies, and in making the viewer resent Miller for his greed and lies even as we understand that cooking the company’s books and trying to elude prison are as much acts of protection toward those who have given him their trust as they are acts of selfishness to save his own neck. Susan Sarandon is terrific as Miller’s wife, who knows more than she initially lets on, and Brit Marling is also superbly cast as Miller’s daughter who helps run his company.


ARGO

Ben Affleck’s third film as a director is his most ambitiously scaled to date. Working from a strong script by Chris Terrio, Affleck demonstrates absolute command with this thrilling, inspired-by-real-events story. He stars as Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who specializes in getting Americans out of tricky foreign entanglements. His most challenging mission comes up during the hostage crisis that begins when Iranians take over their country’s U.S. embassy out of anger over the Americans providing asylum to a toppled, now-ill and aging Shah. Six embassy employees manage to escape the building as it’s overrun, and they find refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, hiding in his house for over two months before Mendez arrives with a plan to get them out. That plan involves posing as a Canadian film crew who are in country to scout locations for a science fiction film. In order to sell the lie, Mendez enlists movie makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create a movie that must appear to be real but will never be made.

Similar to Apollo 13, in which Ron Howard managed to put us on the edge of our seats for a story whose outcome we already knew, so do Argo and Affleck put us through the ringer and make us forget what we know of the hostage crisis results. The movie is a briskly paced grabber from its opening sequence with the embassy takeover, yet it also manages to take a seamless detour into comedy as it depicts the Hollywood side of the operation, with fun performances by Goodman and Arkin. Never do the laughs seem ill-fitting or clumsily juxtaposed against the intensity of the situation, and the result is a movie that has broad commercial appeal by making audiences easily shift between laughter and anxiety.


THE AVENGERS

It worked. All that clever and strategic groundwork that Marvel Studios laid out beginning with the 2008 release of Iron Man paid off, as The Avengers brought together an eclectic crew of heroes and marvelously (no pun intended) succeeded in making a gigantic action movie that cares as much about its characters as its special effects. The big question I had going in, as I’m sure many others did too, was whether or not the movie could serve multiple protagonists, furthering their own storylines while also depicting the drama inherent in their coming together, allotting enough time to them in what needed to be an action-packed spectacle. The answer, courtesy of writer/director/geek God Joss Whedon, was a resounding yes.

That’s because the pleasure of The Avengers isn’t the spectacle, but the people in the midst of it: Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Chris Evans’ Captain Steve Rogers, Mark Ruffalo’s Dr. Bruce Banner (and of course, their alter egos), Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff and Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (aka Black Widow and Hawkeye, respectively). Each character has been introduced in a previous Marvel film (with Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton), so The Avengers is partially a sequel. To its great credit, the movie advances each figure’s personal arc, so when we return to their own individual adventures, they’ll have arrived somewhere beyond where they were at the end of those movies and the beginning of this one. It’s impressive that with so many characters to serve, each one gets their due. Not only do they enjoy standout moments of action, but they also get chances to shine in quieter moments throughout the film. The climactic sequence, a massive battle against an invading alien force in the streets and skies of Manhattan, is big and packed with CGI…but because we’re so invested in these characters and the way they play off each other, the action and visual effects are not merely an end unto themselves. Storywise, the climax actually bears a strong similarity to the finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. But whereas that movie fails to impress beyond the quality of the effects and the orchestration of the action, The Avengers works because there are characters we care about, and watching them work together is a blast. These are all charismatic actors, and their interaction is what powers the movie.


THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, and most of the ones I do like – classics like The Exorcist and The Shining – aren’t about a bunch of horny teenagers who run afoul of a blade-wielding boogeyman. So if taken on its surface, The Cabin in the Woods would not appear to be my cup of tea. But it turns out that what’s below the surface matters much more in this joyously clever twist on the formula. In fact, The Cabin in the Woods doesn’t really have a lot of typical scares. It’s more comedy than horror movie. At least, I found myself laughing often, more than I found myself jumping or squirming. Not much can be said without spoiling the fun, but in a nutshell, five college students take a weekend trip to a remote lakeside cabin, and, well…shit happens. Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford factor in as a pair of corporate drones, but that’s all I’ll say. Initially, most of the violence is handled off-screen or in relative darkness, so those of us with weak stomachs for the usual Saw/Hostel-like horror gore have little to worry about. By the time blood starts coming by the bucketload, things have become so giddily crazy and excessive that the violence is more comical than disturbing. I don’t know how it will play at home, on TV with just a few people in the room, but on the big screen with a packed crowd, this was definitely among the most fun theater-going experiences I had all year.


CLOUD ATLAS
Having avoided trailers in the hopes of being surprised, and having never read the novel by David Mitchell which was said to be unfilmable, I arrived at Cloud Atlas uncertain of what to expect. I exited enthralled, frustrated and eager to see it again, even with its nearly three-hour running time. The movie tells six separate but thematically connected stories spanning about 500 years, with the earliest set in 1849 and the latest in 2321. That set-up was the jumping off point for what became an uncommon exercise in commercial moviemaking: Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer collaborated with the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, creators of The Matrix, adapting Mitchell’s novel together and then working with two independent crews to shoot the movie before coming back together to edit it into a cohesive whole. The Wachowski’s filmed the sequences set in 1849, 2144 and 2321, while Tykwer shot the 1936, 1973 and 2012 stories. To highlight the interconnectedness, the filmmakers enlisted the principal cast members – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (terrific), Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw – to fill roles in multiple storylines, playing central figures in some and supporting roles in others, while perhaps appearing only briefly in yet another.

If the movie isn’t entirely successful, it is nevertheless admirably ambitious and immensely watchable. It never quite hooked me emotionally, at least not to the extent that I felt it could have. And despite the cross-cutting between storylines, it didn’t achieve the kind of gut-level propulsion that Christopher Nolan created in The Dark Knight and Inception, an effect which should have been inherent in this storytelling approach. Yet the film is still skillfully edited and paced, moving smoothly and strategically between stories, and each individual tale is highly engaging as they run a gamut of genres, styles and eras. Cloud Atlas is love story, sci-fi action film, period drama, screwball comedy and mystery. It’s also a gorgeously mounted production, with superb set and costume design, cinematography, visual effects, makeup (a few distracting transformations notwithstanding) and one of the best music scores of the year. (Seriously, it was robbed of an Oscar nomination for its score, and for several of those other disciplines as well.) And on top of all that, there’s a sense of fun to the whole thing as we look to see which actors will pop up where, how they’ll look, and what meaning or connection there is – if any – to their roles across stories. Cloud Atlas makes me wish that more mainstream filmmakers would take more chances with unconventional material.


DJANGO UNCHAINED

Akin to his previous film Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy boasting the director’s trademarks of tasty dialogue (the best of it going to Basterd‘s Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), colorful characters, excessive violence and inspired music selections. Jamie Foxx has fun in the title role, but it’s Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio who stand out. Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter who acquires the slave Django and offers him freedom in exchange for his help tracking down an elusive quarry. When he learns of Django’s intention to locate his still-enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, reunited with Foxx eight years after Ray), Schultz offers his help. The search leads to Broomhilda’s owner, the brash, vile Calvin Candie (DiCaprio) who presides over an infamous Mississippi plantation dubbed CandieLand. It’s great to see DiCaprio work as a member of an ensemble rather than the head of it, and to see him play more of a character actor’s role than he usually takes on.

On the whole, I can’t say this is Tarantino at his absolute best. I never felt the kind of tension in my stomach that I got from certain parts of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown or Basterds, and there were definitely scenes that should have had that quality. There was also a missed opportunity with Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Candie’s head house slave Stephen, whose sinister and despicable qualities are too often undermined in favor of playing up the humor of his being a foul-mouthed sycophant. Tarantino could have gone further and darker with Stephen, and it would have been great to see Jackson given the opportunity to go there. Still, the movie is a blast, even without shying away from the brutalities of slavery. There’s nothing glib about the savage treatment we see inflicted on the slaves, and the harsher the slavers are, the more satisfying it is to see Django dish out their comeuppance.


THE GREY

Director Joe Carnahan made an impressive mark in 2002 with the Jason Patric-Ray Liotta cop drama Narc, but his next two films – Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team – went big, loud and dumb. So the restraint he shows with The Grey is impressive and unexpected. Those two adjectives describe the whole movie, in fact: impressive and unexpected. Universal Pictures marketed the film as Liam Neeson vs. a bunch of wolves, but in truth what we get is more interesting than that. Neeson plays a hunter employed at an oil rig in Alaska to keep predatory wolves at bay. A company flight back to Anchorage crashes, leaving only a handful of survivors. They make their way across the harsh wilderness in hopes of survival, but must stave off the extreme cold, high altitude and yes, territorial wolves. But the drama is less focused on creating suspense around who will survive and who won’t than it is in putting us alongside these men who know that, in reality, they’re all likely to die. The ensemble and the narrative are tight, with the movie feeling much brisker than its two-hour running time. Directed by Carnahan in a way that feels more indie than Hollywood, this is a powerful drama of man vs. nature that was probably dismissed by a lot of people due to misleading marketing. It’s much better than you expected it to be.


THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

If not quite as strong as the three films comprising the peerless Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first installment of The Hobbit series is still a wondrous and welcome return to Middle Earth as interpreted by Peter Jackson. Inheriting the role of a younger Bilbo Baggins from Ian Holm (who, with Elijah Wood as Frodo, appears at the beginning of the tale), Martin Freeman brings charm to spare, but also keeps Bilbo’s naiveté, fear and uncertainty in sight. Ian McKellan slips easily back into the grey cloak and unkempt beard of Gandalf, and we are treated to return appearances by Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee in a sequence that helps draw out the connections between this story and events of The Lord of the Rings. If the full ensemble of actors playing the dwarves don’t all make the impression that the members of the Fellowship did, I’ll chalk it up to the fact that there are 13 of them, with many similar sounding names, and the story – so far, at least – can’t serve them all equally. But those who get a bit of time in the spotlight all registered impressively, with Ken Stott’s elder Balin, James Nesbitt’s cheerful Bofur, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner’s young whippersnappers Fili and Kili, and Richard Armitage’s stoic leader Thorin all standing out.

At nearly three hours, the movie does feel a bit long, though without knowing where the next two films will go as they draw not just from The Hobbit itself but from J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast background material, I’m happy enough revisiting Middle Earth to refrain from saying what should have been cut. The dwarves’ encounter with a trio of hungry trolls feels extraneous, but is one of the book’s signature scenes and is an early indicator for the dwarves of Bilbo’s cleverness. Scenes focusing on wizard Radagast the Brown also seem less than essential, yet they set up important things to come. The dwarves’ capture by the Goblin King, along with their escape, drags on a bit and feels overly busy, yet their detainment is necessary for Bilbo to lose his way and come upon Gollum, an encounter which unsurprisingly makes for one of the movie’s highlights. (Andy Serkis is again fantastic as the slinking, sneaky, pitiable creature.) So if I had some issues here and there, none were enough to make me weary of the movie or less excited for the next film. Jackson and his crew, many of them back from The Lord of the Rings, have no trouble readjusting to Tolkien’s rich world and making a film that fits snugly with those predecessors. It might not have drawn me in on quite the same emotional level or sent as many shivers along my spine, but I was still more than satisfied.


LES MISÉRABLES

I read Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables in high school, but this long-time-coming film was my first exposure to the beloved musical take on the story. It tells of former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who breaks his parole and assumes a new identity on his quest to become a better man, but is unable to escape the dogged pursuit of police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). My first surprise was that this was a true musical. With the exception of only a handful of lines, everything is sung. My second surprise was how relentlessly stirring the music and story are, as Tom Hooper’s direction brings out the epic and the intimate in Hugo’s intricate narrative set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Much has been made of the decision to have the actors all sing live during each take, rather than lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks (though contrary to what some of the publicity would have you believe, this is not the first time it’s been done). Given that the movie is entirely told through music, the decision no doubt lends to the power of the performances. There is a raw, deeply felt quality to the singing, especially from Jackman, Anne Hathaway and newcomer Samantha Barks (reprising her role from a 2010 stage production in London), the latter two conveying utter heartache in their respective performances of the musical’s best-known songs, “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Even Crowe, who cuts a formidable Javert, impresses as a singer after a slightly rocky start. He seems to be straining a bit to hit the notes in his first two numbers, but the remaining songs fit comfortably in his range, and though he’s not the strongest singer of the bunch, he certainly holds his own. Meanwhile, key roles in the story are also filled out by lesser known actors and new discoveries, notably Aaron Tveit as revolutionary leader Enjoras, and child actors Daniel Huttlestone as the precocious street kid Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, who is taken in by Jean Valjean after her mother’s death.

The production is handsome and appropriately grand for the scale of the story, but it’s the music and the performances that pack the punch, combining a variety of vocal styles into a dazzling aural tapestry, from solitary tunes (like Eddie Redmayne’s trembling “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”) to duets (Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as the grown Cosette singing, “A Heart Full of Love”) to a rousing number like “One Day More” that cross-cuts between nearly all the characters on the eve of the climactic showdown in the streets of Paris.

I know the movie has become a love-it-or-hate-it sensation, and I know many people have taken issue with Hooper’s directing style; I’ve taken issue with it myself in regards to his past work. But this time, I wasn’t even aware of his normally aggravating visual choices, so caught up was I in the story and the music. Or maybe I just don’t agree that he made such choices this time around. All I know is that the movie flew by for me, and I loved it from beginning to end.


THE MASTER

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most original voices in American film today, and each picture he makes is more unusual and puzzling than the last. They are always fascinating, however, and The Master is no exception. It’s a dense and demanding movie that can not be easily digested after only one viewing, if at all. I haven’t had the chance to revisit it yet, and so I remain uncertain of what to make of it. I don’t know what opinions I’ll come to after delving back in, but I can’t wait to see it again. And even if Anderson’s point continues to elude me, I’m okay with that. I’ve spoken before of directors like David Lynch and Terrence Malick taking me on journeys that I can’t always interpret, but which never fail to captivate.

That captivation begins with the amazing performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a troubled WWII veteran who returns home but can’t readjust or find his place. His wanderings eventually bring him into contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author, doctor and founder of a religious movement that has attracted dedicated followers and wary skeptics. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie and welcomes him into an inner circle that includes his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his son, his daughter and her fiancée. Freddie initially devotes himself to Dodd and his movement, but finds it just as difficult to settle in there as he does everywhere else.

