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2013 in Film.

A very happy 2014 to you and yours. As always, there are a few 2013 movies I’d still like to catch up on (The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Short Term 12) and a few others waiting to be watched on the Netflix machine (Warm Bodies, Kon-Tiki, Berberian Sound Studio.) Nonetheless, a new year means it’s time for the annual GitM movie round-up, and 2013 isn’t getting any closer in the rear-view.

Like last year, I’ve gone on longer than usual to make up for the lack of reviews throughout the year. Overall, I’d say that, in spite of a disconcertingly bland summer full of films that needed major rewrites, 2013 ended up yielding a surprisingly bumper crop at the movies, as good as last year’s fare and arguably the deepest year since 2007. So without further ado, let’s get to the…

Top 25 Films of 2013
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/The Oughts]

1. 12 Years a Slave: As someone who was underwhelmed by Hunger and outright hated Shame, I was as surprised as anyone that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave turned out to be the movie of the year. But as it happened, McQueen’s penchant for cold, painterly compositions of suffering and depravity was a perfect fit for this harrowing descent into America’s peculiar institution.

With all due respect to Michael Fassbender’s turn as the dissolute sadist Edwin Epps, the better performances in 12 Years a Slave are underplayed. As Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who first showed he had star wattage to spare ten years ago in Dirty Pretty Things — obviously carries the weight of the film, and he manages to subtly convey his character’s determination losing out to despair. Sarah Paulson’s work may not be as showy here as that of the Bender of Fass, but she is just as effective at illustrating the way antebellum slavery warped the mindset of the master class. (As the Cumber of Batch vignette points out, even a benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant.)

And, in a powerful cameo, moving about and berating his room of wares with a heartless dispatch, Paul Giamatti chillingly captures the cruelty and obscenity of the slave trade, in which children become commodities and family ties a nuisance to be overcome. (If the film’s producer, Brad Pitt, really wanted to make a bold statement, he’d have switched roles with Giamatti — As it is, his white savior turn here is the only real misstep in the movie.)

Obviously, this film is a hard watch at times, but, doggone it, it should be. After decades of dancing around the topic in anything from Gone with the Wind to Gods and Generals — even last year’s revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, mitigated the real horrors of slavery by giving its title character so much agency — 12 Years a Slave offers a steady, unblinking gaze at the underbelly of our republic, and underscores the grim reality so often obscured by our founding fictions: Only a century and a half ago, a great and terrible darkness festered in our erstwhile land of liberty, and its ramifications did not just disappear at Appomattox. If the audience ends up feeling like Pippen holding the palantir at more than a few moments throughout this tale, well that’s the point. Our past is complicated, and it’s time we did a better job of recognizing it.

2. Before Midnight: Speaking of truths that hurt, Richard Linklater’s third stanza in the ballad of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) captures another dark and fundamental one: However potent at first, love can be a tricky business after awhile. As I said in the Best of the Oughts list (where Before Sunset clocked in at #8), I can take or leave Before Sunrise — I saw it at an age when I was already far too cynical for it — but adored Before Sunset, and that’s still probably my favorite of the three. But Midnight is right up there, and I really admire Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy’s decision to take us into colder, murkier waters this time.

True, the first hour of this movie can seem a little unfocused: I didn’t mind spending all that time at a dinner party with characters we’ve never met, but it made the film feel a bit more like Linklater’s Slacker or Waking Life, both of which are given to a lot of random philosophical musing at the expense of forward momentum. But when Jesse and Celine go off for a walk by themselves, the movie starts to click again. And the last forty minutes or so are absolutely electric, as [spoiler] our two former lovebirds, ostensibly spending a romantic evening at a couple’s hotel, instead find themselves engaged in a knock-down, drag-out Airing of the Grievances that will ring all-too-true to anyone’s who ever been in a long-term relationship, on the rocks or otherwise.

Instead of giving us anything like a feel-good rom-com this time around (and seemingly much to the horror of some of the dumbstruck-looking couples at my showing…oof, Date Night Fail) — Before Midnight opts for a much more realistic and unflinching portrayal of a romance that, over the years, has accumulated its share of fractures, bruises, and silences. I’m not sure where the story goes from here, but definitely count me in for Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly the river to the one that I love.” Given the confluence of the Coens and the Sixties folk revival here, this always seemed like a good bet to be one of my top movies of the year. As it happened, I did really like Llewyn Davis — but it’s also both a pricklier and jauntier film than I originally expected.

Even by Coen standards, the film has very little plot to speak of. We just follow Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, like Ejiofor another actor who’s been turning in excellent character work over the years) a folk singer as talented as he is unlucky and self-defeating, as he shambles around New York — playing gigs at the Gaslight, herding cats, and generally trying to stay afloat in the pre-Dylan scene. This is partly like the story of Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography the Coens began with, and partly another artist-adrift-in-the-world-of-commerce story akin to Barton Fink — except, this time, Llewyn probably actually deserves to make it.

Especially in the random escapade to Chicago in the middle of the film, you get the sense that the Coens had no real interest in telling a traditional story here. Carey Mulligan (who, as it happens, played Oscar Isaac’s wife in Drive) starts out seeming like an important character and then just fades into that beautifully nostalgic freewheelin’ mist that permeates the look of the film. Other actors — Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham — appear for a few bars and move on.

I suppose the aimlessness of Llewyn could rankle. (One of my gradual school friends has a great theory about this – Llewyn Davis is folk-song as movie, with a deliberately elliptical structure and repeated refrains.) But I myself loved the look and feel of this film (the quality folk renditions don’t hurt either), and I appreciated its basic folk-song conceit: Sometimes, Hard Times are just a fact of life. If Llewyn was operating only a year or two later, he’d be a beneficiary of the Dylan boom (or, at the very least, a Phil Ochs type figure.) As it is, he’s just a unlucky soul, doing what he does best even while likely going under for the final time. I can’t wait to see this movie again, and to see what the Coens have up their sleeves next.

4. The World’s End: In a summer of way too many dumb and bloated duds, Edgar Wright’s third chapter in the Cornetto Trilogy was very welcome counter-programming, and a smart, winsome night out with the lads. Of course, any time you have pros like Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Bill Nighy working in your ensemble, the final product should come out rather droll indeed. Still, this was one of the most purely pleasurable films of the year, and props to Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost for crafting a film that felt fresh even while mining similar territory as their previous installments, Shaun of the Dead (folks being frightfully British in the face of robot/zombie hordes) and Hot Fuzz (strange things afoot, and the elders up to no good, in a wee English village.)

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: At last, the Incident with the Dragon. This is actually the lowest any of PJ’s Middle Earth films have ever been on a year-end list, which is partly due to the strength of the movies already mentioned, and partly because this was the first time in five films that I felt like Jackson et al have lost the thread a bit.

Bilbo facing Smaug in a Game of Wits is the climactic confrontation of this entire story, but here its impact is diminished considerably by (a) the movie suddenly cutting to Legolas squaring off against a made-up end-boss Orc and (b) a long and contrived scheme, right out of Alien 3, whereby Thorin and the dwarves try to confuse the Old Wyrm with a large golden statue of Durin. This plan not only robs Smaug of menace by making him seem like a blind idiot. (Smaug the Terrible, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, can’t manage to squash a single measly dwarf?) It’s another setpiece, not unlike the barrel ride earlier in the film and the escape from the goblin tunnels in An Unexpected Journey, where video game physics have completely taken hold of the picture. (It’s “The Desolation of Mario,” as one wag put it.)

So why is this still way up at #5? Well, I still relish being in Middle Earth, the occasional cartoony antics notwithstanding, and there’s a lot to like here, from Martin Freeman’s Bilbo to the hallucinations and spiders of Mirkwood to Gandalf at Dol Guldur to the character design of Benny CumberSmaug. I could have done without the Team Legolas/Team Kili stuff, but Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel is otherwise a solid addition to the saga. And I just have a soft spot for these films — here’s hoping the third film doesn’t drift too far afield into fan fiction.

