2011

THE FILMS OF 2011

This year I did something different.  I decided to write the reviews as I went along.  As a result, I think they more accurately reflect what I was thinking at the time.  As you can see, they are also much longer.  I saw 72 films this year, which was way up from the 57 of last year and was the second highest year (I saw 79 in 2006).  I really felt there were a lot of strong films this year.  As with last year, I didn’t number them but, rather, divided them by categories.  Enjoy.

The Movies I Loved:

Take Shelter (46) – The more this film sits with me, the more I love it.  On the surface, it is about a man’s first schizophrenic break at 35 years old.  As just that, it is a brilliant film.  Every step of his journey into madness is so authentic and heartbreaking.  The acting is as good as it gets, particularly from the two leads: the little known Michael Shannon and the ridiculously ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (without a doubt, she is 2011’s actor of the year).  There are moments between the two of them that are breathtaking.  So much anguish, fear, strength and courage is caught just in their faces.  However, that is not all the film is about.  It is an allegorical look at the battered American psyche: our loss of confidence and our uncertainty about the future.  Amazing.  And that ending!  Some will hate it but it is the most compelling one I’ve seen since “A Serious Man.”

Drive (39) – “Drive” is a visual feast and a masterpiece of restrained film making (restrained, you ask incredulous.  But we’ll get to that).  Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed protagonist: a good guy with a bad side, who is forced to get violent to save an innocent woman and her child.  How cliché is that?  This is the stuff that truly terrible movies are made out of.  Yet, Nicolas Winding Refn (the Danish director who is virtually unknown in the U.S.) manages to build something close to brilliance.  The strength of the film lies in its use of negative space; it is the unseen and the unsaid that matter most.  Refn uses his sparse dialogue beautifully, allowing huge gaps before responses are given (if given at all).  What is said is most often unsubstantial; it is what is not said in return or what happens before the response that is packed with emotion and tension.  Often the speaker is off screen and we’re forced to focus on the listener.  Everything you need to know is in that face; so little needs to be said verbally because so much is said physically.  And Refn likes to play with those faces and how they speak to the audience.  Joy is expressed with sad eyes.  Sadness is expressed with laughter.  And one of the most intensely dangerous scenes of the film is created by a beautifully romantic kiss.  For most of the movie, the violence all occurs off screen, just beyond where you can see it.  This is its own sort of negative space that makes the final presence of violence (when it literally explodes on screen) that much more shocking.  I was also reminded of Michael Mann’s “Collateral” throughout this film.  The use of lighting, particularly in the night scenes, was very much like Mann, full of mood and texture.  However, unlike Mann’s bluer, cooler palette, Refn painted most of these scenes in shades of red.   In fact, red is a common color, showing up in the background throughout the film and covering the foreground in some later scenes.   However, as shockingly graphic as a couple of scenes are, Refn resists the urge to sink into parody; he is not Tarantino.  The two main acts of vengeance return to his earlier formula and occur just off screen or beyond our view, forcing us outside of these strangely intimate moments.  By doing this, he upends the Hollywood tradition and refuses the audience the final blood letting (the revenge fantasy) it craves.  The subtlety of this and decisions made throughout the film are what lift “Drive” beyond the typical action movie drivel.

The Tree of Life (25) – This is the type of film I go to the movies to see; from start to finish, I did not know what to expect.  It is a challenge, for sure.  There is no real narrative to speak of, and there is very little dialogue.  The film also has strange, sometimes inexplicable, asides.  But Malik is taking on bigger things and is attempting to ask fundamental questions about human nature, creation, and how do we reconcile our fragile existence with the notion of a god.  Every scene is visually stunning.  Malik is known for bringing out naturalistic performances from actors, even inexperienced ones, and the film is full of magical, understated and often moving moments.  While I don’t find the essential questions of the film difficult to answer, I know that they are the core struggle of many people’s faith.  As such, this was a big movie trying to say big things in a very quiet way.  I don’t get to see that in film very often.

The Artist (61) – This was the best silent film I have ever seen!  Well, the only one, actually.  But, I have to say I found it to be a pleasure from start to finish.  Using a silent film to tell the story of a movie star who cannot make the transition to talkies is a brilliant idea.  The two French leads, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Beju, were wonderfully expressive and radiated in every scene. I think they both deserve Oscar nominations (if we are lucky, one of them will get one). While the story itself was a fairly typical love story, I enjoyed every scene along that journey.  I found it very funny and charming but was not at all moved by displays of negative emotions, such as love, anger, sadness, and despair.  I thought they were expressed beautifully and often in a nuanced way but they did not evoke emotion in me.  To me, that is a small criticism for one of the most original films I have seen in years.

Weekend (44) – I have to admit a particular weakness for the cinéma vérité style of film-making and if you are not a fan, you should probably skip this one.  Admittedly, this film is not strictly vérité; it might more accurately be called naturalism or realism but vérité sounds Frenchier and it certainly has vérité characteristics: the lack of a musical score, use of natural light, single camera shots, seemingly improvised dialogue, and (most importantly) a sense of the truth of what you are seeing.  It covers three days in the life of two young gay men who meet at a club.  The director draws out beautiful, nuanced and naturalistic performances from the two guys.  The film explores the difficulties of trying to form a relationship in today’s world.  Some of the issues are universal but some are uniquely gay and all are handled with maturity, sincerity and insight.  Not since “Shortbus” have I seen a film that handled sexuality in such a comfortable way.  Hollywood either turns sex into adolescent humor or makes it an idealized conquest that is over after a brief montage of tits and a man’s ass.  Although there were no graphic scenes, “Weekend” was able to deal frankly with the realities of gay sex and the insecurities that surround sex, love, honesty and self disclosure for everyone trying to find (or resist) intimacy.  From start to finish, this was a lovely, honest film.