Phoenix throws himself into the part with such ferocious abandon that it’s almost scary at times. Totally unpredictable, he seems to blur the line between where the actor ends and the character begins. At the same time that Freddie is an angry, adrift man, he’s a wounded, frightened child seeking love and acceptance. Dodd recognizes these struggling factions within Freddie, and plays on both of them, perhaps more to his own ends than to Freddie’s. Where Freddie is all raging and impulse, Dodd is calm and control (or so he tries to be). As such, Hoffman’s performance is appropriately reigned in and tight, but he’s just as effective as Phoenix and no less committed. Amy Adams impressively completes the triangle, depicting Peggy’s public loyalty to her husband, while making her, in private, a steely presence who is perhaps pulling more of the strings than we realize. Whether The Master ultimately has something profound to say (or succeeds in saying it), the story and characters it provides for this trio of actors, and especially the no-holds-barred performance given by Phoenix, are enough to make it an unforgettable piece of work.


MOONRISE KINGDOM

Another writer/director named Anderson, and another of American film’s most original voices, Wes Anderson’s latest triumph is also the year’s best love story. On the New England island of New Penzance, in the summer of 1965, Eagle scout Sam Shakusky and local girl Suzy Bishop run off together, mobilizing a motley crew to find them before a hurricane hits the island. In what may be Anderson’s most winsome movie to date, newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give charming, intimate performances as the sweet, lonely kids who fall in love and simply want to be together. The supporting characters have unfulfilled desires of their own, which are brought to the surface as they get involved in Sam and Suzy’s drama. Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton make welcome additions to the Anderson stable, while the director’s go-to guys Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are great in small roles. But this movie belongs to Gilman and Hayward, terrific finds who are up to the task of handling Anderson’s unique humor and style. As always, the director meticulously arranges and choreographs every frame, marrying art direction, costume design, cinematography and editing in ways that illuminate the narrative rather than distracting from it.


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

In a way, this would make a nice companion piece to Moonrise Kingdom, as another perceptive story of troubled teens and their complicated lives. There have been so many movies that attempt to capture the feelings of being young. It’s almost a genre unto itself, and within that genre, “young” can span a range of ages such that movies as varied as My Girl and The Graduate both fit the mold. The high school movie is its own sub-genre, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which has been favorably compared to the movies of John Hughes, earns a prominent position in that grouping. Logan Lerman gives a beautiful performance as Charlie, a quiet, thoughtful kid entering high school after some personal difficulties, mostly trying to walk the halls unnoticed. He takes a chance in approaching a senior named Patrick (the dynamite Ezra Miller), in whom he sees a potential friend. Meeting Patrick leads to meeting Sam (Emma Watson), Patrick’s step-sister, and soon Charlie is drawn into their circle of friends and finds himself slowly emerging from his shell, while continuing to deal with his demons and learning that his new friends are contending with struggles of their own.

The movie sometimes presents the characters’ youthful joy and abandon as if it’s the first movie to ever suggest that youth begets feelings of joy and abandon, or that these are the first teenagers to ever experience those feelings. But that can’t take away from the emotional honesty the film achieves as we learn more about the characters, what they’ve been through and what they’re going through. The movie is written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, based on his own acclaimed novel, and like John Hughes, Chbosky displays a keen insight into the secret life of the sensitive teenager. He has also cast the movie magnificently. Lerman is wonderful, never overplaying Charlie’s emotional baggage, always honest and at times heartbreaking. (There’s a moment when he’s at a party, high for the first time, and makes a startling revelation to Sam so casually that it took my breath away; it’s one of the best delivered lines in any movie all year.) Watson, in her first major role outside of the Harry Potter franchise, easily sheds Hermione, adopting an American accent and more importantly, making believable Sam’s vulnerabilities and past problems. As Patrick, Ezra Miller pops off the screen, just as he did in 2011’s little-seen indies We Need to Talk About Kevin and Another Happy Day, though here he gets to give a more joyful performance than the darker work he did in those films…not that he doesn’t get to play it serious as Patrick too. Perks comes with some of the trappings of the high school genre, but it taps into some authentic, universal truths that ultimately make it a great addition to the pantheon. If you ever went to a school dance and spent most of the night off to the side, or attended a party and sat quietly rather than mingling, or watched someone you were crushing on get together with the wrong person, or if you can simply recall what it was like to be young and hanging out with your friends on a Saturday night, you’ll connect with The Perks of Being a Wallflower.


THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY

Another winner from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, this animated delight is based on the classic children’s story The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. Arietty belongs to a race of tiny people called Borrowers. She lives with her parents beneath a house in the country, and by night her father sneaks in to take the things their family needs – a cube of sugar, a tissue…little things that won’t be missed. The Borrowers are not supposed to be seen, but Arietty is spotted in the garden by a sickly boy named Sho, who has come to his aunt’s house to rest prior to having heart surgery. The Borrowers fear humans, but Sho attempts to befriend Arietty and alleviate her worries, with mixed results. The screenplay was co-written by Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli founder and Oscar-winning director of the exquisite Spirited Away. Like that film, my affection for Arietty has a lot to do with its depiction of a world hidden within or near to our own, and how its characters interact with the outside. Mysterious, touching and bittersweet, The Secret World of Arietty is a great addition to Studio Ghibli’s legacy of lovely, traditionally animated films. The U.S. dubbed version features voice work by Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett, but I recommend the subtitled version in its original Japanese language.


SKYFALL

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Academy Award winning director Sam Mendes would deliver what is, by all accounts, one of the best installments of the 50 year-old James Bond franchise. Skyfall honors the Bond tradition while also carving its own unique place within the canon by daring to lift the veil on the world’s most famous spy. I don’t think anybody wants to put Bond on the psychiatrist’s couch to discover every event in his childhood that made him the resourceful and frosty spy he is today, so screenwriters John Logan, Neil Purvis and Robert Wade deserve credit for exploring Bond’s background without demystifying him. In fact, he might even be a little more enigmatic than ever by the end.

Javier Bardem’s vengeful, teasing Silva will surely take his place high on the list of Bond villains. He enters the movie late, but it’s a fantastic entrance all around, from the way Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins present it to the quiet humor with which Bardem plays it. In addition, the movie does right by its heavy focus on Judi Dench’s M. Her relationship with Bond continues to walk a tightrope as their professional obligations can’t mask their mutual affection – a line which Dench and Daniel Craig continue to play beautifully. After two films that stripped away the gimmicky side of the Bond franchise, Mendes and the screenwriters reintroduce some of those classic and playful elements while still maintaining the grittier tone that was ushered in when Craig assumed the mantle in Casino Royale. By the time Skyfall ends, it has ingeniously come around to a sense of the familiar and positioned the franchise to move forward in a way that honors its past while looking to the future.


SOUND OF MY VOICE

From the moment it begins, this gripping indie film thrusts us into a state of uncertainty and never lets up. Each time we think we’re coming to the end of the rabbit hole, it takes another turn. All I’ll reveal about the premise is that Los Angeles couple Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham – also featured in Argo – and Nicole Vicius) attempt to infiltrate a cult in order to expose its leader, a young woman named Maggie (Brit Marling). Maggie claims to be…well, I won’t tell you….but she claims something that seems quite impossible, and Peter and Lorna are out to learn the truth. Quiet, disturbing, and full of surprises, watching the movie is as much a step into the unknown for the audience as investigating Maggie is for Peter and Lorna. And just as they are confounded by what they discover, so are you likely to be.  Admittedly, I found the movie somewhat bewildering in the end, due to a conclusion that is at once satisfyingly unexpected but frustratingly unresolved. Yet despite being unclear about what happens, I couldn’t shake the simplicity and quietly unnerving story. The movie runs a short 90 minutes, which means you won’t be sucking up too much time when it ends and you’re compelled to re-watch it in the hopes of figuring out what the hell just happened.

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And there it is. As always, there are many other movies I really enjoyed this year, even if they didn’t quite earn a place on the list. Part of me wants to mention a few of them, but I know that would quickly turn into a list of 30 more movies, all with an effort at commentary. I gotta let it go. So last order of business: it’s always fun to think about some categories that don’t exist at the Oscars but would be kinda cool. For my own amusement, here are a few of them, with what I might have nominated.

BEST POSTER

(Larger Versions: The Cabin in the Woods; Don’t Go in the Woods; Life of Pi; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom)

BEST CASTING
Les Misérables; Moonrise Kingdom; The Paperboy; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Skyfall

BEST ENSEMBLE
Argo; The Avengers; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty

BEST BODY OF WORK
Mark Duplass (People Like Us; Safety Not Guaranteed; Your Sister’s Sister; Zero Dark Thirty)
James Gandolfini (Killing Them Softly; Not Fade Away; Zero Dark Thirty)
John Goodman (Argo; Flight; ParaNorman; Trouble with the Curve)
Matthew McConaughey (Bernie; Killer Joe; Magic Mike; The Paperboy)
Scoot McNairy (Argo; Killing Them Softly; Promised Land)

BEST TRAILER
Cloud Atlas (Extended); Django Unchained; Frankenweenie (“Homage”); The Master (Teaser #1); Zero Dark Thirty

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Okay, I’ve had my say. To wrap it up, here’s a look back at the year in film that was.

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March 16, 2012

A Belated Look at the Year in Movies: 2011

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:56 pm
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As I’ve noted in some of my Oscar season write-ups, 2011 was not such a memorable year for movies. Most film critics and journalists agreed. Personally, there wasn’t anything in 2011 that I loved as much as I love my favorite movies from the past few years. Nothing hit the same heights as the likes of Inception, Precious, Slumdog Millionaire, The Fighter, The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, Toy Story 3, Atonement, The Departed or The Social Network. There were plenty of movies that I liked, and a few that I can even say I loved….but whatever magical alchemy elevated titles like the ones listed above, nothing in 2011 quite got there.

Normally I reject a traditional top ten list in favor of just a straightforward rundown of the movies that impacted me most during the year, ranking only the cream of the crop and then listing the rest alphabetically. This year there’s nothing I can claim as a single favorite, so it’s right to the alphabetical listing we go. And as you’ll see, there are still plenty of movies worth mentioning.

A note on the late arrival of this list: usually I’m able to catch up with the end-of-year releases by late January or early February, allowing me to get this out there during Oscar season while the previous year’s movies are still top of everyone’s mind. This year, a couple of contenders that I was determined to see before finalizing my list didn’t open in the Bay Area until late February/early March. So I waited. But hell, nobody I know sees as many current movies as I do anyway, so if this list is offering suggestions for you, you’d probably be looking for titles to rent or stream anyway. I could put this list out in August and it would come in handy for some of you. I’m still trying to get my parents to rent movies from 2007.

Anyway, let’s get to it. The best movies I saw in 2011 are….

BRIDESMAIDS
I’ve always found that on Saturday Night Live, a little bit of Kristen Wiig goes a long way. Her gallery of over-the-top characters tend to wear thin quickly. I enjoy her most when she plays normal people with a comic twist: Jason Bateman’s philandering wife in Extract, co-manager of the amusement park in Adventureland or the catty TV exec in Knocked Up. It was her small role in that film that prompted its director Judd Apatow to ask her if she had any ideas to pitch for a film of her own. Writing for herself (co-writing, actually, with her friend Annie Mumalo), Wiig smartly opts for a grounded character rather than a heightened one, and gives a great performance that goes beyond just comedy. She plays Annie – thirtysomething, single, deep in debt and generally not in the best place emotionally. When her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged and asks Annie to be her maid of honor, Annie’s personal life begins tumbling to new lows. The movie is full of the kind of awkward comedy that is painful to watch even while eliciting uncontrollable laughter, and Wiig is unafraid to look foolish. The worse things get for Annie, the funnier the movie becomes, yet we feel for her completely. Her explosive moment of catharsis at the bridal shower makes you want to cheer even as she humiliates herself in front of a mass of guests. The entire ensemble is terrific, but the standout supporting performance comes from Melissa McCarthy as the groom’s sister Megan. Like Wiig, McCarthy is an up-for-anything performer who plays beyond the comedy of a scene. She buries Megan’s social awkwardness under brazen confidence, creating a unique character and stealing the movie.

THE DESCENDANTS
There’s a lot to enjoy about this movie. It showcases a different side of Hawaii than the paradise getaway we usually see on film. It tells an engaging story in which a family’s tragedy dovetails with the stakes of a real estate deal that will affect the lives of a vast number of people in vastly different ways. (That might sound boring. It’s not.) It offers George Clooney the chance to explore the uncharted territory of playing a flawed everyman. But where I found it most interesting – and most relatable – was in its exploration of the small choices people face from day to day, and the effort to reconcile conflicting emotions and desires. When do we put our own credibility or ego first, and when do we keep it in check for the sake of someone else?  When do we speak up in our defense and when do we hold our tongue? When do we correct someone’s mistaken notion and when do we let them keep believing a lie that offers them peace of mind? More specifically, how does a rebellious teen deal with resenting her father while feeling protective and defensive on his behalf because her mother is cheating on him? How does that father establish parent-child boundaries with a maturing daughter whose moral support he needs in confronting the infidelity? The answers aren’t always easy, but the characters in The Descendants try their best to navigate these choppy waters of everyday life. As usual, director Alexander Payne guides the movie with a sure, unassuming hand, and he casts to near perfection. Judy Greer, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges are all great in small roles, and Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley are terrific as Clooney’s daughters – one too young to quite grasp everything that’s going on, the other able to grasp it all too well.

DRIVE
Director Nicolas Winding Refn draws inspiration from many sources to create one of the year’s most original movies. It’s a stylistic marriage of Michael Mann and David Lynch, with one eye and ear tuned to retro 80’s cool while the other eye and ear are cast toward creating something along the lines of a superhero origin story. This is no comic book movie, but Ryan Gosling’s unnamed character – referred to in the credits as merely Driver, and frequently clad in a signature scorpion-emblazoned white jacket – is, as the film’s evocative theme song proclaims, a real human being and a real hero. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic by day, an occasional getaway car driver by night, and generally a man of few words and few friends who keeps to himself…until he becomes acquainted with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), and soon enough her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac), just released from prison. When he steps outside of his usual boundaries, his life gets quickly complicated. Drive subverts expectations at every turn, from the inspired casting of Albert Brooks as a genial but calculating mobster to the progression of Driver’s relationships with both Irene and Standard. Even the title of the movie suggests speed and propulsion, when in fact it’s remarkably still, quiet and deliberately paced. The expertly executed opening sequence illustrates this quality, showing that a car chase doesn’t have to involve crashes and chaos to be thrilling and involving. (Take some notes, Michael Bay.) Refn never loses the sweetness and romance of the movie even when it takes a dark turn and becomes increasingly (at times shockingly) violent. Enhanced by a dreamy pop-synth soundtrack and beautifully lit camerawork, it’s the moodiest, most atmospheric movie of the year…and probably the closest to a single favorite I could name.