6. Gravity: [Spoilers in this review] Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is up this high because it (along with Smaug) was the purest eye candy of the year — just a breathtakingly beautiful film at times, and well worth the extra price for IMAX 3D. (It’s also easily the best of the three space-mission-gone-wrong movies in 2013, though Europa Report isn’t half-bad.)

Unfortunately Gravity was also, let’s face it, schmaltzy as all hell — I wish Cuaron had had enough trust in his story and audience to forego, for example, cornball conversations about Bullock’s lost kid. And, even notwithstanding how close all the space stations are to each other here (a plot point I can forgive even though it too is absurd), the ultimate fate of Clooney’s endlessly jabbering astronaut is just a gross violation of basic physics. (And moving from the impossible to the improbable, I’d have been less annoyed by the end if Bullock had splashed down in the middle of nowhere, instead of twenty feet from paradise.)

All that being said, did I mention this film is beautiful? The space walk stuff alone would put it in the top ten.

7. All is Lost: Still, I really wish Gravity had taken a few pages from another memorable survivor story of 2013, J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost. (Although to be fair, sailors apparently have gripes about this one also.) We never really find out anything about Robert Redford’s backstory in this movie, except that he’s 1%’er enough to own a spiffy yacht and curmudgeonly enough to be sailing it alone in the Indian Ocean. And, after a scene-setting monologue at the beginning, Redford (“Our Man”) barely says a word in this movie. Instead, his character is defined entirely by his actions, and the film’s considerable suspense comes. not from lathering on excess sentimentality like a paste, but merely from seeing a fellow human in a very bad situation, and witnessing an almost primal retelling of the Old Man and the Sea.

8. American Hustle: I feel like, the significantly overpraised Silver Linings Playbooks notwithstanding, David O. Russell’s movies usually come in around the 7 or 8 spot every year, and American Hustle is no exception. Well-made, well-acted, well-written, Hustle is an engaging and entertaining Who’s-Conning-Who story of New Jersey grifters, set against the real-life story of Abscam and a healthy smattering of Seventies glitz. With strong work across the board (and from Christian Bale and Amy Adams in particular), Hustle also happens to contain the first honest-to-goodness performance I’ve seen from Robert DeNiro since…I dunno, Casino? In any case, well worth seeing.

9. Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass had also a mulligan with Green Zone, but he’s another director who can be reliably trusted to deliver quality, and Captain Phillips — give or take ten clunky and moralizing minutes at the beginning — is no exception. Like the more resonant United 93, this is another gripping You Are There dramatization of a recent Bad Day on Earth, and like that earlier film, Greengrass makes sure to humanize and contextualize the bad guys — this time, the Somali pirates who are basically plying the only trade available to them.

As per De Niro above, it’s also good to see Tom Hanks giving a real performance here, and not just phoning it in or coasting on his star power. Apparently, he attributes it to his recent experience in last year’s Cloud Atlas, which marks another way that film, an interesting failure, is underappreciated.

10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: He’s not a Russell or a Greengrass, but Francis Lawrence is another director who tends to make genre films — for example, I am Legend and Constantine — that are better than you’d expect them to be. And despite the fact that he’s operating from a more unwieldy book — I have no idea how they’re going to wrest two more blockbuster films out of Collins’ strange, admirably downbeat Mockingjay — Lawrence’s Catching Fire is a more immersive experience than the first Hunger Games movie, which, all apologies to Gary Ross, felt rote and by-the-numbers.

Did I love Catching Fire? No, not really – It hit at about the level of the later Harry Potter films. But much like the movie I have in the “most unfairly maligned” box below, I think you’d be hard-pressed to craft a better film from the source material, particularly given the constraint of continuing with the same actors from the first one. (I know Jennifer Lawrence is America’s sweetheart or whatever, but imho she’s still miscast here. Just because she was in Winter’s Bone doesn’t make her a perfect Katniss.) And, in any event, it’s great fun to see pros like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Amanda Plummer work their way into the Panem proceedings.

11. Nebraska: Like the next film on this list, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is an auteur movie I admired but didn’t necessarily engage with. This all feels a bit like deja vu, partly because of similarly-themed road trips like The Straight Story, but more because Payne seems to be covering a lot of the same ground here that he did in About Schmidt, from June Squibb not taking any guff to the goofy, to the point of being uncharitable, extended family of the main character. (Jack Nicholson had to contend with Dermot Mulroney and his mullet; Now it’s Bruce Dern and Will Forte versus two greedy ex-jailbird twins. There’s also elements of The Descendants here, with Forte and George Clooney both discovering secrets about their loved ones after they become their caretakers.)

Still, with its storefront facades crumbling in luscious black-and-white, Nebraska works best as a gentle and elegaic reflection on the passing of a certain kind of small-town, 20th century America — this is probably the most sympathetic argument you’ll find for the Tea Party vision of the USA — and a reminder, a la “That Was Your Mother”, that your parents and grandparents had their own lives that you, as their kids, will never fully “get.” And if nothing else, it’s nice to see Bruce Dern, who’s put in fifty years of solid character work now, get this kind of extended curtain call.

12. Her: I admittedly had stratospheric hopes for Spike Jonze’ Her, which has been billed as a direct descendant of my favorite movie of last decade, Eternal Sunshine. And, well, I really liked the near-future sheen of the production — its light satire of current media, its slightly-out-of-step fashions, and especially its gorgeous hybrid Los Angeles-Shanghai cityscape. This is an artful and mostly well-thought-out piece of science fiction, made with delicacy and driven by ideas rather than special effects, and that’s always welcome.

But as a love story? Er….not so much. Put aside the criticism that this is a movie about Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore in love with a box, although I can definitely see why that’d be a dealkiller for some. Even if you accept the science fiction here, and allow that Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha is her own free-thinking entity, the vision of love being offered here is basically one never-ending phone call, where both people are constantly talking about their feelings. That’s true love? That…sounds exhausting. (Ask anyone I’ve ever dated – I’m not one for the phone. I text or e-mail.)

Not to say that true romance has to have a physical component, although in my experience it definitely helps. (And speaking of Samantha constantly lamenting her lack of physical form, I call shenanigans on the idea that civilization will somehow develop true AI before creepy love robots, but I digress.) To me, romance is also about simply experiencing things together — movies, music, dinner, travel, in-jokes. I suppose there’s some of that in Her – Theodore and his OS go to the beach and whatnot, but much more often it just seems to be a constant state-of-the-relationship phone call. No thanks.

Put another way, Her ends up being a lot like the fake letters that Theodore (rather improbably) writes for a living: An impeccably crafted simulacrum of romantic connection, Her relies on constant professions of feeling to cover up the fact that it’s really just a well-made artifice.

13. Spring Breakers: Along with survival stories and harrowing space missions, another trend of 2013 were films that used either Youths Gone Wild and/or beach-ready hardbodies as a metaphor for the contemporary (and sickly) American Dream: See, for example, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Don Jon. Of these, the best was, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory bacchanal, Spring Breakers — a movie that sticks in your head like gum on your shoe.

Spring Breakers is undoubtedly inchoate and repetitive, and it can’t seem to decide if it wants to revel in trashiness, send it up, or go dumpster-diving for the lost innocence underneath. (Watch James Franco and his muses croon Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and tell me what you think.) But there still seems to be a method to the madness. Basically, this is Fear and Loathing in St. Petersburg, a savage and surreal journey into one of America’s playgrounds of frenetic excess, and James Franco is our Raoul Duke. “Spreng brayyke, Spreng brAYYke, forever.”

14. Upstream Color: And speaking of hallucinatory and surreal journeys, Shane Carruth returned from his extended post-Primer hiatus to bring us this bizarre, intermittently captivating disquisition on love in the time of possession by parasites and animal-human hybrids. (Hey, if Joaquin Phoenix can adore an iPhone, why can’t Amy Seimetz and Carruth find fulfillment in their respective ManBearPigs?)