Shame (62) – This was my first Steve McQueen film (the director, not the late actor).  I have not seen his first film, “Hunger,” though I want to now.  This was a harrowing story of a deeply broken man who is acting out sexually.  He has no ability to connect with anyone emotionally, even his own family.  He dreads intimacy but needs sex and seeks orgasms constantly throughout the day: by himself, with prostitutes, co-workers, strangers, anyone…  Though not ever stated, it is broadly hinted at that he and his sister, played by Carrie Mulligan (“An Education”), have had a sexual relationship at some point in the past.  Their boundaries are frighteningly bad and frighteningly real.  At one point, she makes reference to their childhoods; these are people shaped by trauma.  I suspect we are meant to assume that they experienced some level of sexual abuse, though this is never stated.  The main character is played with a brave intensity by Michael Fassbender.  I first saw him in the little seen British film, “Fish Tank,” but he came to international attention with his role of the American captain in “Inglorious Basterds.”  His rage, pain and self-loathing are in every moment that he is on screen.  He must have been exhausted by the process of this film.  There is also a scene in a restaurant, as perfect as any I have seen this year, where he meets with a woman on a “date.”  She is going about trying her best to make “first date” conversation and he is not even capable of that level of intimacy.  The actress, Nicole Beharie (who I have never heard of), did a stunning job of displaying all the woman’s emotions (hope, nervousness, discomfort, uncertainty) as their date progressed.  Watching her trying to stay optimistic despite growing evidence that this man was off-kilter somehow, was a film lover’s joy; every moment of that date felt completely real to me.  I read a rumor that they will offer Fassbender a nomination for “A Dangerous Method” because he deserves it for this movie but they cannot acknowledge an NC-17 film.  I can tell you, he deserves it more than Clooney or Pitt or most of those who will likely be nominated.

Midnight in Paris (23) – This was the first movie this year that I loved.  From the first scene to the last, it was visually lush, creative and ponderous.  It would not surprise me if Woody Allen got an Oscar nomination or two for this, his best film since “Bullets Over Broadway.”  The images of Paris and the costumes were beautiful in every scene.  Though the romantic elements were completely predictable, the rest of the story was creative enough that I never knew what to expect.  This film is an excellent example of how magical realism can work well to create depth and foster insight in characters (or directors): I felt like Allen was working out some of his own issues with nostalgia through this film.  My biggest complaint (and it’s a fairly small one) lies with Allen’s tendency to make caricatures of others in order to highlight his own character (played well by Owen Wilson, acting exactly like Woody Allen).  Most of the caricatures in this film worked because they were larger than life, loving caricatures of real people.  However, the fiancé and her parents were shallow, mean-spirited characters who existed only for cheap laughs and to generate sympathy for Wilson.  As good as this film was, it would have been better without them.

The Trip (26) – I laughed more at this film than any other I saw this year.  It was Steve Coogan at his best: playing the painfully insecure, grandiose, self involved Steve Coogan who has surfaced in other films (“Coffee & Cigarettes” and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story”).  But what really made the film work was less Steve and more of Rob Brydon’s performance (also as himself).  Steve would get Rob wound up and he had the audience in stitches.  The plot (Steve and Rob tour Northern England tasting food for an upcoming article Steve is writing) is really irrelevant.  It’s just an excuse to put these two together (in a car, at a table, in a bedroom) and watch the absurd one-upmanship.

The Interrupters (37) – Far and away the best documentary I have seen this year.  The film covers one year in the life of poor African Americans and Latinos on the Chicago streets.  Specifically, it looks at a program called CeaseFire and their use of “interrupters.”  They perceive violence as an infection that must be stopped at the moment of transition.  So, they hired men and women who had been in gangs, who had sold drugs, violently attacked others and (in some cases) been murderers.  These folks, with all of their street cred., go out into dangerous neighborhoods and interrupt violence just before it is going to happen by literally getting between people and talking them down.  They put themselves at serious risk but really believe in what they are doing.   The film follows three of them closely and we get to know about them and about some of the people they intervene with.  The film is thought provoking and I had a longer conversation after this movie than I have any film in a while.  It is made by the folks who made “Hoop Dreams.”  It is much more intense than that film (you will find yourself moved deeply in parts) but I did not find it as upsetting, nor did it make me as emotionally exhausted or hopeless, as last years “Waiting for Superman.”

Incendies (20) – This is a beautiful but harrowing film.  It follows French-Canadian twins who are seeking their long lost brother and father somewhere in the Arab world.  The film is in French and Arabic.  The stark Middle Eastern scenery was truly beautiful.  The film alternates between flash backs of their mother’s early life and the twins searching for their family.  The story unravels slowly and the audience begins to suspect in pieces that the twins are headed toward horror rather than catharsis.  The film does rely heavily on coincidences and, by the time the big twists are on the screen, you have probably already guessed them.  That said, though, I was captivated throughout the film and it has really stayed with me.

We Were Here (2) – A documentary about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco.  I know this story well and have seen documentaries/read a lot about the crisis.  What made this film unique and so moving was the way it focused on 5 people and just had them share their recollections.  They were all so funny, brave and devastated that it was just so touching to watch.

Pariah (69) – In some ways, this film is the older sister to “Tomboy,” which is reviewed below.  It deals with a 17 yo butch lesbian in New York, trying to figure herself out and deal with tension at home.  As such, it is exactly like so many queer films of the last twenty years.  I have been seeing this film since I was twenty-three years old and I was reminded of that repeatedly while I was watching it; this is the same story just better written, better directed and better acted.  Is that enough to recommend it?  I think so.  If for no other reason than to see the lead performance of Adepero Oduye, the 33 yo unknown actor who managed to play a 17 yo so beautifully.  The range of emotion she was able to express on screen was such a joy to watch.  The film hits every note you think it will and ends in the way these sorts of indie films do (with some modest catharsis, opportunity for growth and a sense that, though thinks haven’t worked out yet, they will), but it tackles emotions in a realistic and well-rounded way and takes you on a journey that feels complete by the end but not “wrapped up” in the way “Tomboy” does.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (52) – Without a doubt, the worst movie name I can remember. Fortunately, the film itself fares better, exploring the deep psychological and emotional damage a strong personality can wreak in the lives of vulnerable people.  The film’s success pivots on the strength of the lead actress, newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of those Olsens).  Remarkably, she pulls off this complex character beautifully.  Tension builds throughout the film, toward what you are never sure.  Thankfully, the final answer is not easily given.  The last scene will probably leave more than a few people complaining but, to me, it was the perfect way to end it.