HANNA
From Joe Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, comes an art-house action film starring the amazing young Irish actress Saorise Ronan. Seriously, this girl is already in Kate Winslet/Cate Blanchett territory. Just from a technical standpoint, look at the accents she’s done in a mere five years of work: British (Atonement), American (The Lovely Bones), Russian (The Way Back) and now German. Hanna casts her as the daughter of rogue CIA agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who has raised her in hiding and equipped her with a survival skill set that pretty much makes her a killing machine. When the time comes to make their presence known, Hanna ventures out on her own to incur the pursuit of Heller’s icy former handler, Marisa Viegler, played with relish by Blanchett. In the process, Hanna begins to understand where she came from and why she’s so special. It’s a showcase role for Ronan, who brings the same laser-like focus, intensity and intelligence that helped earn her an Oscar nomination for Atonement at age 13. And sweet Jesus, does she kick some ass! She’s like the lovechild of Jason Bourne and La Femme Nikita.

The supporting cast also includes standout work from Jessica Barden as a girl Hanna’s age who befriends her while traveling with her family. Blanchett and Ronan don’t get much screen time together, and I wish they’d had more – not just for the pleasure of seeing two such gifted actresses work opposite each other, but more importantly because the story would have benefitted from allowing their characters to learn a bit more about each other. Nevertheless, this is a stylish and intense fusion of drama, action and thriller built around a fascinating character and a gripping lead performance.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2
Just a few months shy of ten years from the first Harry Potter film’s release, the final film bowed and, just as J.K. Rowling’s final book did, ended the series on a high note. Strictly from a book-to-film standpoint, it might be the best adaptation of the series (oh yes, I still had issues with it, but they bothered me less this time around than they often do). Given how much material – much of it expository or going on in Harry’s head – had to be omitted, screenwriter Steve Kloves does a truly skillful job of constructing the narrative, finding clever and even daring ways around some of the missing material, as well as paying off some of the cuts from the last two movies which seemed harmful to the story at the time. As the films have progressed, many aspects have grown more impressive, so that here in the final film they appropriately reach their pinnacle. The visual effects are elegant and consistently strong, the music score by Alexandre Desplat is effectively deployed and draws nicely on John Williams’ original themes, and most importantly, Daniel Radcliffe does his best work to date. He was always fine, but he was also the weakest of the main three actors. Yet he improved as he grew, and really started to hit his stride in the fifth film (his scene with Gary Oldman in front of the Black family tree remains maybe his single best moment). This final installment demands a lot from Radcliffe, and he rises fully to the occasion, bringing Harry’s journey to a close with an emotionally rich and touching performance. I do wish some of the actors and characters had been given more to do in this swan song (Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid was especially shortchanged), but on the other hand Maggie Smith got more screentime than she has of late, and of course Alan Rickman did not disappoint as he finally got to play the scenes that every Potter fan has been waiting for. Much more could be said (and I’ll eventually unleash my Potter-nerd series of deep-dives into all the books and films), but for now it should suffice that after a decade of magic onscreen and off, producer David Heyman, director David Yates, Kloves and their talented cast and crew brought the Harry Potter films to a highly satisfying conclusion.

MARGIN CALL
J.C. Chandor becomes a writer/director to watch on the strength of this debut film about a Lehman Brothers-like investment firm during the roughly 24 hours in which they realize they’re about to implode. The film is absorbing from the start, when young analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) follows up on a request from his boss (Stanley Tucci) – who’s just been laid off – to investigate a possible problem. What Sullivan discovers turns out to be disastrous, and is soon making its way up a chain of command whose players scramble to grasp what’s about to happen and what consequences will result. There’s a fascination in watching the people at each level relate to their superiors and subordinates, especially since half of them seem to have only a partial understanding of what the crunched numbers represent. The cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore and Jeremy Irons, but this is not just a collection of name actors brought in to gussy up a flat story. The plot crackles with tension, and the characters are as sharply drawn as the Wall Street culture is observed, with each actor getting a chance to shine as they play out the anxiety that grips them deep into the night. And Chandor evocatively captures the feeling of such a long and tumultuous night, where the characters experience both urgency and fatigue amidst the eerie quiet and stillness of a normally bustling office now mostly deserted. Chandor’s movie is not a morality play, and he’s not interested in passing judgement on the characters for what they do. He is an observer, showing us objectively what happens at this company on this day, and how the people involved deal with it. There are no caricatures of evil bankers here, but three-dimensional individuals who embody complicated and varied attitudes. The movie works even if you don’t fully understand the financial machinations that drive the plot (and I admit that I didn’t). It’s still a compelling drama and character piece, as well as a race-against-the-clock thriller devoid of Hollywood artificiality. An impressive piece of work all around.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Woody Allen doesn’t doesn’t do “fanciful” too often, but when he does, he usually does it well (one of my favorite Allen movies is The Purple Rose of Cairo)Midnight in Paris is no exception, and something about it struck a chord with audiences; it’s his biggest hit ever. Part of the appeal surely lies with Owen Wilson, who brings his usual off-kilter charm and doesn’t lose his way trying to do the neurotic Woody impersonation that can sometimes trip up the filmmaker’s surrogates. But it’s the affectionate magic of the story that really sells it, as Wilson’s Gil – a writer who pines for the artistic nirvana of Paris in the 1920’s – finds himself somehow transported to that beloved era each evening when the clock strikes twelve, bringing him into the company of such luminaries as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway (a great performance by Corey Stoll). He also finds unexpected romance with a lesser known artist played by Marion Cotillard. This journey into a Paris past transfixed me as much as it does Gil, and I loved the romance of the movie – not romance in a “love story” sense, but romance toward painting, literature, music and all the art that inspires us.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER
This one’s not going to shatter anyone’s world, but I was completely taken with it, thanks largely to the open-hearted performance of Paul Rudd as the title character, Ned – not really an idiot at all, but rather a guileless, naive hippie whose lifestyle is a far cry from that of his three urbanite sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel). When he shows up for an extended visit, he bounces between living with the three of them, inadvertently complicating their already  dysfunctional lives. It’s as simple as that, but the movie is pure sweet entertainment and often laugh-out-loud funny. As if Rudd, Banks, Mortimer and Deschanel weren’t enough, the impressive comedic ensemble also boasts Steve Coogan, Rashida Jones, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn and T.J. Miller, the latter two especially noteworthy as Ned’s ex-girlfriend and her affable new beau. What can I say? I was smiling from start to finish.

RANGO
After sitting through trailer after trailer for silly looking animated movies with the same types of goofy sidekicks and proclamations of 3D, it was a real pleasure to get to the feature presentation – a unique, smart, funny and beautifully animated movie in glorious, perfectly eye-popping 2D! Johhny Depp enthusiastically voices the title character, a domesticated lizard with a flair for the theatrical, who finds himself stranded in a desert town that’s experiencing a ruinous drought. The movie comes from Pirates of the Carribean director Gore Verbinski, who has created something special here that stands out in an already impressive and packed landscape of contemporary animation. While Pixar’s movies have a polished sheen, and Dreamworks often melds a cartoony look with stylized design, the animation in Rango has a gritty, organic feel that makes it stand apart from the crowd. It’s as stunning and gorgeous as anything out there, and demonstrates that Industrial Light & Magic – the visual effects titan behind Verbinski’s Pirates movies and countless others from Star Wars to Transformers – could carve its own place in the animation game if it continues down the road of producing features. Of course, to match the substance of Rango would require directors as inventive as Verbinski and screenplays as witty as the one here from the prolific John Logan. It’s packed with references to movies that will keep adults smiling (Chinatown is a particularly notable influence), not that they need any reason to smile beyond the clever setpieces, sumptuous visuals and amusing gallery of characters supporting Depp’s charming lead lizard.

A SEPARATION
This Iranian film from writer/director Asghar Farhadi, newly minted with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a knockout drama that addresses universal experiences occurring in a culture we in the west know little about and are too quick to judge. The story begins with a husband and wife appearing in court because the wife has requested a divorce. She wants to raise their 11-year old daughter outside Iran, but her husband is bound to stay and care for his Alzheimer-stricken father. When the divorce is refused, the wife moves out, setting into motion a series of events that have heartbreaking consequences for two families. To say any more would be a disservice to how it all unfolds, but trust me when I say that this is an engrossing and immaculately constructed story, and an ingenious one for the way it takes such a simple domestic situation and lifts it to such devastating heights. The characters are decent people facing ordinary yet daunting problems, resulting in every nuance of every behavior feeling understandable at every turn. Nobody is completely right or completely wrong or free of guilt, and the tragic clash of pride and honor against self-preservation is riveting to behold. It’s a wonderfully acted and thoroughly explored story of people under pressure.

SHAME
This is a movie that one might list among their favorites of the year the way they might call Schindler’s List a favorite. It’s not exactly something you look to for entertainment, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t engrossed watching it. Michael Fassbender is magnetic as Brandon – handsome, successful, disconnected from his feelings and feeding his insatiable sexual needs however he can. His neat and ordered existence is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, equally impressive), whose emotional baggage spills everywhere while Brandon keeps his tightly contained. Much is left deliberately unsaid about Brandon and Sissy, both as individuals and as siblings, so it falls to Fassbender and Mulligan to fill in the blanks with intimation and suggestion. Sissy is all exposed nerves, but tries to mask her neediness by appearing flirty and vivacious. In a way, she functions for Brandon as a femme fatale…not in the usual sense (as a lover), but as a force of danger. Mulligan acutely captures these conflicting traits and creates a powerful bond with Fassbender. He, of course, is fully committed to the role, baring as much emotionally as he does physically. His stare is as penetrating as his well-utilized appendage, but for everything his gaze suggests outwardly, it also reveals what’s going on inside. Brandon is closely guarded, but we see him reaching for something deeper, pushing himself for more and then succumbing to his demons when he can’t get there. In addition to the excellent performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie are spot-on as Brandon’s boss and an attractive co-worker, respectively.

This is the second feature from director Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Abi Morgan, and he draws on his art school background to tell the story with a simple but stark visual style. The crisp cinematography consists of some striking long takes that allow the actors to interact with a purity that serves the story well, and the antiseptic production design carries much of the load in drawing us into Brandon’s world. McQueen’s movie is an intelligent, provocative meditation on loneliness and addiction.

SOURCE CODE
A morning commuter train heading toward Chicago explodes. The event precedes a larger attack planned for the city itself that will claim thousands of lives. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an Air Force pilot involved in a groundbreaking project that allows his consciousness to be placed in the body of one of the train’s passengers during the eight minutes leading up to the explosion. His mission is to identify the bomber so that the bigger, impending attack might be prevented. Over and over, he is sent in for eight minute increments until he can gather the necessary information, and as complex as the mission sounds, it proves even more so for Stevens as the reality of his situation becomes clearer.

Ben Ripley’s clever script is Groundhog Day meets Twelve Monkeys, with dashes of Avatar and Total Recall thrown in. But though the plot drives the movie, there is a strong and moving through-line for Stevens, and Gyllenhaal gives one of the best performances of his career, taking in the many confusions and the disorientation of Stevens’ situation and displaying the subtle shifts he goes through as he tries to reconcile his personal circumstances with the intricacies of his assignment. Gyllenhaal shows us physically what a man is experiencing mentally. The more information revealed about the character as the movie goes on, the wider the range of emotions the actor has to juggle while still serving the tense, forward-momentum of the plot. Michelle Monaghan pairs nicely with Gyllenhaal as a fellow passenger, while Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright are both quite good in the tricky roles of the project’s administrators. Both exist for Stevens only as faces on the monitor of his capsule between trips back into the train, but they each find ways to enrich characters that might have functioned merely to serve the plot. Director Duncan Jones keeps it all moving fast, bringing the movie in at a tight 90 minutes. There’s no fat to be found, but it never skimps on the details, the character development or the emotional elements of the story. Don’t mistake this for a run-of-the-mill, tepid thriller. It’s an intimate sci-fi action movie that delivers on all fronts and invites both moral and plot-specific discussions after the credits roll.

THE TREE OF LIFE
There have been a select few filmmakers over the years whose work has such a distinct style and feel, their names have been adopted as adjectives. Hitchcockian. Capraesque. Spielbergian. Kubrickian. Altmanesque. Lynchian. I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing it, but surely Scorsesean has been used. I’ve definitely never seen Terrence Malick’s name adjectivized (yes, I just made up that word too), but in a directorial body of work that contains only five movies in a 40 year span, I don’t think anyone could argue that his style merits this treatment. So mark it down: today, I’m coining the term Malickesque. And of all Malick’s films, none are more Malickesque than The Tree of Life.

The usual elements are here: contemplative voiceovers, sometimes barely whispered; stunning cinematography, often consisting of lingering shots of nature; a grappling with philosophical issues. Also here is as authentic and mysterious a depiction of childhood – perhaps boyhood, specifically – as I’ve ever seen dramatized. The film follows a midwestern family in the 1950’s, where three boys share a youth that is both idyllic and ordinary, full of happiness but also tension. The latter tone is set by their father (Brad Pitt), a stern man who loves his family but has been hardened by dissatisfaction with his life’s progression. Their mother (Jessica Chastain) balances that with a warmth and love that’s like a protective shield. There’s no plot to speak of, so if you’ve come for plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’ve come for depth of character, you won’t find that either…not in the traditional sense, at least, though Pitt, Chastain and newcomer Hunter McCracken as eldest son Jack certainly breathe full life into their characters and invite us to experience their inner lives. We never even know the names of the other two sons. There’s little dialogue spoken between the characters. Malick is American cinema’s premier practitioner of impressionistic filmmaking, and he pushes his art further here than ever before. Prior to settling into observing the family, there is a lengthy sequence that many viewers found frustrating: Malick walks us through the creation of the universe and the beginnings of life on earth. We see explosions of color dancing through the cosmos, the formation of the galaxy, the first bits of slime to crawl from droplets of water. Equally esoteric is the end of the film, which features Sean Penn (who makes brief appearances earlier) as the grown Jack. I don’t want to give away the ending…not that doing so would constitute a typical spoiler…since a spoiler usually requires a plot to spoil. Do I understand what Malick is trying to convey in these sequences, beneath their obvious surface? No I don’t…though I can’t beat myself up too much over that since Penn remains just as unenlightened. In the end though, I don’t mind that Malick’s intentions and the deep questions about life, the universe and God that so fascinate him are somewhat lost on me. I acknowledge and accept the movie with all of its mysteries, as well as its flaws. This is a filmmaker who offers a truly singular vision, and like David Lynch – another director with a wholly individual and abstruse voice – I am always willing to surrender to his work. I have my problems with The Tree of Life, but it holds me rapt nonetheless. If you haven’t seen it and decide to take the plunge, watch it on the biggest screen possible.