Like Primer, Upstream Color is mostly inscrutable the first time around — if it helps, I can tell you mindworms, acoustics, and pig daemons are involved — and I can see people just finding it pretentious and annoying. But, for what it’s worth, I found segments of Upstream Color evocative and entrancing, even if I had no clue what was going on. Sometimes you just go along for the ride.

15. Prisoners: [Spoilers in this review] It’s been awhile — Sunshine, maybe? — since I’ve seen an otherwise excellent movie crash and burn so miserably in the last reel like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. For the first two hours or so, this film — a story of missing children and their bereft parents, who have their eye on an all-too-likely suspect — is a powerful police procedural and grim disquisition on vigilantism that burns slowly and intensely. If it had ended earlier (and differently), Prisoners would be a top 10 film this year, and could plausibly be mentioned in the same conversation as, say, Mystic River, Zodiac, and even In the Bedroom.

That being said, I got a bad feeling when, late in the movie, suitcases full of snakes suddenly enter the investigation. And, sure enough, soon thereafter, an individual who had only been conspicuously cast up to that point (a la Stellan Skarsgard in the Dragon Tattoo remake) suddenly starts chewing scenery like one of the redneck family from The X-Files, and what had seemed a thoughtful exercise about the agony of un-knowing suddenly becomes a half-baked retread of The Vanishing. Alas, until that last-minute lurch, Prisoners was quite a good film, with Hugh Jackman particularly memorable as a father whose berserker rage would make Wolverine blanch.

16. Iron Man 3: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, which came out the first week of May, looks like an even better film in retrospect, given how many tentpoles stumbled later in the summer. While not as engaging as 2012’s The Avengers, it’s clearly an improvement on Tony Stark’s botched second adventure, and closer to the quality of the first one. And while I don’t want to spoil the (now contentious in fanboy circles) big twist, I actually loved being blindsided by it: Black basically used comic book folks’ foreknowledge against us, and, under everyone’s noses, pulled off a clever switcheroo that also works as very dark political satire. Well-played.

17. The Great Gatsby: Well, to be fair, F. Scott Fitzgerald did call it “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” In 3D, Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed, overlong adaptation of The Great Gatsby is like too-rich chocolate cake — It’s fun for awhile, until you start to feel a little sickly. But that’s also sort of the point of the book, so this adaptation also works in a meta-fashion. In any event, I quite enjoyed this ludicrously busy film for about 45 minutes or so, but began to check out when Gatsby began to court Daisy Buchanan in earnest, and there was still another hour or so to go. But hey, if you’re going to overshoot the mark, why not overshoot it gloriously? Gatsby would be proud.

18. Kill Your Darlings: A.K.A. The Beats: Origins: Rise of Ginsburg, in the modern-day movie parlance. In any event, this New York City coming-of-age story about Allen Ginsburg’s Columbia days made for a solid afternoon arthouse matinee, with quality performances by Daniel Radcliffe (clearly trying, and mostly succeeding, to shake Harry Potter), Ben Foster (doing an uncanny William Burroughs impression), Jack Huston (playing Kerouac with — strangely for Boardwalk Empire viewers — his entire face), and Michael C. Hall. (David Cross, who played a later version of the poet in I’m Not There, also shows up to pass the Ginsburg baton.) I have to say, tho: After only a handful of movies (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), I find Dane DeHaan’s schtick wearing thin. Your mileage may vary.

19. Enough Said: If you’re looking for a light entertainment, Nicole Holofcenter’s amiable romantic comedy — about a masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who discovers that her new best friend (Catherine Keener) and new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) used to be married to each other — is a small, well-observed, and worthwhile film in the key of The Kids Are All Right. Fair warning, tho’: Some of the gentle ribbing about Gandolfini’s weight here takes on a morbid cast with his recent passing. (Pro-tip: If Enough Said whets your appetite for more Gandolfini comedy, there’s always the estimable In the Loop.)

20. A Single Shot: Much like Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, an aura of inexorable doom hangs over this backcountry noir by David Rosenthal, which involves hunter Sam Rockwell accidentally firing at the wrong target and unearthing that inevitable albatross, a giant bag of money. Rockwell — invariably an appealing presence in good films and bad (alas, he had a terrible movie in 2013, which I’ll get to in a bit) — holds the screen even as a very reticent woodsman. But the real pleasure of A Single Shot is that it eventually amounts to an actor’s workshop for some very quality character actors, including Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Ted Levine, and Jason Isaacs.

21. Dallas Buyers Club: Deep in the heart of Texas, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lose weight and buck admirably for Oscars in the true story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good-ole-boy turned AIDS activist, also with Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O’Hare, and Griffin Dunne. (Griffin Dunne!) There’s not much to say about this one: It’s an admirable production, and McConaughey and Leto both give 110% and deserve their likely Oscar nods. But this film still has trouble shaking that Oscar-baity, overly earnest biopic feel. And as someone who generally thinks the FDA should be assuring the safety of medical drugs, I had issues with some of the anti-Big Guvmint grandstanding here.

22. Frances Ha: At first, this story of a young woman in Brooklyn (Greta Gerwig) and her attempts to both make it in modern dance and stay besties with her friend Sophia (Mickey Sumner) feels like another variation on HBO’s Girls, a show whose self-indulgence and first-world-problems whining I quickly grew bored with. (Adam Driver showing up here doesn’t help with the differentiation.) But Frances soon establishes its own quirky rhythm, and it’s refreshing, after Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg, to see Noah Baumbach telling the story of a likable New Yorker for a change.

23. Computer Chess: Another quirky, dialogue-driven black-and-white comedy here for the later going, this small-scale indie by “Mumblecore Master” Andrew Bujalski follows a bevy of programmers — the only recognizable one being Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, all grown up — as they lug their Tandys and Commodores to a weekend computer chess tournament in the early 1980’s, hoping to show off the best AI, impress each other, and maybe craft a little bit of the future. Like Upstream Color, this occasionally absurdist tale is more about tone than anything else, but I liked its home-coded, DIY aesthetic and standing-on-the-threshold-of-tomorrow unease.

24. This is the End: If I have to pick a pack of dudebros to await the end the world with, I’d rather hang with Simon Pegg and the lads up above at spot #4 than find myself at the Franco residence, hiding out from the Rapture with the likes of Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride. But to give credit where due, Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalyptic raunchfest will leave no boundary of good taste uncrossed to make you laugh, and they’ve brought along any number of friends and neighbors willing to be involved in a ridiculous cameo or three.

25. World War Z: As always, the last spot here could go to a number of different films, from the admirably strange Chan-Wook Park Southern gothic Stoker to the better-than-expected James Mangold episode of The Wolverine. I went with World War Z, since — despite all the terrible hype surrounding this project beforehand — this Marc Forster/Brad Pitt blockbuster actually turned out to be not-half-bad. It wasn’t much like the book, of course, and I could’ve done without the seemingly grafted-on Harrison Ford-style “My wife! My family!” phone calls here and there. Still, I liked that the movie sprinkled a few moments of quiet creepiness in with the action setpieces — say, in North Korea with David Morse and James Badge Dale, or in Scotland with, er, WHO Doctor…Who. So all in all, no harm, no foul. I just wish they’d sprung for the original bizarro ending.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The hackadocious ST:ID has already been good and thoroughly eviscerated by the folks at Io9, so I’ll just repost what I said when I posted that worthy link: “The first one had a number of egregious plot holes too, of course, but it at least had a charming cast and the benefit of novelty. The charming cast remains, but since Into Darkness is otherwise just a lousy and ultimately insulting remix of Wrath of Khan with a frisson of 9/11, the extreme dumbness here is even more aggravating.” As one wag put it soon after this disaster, maybe in the rebooted universe it’s the even movies that are terrible.