Warrior (40) – Perhaps the most underappreciated movie of the year.  Though roundly praised by critics, audiences hardly bothered.  On the day I went, there were 4 other people in the theater.  I understand the resistance; with “The Wrestler” in 2008 and “The Fighter” last year, we’ve seen our share of fight movies recently (of which, “The Wrestler” remains the best of the three).  Wrestling, boxing, mixed martial arts, how many more assaultive sports are out there?  Also, the story arc is the all too familiar broken family/redemption trope (what else could you do with a fight movie?).  However, this movie does it better than most.  The other two films really hinged on two incredibly raw performances, those of Mickey Rourke and Christian Bale, that tended to overshadow the others on the screen.  The two leads in “Warrior” are much more evenly matched, neither out-shining the other.  Also, the conceit of having both brothers go for the title creates a dynamic the other films lack.  You know who has to win from the start of the other two movies.  But, here you get to know both brothers and they are very different from each other.  Both are played well and their behaviors are internally consistent throughout the film, right done to their different fighting styles.  By the time they step in the ring together, you want them both to win for different reasons but have no idea who will.

The Adventures of Tintin (71) – While probably not as accessible as “Hugo” listed below, this film was much more fun.  Based on the comic books written by the Belgian author, Hergé, between the 1930s and the 1960s, this story blends two of his more popular ones (“The Crab With The Golden Claws” and “The Secret of The Unicorn”).  It is a non-stop adventure that has some truly harrowing scenes.  The stop-motion animation is fantastic, better than anything I’ve seen except Avatar, and full of wonderful moments both big (sweeping scenes of an Arab port, an amazing scene on the hood of a crashed plane) and small (reflections in glass, dust motes caught by a sweeping flashlight).  Being a fan of the books (I read almost all of the 20-odd titles), I particularly enjoyed how well Spielberg, et al brought the characters to life; the film had all of the adventure, humor, grandiosity and silliness of the original books.  It was a beautifully rendered and loving tribute.  It sets itself up for a sequel (much as “The Secret of the Unicorn” did) and I, for one, truly hope there is one.  Though, next time, I won’t bother with the 3D; it added nothing to the film.

Tomboy (59) – This charming film follows a few weeks in the life of 10 or 11 year old French girl, Laure, whose family has just moved to a new community.  She tells the neighborhood kids that her name is Michaël.  She plays soccer, swims and falls in love as a boy until, of course, she’s caught.  The actress who plays Laure/Michaël does a fantastic job of capturing all the trepidation and excitement that goes with this new life.  She is well complimented by her much-wiser-than-five-years-old little sister.  My only complaint would be that the ending wraps up a little neatly; conveniently not exploring what would be in real life a fairly traumatic revelation.  However, to do that properly and still end with a tone that matched the rest of the film, would have taken a good deal longer.  In the end, this is a nice addition to the growing ranks of transgendered films and belongs alongside “Ma Vie en Rose.”

The Movies I Really Liked:

J. Edgar (53) – While not quite the triumph of a film like “Letters from Iwo Jima,” this is still the best mainstream drama of the year.  DiCaprio gives a remarkably nuanced performance as Hoover.  Many of you know that I have had my doubts about his acting ability.  In everything since Titanic (with the exception of “Revolutionary Road”), I haven’t felt like I was seeing acting, so much as posing.  However, this film reminds me of what I saw in “This Boy’s Life,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Basketball Diaries,” and “Revolutionary Road” and what I don’t feel like I have seen since: vulnerability.  DiCaprio was present in a way I haven’t found him to be, even in great films like “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed.”  The story of Hoover’s life-long “love relationship” (if you can call it that) with Clyde Tolson was, by itself, reasonably interesting, as was the story of how the FBI was built.  However, the reason to see the film is for the strength of DiCaprio’s performance.

My Week With Marilyn (58) – There is one clear reason to see this sweet and funny film: Michelle Williams.  Her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe is worth admission alone.  She manages to create a multifaceted character who is fragile, insecure, emotionally unbalanced, but is also intelligent, insightful, and capable of manipulation.  Does she need someone to protect her or does she use those people who try to?  The film suggests that the answer is both.  She understands that “Marilyn” is a commodity but does she really want to be seen as Norma Jean?  Yes and no.  Above all else, this film’s Marilyn is ambivalent and Williams captures that beautifully.  It also delves into Munroe’s desire to be a serious actor and suggests she may have had the ability, showing us an interesting window into the transition from classical acting to “The Method” that has come to dominate modern cinema.  On top of all that, it is also very funny and, at times, poignantly bittersweet.  It was a sheer pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Hugo (57) – The one word I would use to describe this film is “lovely.”  It was, from start to finish, a sweet, optimistic and innocent film.  All of this from Martin Scorsese; who’d have thought?  Every image was so lavish, every set so imaginative that that was worth the price of admission alone.  It’s a great addition to the sub-genre known as steam-punk.  Despite that, the story is far less fantastical than the previews made it appear.  The film also had a real sense of humor, provided almost exclusively by Sasha Baron Cohen.  I’m not sure that the 3D was necessary for most of the film but it did make 2 or 3 scenes really beautiful.  Some of the tension and chase scenes may rule it out for very young kids but, otherwise, it is pure escapism for everyone.

Tabloid (18) – This documentary gets the nod for shear weirdness.  It is from the film maker who famously gave us “Thin Blue Line” in the 1980s and “Fog of War” in the 90s.  It covers the true story of the Mormon missionary in England who was “kidnapped” in the mid-1970s, kept handcuffed to a bed and forced to have sex with a former Idaho beauty queen who had dated him in Salt Lake City and became obsessed with him.  Afterwards, he stated it was kidnapping and rape.  She claims that there was at least some degree of consent but that he was the victim of Mormon brainwashing.  It was referred to in the tabloids as the “Manacled Mormon” case.  The bulk of the interviews were with the kidnapper, who was and still is clearly a bit off her rocker.  The director (who spoke before the film at the SF International Film Festival) called the film a love story.  However, his own directing belied that.  The camera angles, editing and rather brilliant use of bold typed commentary flashing over top of the interviewees, all suggested that he thought she was as loony as the audience did.  The film is difficult to describe and his approach could be seen as off-putting, manipulative or too clever.  However, I really enjoyed the shear wackiness of the whole thing.  There is a point as which, you just throw up your arms and think, “really?  That too…?”