THE TRIP
A treat for film buffs and foodies alike, this mockumentary casts Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as exaggerated (and not always flattering) versions of…Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It begins with Coogan inviting Brydon (somewhat reluctantly, when his girlfriend is unable to join him) on a week-long excursion through England’s northern countryside as he stays at nice inns and reviews upscale food for a magazine piece. It’s a kick to watch these two together since they obviously know each other so well and you’re never really sure where the line between their on-camera dynamic and their true relationship starts to blur. Their rapport is easy, but not necessarily comfortable, as Coogan is frequently irritated by Brydon and often slights and demeans him. They bicker frequently but also entertainingly as they riff on pop culture and impersonate other actors (their dueling Michael Caine bit is classic). Meanwhile, they’re eating some amazing-looking food, and we get a glimpse into the various kitchens as chefs prepare their dishes. You’ll be itching to go out for a really nice meal by the end. And so it goes as we accompany Coogan and Brydon talking, driving, eating and taking in some of their country’s history. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and it all leads to a surprisingly bittersweet coda. The film was culled from a TV series that aired on BBC, and as a result the DVD contains deleted scenes that run almost the same length as the feature. They’re well worth checking out if the movie leaves you craving more.

WARRIOR
This terrific family drama stars up-and-comers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as brothers raised by a father (Nick Nolte) whose alcoholism tore the family apart, leaving them estranged from each other and from him. Tommy (Hardy) is a withdrawn Marine who served in Iraq, and Brendan is a high school physics teacher with a wife and two little girls. The three re-enter a common orbit when both brothers – who have backgrounds in mixed martial arts – enter an MMA tournament designed to bring the world’s best fighters together for a two-day elimination event with a $5 million payout. If you think you know where this is headed…you’re right. It goes exactly where you think it’s going. The film’s trailers made no attempt to hide it. But what matters is how we get there, and Warrior succeeds on the strength of a well-drawn script, restrained direction by Gavin O’Connor and a collection of strong performances by Hardy, Edgerton, Nolte, Jennifer Morrison and Frank Grillo (the latter two as Brendan’s wife and trainer, respectively). There are elements of the movie that may be traditional or predictable, but it overcomes that by getting the audience so invested in all three main characters. Tommy and Brendan both have a need for the money, and we want both of them to get it, just as we want to see them soften even a little bit toward their now sober father, Paddy. When the inevitable climactic scene arrives, it’s not just a physical match-up, but an emotionally fraught one, with Paddy bearing witness to a catharsis born from the damage he caused his family. One thing we don’t know from the beginning is how it will turn out, and though we get to see the immediate outcome, the long term resolution remains open-ended.

Sadly, Warrior didn’t catch on at the box office, but this is a movie that should have been a big hit. It’s a mature drama, but has all the elements of a Rocky or Karate Kid-like crowd-pleaser. One does not have to be an MMA fan to enjoy it, but the sport’s popularity should have raised the movie’s visibility. Hopefully it will find a new life in the home viewing arena, because it’s an enormously satisfying movie that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

WIN WIN
What writer/director Tom McCarthy does is similar to what Alexander Payne does, yet he doesn’t get nearly the same degree of credit or accolades. Not that he’s ignored, but he deserves more attention and more praise for his sublime, original stories about ordinary people and the relationships that sustain them. His first two films, The Station Agent and The Visitor, are centered on closed-off characters who dare to open themselves up to friendships that wind up changing their lives. Win Win doesn’t follow quite the same course, but certainly shares a similar DNA with its predecessors and cements McCarthy as a gifted storyteller worthy of mass attention. In his latest, Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a suburban lawyer, family man and coach of a failing high-school wrestling team. He’s a good person, but mounting money problems lead him to make a bad decision that involves duping an elderly client named Leo (Burt Young), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The plan seems sound enough to Mike, until Leo’s teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Schaffer) shows up from out of state looking to stay. Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) take the kid in, jeopardizing Mike’s ploy but soon offering unexpected benefits as well. Better to let the details unfold when you watch it, but suffice it to say the movie is a gem. Simple, real, yet more inventive than it might appear at first glance. There’s nothing fancy about McCarthy’s movies. The camerawork and production design are straightforward and the characters are completely ordinary, which is exactly what draws us in and makes it so easy to get invested. McCarthy’s characters are your friends, neighbors and family members, and it’s no surprise that he draws such consistently great performances, considering that he’s an actor himself. (He hasn’t been in his own work yet, but has appeared in plenty of well known films and TV shows including Meet the Parents, The Wire, 2012, Boston Public and Good Night, and Good Luck.) Giamatti and Ryan are terrific, as is Melanie Lynsky as Kyle’s mother – long estranged from Leo. Bobby Cannavale is a standout as Mike’s longtime friend Terry,  but the real scene-stealer is newcomer Schaffer as the self-reliant Kyle, whose blonde-dyed mop of hair, nasaly twang and disarming nonchalance make him one of my favorite film characters of 2011.

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So those were my very favorites of the year. But because there were many others that I liked and feel guilty not mentioning, I’ll go through a few that didn’t rank quite as high as those above but still made a lasting impression. Consider this Tier Two:

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU
In this involving sci-fi romance, Matt Damon plays David Norris, a beloved politician who, on the evening of a crushing electoral defeat, has a chance meeting with a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt). They’re forced to part suddenly, yet both are left feeling inexplicably drawn to each other. It soon transpires that their meeting was not so chance after all, nor is their chemistry without reason. When David stumbles upon the secret forces keeping him and Elise apart, he is determined to overcome them and unite with his true love. Damon and Blunt make a hugely appealing pair, and their love story and witty interplay are emphasized while the sci-fi elements are handled with a low-key realism. I dug it.

BEGINNERS
Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his graceful performance as Hal Fields, a septugenarian who, after the death of his wife, embraces the homosexuality he had suppressed for years to live a “normal” life as a husband and father. But his part is fairly small in the scheme of Beginners. The film’s true focus is on Hal’s son Oliver (an excellent Ewan McGregor)  and the budding romance he falls into almost immediately upon meeting Anna (equally excellent Mélanie Laurent) at a party. The movie is laced with quirks that writer/director Mike Mills – who based the film on his own experience with his late-blooming father – nicely balances with the warmth of the relationships as both Hal and Oliver sweetly embark on new personal adventures.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
I sat down for this movie having not read the book nor seen the Swedish film (I have seen it since). My reaction was that David Fincher had directed the shit out of a fairly ho-hum murder mystery that wasn’t much of a grabber in and of itself. But under Fincher’s guidance, the film sure is. The cinematography, art direction, score and sound design combine to create a visceral experience, kicked off so effectively by that brilliant, stunning opening credits sequence and sustaining the mood all the way through. Daniel Craig often plays hardened or icy characters, so I was pleasantly caught off guard by the normalcy and dry-humored kindness he brings to Mikael Blomkvist, while Rooney Mara throws herself into the role of Lisbeth Salander and achieves bewitching results. An actress would have to be considerably lacking skills to screw up such a dynamic part, so Mara has that advantage, along with the advantage of being largely unknown. But neither fact dilutes how impressively she embodies the character.

THE HELP
It may have been marketed too much like a lighthearted chick flick, but first-time director Tate Taylor strikes a successful balance between humor and gravity with The Help. It’s serious without being heavy, and has levity without being light. It avoids the pitfall of movies about civil rights struggles that focus on white protagonists by making Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia Spencer’s Minny central characters who take charge of their own destiny, even if the opportunity is initiated by the young white journalist, Skeeter (Emma Stone). The almost entirely female ensemble is excellent across the board, with standout work from Davis and Jessica Chastain. Davis is a study in subtlety and immersion into character, adopting a weary gait and a frail stance that drive home her years of suffering, while Chastain reveals layers of depth as a flighty, ostracized housewife.

HUGO
I’m not sure what studio marketing numbskullery resulted in the title of this book adaptation going from the intriguing The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the completely generic Hugo, which suggests a movie about a mischievous yet lovable orangutan, but the result is a movie that’s both unexpected and completely natural for Martin Scorsese. Following an orphan named Hugo living in a Parisian train station, the film expands on Brian Selznick’s book by significantly beefing up the role of the station inspector, amusingly played by Sacha Baron Cohen. I could have done without this largely slapsticky subplot, preferring the main thread involving Hugo, his closely-guarded secrets, the old toymaker (Ben Kingsley) whose wrath he incurs and the toymaker’s godchild (Chloë Grace Moretz) who befriends him. The gorgeous production values are enchanting, and the film is at its best when it flowers into an affectionate love letter to the earliest days of cinema, made all the more poignant coming from one of the art form’s most learned and loving students. As a lifelong movie fan, I couldn’t help but be moved and even shed a few tears during the last third of the film.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
Sean Durkin’s haunting feature debut as writer/director follows Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, in an alluring breakthrough performance), a young woman who is drawn into a cult and eventually manages to escape, but not without severe emotional scarring. The film moves back and forth between Martha’s time with the cult and her attempts to re-adjust to normal life while living with her sister and brother-in-law, Lucy and Ted (Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy), at their lake house. The relationship between Martha and Lucy is prickly, but we’re left to fill in the blanks of their history on our own, and in doing so we can infer why Martha might have been drawn to the family-like atmosphere of the farm where the cult resides under the leadership of the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). Life there is serene, but also dangerous, and Martha never seems fully onboard with what’s happening around her, even while she embraces her own empowerment under Patrick’s tutelage. Unable or unwilling to tell Lucy and Ted what she’s been through, she grows increasingly anxious and fearful of being found by those she deserted.

The film moves between past and present with smooth, organic transitions that often left me feeling displaced, needing a moment to figure out where and when in the story I was. It’s an effective way to approximate Martha’s own state of mind after her escape…not always sure where she is, what’s going on or what’s waiting around the corner. Olsen beautifully captures Martha’s fragile state of mind, anchoring this unsettling examination of a woman frightened and adrift.

MONEYBALL
This is an odd one for me, because it’s a pretty impeccable film, and yet I just don’t love it. I don’t know why I don’t love it. I want to love it. I should love it. There’s not a thing I can point to that I have a problem with. It’s wonderfully directed by Bennett Miller, well acted by Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and every other actor who steps on screen, and the script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is a home run. So why do I merely like it? I can’t explain…but I recommend it unequivocally.

THE MUPPETS
Though there were stories ahead of the movie’s release that described some old-school Muppet performers – including Frank Oz – as being unhappy with the script for the new film, director James Bobin and writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller do Jim Henson’s legacy proud with their affectionate movie that’s one part The Blues Brothers, one part Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion and one part Oz’s own The Muppets Take Manhattan. Segel plays Gary, whose adopted brother Walter has never quite fit in…because he’s a Muppet. When he accompanies Gary and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to Hollywood and discovers that oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) intends to tear down the Muppets’ old theater, the trio sets out to find Kermit and help prevent Richman’s plan. The trademark Muppet goofiness, subversiveness, sweetness and unabashed positivity are all intact, and it’s a total kick to see the beloved characters back in action. I can pop in The Muppet Show DVDs anytime, but sitting in a theater and watching the whole gang recreate the opening theme song had me grinning ear to ear. Pretty much what the whole movie had me doing, in fact. The Muppets are back. Let’s hope they stick around.

TAKE SHELTER
A patient and gripping film anchored by strong performances by Michael Shannon as Curtis, a devoted husband and father in rural Ohio who begins experiencing nightmares and waking visions of a coming apocalyptic doom, and Jessica Chastain as his wife Samantha, concerned by his increasingly odd behavior. The signs Curtis sees – oily rain, gathering storm clouds, lightning flashes, swarms of birds swirling in irregular flight – are presented in a chillingly matter-of-fact manner, and the movie continually unnerves us as we experience Curtis’ own doubt as to whether it’s all real or happening in his head. There’s a sad trajectory to the movie as his visions lead him to make decisions intended to protect his family, but which continually end up threatening their well-being in one way or another. Shannon exudes integrity as he tries to be the strong man, guarding his family from what’s happening to him, but ultimately having to admit weakness, explain his state of mind and seek help. The events slowly build to a quiet but intense climax, which itself precedes an intriguing final scene that appears to offer resolution but leaves us appropriately uncertain.