Man of Steel: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was nowhere near as aggressively insulting as Into Darkness, but it suffers from similar issues — namely a really sloppy script and far too much 9/11ness throughout. I thought Henry Cavill made for a superlative Superman (and I’m not just saying that because he’s a fellow Warcraft enthusiast), but really, what was going on in the writing department? Why does Russell Crowe keep popping up like Basil Exposition? Why was Amy Adams taken up to the Krypton ship? And, even notwithstanding the extremely out-of-character decision Kal-El makes here near the end, why is Superman trying to destroy Metropolis? (Zack Snyder gave his answer for the ridiculous collateral damage here – I don’t think it washes.)

As with Green Lantern, I’m willing to give this movie a mulligan and hope DC rights the ship with Batman v. Superman v. Wonder Woman or whatever it’s called. But right now, DC is lagging far behind Marvel in the world-building-on-film department. And, for now, Cavill is the second Supes in a row, after Brandon Routh, to deserve a better adventure.

To the Wonder: Oof, To the Wonder. It’s great to see Terence Malick becoming a more productive filmmaker in his later years — after making four movies between 1973 and 2005, he’s now made two films the past two years (the other being The Tree of Life) and has two more in the can. Unfortunately, to my eyes To the Wonder — ostensibly the story of Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams’ romantic issues with Ben Affleck (who, other than his back and shoulders, was seemingly left on the cutting room floor) — was an incoherent, disjointed mess that came across like somebody doing a parody of a Malick film. Here’s hoping for better from Knight of Cups.

Elysium: [Spoilers in this review] So it seems here like Neil Blomkamp had a few ideas for a decent science fiction story — The few Haves live in a deluxe orbital paradise in the sky and all enjoy free health care, the many Have-Nots are stuck on a dusty, windswept Earth, have no health care at all, and are always trying to break in to said orbital Nirvana — but no actual plot to speak of.

As a result, Elysium, Blomkamp’s calamitous sophomore effort after the promising District 9, was another movie in a summer full of them that made absolutely no sense at all. Since these magical cure-all health care machines seem to operate without cost, why weren’t a few already sent down to Earth long ago? And if that MacGuffin-y station reboot code is so all-powerful, why didn’t ruthless businessman William Fichtner, who was carrying it around the first third of the movie, just depose Jodie Foster (who’s embarrassing here) and make himself Emperor of Elysium? Makes. No. Sense.

The Last Days on Mars: It’s a bit unfair to include this among the “Most Disappointing,” because this is basically just a bad indie film you might find on Syfy — Nobody was waiting in line at midnight to see The Last Days On Mars. Still, it’s depressing to see the Murderer’s Row of talent assembled for this science-fiction tale — Olivia Williams, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Liev Schreiber — and then have the hook turn out only to be The Walking Dead on Mars. Everyone here, and especially Williams and Koteas, deserves better.

MOST OVERRATED:

The Way, Way Back: In the opening moments of this glib, trite Cape Cod coming-of-age story, Mom’s mean new boyfriend (Steve Carell, playing against type) berates a sullen teenager (Liam James) on the drive out to summer vacation, telling him that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s only a 3. Well, that’s about right for this painfully clunky movie as well, which would just be an inoffensive bore if it wasn’t weirdly being hailed in some corners as an underappreciated 2013 gem.

Honestly, it is bewildering to me that this film received such positive attention. All the saccharine dollops of It Gets Better here can’t obscure the fact that, for two uninvolving hours, we’re stuck on the Cape with a whiny, passive protagonist — who never does anything to suggest that Carell, however dickishly, didn’t have him dead-to-rights in the first reel — and a bunch of hackneyed, one-dimensional characters out of an ABC afterschool special.

Why does the Girl Next Door (AnnaSophia Robb) seem to be interested in our hero? Why does Local Cool Guy Sam Rockwell (and you know it’s a stinker when even Rockwell can’t save your flick) take him under his wing? Well, mainly because these are the sorts of things that happen in movies like these. If you’re hankering for a sweet coming-of-age “That One Summer It All Changed” type movie, rent Adventureland (or, if it has to be on the Cape, rent One Crazy Summer). But The Way, Way, Back is Not, Not It.

Stories We Tell: I’ll tread lightly here because I like Sarah Polley as both an actress and director (Take This Waltz was #17 last year), and I’m still interested in whatever she’s up to next. Suffice to say, I could never get over the inherent narcissism of this much-heralded documentary, about Polley slowly discovering that her father (actor Michael Polley, whom I knew from Slings & Arrows) may or may not in fact be her father. For some unfathomable reason (other than, I suppose, a documentary could be made), Polley chooses to interrogate every single one of her family members — except her mother, a flighty soul who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 — about this potential revelation, on camera. Erm…ok.

I just don’t get it. It’d be one thing if the House of Polley’s deep dark secret was something more interesting or world-historical than illegitimate parentage. (Nazis in the attic or somesuch.) But, as it is, Stories We Tell is just the documentary equivalent of a Selfie. It doesn’t have anything particularly noteworthy to say, other than, ok, a lot of families have “lies mutually agreed upon,” and I grew bored and eventually a bit disturbed by the egoism and exhibitionism of the whole enterprise. No shame if Polley wants to go digging in the family dirt, but I’m not sure why I really need to be involved.

The Wolf of Wall Street: So this was my birthday movie this year, which basically means that, alas, my girlfriend and I recently spent the afternoon of December 29th with a bunch of insufferable douchebags. Let our terrible mistake be your good fortune — This one can be skipped. (At least know what you’re in for: As an early Spike Jonze cameo telegraphs, this is essentially an unfunny three-hour episode of Jackass.)

Scorsese’s Wolf would’ve been innocuous enough if it had been 90 minutes long or so: In fact, a first-act power lunch with DeCaprio and Matthew McConaughey gets all the “these guys are nihilistic, worthless wastes of space” points across fine enough, no need to belabor it. But at three ever-lovin’ hours, the film wears out its welcome well before the end, and somewhere in that third hour — around the time DeCaprio is screaming at and gut-punching his second wife (Margot Robbie), so that we all leave knowing the asshat behavior we’ve witnessed for 180 minutes is actually not ok — I’d joined the douchebag train myself and was idly scrolling through my phone in the theater, waiting for somebody to give this dire Wolf the Grey Wind treatment, or at least throw him in the clink already.

Anyway, like all too many fratboy and/or Wall Street types, the film is not nearly as hilarious or as transgressive as it thinks it is — for example, the too-long-by-far traveling-on-Quaaludes scene was more funny and more concise (with ether) in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing. And, as I said up above, there were plenty of other movies mining this “grotesque excess is the new American independence” vein in 2013 — just go see Gatsby or Spring Breakers instead.

Blue Jasmine: This one’s not terrible or anything — it’s no Cassandra’s Dream — and Cate Blanchett is a pro as always. But Blue Jasmine is no Midnight in Paris either: It’s basically just Woody riffing on (re: cribbing from) A Streetcar Named Desire by way of the financial crisis — There’s not a lot of there there. Also, even though he must know a lot of uber-rich Manhattanites, Allen seems as clumsy about class here as always: Blanchett and Baldwin’s spoiled Ivy League kid here seems like he’s a member of Harvard’s Class of 1942. (On the blue collar side, Sally Hawkins and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, do better at crafting real people out of class stereotypes.) Again, Blue Jasmine isn’t a travesty or anything, but it’s not top-shelf Woody by any means, and has been significantly overpraised.

MOST [UNFAIRLY?] MALIGNED:

Ender’s Game: The long-awaited movie adaptation of this science fiction standard got quite a bit of bad press before release because, well, author Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being. (That’s why I have “unfairly” in brackets up above: Card has been a malignant enough presence over the years. Malign away!)