The Descendants (60) – This is a film with a lot of buzz, particularly around Clooney and a possible Best Actor nod.  The film was quite good, I will say that.  Lightly funny in parts, poignant and legitimately insightful.  The characters were fairly nuanced for a Hollywood film.  The scenery was beautiful.  But, the film developed absolutely exactly as you might predict it would.  It did not deviate so much as a heartbeat from the path laid out in the first few minutes.   And, as for Clooney, what can I say?  He plays Clooney very well.  His performance pales when compared to Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter” or DiCaprio in “J. Edgar,” or even Brad Pitt’s relatively small role in Tree of Life.”  I did really enjoy the film, I’m just not sure it lived up to the buzz.

50/50 (42) – In evaluating this film, I think we have to start by admitting that it isn’t possible to make a terminal illness movie without being manipulative and (at least most of the time) cloying.  Either the character dies or they don’t and both of those situations is melodramatic and manipulative.  So, this movie certainly has both of those elements but this isn’t some Sondra Bullock flick.  It is genuinely funny from start to finish and, toward the end, there are several heart wrenching scenes that were beautifully acted; Angelica Huston and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt really shined, especially in the latter part of the film.  It is not without its flaws, though.  The father character was wholly unnecessary and brought an odd dynamic to every scene he was in.  Too much of the plot was predictable and you knew from the start where every relationship was going to end up, whether good, bad, or brief.  Don’t go to this film looking to be wowed by cinematography or the complexities of plot.  However, you have to be clear on the type of film this is; it’s a dramatic comedy (with dramatic being the modifier).  As such, caricatures and some plot absurdities are to be expected.  The dialogue was at times rich, funny, emotionally generous and insightful.  If that’s enough, this is a really good film.

Super 8 (24) – JJ Abrams got it right with this one.  Though he is covering the exact same ground here as with “Cloverfield,” he has learned from those mistakes.  He continues to show an adept ability at building tension and is a real master at keeping the villain/monster/etc just out of view.  What was once done as a budget necessity, he uses to great effect.   This film is also more an unbridled homage to the movies of his youth and is the love child “E.T.” and “The Goonies.”  It could have been a mess but it works and I felt like I was seeing a movie I could have seen as a kid with all of the good natured goofiness that seems lost from so many modern “action” or “sci-fi” films.  As is almost always the case, the monster is better when you can’t quite seem him than when you finally do.  And the movie has a bit of a sappy ending… but so did “E.T.”  Great ending credits.  They are the most fun to watch of any ending credits I can remember.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (32) – I struggled with whether to put this above or below “Super 8.”  I think that one is, overall, a more complete picture; it is funnier and more charming by spades.  But, this is groundbreaking CGI.  Every time a human being is the focus, “Planet of the Apes” lacks focus.  The dialogue is hollow and corny, the plot teetering on ridiculous (even for sci fi), and the acting was flat (I am having real doubts about whether or not James Franco can act).  As such, the beginning of the movie was slow and silly at times.  However, everything starts to change halfway through when Caesar is caged with other apes.  His transition to hating humans and plotting revenge is brilliant theater.  Though he cannot speak, this CGI ape’s emotional range is as clear as Charlie Chaplin’s.  I was glued to the rest of the film and fascinated by what could be accomplished with CGI.  So, for that vision of future cinema alone, I put this movie where it is on my list.  Certainly, it is a movie of the moment and will matter not at all in a couple of years.  But, what a moment…

Into The Abyss (55) – Werner Hertzog’s second documentary of the year was, for me, the better of the two.  It takes a look at capital punishment in America through the eyes of two killers and their victims’ families.  Though Hertzog is clear from the start about his position on the issue, he allows people to speak for themselves.  The person I saw it with didn’t think it went far enough to condemn the death penalty.  He would have preferred interviews with people wrongly accused rather than the boys Hertzog chose.  But, to me, that’s its strength.  Nobody (except maybe Rick Perry) wants the killing of innocent people.  The real discussion is should we kill people like the ones in this film.  Any argument against the death penalty has to start there.

Rubber (8) – C’est très bizarre.  Though the film was written and directed by French director, Quentin Dupieux, it was filmed in the U.S. with a mostly American cast, some of whom are in the “oh, he looks vaguely familiar” category.  It is hard to explain or make sense of this movie about an old car tire that inexplicable comes to life and goes on a murderous rampage through the American Southwest, all while being observed by a Greek-chorus like group of movie-goers; they watch the events from a hilltop in the desert with binoculars but claim to be watching a movie.  This is clearly a spoof on film making and audiences (and maybe American audiences in particular) but most of the commentary gets lost in the overall general weirdness.   However, I laughed out loud multiple times and, in the end, I think this movie belongs on any good B-movie list.

Movies I’m Glad I Saw:

Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (72) – I don’t think I can quite heap the adulation on this film that most critics have.  It is a well-crafted spy film with lots of twist, complex storytelling and a large case of characters.  However, its languid pace removes it from any definition of a “thriller.”  Oldman does a great job of playing George Smiley and there is real subtlety in his performance, in fact more than most people probably expect from this genre.  I think I would say that I enjoyed it for the most part, but I’d hardly say I loved it.

Contagion (35) – The best film on an apocalyptic virus that I have ever seen (how many have I seen?).  The previews make it look like a typical apocalyptic film (e.g. danger, a bit of action, special effects, bleak zombie filled wasteland), but folks looking for that movie will be disappointed.  Though the sequence of events move along at a lighting pace, individual scenes can seem to crawl by: either filled with languid bodies and quiet moments or with rapidly spoken monologues of highly scientific jargon or cultural commentary.  I have heard some liberal media calling it conservative because trade unions take hits (on 3 occasions) and a left-wing conspiracy blogger is portrayed very negatively.  However, the primary targets appear to be the under-funding of the federal government and big corporations.  The real strength of the film lies in the story’s step-by-step process of how the virus spreads; the production company hired several prominent virologists to help develop the plot.  This is apparently a very plausible way a viral outbreak could spread.   I found that part fascinating and more than a little creepy.  Now, everyone, please go wash your hands.