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And now for a couple of extras. During the Oscar season, I like to include my own personal slate of nominees alongside predicting the actual nominees, but this year I held off because of those aforementioned late-to-the-Bay-Area openings. Not that anyone cares now, but for my own sense of closing out 2011 and moving on to hopefully better things, I’m adding my picks to this post. In most of these categories, it was tough to come up with five nominees that felt worthy. I had to go with some padding for some of them. Nevertheless, here’s how my list of Oscar nominees would have looked:

BEST PICTURE
Bridesmaids; The Descendants; Drive; A Separation; Shame; The Tree of Life; Win Win

BEST DIRECTOR
Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive; David Fincher – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Bennett Miller – Moneyball; Steve McQueen – Shame; Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

BEST ACTOR
Demián Bichir – A Better Life; George Clooney – The Descendants; Leonardo DiCaprio – J. Edgar; Michael Fassbender – Shame; Michael Shannon – Take Shelter

BEST ACTRESS
Viola Davis – The Help; Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Saoirse Ronan – Hanna; Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady; Michelle Williams – My Week With Marilyn

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Paul Bettany – Margin Call; Ryan Gosling – Crazy Stupid Love; Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life; Christopher Plummer – Beginners; Alex Shaffer – Win Win

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – The Help; Keira Knightley – A Dangerous Method; Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids; Carey Mulligan – Shame; Shailene Woodley – The Descendants

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Bridesmaids; Margin Call; Rango; A Separation; Win Win

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Coriolanus; The Descendants; Drive; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Moneyball

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Kung Fu Panda 2; Puss in Boots; Rango

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Hugo; Shame; The Tree of Life

BEST FILM EDITING
Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Martha Marcy May Marlene; Moneyball; The Tree of Life

BEST ART DIRECTION
Anonymous; Hanna; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Hugo; Shame

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Anonymous; Captain America: The First Avenger; Cowboys & Aliens; The Help; Hugo

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The Artist; Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Hanna; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Lay Your Head Down (Albert Nobbs); The Living Proof (The Help); Man or Muppet (The Muppets); Pictures in My Head (The Muppets)

BEST MAKEUP
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Hugo; The Iron Lady

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Captain America: The First Avenger; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; The Tree of Life

BEST SOUND (Cheating a bit on this one, by going with my belief that there should be one Oscar for sound, honoring the overall sound design in a film):
Drive; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2; Super 8; Take Shelter

And just for added fun (fun for me, that is; I don’t delude myself that anyone else is having fun right now), here are nominees in a few categories that don’t exist at the Oscars, but deserve recognition nonetheless:

BEST POSTER

BEST CASTING
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Moneyball; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Warrior; We Need to Talk About Kevin

BEST ENSEMBLE
The Help; The Ides of March; Margin Call; Our Idiot Brother; Win Win

BEST TRAILER
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; Jane Eyre; Like Crazy; Shame; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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I wasn’t actually thinking about the next two enough during the year to offer a slate of nominees, so my winners would be…

BEST OPENING CREDITS
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Best to experience it as part of the film as a whole, but if you want to see it – and learn how they did it – check it out here. And let the whole thing load before you start playing. You don’t want the flow of this baby interrupted by buffering.)

BEST CLOSING CREDITS
Super 8

Alright alright, I’m done. Here’s a final look back at the movies of 2011. Onward to what promises to be a much more satisfying year…

February 13, 2011

Favorite Movies of 2010

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 1:02 pm
Tags: , ,

#1
INCEPTION

The movie I was most looking forward to all year met and exceeded my expectations, easily becoming the movie I loved more than any other all year. When it ended and the lights in the theater came up, people around me standing and collecting their belongings to shuffle out, I was still pinned to my seat. I had to sit there for a moment and take a breath, very possibly the first I’d taken in at least an hour. I couldn’t wait to see it again. Not just because the twisty plot requires multiple viewings, but because I wanted to get back into the cinemascape so brilliantly conceived by master filmmaker and storyteller Christopher Nolan. I never knew what was coming. That’s true of many good movies of course, but here every moment carried the thrill of what would happen next.

The world of the film is our own, but here there exists technology that allows Extractors like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb to infiltrate a person’s subconscious and steal an idea. It’s the latest form of corporate espionage, and although Cobb is the best, he’s paid a heavy price for living inside the mind. It has separated him from his family, and the only way back to them is through his most difficult job ever, involving a task many deem impossible. The assignment will take Cobb and his team into the mind of an heir played by Cillian Murphy, where they will have to move through multiple levels of his subconscious to complete their task. It’s head-trippy stuff, but Nolan keeps confusion at bay. Not that the movie is simple; you can’t sit back and let it wash over you. You need to participate in it, make the connections, follow closely the how’s, who’s, why’s, where’s and when’s. And I still can’t say that I understand every single piece, but the whole thing is so damn thrilling that a few loose strands hardly matter. The ride sweeps you willingly along.

Standing out among the strong ensemble is Marion Cotillard as Cobb’s wife, a complex character whose presence is a wild card in a job that relies on careful planning. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to prove just how effortlessly cool he is, handling some of the most mind-boggling action in the movie with total commitment. As the newest member of Cobb’s team, Ellen Page is a smart and appealing surrogate for the audience, learning truths about Cobb that even his longtime associates don’t know, and helping him from losing his way in the recesses of their subject’s mind. But the real star of the movie is Nolan, who gives us personal filmmaking on an epic scale and orchestrates it with flair and dexterity, guiding brilliant work from his usual team of collaborators which includes cinematographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. Inception is a grand, cerebral spectacle with an emotional core that, fittingly, will remain lodged in my mind for a long, long time. It’s literally a dream movie.

#2
THE SOCIAL NETWORK

During a press conference to promote The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said, “It might seem counter-intuitive, this marriage of director and material. David is peerless as a visual director. I write people talking in rooms.” The David he speaks of is, of course, David Fincher. And while Sorkin is right that the marriage may seem an odd one, the resulting offspring is the latest evidence that opposites attract. Remove the players from the equation and you’re still left with an unlikely premise: that a movie about the founding of a website – even one as game-changing and ubiquitous as Facebook –  would make an interesting movie. But against the odds, The Social Network – like The Insider – takes court depositions and related events that don’t seem inherently cinematic and spins them into movie gold. It’s been hailed as a generation-defining work by film and cultural critics, but I’ll leave that to the professionals. For me, it’s just a great story well told.

Set largely on a Harvard University campus that seems perpetually cloaked in night, the film traces the creation and skyrocketing ascent of Facebook, and the personal conflicts born as a result between founder Mark Zuckerberg and some of the people he steps on along the way. While based on factual events and legal documents (the film is actually adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires), there is no way to know how close the Zuckerberg of the film is to the real man, but in the hands of Sorkin, Fincher and actor Jesse Eisenberg, he’s a fascinating figure – arrogant, awkward, brilliant, selfish, petty, lonely, pathetic, bold and often inscrutable. It’s a great performance by Eisenberg in which he adds a harder, darker edge to his frequent persona of the fast-talking geek. There’s always been something sharp about the actor’s speech; his words, with their staccato cadence, always sound pointy. Here, more so than in his past work, they truly cut like a knife.

One of the movie’s more interesting elements is the friendship between Mark and Facebook’s co-creator Eduardo Saverin, played in a breakthrough performance by British up-and-comer Andrew Garfield (also on this list in Never Let Me Go). Eduardo is the movie’s most sympathetic character, a nice guy who is a much better friend to Mark than Mark ever is to him, prompting one to wonder what he ever got out of the relationship. Facebook’s popularity soon brings them into the orbit of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, also very good), and Garfield does excellent work as the rapid growth of Mark and Eduardo’s creation comes between them and Mark becomes increasingly worshipful of Parker.

The other revelation in the cast is Armie Hammer, who gives two great performances playing the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, who accuse Mark of stealing Facebook from their idea. In most movies, these guys would be reduced to just douchebag antagonists, but Aaron Sorkin doesn’t do one-dimensional. The twins are, in some ways, everything Mark wishes he could be: attractive, wealthy, privileged…and yet his jealousy of those same qualities is what drives him to create his own site rather than labor under them as a programmer-for-hire. As the twins struggle with the right course of action to take after Facebook goes live, Hammer impresses with his ability to offer distinct shadings to the brothers while making them more than athletic pretty-boys. One would also be remiss not to mention actress Rooney Mara, who plays a small but critical role in the film, most of her screentime coming in the outstanding, much-heralded opening scene. Like Garfield and Hammer, this will surely prove to be a breakout role for her (Fincher has already cast her as the lead in his next film, an English language adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

Fincher’s direction is confident but unintrusive. Whereas many of his other movies deliberately call attention to the ruse of filmmaking, here his camera (guided by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth) is not self-conscious. He lets Sorkin’s script and the actors take center stage, and reinforces their work with fine editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, as well as a terrific, moody score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

I know many people, young and old, who have no interest in Facebook, but you don’t need to “get” the site, or be a user, to enjoy this story of its creation. Facebook is the MacGuffin in a story about ambition, isolation, creation and betrayal. The Social Network, and its incredibly compelling main character, leaves you with plenty to discuss.

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#3
TOY STORY 3

I know, I know…the continual act of marveling at Pixar’s accomplishments is getting old, and yet they just keep defying expectations and producing movies of such incredible quality that marveling can’t be helped. How often do we reach the third movie in a series (a series that, it’s important to note, was not conceived as a series; this isn’t Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) and find that not only has there been no drop in quality whatsoever from one film to the next, but that it’s arguably better than its predecessors?

We pick up with Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang as their owner Andy is about to depart for college and must decide what to do with his once beloved and now largely forgotten childhood playthings. They wind up at a day care center called Sunnyside, which seems to promise them a good life of attention and adoration. Instead, they face dangers both from over-enthusiastic children and some of their new fellow toys, prompting them to stage an elaborate escape that would make the likes of Steve McQueen and George Clooney proud. Along the way, some new characters are introduced, including an avuncular pink bear called Lotso (voiced by the great Ned Beatty), the foreboding, near-silent Big Baby, a theatrical porcupine ingeniously named Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) and Barbie’s love interest Ken, hilariously portrayed as a fashion-loving metrosexual and voiced by Michael Keaton. The movie is often laugh-out-loud funny, and Ken is often the reason.

I try not to get into spoilers here, but I can’t talk about Toy Story 3 without bringing up its thrilling climax, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet. As you know if you’re still here, the toys find themselves at the city dump facing the threat of incineration, and I credit the team at Pixar for making that threat entirely real. I honestly believed that it might happen, not just because of how the writers and director (John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich receive story credit, while Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndt wrote the script; Unkrich directed) presented the scene, but because of how the character animators sold the emotions. When Buzz looks at Jessie and reaches for her hand, the expression on his face that says, “This is it; don’t fight it” is stunning, and was instantly seared in my memory. It’s a moment of unspoken communication to which any flesh and blood actor should aspire. The subsequent moments of the toys grabbing hold of each other and staring down what seems an inevitable, fiery demise is as powerful an image as any I saw all year. The toys do survive, and of course I felt foolish for ever thinking they wouldn’t; this is a G-rated family movie. But that’s how well done it is. And the movie still has one last high to hit: its pitch-perfect coda, in which Andy delivers the toys to a little girl in the neighborhood, introducing them one by one and joining her for one last round of playtime. With that scene, the Toy Story trilogy – never intended to be a trilogy when the first movie announced the arrival of Pixar fifteen years earlier – came to a brilliant and beautiful close that could not have been more satisfying. I hope the filmmakers are smart enough to stop here. These characters should endure as the stars of short films, but in terms of another feature, there’s simply nowhere else to go. Not even the phenoms of Pixar can up the emotional ante of Toy Story 3. They nailed it. Again.

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#4
THE FIGHTER

Loved this movie. From first frame to last, it had me. Mark Wahlberg has been on a years-long crusade to bring this true-life story to the screen, and how gratifying for him and fortunate for us that it arrives in such stellar shape. Although boxer Mickey Ward (played by Wahlberg) is the central figure, it’s the characters around him that give the story its color. Wahlberg is smart enough as the film’s producer and generous enough as its star to let the other actors flex their muscles, and the result is aces. Christian Bale dominates the movie as Mickey’s step-brother Dickie Ecklund, a one-time fighter himself whose own potential was squandered to a drug addiction. Bale’s performance is natural, moving and completely commanding. As the boys’ mother Alice Ward, Melissa Leo chews plenty of scenery as well. Alice manipulates Mickey by playing the “importance of family” card (she manages him, while Dickie serves as his trainer) even as their handling of his career threatens to end it. And into the close family fold, which includes seven fierce and funny sisters mostly played by non-professional, local actresses from in and around Lowell, Massachusetts (where the movie takes place and was shot) comes Mickey’s love interest Charlene, played with gusto by Amy Adams in yet another display of her talent and range. As a story, the movie is fairly traditional, but under the direction of David O. Russell and the tremendous skill of the cast, it’s a perfect combination of commercial crowd-pleaser and award-caliber artistry.

The Rest:
ANIMAL KINGDOM

When his drug-addicted mother dies, 17 year-old “J” goes to live with his grandmother and uncles. Unfortunately those uncles are criminals fresh off a robbery that has the police hot on their trail, and through no crime other than proximity, J finds himself caught between cops hungry for blood and family practicing self-preservation at any cost. This Australian thriller is a taut gem, full of surprises. Actor James Frecheville has a tricky task in making J interesting despite being so numb, and he pulls it off nicely, holding himself with a rigidity and blank stare that invite concern and empathy. Guy Pearce, always a welcome presence, plays a decent cop trying to help J make the right decision, and Jacki Weaver has won raves, critic’s awards and an Oscar nomination for her role as J’s grandmother, fiercely loving and protective of her boys. But even more chilling than Weaver is Ben Mendelsohn as the eldest of J’s uncles and the one most worried about his nephew’s ability to toe the family line. His performance, in particular, got under my skin. I realize this may not be the best way to convince anyone to see it, but to play on the title’s jungle metaphor, Animal Kingdom is the movie-watching equivalent of an anaconda attack. It grabs you, holds you, tightens its grip and doesn’t let go. But, you know…in a good way…and minus the killing you part. Trust me. See it.

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BARNEY’S VERSION
While I certainly enjoyed this movie, it wouldn’t have quite made my list for favorites of the year were it not for the tremendous performance by Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky. Perhaps my affection for the movie also stems from the fact that, in a circumstance that’s rare for me, I knew nothing about it in advance. I had no idea what the movie was when I walked into it, and even as I watched the first half hour or so, I still wasn’t sure. Was it a murder mystery? A tale of an older, lonely man recalling his more colorful youth? A warts-and-all love story? The movie turned out to be all these things and more. Mainly, it’s the story of a man’s life – a man who loves women, hockey, a good drink and a good cigar. It’s a life as ordinary as it is interesting and flawed. Good, bad and ugly, Giamatti nails it all. He had me rooting for Barney’s highs and shaking my head in disapproval for his lows.

Even with the glowing lead performance, Barney’s Version has room for other actors to shine as well. Dustin Hoffman portrays Barney’s father, and what a treat to watch Giamatti and Hoffman play off each other with that warm, father-son dynamic. The two enjoy a great rapport. Rosamund Pike gives a graceful and tender performance as Miriam, the love of Barney’s life who stands by him even when he hurts, embarrasses and disappoints her. Together, Giamatti and Pike beautifully portray a true marriage – one with ups and downs, but never without love. Like Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (see further down), they make the relationship so real and recognizable. Among many other things, Barney’s Version is a wonderful depiction of an adult relationship, maybe the best I’ve seen since 2008’s Ben Kingsley/Penelope Cruz drama Elegy.