All that being said, if you’re not inherently averse to all things Card at this point, I thought Gavin Hood’s film was a surprisingly decent adaptation of the once-acclaimed novel (which I enjoyed enough in high school — I haven’t read it since.) Despite being a bit long in the tooth for the part, Asa Butterfield made for a quality Ender, with the necessary streak of amoral darkness about him. (We could’ve used Butterfield for Anakin Skywalker back in the day — but even in that Phantom Menace era, the very similar Lucas Black was always available.) And, speaking of Star Wars, hey, Harrison Ford is alive here! Always good to see.

WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN:

The Counselor: So, The Counselor. In a nutshell, Michael Fassbender is a slick Texas lawyer — everybody keeps calling him “Counselor,” Counselor — who, while wooing good girl Penelope Cruz, gets involved in a shady Mexican cartel-connected drug deal with two acquaintances who definitely know better, Javier Bardem (along with his bad girl wife, Cameron Diaz) and Brad Pitt. Naturally, as a result of some unfortunate happenstance — and side-dealing by one of the parties involved — Bad Things Happen. But you knew they would, didn’t you, Counselor?

Was The Counselor actually a good movie? Well, that one’s easy: No, no it wasn’t. Was it terrible? Well, Counselor, I think so, but to be honest I’m not even entirely sure. Just as To the Wonder seemed like a Malick parody, this one reads and watches like a parody of Cormac McCarthy — We have the macho posturing, lots of misogyny of the madonna/whore and vagina dentata variety, no small amount of Old Testament speechifying, and plenty of cartoon nihilism, Texas-style. Of course, I think, No Country notwithstanding, most of McCarthy’s stuff reads like parody — Blood Meridian was terrible; there, I said it — so your mileage may vary.

What I do know is that The Counselor was completely cuckoo-bananas, that it did linger in my mind for several days after watching it, and that, if nothing else, I remain sort of impressed that an A-list movie this strange, verbose, and relentlessly dark made it to the screen in this form. But am I recommending it? God, no, Counselor, you’ll sue me…or worse.

Only God Forgives: Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, which has Ryan Gosling playing a Hamlet of sorts in the Thai boxing underworld, is an easier mark: This is definitely not a good movie. (Ok, the lighting’s not bad.) I liked Drive less than most people, but still thought Refn’s Bronson was an impressively savage little number. But this movie, which plays like a film school homage to David Lynch, is a nearly unwatchable mess, and I feel terrible for Kristin Scott Thomas that she wasted her playing-wildly-against-type movie moment (See also: Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges) in this drek.

Now You See Me: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.

THIS JUST IN | UPDATE | BREAKING NEWS | MUST CREDIT GITM:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues: I was just reminded that I totally forgot to include Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues anywhere on this list. Mistakes were made, I regret the oversight, and I just want to take this moment to apologize in full to Mr. Burgundy and the entire Channel-4 News Team. (If it’s any consolation, I went to your Newseum exhibit. Also, what do you want me to do? I’m bliiiind!)

In any event, there’s too much Brick and far too little Baxter, but if you enjoyed the first one, this chapter — which has Ron and his crew taking their talents to CNN and the Big Apple, partying like Wolves of Wall Street, and learning the world a thing or two about car chases — hits at about the same level of hilarity: Maybe slot this somewhere in the late teens/early twenties? I dunno, I immediately regret this decision.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012), Don Jon, Europa Report, John Dies at the End, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pain and Gain, The Place Beyond the Pines, Side Effects, Stoker, Thor 2: The Dark World, West of Memphis

Don’t Bother: Admission, The Bling Ring, Closed Circuit, Drinking Buddies, The Fifth Estate, Gangster Squad, Kick-Ass 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim.

Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Robert Redford, All is Lost, Christian Bale, American Hustle; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress: Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Amy Seimetz, Upstream Color

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club; Jeffrey Wright, A Single Shot; Ben Nelson, Kill Your Darlings; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Ben Kingsley, Iron Man 3

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; June Squibb, Nebraska; Maria Bello, Prisoners; Amy Adams, Her

Unseen: 2 Guns, 21 and Over, 42, 47 Ronin, The Act of Killing, After Earth, Aftershock, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, August: Osage County, Austenland, Bad Grandpa, Baggage Claim, Beautiful Creatures, Berberian Sound Studio, Black Nativity, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Book Thief, Broken City, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Byzantium, The Call, The Canyons, Carrie, CBGB, The Colony, The Company You Keep, The Croods, Dead Man Down, Delivery Man, Despicable Me 2, Diana, Epic, Escape Plan, Fast and Furious 6, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Getaway, GI Joe: Retaliation, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, Grown Ups 2, Grudge Match, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hangover Part III, The Heat, Homefront, Identity Thief, In a World, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Insidious 2, The Internship, The Invisible Woman, Jack the Giant Slayer, Jobs, Kon-Tiki, The Last Stand, Last Vegas, Laurence Anyways, The Lone Ranger, Lone Survivor, Machete Kills, Mama, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Movie 43, Mud, Oldboy, Olympus Has Fallen, Out of the Furnace, Paranoia, Parker, Parkland, Percy Jackson 2, Philomena, Planes, Post Tenebras Lux, The Purge, Red 2, Redemption, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Riddick, R.I.P.D, Romeo and Juliet, Runner Runner, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Smurfs 2, The Spectacular Now, Stand-Up Guys, Trance, Turbo, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Warm Bodies, We’re the Millers, White House Down, The Wind Rises, Winnie Mandela, You’re Next.

    A Good Year For:
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Man of Steel)
  • Ben Kingsley Reveals (Ender’s Game, Iron Man 3)
  • Black and White (Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Nebraska)
  • Character Actors in Lead Roles (12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis. A Single Shot)
  • De Caprio Blinging (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Fassbatch (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
  • Harrowing Tales of Survival (12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The American Dream (The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Javier Bardem (The Counselor, To the Wonder — but he’s very watchable in both.)
  • Cumberbender (The Counselor, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek: Into Darkness)
  • Maersk (Captain Phillips, All is Lost)
  • Making it in NYC (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Missions in Space (Europa Report, Gravity, The Last Days on Mars)
  • Symbols of Presidential Power (Iron Man 3, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down)

2014: 3 Days to Kill, 22 Jump Street, 300: Rise of an Empire, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Annie, That Awkward Moment, Bad Words, Big Eyes, Birdman, Blended, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Chef, Child 44, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Draft Day, Dumb and Dumber To, Edge of Tomorrow, Endless Love, Exodus, The Expendables 3, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, The Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Giver, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Grace of Monaco, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hercules: The Thracian Wars, How to Catch a Monster, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. 1, I, Frankenstein, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, The Interview, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jane Got a Gun, Jersey Boys, The Judge, Jupiter Ascending, Labor Day, The Lego Movie, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Monuments Men, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, Noah, Non-Stop, The Nut Job, Nymphomaniac, Paddington, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Pompeii, The Purge 2, Ride Along, Rio 2, Robocop, Sabotage, Serena, Sex Tape, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, St. Vincent de Van Nuys, Tammy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, This is Where I Leave You, Transcendence, Transformers 4, Unbroken, Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters, Veronica Mars, Welcome to Yesterday, Walk of Shame, Winter’s Tale, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Zero Theorem, and

“So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of the Five Armies, and it was very terrible…”

The Worlds’ Ender.


In the trailer bin, Asa Butterfield gets trained for interstellar war by a grizzled Harrison Ford and a tattooed Ben Kingsley in the first trailer for Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, also with Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, and Abigail Breslin. Eh, seems a bit big and busy for this particular book, but I guess Ford should gets his reps in before Episode VII.


Meanwhile, Simon Pegg’s plan to get the lads together for a pint or twelve is muddled by an altogether different alien invasion in the first trailer for Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, closing out the trilogy started by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Along for the ride: Nick Frost (naturally), Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, David Bradley, and Rosamund Pike. I’m in.