The Debt (36) – Based on the 2007 Israeli film, “Ha-Hov,” this movie tries its hand at being a pensive thriller and almost pulls it off.  Jessica Chastain (who nobody had heard of 6 months ago but has now been in 8 movies in 2011, including “Tree of Life,” “The Help,” and “Take Shelter”) plays a young Mossad agent tasked with killing a Nazi war criminal in 1966 East Germany.  After things go terribly wrong, her two partners and she spend the next 30 years trying to move on.  Guess what?  They can’t.  The film is at its best when the Nazi is on the screen, particularly when he is trying to get under the skin of the 3 agents.  However, the film is neither an all-out thriller nor an all-out morality tale.  By trying to be both, it ends up not being wholly satisfying as either.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (65) – It’s strange when I compare this to the other one, which came out just last year and was so much lower on that list.  I’m not sure I can say why the discrepancy.  The story is bleak and the violence against women is wearing but, for some reason, I was better able to sit through this version, perhaps because I had not just read the book.  This version alters some of the details in the central story but stays truer to the end, while the other movie did the opposite.  In both cases, the women who played the titular character did a good job.  The detective/thriller aspects of the story are taut and well-paced.  Both films and the book all strike me as vigorously anti-male; the lead character (as a stand in for the author) is the only decent guy but even he is just another shallow man in the end.  Social criticisms aside, the movie moved along rapidly and was fairly entertaining.  If you like tension and don’t mind violence, it’s a good rental.

The Guard (34) – This is a small Irish movie worth checking out.  Don Cheadle plays an FBI agent who has to work with a small town cop, played by Brendan Gleeson.  Gleeson plays smarter-than-he-looks well and he has this character down.  His blunt, disinterested approach and amiably racist banter made me laugh many times.  The plot is cliché and builds to a typical climax.  It wasn’t a brilliant film but it was a pretty enjoyable comedy.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (27) – This was a beautiful documentary about the caves in France that hold some of the most stunning and intact cave art in the world.  The film was far more lavish and enjoyable than it should have been.  As hokey as director Werner Hertzog can be, his wide-eyed pensiveness worked in the narration here.  I don’t know that I would ever see it twice but I am really glad I saw it once.

Hot Coffee (15) – An insightful documentary about the role civil litigation plays in ensuring our quality of life and overall safety.  It was brilliantly done; very thorough and presented in an organized and coherent way (the first time director is also a civil attorney).  The film started with the titular McDonald’s case and stripped away the myths we had all heard about it.  From there, she makes a compelling argument for how big corporations have stripped our legal rights and padded the benches with their cronies.  A fascinating and thought provoking film.

HaHaHa (16) – I’m a bit embarrassed by the placement of this film.  The problem is that this was a 9:30 movie and I kept falling asleep.  Plus, it was poorly subtitled (white words against a mostly light background).  The end result being that I am not sure how much I can really give an opinion.  However, that said, I found the central premise to be clever and well executed and the film was well acted and funny (and maybe also touching, thought that was more than I could discern).  The movie follows two South Korean men who go out to drinks in Seoul shortly before one is set to leave for Canada.  They discover that they both spent time recently in a small Korean city and proceed to swap stories.  What they never figure out (but the audience is aware of) is that they were there at the same time and their stories overlap, revolving largely around a woman that one of them is obsessed with.  I really think you’ll find it clever… if you stay awake.

Blackthorn (63) – I struggled with whether to put this above or below “The Debt.”  This film does not give us the preachy/predictable ending but also lacks the brilliance of the scenes with the Nazi.  As such, it was a steady “indy” film, letting characters develop slowly and roundly, having a languid pace, even during action scenes, and finishing in an open-ended way.  It covers a few days in the life of an elderly Butch Cassidy (who supposedly escaped alive from his famous Bolivian gunfight in 1908).  He is played deftly by Sam Shepard in exactly the way you would expect: world-wise, worn around the edges, unflappable, stoic to the point of Zen but not a man to double-cross.  He was compelling enough to watch for two hours but not the least bit memorable.

Ides of March (43) – While the critics were fairly split on their overall opinions of this movies, they all seemed to agree that it was a deeply cynical movie, a story of our times and, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone put it, “a fable etched in acid and Obama disillusion.”  I expected a lot from those reviews.  I like cynicism in film, especially in political film.  I’ve known cynical films, I’ve been a friend of cynical films, and this, sir, is no cynical film.  Well, maybe that’s too harsh but I’d call it cynicism lite.  I just kept expecting more.  Nothing that happened seemed that outrageous to me; who doesn’t know those things happen all the time?  That people in the political theater are bottomlessly self-serving is hardly an Anderson Cooper special segment.   I was looking for something really conniving and cruel.  To be fair, nothing seemed remotely over-the-top.  Far worse would have been a storyline about covering up the president killing someone.  But, all of that said, the acting was terrific; Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all particularly good.  George Clooney was, well, George Clooney.  So, in other words, perfectly cast as a liberal senator running for president.  In fact, Clooney’s directing of Clooney doing a script that Clooney wrote, was at times nothing more than liberal porn.  In one rather (unintentionally funny?) moment, we get a recreation of the famous debate question to Dukakis about the death penalty, only George of course gives us the answer we have all been practicing in our heads for years. If we could really get a presidential candidate like that, I would kill people to get him elected.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part II (28) – Though I think HP3 was my favorite of the series, this one is probably a pretty close 2nd.  Lots of drama, action, pathos; all the things you’d expect from a series finale.  It was true enough to the book to please most fans and (for the most part) the changes that were made, were an improvement.  Although, the entire sub-plot of Dumbledore’s childhood boyfriend was left on the cutting room floor, after having been briefly introduced in the last film.  Hmm…

Happy Feet Two  (66) – Having never seen the first one, I had no idea what to expect.  In the end, my evaluation of this film was a bit of a struggle.  As I was watching it, I was going back and forth.  “The animation is really really beautiful… but it’s a musical… but it’s funnier than I thought it would be… but they keep singing…”  The story was nonsense, the film was grotesquely heartwarming and, when they weren’t singing, they were dancing.  However, the songs were all popular songs and more funny than sentimental (at least to me).  I do think the bastardized version of Puccini’s famous aria was one of the more brilliant scenes in the film.  Oh, and the krill are gay.