I wish Giamatti had scored an Oscar nomination for this, one of the highlights of his admirable career. He did just win a Golden Globe award, surprising many who had predicted the award would go to his heavyweight competition Johnny Depp (nominated for both The Tourist and Alice in Wonderland) or Jake Gyllenhaal for Love and Other Drugs. Their roles may have been in higher profile films, but anyone who saw Barney’s Version shouldn’t have been surprised by Giamatti’s victory. Unfortunately the movie was a victim of poor marketing, released too late in the year with too little fanfare against too stiff competition. The market was saturated with award-hopeful movies, and this one was given no room to breathe. I think had it been released more strategically or advertised more aggressively, Giamatti would at least have been a more prominent part of the Oscar conversation, even if he eventually got squeezed out. But if you see the movie, the performance is a reward in itself.

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BLACK SWAN
This is one fucked up movie. I debated whether or not to include it since, in a way, I’m not sure how good it really is. Watching it, I was riveted, sucked in by Darren Aronofsky’s bravura, operatic direction. But strip away all the razzle-dazzle – the bold directing, the committed performances, the art direction, the cinematography, the costumes, the music, the makeup – and what’s really left on the page? What is it all built on? Is it a house of cards? A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing? Maybe that’s going too far, but the script is pretty flimsy. Yet in the end, despite the thin foundation, I was taken in by its extremes and how creepy and darkly funny it is. It’s brazenly over the top, but Aronofsky beat me into submission with the sheer force of his filmmaking skill. In a strange way, it’s not unlike what Michael Bay does. Maybe I’m more willing to go along with Aronofsky because he at least has loftier aspirations.

Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers is a timid ballet dancer in New York’s premier company who lands the dual-lead in Swan Lake. While Nina dances the elegant White Swan role to perfection, she struggles to tap into the rougher, darker persona of the Black Swan. Mila Kunis plays Lily, a confident and sensual new dancer to the company who tries to help Nina tap into her wild side. Kunis does good work, as does Vincent Cassell as the company director, Barbara Hershey as Nina’s overbearing mother and Winona Ryder as the company’s aging star, but the movie rests on Portman’s shoulders. Black Swan, more than any film I’ve seen in a long time, fits the description “psychological thriller,” and Portman is marvelous as she depicts Nina’s increasing instability. I still don’t know what was real and what wasn’t, what to believe and what to doubt, but I know that the actress gives it her all. Playing meek or strong, unraveling emotionally and mentally, and delivering on the physical demands of portraying a top ballerina, this is a tour-de-force for Portman.

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BLUE VALENTINE
The dissolution of a marriage is hardly new terrain. From Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to The War of the Roses, from Carmela and Tony on The Sopranos to Revolutionary Road, this is territory that has been frequently explored in literature, on stages and on screens large and small. That doesn’t mean there’s not more to say on the subject. As long as people continue to struggle in marriages, the topic will be explored through drama. The latest example stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as Cindy and Dean, a couple whose relationship is cracking under everyday pressures and the shifting expectations they carry of themselves and each other. Though the marital strife does sometimes escalate to bouts of screaming, mostly the movie is made up of smaller moments that show the marriage fraying. These scenes, which take place over the course of just a day, are juxtaposed with the sweet courtship and romance that brought them together. Derek Cianfrance writes with an ear for realism and directs in close-ups that bring the viewer right into Cindy and Dean’s personal space. His background as a documentarian allows him to approach his first fictional film with unsentimental observation, and while this is a piece driven by writing and acting, he shows an eye for composition as well, filling the movie with reds, blues and blacks that help it come alive.

Williams and Gosling are Cianfrance’s partners every step of the way, acting with raw intimacy and intensity that is remarkable to behold. Neither character is completely right or wrong, and the movie doesn’t lead you to sympathize with one over the other, though you may well find yourself choosing a side. From the city streets where they get to know each other to the kitschy, “future-themed” hotel room where they try to save the relationship, Blue Valentine gives us a front row – almost invasive – view at the life of a couple: love, sex, regret, secrets and hopes. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s pretty damn powerful.

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CYRUS
A good script and good performances distinguish this dark comedy from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, whose indie film background (they come from the mumblecore movement) probably explains why they wring more authenticity and emotion from a story that, in mainstream hands, would likely be much more shallow. John C. Reilly has a great role as John, a sad guy who has failed to move on since his marriage fell apart. Then he meets Marisa Tomei’s Molly, and the two connect almost immediately. Things get complicated when John meets Cyrus (Jonah Hill), Molly’s creepy, live-at-home son, who does not approve of John’s intrusion into the uncomfortably close relationship he shares with his mother.

Aside from being so funny, it’s the realism and restraint that impress me most about Cyrus. When the building tension between John and Cyrus explodes for all to see, the brothers Duplass play the aftermath in a way that respects an audience’s intelligence. A lesser movie would have villified John, or failed to include the scene where he fully explains the situation to Molly. But by not going too broad with the humor, the movie earns the right to include that scene and to allow Molly to actually hear what John has to say…and then, in turn, to have an honest conversation with Cyrus. It’s such a simple thing, and yet it’s what makes a movie like this so much better than, say, Meet the Parents, in which Ben Stiller’s character is made out to be an asshole by everyone around him, never given the benefit of the doubt or an opportunity to explain himself. Don’t get me started on that tangent…the point is that Cyrus avoids that kind of nonsensical plotting, and instead scores with humor that is heightened but believable.

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THE GHOST WRITER
Skillfully directed by Roman Polanski, this quiet, elegant political thriller stars Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to complete the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), Britain’s recently exited Prime Minister, after the original ghost writer dies in an accident. He journeys to the house on Cape Cod where Lang and his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) are staying, and quickly finds that the job is not nearly as simple – or safe – as he expected.

It seems to come across onscreen how much fun Polanski is having with this clever mystery, and following its twists and turns is just as much fun. In addition to a strong and engaging story, the film’s pleasures include its outside-the-box casting, with James Belushi, Kim Cattrall, and Timothy Hutton among the familiar faces popping up, and a super score by composer Alexandre Desplat. The Ghost Writer is also a triumph of contemporary art direction, with the interior design of the beach house contributing intangibly but unmistakably to the movie’s air of intrigue. And the ending…well, having directed Chinatown, Polanski is responsible for one of the great movie endings of all time. The Ghost Writer‘s final moments may not be in that hall of fame, but they’re pretty memorable.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I
As we move toward the finale of this grand adventure, director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves continue to do a mostly admirable job of translating J.K. Rowling’s story to the screen. The three lead actors are excellent (Daniel Radcliffe, while still lacking in certain areas, has done his best work under Yates’ guidance), and this time more than ever before, the film is truly on their shoulders. Rather than returning to Hogwarts for the final year of school, Harry, Ron and Hermione are on the hunt for hidden fragments of Voldemort’s soul. Destroying them all is the only way to defeat him, but their journey is perilous and exhausting. Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson convey the weight of the task as the characters struggle to keep their spirits up and their friendship intact. Some viewers may find the journey drags, but I appreciated the filmmakers staying faithful to the idea that the trio must keep moving even without always knowing where they’re going or what to do next. As the days stretch on, Voldemort’s Death Eaters tighten their noose on the wizarding world while the Dark Lord himself pursues a tool he believes will make him truly invincible.

Although much of the film tracks Harry, Ron and Hermione’s wanderings across the countryside, the supporting cast isn’t entirely absent. In particular, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Imelda Staunton all get good (if brief) moments to play. As usual, the production values are top notch – art direction, cinematography and score are all noteworthy, and the visual effects are the best and most seamlessly integrated we’ve seen in all the films. While no Potter movie can ever live up to the one in my head, Deathly Hallows Part I left me quite satisfied and excited for the conclusion.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
“Dragons is sooo stupid.” So said Yosemite Sam’s Black Knight in the classic Looney Tunes short Knighty Knight Bugs. If only he’d had Hiccup on his side. The protagonist of this film adapted from a series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell, Hiccup is a boy in the seaside Viking village of Birk, where for generations man has battled dragons. Not exactly the warrior type, Hiccup finds he has other gifts when he begins observing and then interacting with a wounded dragon. As the two enemies take stock of each other, Hiccup discovers a more complicated truth about the creatures that his fellow villagers are determined to destroy.

Dreamworks Animation often seems to build its movies around a star-studded vocal cast, so it’s ironic that the success of this outing – which emphasizes story and character – is so connected to the central vocal performance. Jay Baruchel’s distinctive voice, with its sarcastic overtones and inherent likability, makes Hiccup an enormously appealing hero, and the vocal work is matched by the excellent character design and animation that bring Hiccup to life. Together, Baruchel and the animators make Hiccup into a character that’s easy to root for because he’s got scrappy, underdog appeal. As he surprises the village and himself with his cleverness and bravery, the movie proves a funny, charming and moving adventure.


THE KING’S SPEECH

Okay, just because my Oscar ramblings make clear I’d rather see something else win Best Picture doesn’t mean I don’t think The King’s Speech is great. Cause the movie is great – an entertaining examination of one man’s personal triumph set at a fascinating moment in history when Hitler was on the rise and the advent of radio was changing the way people were connected and informed. It really is an instance of truth being stranger than fiction that against that backdrop, Prince Albert – known to loved ones as Bertie and eventually to the world as King George VI – would find himself having to overcome a debilitating stutter. When nothing and no one seems able to help, his wife Elizabeth turns to quirky Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose unconventional methods begin producing results. As the movie goes on, Bertie and Lionel’s relationship moves beyond doctor-patient and into a friendship that proves as vital to Bertie’s growth as the attack on his stammer.

Colin Firth’s layered performance as Bertie is impressive for more than just his handling of the obvious handicap. He shows us a man whose fear exceeds public speaking and extends to whether he has it within him to lead the nation – a role that, as the younger sibling, he never expected to fill. Geoffrey Rush has fun with Logue’s eccentricities and sense of humor, his loose style flying in the face of the stiff formalism of Bertie’s world. As a member of Britain’s royal family, with its protocol and pomp, Bertie doesn’t quite know how to deal with Logue’s  directness and attempts at familiarity, and sparks fly between the actors and characters as Logue increasingly tries to dig beneath the surface of Bertie’s life not only to get at the root of the stutter, but also to encourage him to embrace his inner strength. It’s more fun than you’d think to watch these two match wits. In fact, for a period piece about British royalty, it’s more fun than you’d think, period.

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NEVER LET ME GO
Despite earning high praise, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go didn’t do much for me, so the fact that it was being made into a movie was barely on my radar. I wasn’t particularly eager to see it, but when the opportunity came up, I took it. And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of the year…obviously, given its place on this list. The story covers a 16 year span, and feels like a period piece even though it begins in 1978 (which, some might say, does in fact make it a period piece). It concerns three friends at a boarding school called Hailsham, nestled in the English countryside. And like the most famous English boarding school (Hogwarts, of course), Hailsham is a place for special students…and I’ll say no more than that. As with many normal relationships, the one between this trio of friends – Kathy, Ruth and Tommy – is complicated, both because and irregardless of what makes them special.

In the last two-thirds of the movie, which take place after the Hailsham days, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are played by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and Andrew Garfield, and they create a familiar and believable dynamic that pays off in the story’s quiet but powerful endgame. Mulligan’s Kathy is the central character and narrator, and she gives an especially good performance, conveying a lot through silence and stillness. Where I felt the book meandered and went too far at times into Kathy’s disjointed memory, the film streamlines events and makes more immediate the delicate entanglements between the three, resulting in a movie that I found sad, beautiful and moving…none of which I got from the book. There is one sequence toward the end, when Kathy and Tommy encounter someone from their Hailsham past, that does suffer in the film from being too abbreviated. In the book, the scene is actually too heavy with exposition; here it’s too light. I wish the filmmakers could have found the middle ground. But in the end the movie packs a punch thanks to the open performances and the stark visual composition brought by director Mark Romanek. This was one of those movies – there seems to be at least one every fall – that arrived with high expectations and award-season pedigree yet didn’t seem to catch on. But I suspect and hope that in time, people will find their way to it and be as touched by it as I was.

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SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD
Movies don’t get much more fun than Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which is based on a graphic novel series about the titular 23-year old musician/video game enthusiast/heartbreaker/geek (played by Michael Cera) who falls for the aloof, alluring Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but must defeat her seven evil exes in order to be with her. It’s a movie that adheres to absolutely no laws of realism, logic or gravity…and therein lies its huge appeal. At the point mid-movie when Ramona pulls a gigantic sledgehammer out of her bag as casually as if it were a case of mints, it didn’t even phase me. I barely noticed the oddity. I was on my third viewing of the movie before I stopped to think, “Hey, where did that ridiculously large sledgehammer come from?” But that’s par for the course in this movie that plays like a gonzo mash-up of comic book and video game without being at all vapid or brainless. For all the loopy fantasy the movie basks in, it provides Scott with a worthy character arc and even has something to say about the baggage people bring into their relationships.

Much of the credit for the film’s success belongs to the direction by Edgar Wright, not just for so inventively realizing the story onscreen, but for so successfully communicating his vision to the cast. Watch the movie and then try for a moment to imagine the actual on-set filming of, just for one example, the fight which finds Scott squaring off against the flamboyant Matthew Patel. It’s ludicrous enough (delightfully so) in the finished product, but what must it have been like to actually shoot it, in the moment, without the music, editing, and sound and visual effects to tie it all together? Seriously…how much trust do you need to have in your director to play that scene?

That down-for-anything ensemble cast, one of the strongest of the year, includes the welcome return of Kieran Culkin (back in the smart-ass mode he nailed so well in Igby Goes Down), Up in the Air‘s Anna Kendrick, a wonderfully deadpan Allison Pill and among the exes, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman. Cera, meanwhile, continues to mine variations of the awkward persona he perfected on Arrested Development. I know some people have grown tired of him and think he just does the same thing from movie to movie, but I still find him hilarious and see distinct shifts between his roles in Development, Juno, Superbad, Youth in Revolt and this.

Comparing a movie to a video game is usually intended to denigrate it, but not so in this case. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World asserts that a movie can play like a video game and still offer intelligence, wit, originality and heart.

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TRUE GRIT
Having never seen the 1969 classic that won John Wayne an Academy Award, the only baggage I carried into the remake by Joel and Ethan Coen was my love of their films. They did not disappoint. With their usual cadre of collaborators, including the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen Brothers spin the story of 13 year-old Mattie Ross, who hires the formidable marshall Rooster Cogburn to find and kill her father’s murderer, Tom Cheney. Determined to personally see the job through, Mattie insists on accompanying him…and there’s just no winning an argument with Mattie Ross.