Update: Another arrival today: Paul Greengrass of Bloody Sunday and United 93 dramatizes another bad day on Earth in the first trailer for Captain Phillips, a.k.a. the true story of Somali pirates vs. the MV Maersk Alabama, with Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Corey Johnson, David Warshofsky, John Magaro and Angus MacInnes.


Update 2: Also in this week’s queue, a red-band trailer for The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, based on the memoirs of Dave Von Ronk and starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garret Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman. To be honest, this is barely indistinguishable from the one making the rounds in January, but I’m not averse to double-posting for the Coens.


And finally, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney experience mechanical difficulties at the ISS — er…was ammonia involved? — in the first teaser for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile, but I gotta say, all the noisy explosions in space vex me. It’d be a much more powerful trailer if you couldn’t hear any of that.

Get Bin Mandarin.


The Iron Man 3 bandwagon continues to roll on with the full trailer for Shane Black’s third installment of the franchise. Clearly, Kingsley’s Mandarin is going at least quarter-Bin-Laden…So will Tony have to team up with Jessica Chastain and venture back down the torture well, then?

Iron’s Bane.

Ben Kingsley lounges as Iron Man arch-nemesis The Mandarin in the spiffy character poster for Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, due out this April. The rushed-to-the-screens second installment obviously didn’t live up to the promise of the first (and worse, it wasted Sam Rockwell.) But this one could right the ship, and I’m glad to see Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall joining the story as well.


A Clockmaker’s Fable.


In the opening moments of Martin Scorsese’s ambitious, expertly-crafted, and, alas, strangely sluggish Hugo, we are transported to a snowy winter’s evening in 1931 Paris at the Gare Montparnasse, where an orphan boy (a Frodo-ish Asa Butterfield) named Hugo Cabret watches the train station crowds from behind a clock face. He eyes the station guard (Sasha Baron Cohen), the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), the socialite (Frances de La Tour), her potential paramour (Richard Griffiths), the ancient bookseller (Christopher Lee). And as flakes of snow whirl about in three dimensions and a haunting Howard Shore score perfectly evokes the melancholy elegance of Parisian yore, we see young Hugo eventually hone in on the toy stand of a despondent old man (Ben Kingsley.)

Who is this old man, and how his fate bound up with Hugo’s? That is the question that drives this historical fairy tale (formerly Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret.) What follows is a child’s adventure story, a fantastic and whimsical tale of movie history bound up in the love of film itself, and an exercise in 3D innovation forged by a master craftsman with clockwork precision and…ok, let’s take a breath here. At the risk of opening myself to charges of pearls before swine, can I actually just confess to being a little bored by Hugo?

Mind you, I’m not happy about it: I love movies, i like historical fantasy. By the syllogistic principle, I should adore a historical fable about loving movies. In addition Hugo is an exceedingly well-made entertainment, and I presume it works reasonably well as a family film for Potter-inclined children of a certain age and temperament. (Although, frankly, I could imagine a lot of kids being bored too.) And every time some new character popped into the story, it was almost always an actor or actress — Chloe Moretz, Ray Winstone, Michael Stuhlbarg — that I’m fond of watching. But it’s a plain fact that, however entrancing Scorsese’s second- and third-act invocations of Georges Melies — the cinema’s first imagineer, as it were — I watched Hugo feeling mostly disengaged from it.

In the interests of full disclosure, while thinking over the reasons for how this clinical distance might’ve happened, it occurred to me after the fact that I have felt much the same about almost every other one of Martin Scorsese’s films. I’m not saying the man’s a hack or anything — He’s clearly an exceptional craftsman and a deservedly historic figure among American directors. But from his early classics (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, all of which I saw on VCR years after they came out) to Goodfellas (which, to be fair, I caught after The Sopranos) to his recent run of films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, The Departed), I’ve had almost the same reaction in the end to every one of his films: Well that was well-put-together, but not very emotionally engaging. (The one major exception here, and my favorite Scorsese movie, is The Last Temptation of Christ, although I also quite like Casino and The King of Comedy. Update: And Kundun, After Hours, and The Age of Innocence as well, now that I think more on it.)

The other issue at work here is the issue of the Third Dimension. Over the course of its run, Hugo — a movie which eventually discusses the earliest days of the cinema — not very subtly makes a case that we are witnessing a similar birth of a new art form right now, with 3D technology. (After showing us the Lumiere brothers’ 1895 film of an arriving train, which scared audiences untrained in film-watching into thinking they’d be run over, Scorsese recreates the scene at the Gare Montparnasse using 2011’s finest 3D tech.) Now, I know that saying things like “3D movies are just a fad” is exactly the type of statement that will leave one ripe for ridicule down the road. (re: “Talkies will never catch on,” or “Why would we ever need color?“) Buuuuut…I’m still not entirely sure the current 3D boom is anything more than a fad.

Here’s the thing: I’m glad visionary directors like Scorsese, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson are pushing the envelope and the technology on 3D. (For what it’s worth, Cameron says Hugo is the best 3D photography he’s ever seen. I’ll reserve full judgment until I’ve seen The Hobbit at 48 frames per second.) At the same time, it seems to me that, at least at present, 3D is mainly being used as a way to push audiences to continue seeing films on the big screen instead of watching them at home. In other words, it’s a filler technology being used to paper over the gaps at a transitional time for the medium, and its recent embrace has more to do with the business of movies than the art of them.

So, my skepticism about 3D at the moment isn’t really about being a Luddite. If anything, the technology isn’t advanced enough yet. When audiences can see the effect without wearing the damnable headache-inducing glasses, or we move past screen projection to full three-dimensional projection, not unlike the holograms in Star Wars, then I might start to agree we’re in Lumiere or Melies territory. But making movies look vaguely and unnecessarily like pop-up books, or having a ginormous Sasha Baron Cohen head jump out at you rather than the usual arrows and projectiles or whatnot, is not really a game-changing use of the medium, and it seems a bit hubristic to suggest so.

I still submit that the most groundbreaking use of 3D I’ve ever witnessed was in the concert film U2 3D, which layered completely separate images into one field of vision, and thus suggested an entirely new form of cinema syntax. Unfortunately, neither Cameron nor Scorsese have opted to explore that route as of yet. Instead, Scorsese has given us here a fine example of how standard story-telling can be slightly enhanced by 3D. I just wish it wasn’t so ponderous at times. Your mileage may vary, of course, but when I was having reactions during the movie like, “Oh Lord, we’re about to get another ten minutes of Sasha Baron Cohen playing the martinet,” that is just not a good sign.

From Mars to the Arctic (to your hands), Life.

In the trailer bin of late (along with the Bat, the Spider, and the Forelock):

  • Gwyneth Paltrow has more than just a few Coldplay albums to answer for in the scary-impressive trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, also with Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, and Elliot Gould. This goes right next to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of my most-anticipated films of the fall.

  • Taylor Kitsch braves the deserts of Mars, Peter Gabriel by way of Arcade Fire, and some of the earliest fanboys going in the teaser for Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (formerly of Mars), with Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, with Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe. That’s a great cast, and I like the period look on Earth, if nothing else.

  • Real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz discover their new family home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Dream House, also with Naomi Watts. With such an A-list director and cast, this film probably deserved a trailer that didn’t give away a key plot point — I suggest not clicking through here if you’re one to avoid spoilage.

  • Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reunite for a second installment of Holmesian shenanigans in the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with Noomi Rapace tagging in for Rachel McAdams and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. This looks…pretty bad, but the first one turned out better than expected, so who knows?

  • Jude Law also takes time to disappear, and thus set up a grand adventure of magic and self-discovery for his son, in the the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, with Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, Helen McCrory, and Emily Mortimer. Like Dream House, I’m more interested in the pedigree than this trailer. But we’ll see.

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead really never should have gotten involved in this particular Norwegian research project in the trailer for Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing, also with Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Ulrich Thomsen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Unlike most fan-folk, I’m perfectly fine with a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, just because it’s one of the scarier horror premises going. Let’s hope van Heijningen makes the most of his shot.