Money Ball (41) – I was a bit surprised when I realized how far down the list I was going to put this movie.  I really did enjoy it; I just felt that, for a variety of reasons it was not as good as the films above: not as moving or as funny, as well acted, as beautiful, as endearing, or as unpredictable.  In the end, it was very paint by numbers and most of it happened as you expected it too.  That said, the story was really interesting to me.  In fact, I’ll be doing more research on it later.

A Dangerous Method (70) – Freud and Jung battle it out for supremacy in the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis.   Freud says it is all about sex, Jung is skeptical, even while he is sleeping with one of his patients.  Based on a (I’m not sure how) true story, this film felt more like a homework assignment than a piece of art or entertainment.  All three leads play their roles well enough.  The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender (as Jung) and Cronenburg’s muse, Viggo Mortensen, as Freud got through the paces as well as one might expect from two good actors but without any passion or illumination.  Keira Knightley, who plays the patient, is the only one worth watching.  Her over-the-top performance is in stark contrast to theirs.  Whether it is an accurate depiction of Sabina Spielrein or not I cannot say, but it was the only thing that kept me interested.

Movies That Were Okay:

Blank City (22) – This is a vaguely interesting documentary about the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression film movements in New York City from the mid-70s to the mid-80s that gave folks like Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi their starts.  It was shot almost entirely with Super 8 cameras and is grainy, shaky and mostly black and white.  I have seen none of the films referenced (“Downtown81,” “The Foreigner,” “The Way It Is,” are among the most famous) but I have no real interest in seeing any of them.  And that, I think, is the main problem with the documentary.  The movement is interesting in an academic way but it was hard to feel the passion of those young auteurs.

Margin Call (49) – This is a vaguely interesting non-documentary about the financial collapse of 2008.  In fact, it is not nearly as interesting as “Inside Job,” the documentary that I have seen on the subject.  The film  takes you behind the scenes of a fictional company on the night before the collapse starts.  You see the machinations behind decisions to cut losses despite the effect on other companies and you come to appreciate the men and women involved as real people stuck in a difficult situation.  In theory.  Had it not been for the distance kept between us and the characters at all times, I might have felt something for somebody.  As it was, I felt nothing but a mild curiosity.

A Better Life (68) – Was this a good film?  Sure.  And I think that really sums it up.  This is indie fare of the most standard type.  Well acted and well meaning.  It’s the story of a single undocumented Mexican father and his teenage son who was born in the U.S.  Dad works hard, son takes it for granted.  Then things go bad and the boy learns to appreciate his father.  I give it credit for leaving the ending unsettled, that was a nice choice.  Fifteen years ago, I would have loved it, but now… I won’t remember this movie at all in a couple of years.

Win Win (10) – This was the first Paul Giamatti film I had seen in several years, yet everything about his character was immediately familiar; this is the old Paul I have always known (i.e. sad sack, decent hearted, worn out by the pressures of life and his own poor choices).   It seems, he is himself on screen.  That said, this film was as satisfying as most other films of his I have seen.  He is adept at playing the crumbling man you want to root for.  The film was genuinely funny at times: Jeffery Tambor and Bobby Cannavale were goofy fun and their interactions were some of the highlights of the film.  However, I was nagged by this feeling that what kept this film from being really good was the lack of acting strength in the kid who played the wrestler around whom the entire movie revolved.  His deadpan affect worked initially as the disaffected adolescent but, as the film increasingly required him to show complex emotions (such as rage, sadness, ambivalence, fear, resignation, etc), it just seemed he wasn’t up to the task.  It was a sweet film and a nice effort but, in the end, I never felt as deeply as the film wanted me to.

X-Men: First Class (21) – This movie was better than I thought it would be.  It was the best of the X-Men series, though I realize that is not saying a lot.  It created a successful back story that explained various characters, motivations and relationships seen in the other films.  While this history differs entirely from the one(s) presented in the comics, it is more succinct and far less silly than those ones are.  The story, dialogue and character development were better than most comic book movies but not as good as the best.  The special effects were par for the course (nothing eye-catching) but this was far and away one of the best comic book movies visually, just because the early 60s fashions/ décor was so much fun to watch.  It’s not as great as the gothic-fascism of the Tim Burton Batman sets, the stunning colors of SinCity, or the tongue-in-cheek cartoonishness of Dick Tracy, but better than anything else I can think of in the genre.

Hanna (12) – Well, it was better than I had thought it would be.  The cinematography/editing was really well done and added to the tension and pace of the film, particularly at the beginning.  It got bogged down in the middle with a meandering story involving a one-dimensional British hippie family but (in a stroke of real genius) the finale was filmed in a dilapidated Brothers Grimm amusement park in Germany; it was exactly the right level of surreal and creepy.  Also, the soundtrack was brilliant: both the Chemical Brothers’ score and the hodge-podge of other types of music and sounds.  Saoirse Ronan has talent and brought some depth to the title character.  However, the usually brilliant Cate Blanchett nearly drowned beneath her unbelievably heavy-handed Southern accent.

I Am (6) – A pensive, almost (but very deliberately not quite) spiritual documentary that attempts to answer two questions: what is wrong with the world and what can we do about it?  The film was made by former big Hollywood director, Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Bob Almighty) who had a life altering accident and decided to leave Hollywood.  The film is very earnest and thought provoking in parts but also drifts into hokey absurdity and, ultimately, does far more to answer the first question than the second.