While the film’s star and presumptive main character is Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges in his first collaboration with the Coen Brothers since they gifted The Big Lebowski unto the world, the true main character and star of the film is Mattie, played wonderfully by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. This modern teenager slips effortlessly into the skin of a girl living in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s, left to help manage her family’s affairs and seek justice by her own means. She’s a great character, and Steinfeld plays her to the hilt, displaying strength, subtlety, confidence and a mastery of the verbal acrobatics provided by the Coens (and by Charles Portis, author of the book on which the film is based). Steinfeld would outright steal the movie were it not for Matt Damon, adding yet another feather to his cap in the role of LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger who’s also in pursuit of Cheney. Damon is often hilarious without ever playing for an obvious laugh. His take on LaBoeuf is perfect and priceless, and I’m consistently amazed by his ability to occupy the role of Movie Star and yet continue to be so versatile and surprising. With Steinfeld and Damon commanding so much of the spotlight, it might seem like there’s none left for Bridges, but he makes a great Cogburn, lending the character the toughness to match his reputation, as well as the grim humor required for sparring with Mattie and LaBoeuf. Once again the Coen Brothers meld violence, humor and intensity into a hearty stew. More please.

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WINTER’S BONE
Hailee Steinfeld was not the only young actress to impressively leap onto the scene in 2010. Meet Jennifer Lawrence, star of this Sundance breakout that could have gone by the name True Grit just as easily as Steinfeld’s film. As it is, Winter’s Bone is a perfectly apt title for this original and affecting drama set in an insular Ozark community where secrets run ominously deep. Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a tough, resourceful teen with a rarely-present father and a mentally frail mother. Left to care for her younger siblings, Ree’s already fragile world is threatened when she learns that her father, recently out of prison, is missing and had put the family’s house up as collateral for his bail. If he fails to appear in court the next week, they’ll lose their home. So Ree sets off to find him, but quickly realizes that those most likely to know his whereabouts are not inclined to help. Her determination to protect her family equals a refusal to stop stirring the pot, and her search for answers leads her down a dangerous road.

The script by Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini is a fresh and detailed examination of a community unlike those we normally see in mainstream film. Director Granik palpably captures the chill in the mountain air, though that chill is as much about the mystique of the setting as the temperature. Even Ree’s allies are sketchy and unsettling, most particularly her father’s brother Teardrop, played with a mix of menace and concern by John Hawkes. Ree’s journey into the dark heart of her surroundings makes for a thrilling story of discovery, but for the audience, the movie – and the talent in front of and behind the camera – is a discovery of its own.

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As always, there are other movies that made a positive impression to one degree or another, but these are the ones that I felt compelled to single out. But because I love me a good montage of movie scenes, the following two clips offer another look at  2010’s playlist – good, bad and ugly. The first is much more inclusive, but the second hit some images that I also liked, plus I dig the song.

(Click here for list of films featured)

(Go here and click Show More for list of films featured)

February 20, 2010

Favorite Movies of 2009

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 1:24 pm
Tags: , ,

A traditional Top Ten list doesn’t make much sense to me. I can pick out my absolute favorite few movies in a given year, but beyond those, I’m not really sure what distinguishes my seventh favorite movie of the year from my eighth. By the same token, cutting the list off at ten seems equally pointless if the idea is to highlight the movies from the year that meant the most to me. Again, I’m not sure how to differentiate number ten on my list from number twelve. So what follows is a look at my favorite movies from the year, period…starting with the top of the top and working my way through the rest alphabetically rather than assigning arbitrary rankings.

And away we go…

#1:
PRECIOUS

If you’ve been afraid to see this movie, get over it. Yeah, it’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the year….but for my money, it was easily the best, so no excuses. You may think that the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones – an obese, illiterate 16 year-old, abused every which way by her monstrous mother and pregnant with her second child by her father – will be unbearably dark and depressing, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Remember last year’s crowd-pleasing indie (and winner of eight Academy Awards) Slumdog Millionaire? Precious is satisfying in much the same way. It doesn’t have the same stand-up-and-cheer momentum going for it, but like Slumdog‘s protagonist Jamal,  Precious refuses to be defined by her environment or background and will not allow others to set her limitations. From an audience’s perspective, the more important similarity between the two films is the emotional response they earn. As unforgiving as Precious’ circumstances are, she has the courage to fight against the forces that threaten to keep her down, and in her struggle is beauty and hope. She may still face a bleak future, but she’ll face it on her own terms, and not without a fight. Precious is not depressing; it’s inspired and inspirational.

As the producer of films like Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, Lee Daniels has shone a light on dark, complex stories that ask more of us than another empty Mummy sequel or Katherine Heigl romantic comedy…and which give us more in return. Now he reveals himself as a director just as willing to tackle challenging material and find a way to make it accessible to a mainstream audience. With a script by Geoffrey Fletcher, adapted from the novel Push by Sapphire (the film’s full title cites its source material), Daniels strikes a delicate balance between the harsh realities of Precious’ life and the fantasies that provide her an escape, and he employs carefully measured cinematic flourishes to keep the gritty elements from becoming too overbearing. He is aided in this effort by the terrific, undersung cinematography of Andrew Dunn, who keeps dark the stifling apartment Precious shares with her cruel mother, but also bathes it in an orange glow as if the fires of hell are burning just offscreen. He contrasts this with brighter, more natural lighting for the classroom where Precious begins to come into her own.

In the title role, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe does more than just fulfill the highly specific physical requirements of the character. She nails the girl’s soul, and her performance is only more impressive once you see an interview with her and realize what a transformation she makes, holding every part of her physical self differently in order to become Precious. Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey shine in smaller roles as a nurse and social worker, respectively. Carey, especially is a wonderful surprise. Shedding her known persona entirely, she plays an average woman working a difficult job that takes its toll, and the strength of her performance is that in just a few scenes she shows us more about this woman than the movie has time to tell. She’s really excellent. At the alternative school where Precious begins her new journey, she finds a friend and supporter in the lovely Miss Rain, played by Paula Patton with an open heart and a tough edge lurking below the surface. The girls who play Precious’ classmates are also essential to the film’s success. Each brings a unique charm to the table and gives the sense that they could be the subject of their own compelling story.

Then of course, as Precious’ mother Mary Jones, there is Mo’Nique. Where did this woman come from? I don’t think I had seen her in anything prior to this, and only had marginal awareness of her as a comedic actress. Well there’s nothing comedic about her work here. Mo’Nique strikes with the fury of a hurricane, delivering a performance so powerful, so searing, so scary and riveting that for all of the character’s savagery, you just want more of her. You can’t take your eyes off her, and every single one of her scenes packs an unforgettable punch to the gut. The movie, and Mo’Nique’s performance, challenge the audience to understand that even a monster has its motivations. We aren’t asked to excuse or forgive anything Mary does, but in seeing what drives her, we are made to see that evil has roots. It doesn’t simply spring from nothing, and Mo’Nique drives that point home in the year’s best performance.

Don’t be afraid of Precious. You know it was showered with awards and accolades, you know you’re supposed to like it, but maybe it just sounds like so much work. Well listen to the words being typed by my fingers: this is a great, great film that will, in the best way possible, knock you on your ass. Vibrant characters, wonderful acting, humor, heart, drama…do not miss it.

The Rest:
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and director Marc Webb have pulled off one of the hardest types of films to do: a refreshing, original romantic comedy. Forgoing the gloss of such by-the-numbers studio efforts that have kept the likes of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey busy over the last several years, (500) Days of Summer enjoys a breezy indie feel in its structure (jumping around through days in the relationship), its look (there’s a nice earthtone palette employed by cinematographer Eric Steelberg, and it actually makes Los Angeles look like a pleasant place to live) and certainly in its casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as the couple. As the romantic Tom and the cynical Summer, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel embody a relationship that is sweet, sad and authentic in all its ups and downs. I’m not even sure it’s fair to label it a romantic comedy; that might be limiting. The more dramatic elements feel real, rather than tacked on in order to hit story beats. It reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its capturing of a moving, believable relationship that evokes the yearning, excitement, joy, confusion, frustration and heartache that will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been young and in love.

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ADVENTURELAND
I’ve never worked at an amusement park; there wasn’t a lot of sex or drugs in my youth; and I was only 10 years old in 1987, the year in which this film is set. So I’m not quite sure what it was that I so personally connected with in the story of a college grad forced to take a summer job at a local, old-school fun park. Perhaps it was just the pleasure of watching a winsome story in an interesting setting with a colorful, appealing group of characters. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for movies where kinda nerdy guys get to hook up with hot girls. Whatever it was, the film slowly, warmly snuck up on me, just as the experience does on the protagonist James, played by Jesse Eisenberg. It’s evident that writer-director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad) has a lot of affection for this story and these people, and the cast – including Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds and Bill Hader – couldn’t be better. A few lesser-known actors also stand out: watch for Margarita Levieva as the park’s resident fantasy girl Lisa P. and Matt Bush as its resident bonehead, Frigo. Great movie for a warm summer night.

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AVATAR
Despite its less-than-original story and simplistic characters, Avatar succeeded for me as a thrilling and transportive cinematic experience, introducing the beautiful but dangerous world of Pandora. Sure, I wish that James Cameron’s vivid imagination could have extended far enough to, say, create a less obvious name than Unobtanium for the planet’s elusive mineral sought by the humans as an energy source. (Seriously….Unobtanium?) It doesn’t hold up to Cameron’s past films, and its allure will probably fade over time, but right now in its recent wake I can say that the technical and creative achievements won me over. Plus, Sigourney Weaver makes everything better.

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DISTRICT 9
The mysterious marketing campaign peaked people’s curiosity, and Peter Jackson’s name as producer didn’t hurt, but once we showed up it was co-writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s vision that carried the day. The film thrusts viewers immediately into the action, offering the minimal amount of history needed to set-up the story of an alien population in Johannesburg being forced out of the slum they’ve occupied for 20 years in favor of new, government-sponsored housing further outside the city, all while their massive, immobile mothership hovers overhead. How did the aliens and the humans learn to relate? How did they learn each others’ language? The answers may be interesting, but we don’t get them and we don’t need them. We accept the world as it is and dive into the story.

Using a combination of documentary-style footage with traditional narrative structure, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell introduce us to Wikus Van De Merwe (impressive newcomer Sharlto Copley), a mid-level bureaucrat at Multi-National United, a global corporation which has been placed in charge of the massive alien evacuation operation. A seemingly minor incident in the field winds up having life-altering consequences for Wikus and puts him at odds with MNU, forcing him to seek help from the creatures he’s trying to displace.

It’s interesting to me that in this strong year for science-fiction, when genre god James Cameron returned to the game with a film huge in scope and budget, young filmmakers like Blomkamp and Duncan Jones (see Moon further down) are still carrying the torch of  ingenuity that Cameron displayed 25 years ago with The Terminator. With its simple but imaginative premise, low-tech style and adrenalizing tension, District 9 reminded me of Cameron’s 1984 breakthrough. If we’re lucky, this is the first step in a similarly awesome career.

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FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Wes Anderson’s foray into stop-motion animation manages to be a completely original film even while sharing the now-familiar DNA that runs through all of the director’s work (including 1960’s rock and roll from artists like The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, appearances – vocally only, in this case – by Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson, and camerawork that slides and glides over immaculately designed sets). The fact that the film fits so snugly into Anderson’s oeuvre reinforces what a singular talent he is. His charming take on Roald Dahl’s classic story perfectly casts George Clooney as the voice of the title character who, despite his effort for a normal, domestic life, can’t turn away from his natural hunting instincts. His brazen thievery from the local farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean endanger the entire animal community as well as his marriage. Among the pleasures of the adaptation by Anderson and Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite characters of the year, and one not featured in Dahl’s source material: Mr. and Mrs. Fox’s outcast son Ash, voiced by Schwartzman. Ash is frustrated that he lacks his father’s suave style and athleticism, and it upsets him all the more when his seemingly perfect cousin Kristofferson comes to stay. Ash gives the film much of its humor, and much of its heart as well.

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THE HANGOVER
The high-concept premise of this hilarious comedy is sort of brilliant in its cleverness and simplicity: three men wake up in their wrecked Vegas hotel suite the morning after a bachelor party, unable to find the groom or recall anything about the previous night’s activities. Going off what few clues they have – including a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet – they try to piece together what happened in time to find their friend and get back to L.A. for the wedding. The journey is full of belly laughs, but the trio itself is the key to the movie’s magic. Bradley Cooper is the cool party boy, Ed Helms is the uptight straight-arrow and Zach Galifianakis is…well, words really can’t do justice to Galifianakis’ oddball man-child, but he’s nearly worth the price of admission alone. If you don’t have the taste for a little raunch in your comedy, this probably isn’t for you. But if movies like Old School and Wedding Crashers are up your alley, The Hangover will have you rolling.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
As a die-hard fan of the Potter books, I have (like many such fans, I suspect) a complicated relationship with their movie adaptations. This one was no exception, and my list of “why did they change that” and “it makes no sense to keep this if they didn’t include that” was long. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy about Half-Blood Prince. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves manage some magic of their own in the balance they strike between the darkness encroaching on all the characters and the humor that comes as a result of the students’ raging hormones. To the latter point, two standout additions to the cast are Jessie Cave and Freddie Stroma as Ron’s girlfriend Lavender Brown and Hermione’s suitor Cormac McClaggen, respectively. Both are welcome and, at times, hilarious additions to an already amazing cast. Jim Broadbent, the latest British stalwart to join the series, shines in the key role of a professor from Hogwarts’ past. And as a teenage Voldemort in some too-brief flashbacks, Frank Dillane is frighteningly good, ever-so-subtly capturing the malice and menace that lurks just below the respectable prefect’s surface. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel casts a spell as well, with striking camerawork that moves furtively in and out of the shadows and helps conjure the feeling of dread that hangs over the story. Unfortunately the film oddly and frustratingly deflates in its last few scenes, when it should be hitting its emotional heights. But up until then it’s the moodiest, funniest and most beautiful film in the series so far.