The Island of Arkham.

Well, at the very least, I’ll say this: Martin Scorsese’s fun but flawed gothic-noir Shutter Island is much less of a disaster than the other big budget, mid-February dumping of late, The Wolfman. True, despite a smart and engrossing first hour or so, Scorsese’s film eventually wears out its welcome, and its (very-telegraphed, even in the trailers) Twilight Zone-y ending goes on for several beats too long. Still, it’s an unsettling and reasonably entertaining mind game for awhile, and probably worth a rental if you weren’t among the many visitors to the Island this past weekend.

Admittedly, the opening moments of our tale are more than a little creaky, as Scorsese — as per his 1991 remake of Cape Fear — perhaps over-telegraphs the fact that we’re in noir-homage territory here. The year is 1954, and as a rickety ferry chugs along beneath an ominous, very cinematic-looking gray sky, a seasick US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio) fills his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) in on all the requisite exposition. To wit, these two seafaring gumshoes are checking out a mysterious disappearance on a creepy Island for the Criminally Insane. Teddy’s beloved wife (Michelle Williams), whom he still sees in visions, has passed on account of smoke inhalation after an apartment fire. And — wouldn’t ya know it — one of those Gimongous Storms that fill the nearby Gloucestermen with dread is bearing down on this remote Massachusetts madhouse, right at about the time our two heroes will disembark.

This is all rather ungainly revealed in the first ten minutes or so. But, when our two fedora-topped detectives are met by the officious and strangely aloof deputy warden of the complex (John Carroll Lynch), Shutter Island starts to find its nightmare-at-Arkham groove. It helps that we then meet a few old pros to move things along in that regard. First, the benevolent-seeming Man of Science running the asylum, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley). And then his avuncular, hail-fellow-well-met, and vaguely sinister colleague (old pro Max Von Sydow), who happens to have a Teutonic tendency toward slipping consonants. And that, coupled with the waifish cheekbones of the missing patient (Emily Mortimer), sets off all kinds of unpleasant memories for Teddy of W-W-eye-eye, and the liberation of Dachau…

It is in this first seventy-five minutes or so where Shutter Island really works best. For awhile there, with its melancholy remembrances, plush smoking rooms, fifties detectives, and lurking horrors, the movie is a real triumph of atmosphere. I felt like I’d settled into a really good noir text-adventure like Deadline, Suspect, or even Maniac Mansion, where the crimes are sordid, the suspects range from kindly to malevolent, the atmosphere is gothic through-and-through, the backstory is ever-so-slightly overripe (there may be Nazi-style experiments funded by HUAC going on), and the environment is finite and well-bounded — Nobody’s getting off the island in this here Storm of the Century. And there’s a nightmare at one point, involving Dachau and Ms. Mortimer, that set my teeth on edge as much as anything I’ve seen this side of the Grady sisters. (Some borrowing from The Ring here too, quite frankly.)

Unfortunately, the increasingly aimless Island doesn’t manage to sustain this splendidly eerie vibe throughout its run. Instead, it starts to pile incident upon incident, until the rotting manse of cards eventually tumbles over. When Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley turn up as horribly scarred prisoners of the complex an hour or so in, I thought, ok, this could be creepy. When Patricia Clarkson pops up as a haggard escapee half an hour later, I was thinking ok, but it’s a bit late in the game to be introducing all-new characters like this. And by the time Ted Levine of Monk gets his turn as the exceedingly weird Chief Warden who, in this day and age, would probably relish gladiator movies and the Discovery Channel, I wondered if Shutter Island was actually building toward anything at all.

The answer is, yes, but it too takes awhile. [Some spoilers ahead.] As you may well have expected going in, there’s a Shyamalan-style ending to the case that takes us in a new (but not entirely unforeseeable) direction. The problem is, this ending takes about 25 minutes to play out when it should’ve taken five, including a long digression into a past event that we have fully pieced together on our own by now. I wouldn’t call this ending a cop-out, really, although several earlier scenes (and most notably Ruffalo’s behavior in them) don’t make a lot of sense once we’re privy to the new intel. The problem is more that, like an aircraft taxiing to the gate, it just takes far too long to close the story once this final act is set in motion.

Still, as I said, Shutter Island has its moments. As far as exercises in noir cinema go, I’ve definitely sat through worse than these two and a half hours of Scorsese playing with his haunted mansion playset. If nothing else, you can tell that Marty has a deep and abiding love of the crime-noir genre. And, for at least a good hour or so, his madness is contagious.

The Oughts in Film: Part III (50-26).

Hello all. This got sidetracked a bit on account of holiday rest, birthday carousing, and such — Yep, as of yesterday, I’m now 35 years young. (“I’m old, Gandalf. I may not look it, but I feel it…“) In any case, hopefully everyone has had time to check out part I and part II by now. And, just in time for New Years’ Eve, I’ve gone back to the movie-reviewing salt mines to dredge up Part III of the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade:
Part III: 50-26

[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009]



50. The Proposition (2005)

Australia. What fresh hell is this?” As I noted in my review of his 2009 follow-up, The Road, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition was a movie I watched via Netflix late one night and felt like I had dreamed. There’s something very strange and ethereal at work here in this Nick Cave-penned western about an outlaw (Guy Pearce) sent to kill his ne’er-do-well brother (Danny Huston) by an equally ne’er-do-well lawman (Ray Winstone). (Well, I think that’s what it was about…I have a vague recollections of a filthy John Hurt talking his way in and out of trouble quite a bit too.)

Nonetheless, something about The Proposition makes it feel weirdly ancient and Biblical, like poetry and prophecy wrestling it out over an Outback campfire. I liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quite a bit — it’s on my almost list. But I get the sense that, in its heart of hearts, The Proposition is the movie Dominik’s sprawling epic really wanted to be.


49. The Bourne Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007)

From the year-end list (I): “Another surprise…Matt Damon is believable, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox do excellent character work here, and Franka Potente and Clive Owen help lend the film an authentic European flavor that’s gone completely AWOL over in the Bond series…If the first film’s any indication, I’d rather see another Bourne than another Bond

From the original review (II): “[T]hankfully The Bourne Supremacy is just as intelligent, fast-paced, gritty, and near-plausible as the first outing…The surprise here is how well everything’s executed — until the last fifteen minutes or so…the film moves at a kinetic, captivating clip.

From the year-end list (II): “[A] better Bond than anything we’ve seen in the past 20 years. Paul Greengrass’ shakicam work here bodes well for Rorschach in The Watchmen.

From the original review (III): “If you see him, say hello, he might be in Tangier. Or Paris, Madrid, London, New York, Moscow…uh, sir, we have Jason Bourne popping up all over the grid here. Shall I put it on One?…[I]t’s clear that Greengrass is firing on all cylinders right now. I was already impressed with him, but Bourne further suggests that Greengrass is among the very best directors working today — Let’s hope he shares with us more surveillance intel in very short order.

From the year-end list (III): “The third installment of the Bourne franchise was the best blockbuster of the year, and proved that director Paul Greengrass can churn out excellent, heart-pounding fare even when he’s basically repeating himself. Really, given how much of Ultimatum plays exactly like its two predecessors on the page — the car chase, the Company Men, the Eurotrash assassin, Julia Stiles, exotic locales and cellphone hijinx — it’s hard to fathom how good it turned out to be. But Bourne was riveting through and through…You just couldn’t take your eyes off it.

True, Agent 007 received a much-needed 21st-century reboot in the Oughts with Casino Royale. But the decade belonged to Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, who yielded three exemplary cloak-and-dagger entertainments between 2002 and 2007. The Bourne Identity was the highlight of director Doug Liman’s decade, wherein he established the international flavor and CIA-professional mien that would characterize the rest of this spy trilogy. And Paul Greengrass brought it home, first with The Bourne Supremacy and then The Bourne Ultimatum. I know Greengrass’ brand of kinetic shaky-fu isn’t for all action tastes, but I find it totally absorbing. And, hey, while Bourne III might’ve been a lot like Bourne II in the end, at least there were no invisible cars anywhere in the picture.