The Lincoln Lawyer (9) – This movie was exactly what I thought it would be: a paint-by-the-numbers court room drama.  Which is to say, I enjoyed it for exactly what it was.  Matthew McConaughey is the right actor for this role; he can be slick enough and shallow enough to play a cynical lawyer but, ultimately, is pretty enough that the audience wants to believe him when he develops a conscience.  For the same reasons (he’s beautiful), Ryan Phillippe also works as the villain.; just as we love to root for the redemption of a pretty boy, we also love to be creeped out by the irredeemable ones.  Though the twists and turns were all fairly obvious (and broadcasted loudly), I never quite knew what they would look like exactly and, in a film like this, that was good enough for me.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (56) – Well, it was about as stupid as the title implies.  However, sheer stupidity is sometimes funny and I laughed loudly in several parts.  Also, I have to say in its defense, it was intentionally stupid.  It’s a better parody of slasher films than most of them are.  There are parts that work well and parts that work not so well but I laughed at it more than I did most comedies this year.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (67) – I’m not sure how I suckered myself into seeing this film.  Somewhere, I got the impression that it would be better than you would expect but it was exactly what you would expect, which is to say that it was a very fast moving and utterly implausible action film.  It is easily the best liked by critics of the MI series (now on its fourth film).  I haven’t seen them all but I don’t remember really liking any of them.  Having said all of that, I was entertained.  The action is solid and so utterly ridiculous as to be on the edge of intentionally funny.  Thanks to the presence of Simon Pegg, there was a fair amount of humor that would have been distracting in a better film but is useful in this one to counterbalance Cruise’s overheated seriousness. While it is neither as sexy, stylish or fun as a James Bond film (the next of which, “Skyfall,” is due next summer), it was more entertaining than most blockbusters.

Captain America: The First Avenger (29) – I’m not really even sure where to put this one on the list.  It’s better than Thor, at least it struck me as less hokey.  But it wasn’t really great.  There were some good special effects (in particular, the shrinking of Chris Evans’s body when he played skinny Steve).  I actually liked the skinny Steve storyline more; I found it funnier and heart-warming.  They worked valiantly to make the 2nd half of the film as un-dorky as possible and I think they mostly succeeded.  Though, the Red Skull was really hard to take seriously.  He looked silly and he sounded too much like Werner Hertzog.  I kept expecting him to talk about 300,000 year old footprints.

The Movies I Really Should Have Skipped:

Toast (47) – Not quite as tasty as the eponymous food shown so much reverence in this movie, it is never-the-less, a reasonably pleasant little sugar pill.  The premise of this basically true story is that of a gay boy (now a famous British food writer) who adored his mother, though she could not cook a thing but toast.  She literally only cooked canned food (including meat) and didn’t even open the cans; she just threw them in boiling water and opened them afterward.  After her untimely death, his dad married the housekeeper and Nigel enters a culinary war for his father’s heart.  The movie had moments of genuine charm and made me laugh multiple times.  But, like any placebo, it promises things it can’t deliver.  Where there should be poignancy, insight, empathy, growth, there is only another punch line or a scene change.  In the end, it never digs below the surface of any character, including the lead (played by newcomer Oscar Kennedy at age 9 and by Freddie Highmore at age 15).  Surprisingly, Kennedy was by far the better of the two.  In fact, in general the first half of the film was the most entertaining.  His relationship with his mother was charmingly funny and sometimes deeply sad.  Kennedy was able to capture the full range of this young boy’s emotions, even if the emotions he displayed were slight caricatures, he still had range.  Highmore on the other hand, appeared to be somnambulant.  I don’t know if he was directed this way, was disinterested in the role (it was a made-for-tv movie on BBC 1), or if he just can’t act.  But it was distracting, especially in scenes that should have had emotional weight.  Like I said, the film was charming and one of the best scenes was the kiss Nigel got from an older boy.  In that scene, Highmore seemed filled with a sense of wonder and quiet joy; I supposed one could speculate why he seemed more present in that scene than any other but I think it was just that the blank look and winsome smile he wore throughout the film was suited perfectly for that one scene.

The Other F Word (54) – A mildly interesting documentary about punk rockers growing up.  It consisted almost entirely of interviews of members of Pennywise, TSOL, Blink-182, US Bombs, Black Flag, Everclear, The Adolescents, and others.  They discuss how they have managed the transition from disgruntled adolescent anarchists to being fathers (that would be the other F word) and the struggles that come with still touring/being foul-mouthed punks and trying to raising your kids with structure, limits and values.  Most of them talk about trying to be different from their own fathers.  The film sheds no light on parenthood or growing up or the punk movement; the struggles these guys have are exactly the ones you think they would have and they handle them, to varying degrees, the way all parents do.  If you were into the punk movement and know most of the names listed above, I’d see the film.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (38) – This was actually a reasonably enjoyable movie with a very silly name.  It is part of the genre of new Chinese kung-fu movies of which “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the most famous, but I think that “Hero” has been the best so far.  This movie is not in that class but it was fun, none-the-less.  It seemed to enjoy the absurdity of some scenes (as when the title character was kung-fuing a herd of rogue deer).  The special effects were as you’d expect for a film like this one and the story is a by-the-book noirish mystery.  Overall, it was not terribly imaginative and it lacked the stunning colors that make other films in this genre such spectacles.  However, as I said, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Jane Eyre (3) – A passable period piece.  The acting was fine.  The scenery was fine.  Everything was fine but nothing was inspired.  The novel is an over-the-top gothic melodrama and the movie does a decent job of hitting all the major points (even if it does have to rush through a few at blinding speed).  However, I’m not sure how interested I am in a gothic melodrama to begin with.

Melancholia (51) – So, I suppose it’s safe to call this a kinder, softer Lars Von Trier movie.  By which, one would mean depressing, bizarre, but only slightly anti-western culture.  For those who love his films, this is probably right up your alley.  Everyone else will likely find it long, tedious, inexplicable in parts and wholly lacking in any attempt at insight.  I will say that the film started with a series of beautiful and compelling images.  But don’t worry; they only lasted for 6 minutes.  You’re free to be bored after that.