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THE HURT LOCKER
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s best film since Near Dark is an unrelentingly intense experience that places viewers alongside a three-man bomb squad in Iraq. Jeremy Renner plays the daredevil leader Will James, whose apparent lack of fear and casual discarding of protocol troubles his fellow soldiers, the cautious J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and the nervous, struggling Owen Eldredge (Brian Geraghty). Even amidst the heart-pounding set-pieces, the film manages to be an intimate character study, drawing the audience close to the three men through simple glimpses into their days and nights, on duty and off. Working from a solid script by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent time with bomb squads in the field, Bigelow directs with restraint and a documentary-like unobtrusiveness, letting the natural tension of each situation do the work. She’s also not afraid to exercise the patience required to convey the men’s quieter challenges, demonstrated by a sequence in which they fall under attack in the middle of the desert by a sniper and must wait their enemy out for hours. This is a tight, compelling drama offering an unflinching look both at the broad experience of contemporary warfare and the personal experiences of the soldiers who fight it.

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INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
“Once upon a time in Nazi Occupied France…” is the kickoff to Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating World War II tale. Over the course of five chapters, the writer-director tells two stories: one about a squad of Allied soldiers hunting and scalping Nazis across the French countryside; the other about a young Jewish woman, the sole survivor of her family’s murder at the hands of the SS. The two threads meet in a bravura, 40-minute final act that finds Tarantino audaciously and thrillingly re-writing world history. Along the way, he plays with tension like he never has before. He’s described his efforts as equivalent to stretching a rubber band as far as it can go before snapping. Scenes are often lengthy, and he wrings the maximum amount of suspense he can before delivering the payoff. The film’s ensemble – winner of the Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Performance By a Cast – features Brad Pitt, hamming it up amusingly as the U.S. lieutenant in charge of the Basterds; Melanie Laurent as the Jewish girl; Michael Fassbender as an undercover British officer; Daniel Bruhl as a Nazi war hero; and Diane Kruger as a German movie star. But the standout performance belongs to Christoph Waltz as the cunning Nazi colonel Hans Landa, a simultaneously genial and sinister detective. It’s a great role, and in his American film debut, the veteran Austrian actor makes an unforgettable impression. He’s won nearly every acting prize available to him since the film premiered at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. All the hallmarks we expect from Tarantino are here: brilliant dialogue, shocking violence, great performances and an obvious love of films and filmmaking.

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IN THE LOOP
This hilarious satire of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the U.K. in the days leading up to a Middle East war flew under the radar last summer, but demands to be seen by anyone who likes their comedy whip-smart and their language extra-salty. The Oscar-nominated screenplay combines the rapid-fire wordplay of Aaron Sorkin with the precise and artful profanity of David Mamet. Few of the players are household names (James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan are the biggest stars on hand), but they are a sensational group of new and familiar faces who helped make this one of the best surprises I’ve had at the movies in recent memory. See it as soon as you can. And check out the lengthy collection of deleted scenes on the DVD – they’re every bit as good as what remained in the movie.

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THE LOVELY BONES
I know that in offering praise on this film, I’m in the minority. Adapted from the 2002 best-seller by Alice Sebold, it received mixed to savage reviews, with Roger Ebert calling it “deplorable.” (Even if you weren’t a fan of the movie, I think a look a Ebert’s review shows that he’s way off base in his interpretation). Having not read the book – in fact, having the opinion that the story of a murdered teenage girl observing her family and her killer from heaven sounded kinda stupid – I came to the film only with the expectation that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would create something interesting. As far as I’m concerned, he succeeded. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, the murdered girl caught between earth and heaven in a place whose landscapes are constructed from her own memories and from where she watches her family (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz portray her parents) deal with her loss while her neighbor and killer (Stanley Tucci in a creepy, change-of-pace performance) covers his tracks.

The movie is not without problems. The role of Susie’s grandmother, played by Susan Sarandon, seems to exist mainly for comic relief, but I expect there was more to it in the book. Similarly, a plot thread involving a classmate of Susie’s who seems able to sense the dead girl’s presence is underdeveloped and probably had more significance on the page. From what I’ve seen, most of the negative reviews come from critics who’ve read the novel and feel that Jackson buried its beauty and soul in an orgy of CGI. (The “In-Between” that Susie occupies in death is aggressively art directed, no doubt.) Still, I think that overall Jackson created an engrossing and haunting movie that finds power in the depiction of a family torn apart, a killer trying to keep himself together and young victim trying to make sense of what happened to her and where she’s headed.

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MOON
There’s something cool about Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, making his feature directorial debut with a science-fiction film whose haunting quality evokes his father’s classic song “Space Oddity.” The film centers on astronaut Sam Bell, the lone occupant of a lunar space station, as he enters the final two weeks of a three-year stretch running an operation in which the moon’s surface is mined for a substance that is sent back to Earth and converted to energy. As Sam’s departure looms, he has an accident which leads to a devastating discovery.

Among the smartest things that Jones does with his movie is casting the great Sam Rockwell in the lead role. The discovery that Bell makes and the situation he finds himself in as a result provide a great showcase for the actor, who deserves every opportunity to show off his stuff. Even with a setting as expansive as the moon and the emptiness of space around it, Jones keeps the film feeling intimate and Sam’s isolation palpable. And while, like many space stories, this one may seem a bit cold and cerebral, the director and his leading man offer something strangely moving and highly satisfying. This one really stayed with me.

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THE ROAD
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall don’t mess with Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning source material in their adaptation. The story is so sparse, there’s not much messing that could be done. They faithfully tell the story of a father and son moving through the cold, dismal, ashen landscape that remains after an undefined natural disaster has destroyed the world. They search for food, they search for shelter, they try to avoid other survivors – many of whom have turned to cannibalism – and they try to reach the coast, where they hope to find warmer weather and perhaps hope itself. That’s it. Boring? Never. Viggo Mortensen is at his understated best as the protective father, striking a natural rapport with Kodi Smit-McPhee as his compassionate son. Watch for a brief but astounding performance by Robert Duvall, who digs deeper in five minutes of screen time than many actors can go in a whole film.

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A SINGLE MAN
The impressive feature directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford looks as great as one would expect, but luckily Ford is concerned with something more than just the scenery. In the best performance of the year by a male lead, Colin Firth plays George Falconer, a college professor struggling and failing to deal with the sudden death of his partner. Taking place over the course of one day (with flashbacks illuminating the relationship between George and Jim, played by Matthew Goode), the film gives us a character perilously close to losing his way but still in possession of a desire for life, even if he doesn’t realize it. The journey of discovery that comes as George navigates his grief is one experienced by the audience as much as the character, for we get to see Firth dig into a role deeper than anything he’s done before. The scene where he receives the phone call about Jim’s death is a masterful example of restraint and internalization.

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STAR TREK
An epic, imaginative reboot of the beloved but recently stalled-out Star Trek franchise that successfully introduces yet another new crew to follow, succeeding despite the challenge of having audiences accept this new team as younger versions of the original cast. Director J.J. Abrams pulls it off thanks to a smart script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (how is it that these guys write so well for Abrams and so poorly for Michael Bay?) that takes the Trek continuity fans are familiar with and through that most wondrous and liberating storytelling device known as time travel, spins it into an alternate reality that paves the way for a new franchise. Some fans cried foul, accusing the filmmakers of using time travel as a cheat that would let them ignore the history of a universe already deeply established. Others heralded the bold choice as just what Star Trek needed, a creative jolt that shows respect to its roots but frees the filmmakers from the shackles that had begun to hold the series back. I agree with the latter, and the fact that Leonard Nimoy shows up to bridge the gap – just as William Shatner appeared alongside Patrick Stewart in Generations to help pass the baton to The Next Generation crew – helps smooth the transition.

Abrams and his technical crew have created a great looking film, one that revels in widescreen glory and fills the frame with icy blues and sunbright oranges. ILM’s gorgeous visual effects enhance the cinematography and art direction, and advances in technology have allowed Abrams to ramp up the intensity and speed of Trek’s space battles. (Even in the original spate of Trek movies, working with higher budgets and fewer limitations than the TV series, the battling ships didn’t move very fast or evasively. The climactic pursuit of the Enterprise by the Reliant in Wrath of Kahn was less cat and mouse than two blind mice). Credit also goes to the cast assembled to fill the shoes of the beloved original Trek crew. When Chris Pine’s casting was announced, I was skeptical. I hadn’t seen him in anything, but he looked like a dime-a-dozen pretty boy. Watching the movie, I was pleased to find he had charisma to spare and that, at moments, was able to almost capture that elusive Shatner magic. Zachary Quinto’s casting, on the other hand, seemed too good to be true from the get-go, and the story crafted by Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman allows him to add surprising new dimensions to Spock, a character we thought we knew so well. Quinto and Karl Urban, as Dr. McCoy, most successfully channel their predecessors, although Simon Pegg is full of promise as Scotty and Zoe Saldana is a smart, sexy Uhura.

Abrams does occasionally falter, most glaringly in a brief but distracting segment involving not one but two over-the-top CG creatures that serve no real purpose. He also has a tendency towards humor that goes a little too goofy, as when Kirk’s hands swell like balloons as the result of an injection he’s given by McCoy. Luckily these moments are brief and forgivable, overshadowed by a sense of fun and excitement that whets the appetite for continuing voyages.

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UP
The Pixar formula might be getting boring if there was actually anything formulaic about what they do. But building a movie around a grumpy, 80-year old man isn’t exactly playing it safe. The fanciful adventure is set in motion when widower Carl Frederickson (voiced by the great Ed Asner) equips his house with enough helium balloons to carry him to Paradise Falls, an idyllic South American locale that he and his wife Ellie always dreamed of visiting but never managed to reach. The plan first goes awry when Carl discovers an inadvertent stowaway named Russell, a neighborhood boy trying to earn his latest Scout badge. Things continue to unravel from there, with talking dogs, an exotic bird and a mysterious figure from the past all standing between Carl and his dream. Among the movie’s many pleasures is an early montage depicting Carl and Ellie’s life together, and it is among the best and most moving scenes all year, a beautiful example of economic and emotional storytelling. It seems Pixar’s only formula is to come up with great stories and tell them superbly. If only they could share the secret, maybe all movies would be this imaginative and touching.

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UP IN THE AIR
Avatar wasn’t the only movie released in December to feature wondrous three-dimensionality, and it wasn’t the best either. That honor belongs to this shimmering comedic drama from Jason Reitman, whose script (also credited to Sheldon Turner, who worked on earlier drafts, and based on a novel by Walter Kirn) provides three of the year’s richest roles, as well as a timely commentary on how the economic disaster affects the lives of everyday working folk. George Clooney, continuing to exhibit superb taste in material, plays Ryan, a consultant hired by companies to come in and handle layoffs. He loves the traveling-man life that goes along with the job, and has perfected the art of living simply and efficiently. Then the arrival of two women into his perfect world has unexpected effects. One is co-worker Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a recent Cornell grad with big ideas to redefine Ryan’s company; the other is Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent flier with whom Ryan becomes romantically involved.

None of the three are quite what they appear to be, and Reitman’s generosity as a writer and understanding of great characters and relationships is beautifully displayed, particularly between Ryan and Natalie. They’re forced to go on the road together so Ryan can show her the ropes, and Reitman doesn’t just coast by throwing them into a constantly contentious relationship that finally thaws after one special moment finally brings them to a mutual understanding. Their relationship is more layered than that. There is tension, but Ryan doesn’t treat Natalie with total contempt or disrespect. He wants her to understand what he does and how her proposal would affect that. Though his goal is to stop her plans from going into practice, he’s supportive of her as she learns the job. She, in turn, is open to his guidance even as she wants to prove herself as more than the naive girl she feels he takes her for. As she watches him handle the challenge of firing someone, she knows that she has overlooked the nuance involved, and the more Natalie learns, the more Kendrick shines. None of this may sound like much, but many movies wouldn’t give its characters such shadings. Reitman doesn’t present us with archetypes; he presents us with realistic people…who admittedly, have perhaps unrealistically great dialogue to speak. There is so much to enjoy about this movie, from the Oscar-nominated performances of Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga to the supporting players that include Danny McBride, Amy Morton and Reitman’s Juno alums Jason Bateman and J.K. Simmons; from the crisp editing and cinematography that visually convey the precision of Ryan’s lifestyle to the inspired stroke of weaving in scenes with non-actors who really were laid off from their jobs; from the blend of levity and thoughtfulness to the lack of a tidy resolution. With his third film, Jason Reitman cements his standing as one of contemporary cinema’s great storytellers.

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WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers accomplish a small miracle with their adaptation of the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak, turning the story known as much for its brevity as its charm into a psychologically fascinating meditation on loneliness, love and family. It’s  the best, most honest and moving depiction of adolescent isolation and longing I’ve seen since E.T. Actor Max Records is a natural as the rambunctious, lonesome protagonist with whom he shares a name, but the wild things are the real stars. Beautifully realized by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, enhanced by the visual effects team at Double Negative and voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper and Paul Dano, they are a stunningly original group of characters. I could not get enough of them, and my only disappointment with the film is that at an hour and a half, I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with them as I wanted. The movie got a bit lost in the crowded fall schedule, and has been disappointingly overlooked during the awards season. I hope that in time, it will be re-visited, re-evaluated and eventually appreciated far and wide for the work of art that it is.

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ZOMBIELAND
Because a certain faction of my friends were going through a big zombie-phase – from video games like Left 4 Dead to graphic novels like The Walking Dead to regular novels like World War Z – I felt compelled to rally the troops for what looked like a fun little movie on a favorite subject. I had no idea just how much fun it would be. It was, in fact, the most fun I had at the movies all year. Opening night, a packed house – always a good way to see a comedy – and from the first moments to the last (a post-credits easter egg worth sticking around for), Zombieland delivered bigtime. The pairing of Jesse Eisenberg (who had the A to Z “land” spectrum covered in 2009) and Woody Harrelson is inspired, the former’s nervous, nebbish energy providing a great counterpoint to the latter’s cool, cavalier alpha male. Adding to the fun are Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as too-cool-for-school (if-there-were-still-school-but-there-isn’t-because-all-the-teachers-and-classmates-are-zombies) sisters out for themselves. The movie’s aim is firmly to have fun, but it goes just deep enough to remind us what these four characters have endured and lost, which enriches the story in a small but meaningful way. It also boasts the best surprise celebrity cameo of the year; maybe the best ever. So avoid all spoilers, and remember: double-tap!

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There we have it. I could list plenty of other movies from the year that I enjoyed a lot, but these are the ones that left the strongest initial impressions. The film lover in me feels bad leaving certain others out, but I’ll exercise some restraint and leave you with these montages posted to YouTube from other movie fans out there, honoring the year in film.

(Click here for the creator’s blog listing all the clips featured here)


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