The Thing (45) – It was what it was.  I expected nothing more than a horror/thriller and it provided that passably well.  I jumped more than once, even though every single scare had been broadcast loudly for at least 30 seconds.  I will give it credit for being a smarter take on the original than I would have thought.  As a prequel whose final scene was the original’s first one, it had a certain momentum that a simple remake would not have had.  I also give credit to the lead (who played the cool girl in “Scott Pilgrim Vs The World”) for proving she can play an entirely different character, even if it is a stock one.

Cowboys And Aliens (30) – What can I say about this one?  I really enjoyed myself, although not for the reason most of the audience did.  The plot was unbelievably silly.  Everything was a cliché: cliché cowboy scenes, cliché alien scenes, cliché boy falling for girl scenes, insanely cliché dialogue.  I laughed out loud at scenes that I think were being totally earnest.  But… I did enjoy myself.  Quite a lot.  And that counts for something.

Thor (19) – Well, it was better than a lot of super hero movies (The Fantastic 4 movies, the last Spiderman, the recent Superman, The X-Men movies, both Hulks) but not as good as the best (The Dark Knight, Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, the 1st Iron Man, The Watchers).  For the most part, it entertained me.  There was nothing about it that I solidly loved or hated.  Given what a goofy character Thor is, I think that is saying something.

Rango (5) – Beautiful animation of the desert, particularly the night scenes.  Some fun nods to “Chinatown, “Deadwood” and Clint Eastwood.  The story was very predictable and much of the humor fell flat.

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (17) – I guess my question would be: what’s the point?  Morgan Spurlock’s  “Supersize Me” was so clever, biting and dead-on that I expected something as insightful this time.  While “Pom” is clever, it is almost too clever for itself.  The whole movie lies in the gag; this is a movie about advertising financed entirely by advertising.  Scratch an inch below that surface and you have nothing.  No insight.  No revelations.  And certainly nothing even close to Spurlock taking a personal stand on the issue.  Which, I suppose, is commentary in itself.

Source Code (7) – This was a goofy action film.  Jake Gyllenhaal is repeatedly sent back in time (maybe, maybe not) to find out who blew up a train before the same person can set off a dirty bomb in Chicago.  “Groundhog Day” only faster paced and less original, clever, funny, or worth watching.  It moves along quickly enough that I didn’t get bored.  It was reasonably entertaining.  Sadly, the ending lacked the bite it could have had (though you could not expect that from a movie like this).  The end was silly but not so much more so than the rest of the film.  If you enjoy the rest of the film, you probably won’t gripe too much about the final minutes.

Adjustment Bureau (31ish) – I saw this on DVD and don’t exactly remember when.  It was sort of vaguely entertaining in an action-thrillerish short of way.  Lots of chasing, some nice suits.  The painfully predictable ending happened so quickly and in such an unsatisfying way that it is difficult to recommend this movie as anything other than an example of our current fetish with early sixties fashion.

Paul (4) – This could have been a really good movie.  Some very funny references to sci-fi and comic books that only a true geek could catch and love.  However, most of the film appeared to be made for straight guys in their 20s and 30s who are emotionally still 15; lots of body fluid jokes, gay jokes, profanity as humor, and a ridiculous amount of jokes about the alien’s genitals.

The Movies I Just Really Did Not Like:

The Future (14) – I was fundamentally disappointed with this movie.  I loved the first film Miranda July wrote/directed/starred in (“Me and You and Everyone We Know”), which was # 13 on my 2005 movie list.  So, I was really excited to see her sophomore effort.  But it was too inaccessible to me.  I saw it at the SFIFF and she spoke afterward; that helped me to understand how deeply personal this film was to her and how vulnerable she made herself on screen.  However, the symbols were too remote (too deeply personal) to access easily.  In the end, it felt like she had given me her diary to read but it was written in her own secret language.

Killing Bono (50) – The only reason this movie is this high on the list is because of the curiosity factor.  Based on Neil McCormick’s autobiography, it covers his failed attempts at fame in U2’s shadow.  They all went to school together, with him forming his own band at the same time they formed theirs.  Apparently, he then spent the next decade or more desperately seeking fame while undermining himself at every turn.  In the film, he is so hopelessly self-involved that it is impossible to like him.  I guess you’re supposed to root of his younger brother, Ivan, who is played by Robert Sheehan (from the British series “Misfits”), but it is hard to care about anybody.    The acting is wooden, the dialogue flat, and the story was, to use their vernacular, total shite.

Eagle (48) – This film went down exactly as I thought it would.  It was a painfully linear story with no real tension, no surprises and nothing much to recommend it.  Jamie Bell has his shirt off and the Scottish scenery is beautiful. So, there you have it.

Water for Elephants (13) – This movie actually succeeded in making me like the book less in retrospect.  It pointed out how corny and unbelievable the central story is, while lacking any of the plot and character development that drew me in.  I will give it credit for being visually pretty but that is about all.  The acting tended toward the wooden, with no real passion coming from most of the characters.  The exception was Christoph Waltz’s villain, who was so over-the-top as to be ridiculous and who had the most bizarre accent; I think it was supposed to be American but the German kept coming through.  Ugh.

Conan The Barbarian (33) – Well, it was better than the original… I guess.  With the exception of Rose McGowan, nobody seemed to be having any fun.  It was all just gore and special effects (and not even that impressive effects either.  Wasn’t the first “Conan” the height of effects for it’s time?).  Bland and predictable, right to the final scene.

The Movies That Objectively Sucked:

Arthur (11) – I think I actually laughed more in Paul than in Arthur.  The brief humorous moments were all mixed in with too many trying-to-be-humorous moments and, even worse, far too many trying-to-be-sentimental/romantic moments where the lack of chemistry (and believable acting) was palpable.

Season of The Witch (1) – I think that Jeanette Catsoulis from the NY Times said it best, when she described the film as, “a 14th-century road movie with 21st century cuss words.”  God awful.

The Smurfs (64) – “The Season of The Witch” was Shakespearean by comparison.  No, that is not hyperbole.  In the interest of full disclosure (as with “HaHaHa”), I did not actually see the whole movie, though I saw the beginning, the end and spatterings of things in the middle as I came in and out of the room.  That was far more than enough.

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