48. The Prestige (2006)

From the original review: “[W]hile I can’t vouch for how well Nolan conceals his own prestiges from the audience here, I found the movie a dark, clever, and elegant contraption, one that suggests razor-sharp clockwork gears and threatening pulses of electrical current, all impressively encased in burnished Victorian-era mahogany. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s previous work, or of sinister mind-benders in general, The Prestige is a must-see film. Either way, it’s among the top offerings of 2006 thus far.

From the year-end list: “[A] seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation…Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

Having read the Christopher Priest novel beforehand, I was in on the trick with this movie going in. So I still don’t know how Christian Bale’s putty nose played to the uninitiated. (The nose plays?) Nonetheless, I found The Prestige one of the most satisfying genre entertainments of its year. And, while I haven’t seen it since, I expect this Christopher Nolan conjuration should hold up quite well. (And a special bonus for Nolan’s introducing us therein to one of my current movie crushes, Rebecca Hall.)


47. WALL-E (2008)

From the original review: “Andrew Stanton’s ambitious, impressive WALL-E is definitely in keeping with the high standard we’ve come to expect from the Pixar gang…That the reach of WALL-E’s ambition ultimately exceeds its grasp in the second hour, when the movie becomes a much more conventional family flick, can’t be held too harshly against the film, I think…Still, after centuries of wandering around by himself, gazing at the stars, the Last Robot on Earth has fallen in love. Did we really need to contrive a second act to top that?

From the year-end list: “If you saw one movie last year about a boy(bot) from the slums meeting — and then improbably wooing — the girl(bot) of his dreams, I really hope it was WALL-E. Hearkening back to quality seventies sci-fi like Silent Running, Andrew Stanton’s robot love story and timely eco-parable is a definite winner, and certainly another jewel in the gem-studded Pixar crown. I just wish it’d stayed in the melancholy, bittersweet key of its first hour, rather than venturing off to the hijinx-filled, interstellar fat farm.

If WALL-E were just the opening forty-five minutes or so, it’d probably shoot up into the top 25, where it would rest next to another Pixar movie on this list. (Yes, in the immortal words of Yoda, There is another.“) But WALL-E started to lose me once our lovelorn robot left the junkyard and headed into space, and all the Starship Titanic goofiness on the back-end just can’t match the heart of the early going.

Still, in another decade of quality Pixar offerings, the first half of WALL-E was right up there among its finest productions. And, as I said in the year-end blurb above, this was the Slumdog Millionaire story of 2008 that i think will have the most staying power in the end.


46. The Royal Tenenbaums (2000)

While The Fantastic Mr. Fox will no doubt have its advocates in the years to come, the question up until this year has been whether 1998’s Rushmore or 2000’s The Royal Tenenbaums is Wes Anderson’s finest hour. Well, I can take or leave Jason Schwartzman, but it’s hard to bet against Bill Murray or Olivia Williams in a fight. Fortunately, for the purposes of this list, I don’t have to choose between them.

In a way, Tenenbaums is Exhibit A for a lot of Anderson’s usual extravagances, and they would definitely lose their lustre for me by the time The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited rolled around. Still, Tenenbaums works. The various idiosyncracies of each wing of the family don’t seem too belabored, not even the matching tracksuits. The hipster pop — be it Nico, the Velvet Underground, or Elliott Smith — seems pretty well-placed. And all the kitsch — and lordy, there’s a lot of it — still doesn’t quite overwhelm the story, as it would in later Wes Anderson offerings.

Plus, the basic point of Tenenbaums in the end is a sound one: All families are a bit weird when you get right down to it…ok, some more than others. But that doesn’t make them any less family. It’s an argument Paul Thomas Anderson tries to make in pretty much every one of his movies. This Anderson got it right here with The Royal Tenenbaums.


45. 24 Hour Party People (2002) / Control (2007)

Ok, fair enough, I’m cheating a bit with this double-feature. Aside from their subject matter — both involve the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, the clinically-depressed, epileptic Tory-leaning poet of the post-punk generation — these two films could hardly be any more different. Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, which centers on Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, is mostly farce, one that would introduce a lot of us outside England to the mad genius of Steve Coogan. Anton Corbijn’s Control, on the other hand, is a moody and naturalistic black and white piece following the rise and fall of a tortured artist that Corbijn knew personally, almost thirty years earlier.

Yet, for all their differences, both are superior and resonant films. And, taken together, they suggest how differently two movies can successfully approach the same tale. (Ok, 24 Hour Party People suggests Curtis was overwhelmed by Joy Division’s popularity among British neo-Fascists, while Control pins Curtis’ suicide more on girl trouble and general depressiveness – I tend to think Corbijn is closer to the mark.) Of course, out of the ashes of Joy Division came New Order, and while Bernard Sumner was never really the lyricist that Curtis was, that recombinated outfit has an admirable pedigree over the years as well. Endless talking, life rebuilding, don’t walk away.


44. Coraline (2009)

From the original review: “Made with as much care and attention to detail as the best of Pixar…Selick’s clever Coraline is a children’s fable that moves with purpose, bristles with dark humor, and snaps together with satisfying, text-adventure logic. Like Dahl, Carroll, del Toro, and Rowling, Selick and Gaiman get that kids have more of an appetite for the unsettling and creepy than they’re often given credit for, and that the best fairy tales are often dark, scary places. Coraline is no exception…And in terms of the sheer wealth of imagination and meticulous craftsmanship on display, it’s hard to imagine that very many other films this year will be in Coraline’s orbit

From the year-end list: “In an auspicious year for both regular and stop-motion animation, Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline was the pick of the litter. It sorta got lost in the early-year shuffle, but Selick & Gaiman’s dark, twisted fairy tale delivered the goods, and hopefully it’ll find more life on DVD.

As I said just above, Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s dark stop-motion fable “gets” a simple truth about kids that much conventional children’s fare misses. A lot of little tykes — dare I say most? — are more than a bit twisted. They thrive on weird and scary and grotesque. And Coraline produces — It has the unsettling dream logic and elemental sense of scary that you find in Roald Dahl or the tales of the Brothers Grimm. And the stop-motion looks amazing — It manages to fashion an eerie, home-spun look that was perfect for the story and that CGI-sheen can’t (as yet) muster. Definitely worth a rental.


43. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)

From the year-end list: “To be honest, I wanted to like it more. Nevertheless, this amusing Coen paean to American folk and Faulknerian absurdity holds its own this year.

Like every other Coen movie, O Brother is a film that rewards repeat viewings. And this Southern gloss on The Odyssey, by way of Preston Sturges, has definitely grown on me over the years. As with so much of the brothers’ output, things that tend to come off as bizarre non-sequiturs at first eventually seem like inspired lunacy once you vibe to it. (“Do not seek the treasure…“) Here’s hoping Burn After Reading ages similarly.


42. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

From the original review: “A friend of mine saw the trailer for Shaun of the Dead and noted it looked like a zombie movie written by The Kinks. That’s actually a pretty good shorthand for this wry, witty film, although it eschews Ray Davies-like bitterness for a romantic comedy sweet that, for the most part, fits quite well. In fact, for the first hour or so, Shaun of the Dead is a total gas, particularly as Shaun and his couch-potato roommate Ed (Nick Frost) verrry slowly get wise to the shambling undead amidst them.

From the year-end list: “Although it lost its footing shambling to its conclusion, Shaun of the Dead was great fun for the first two-thirds of its run, and it’s now probably my favorite zombie movie (everyone should have one.) A much-needed dry British humor fix to tide us over until Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Zombieland may have aspired to the throne in 2009, but Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead remains the original and undisputed king of the “rom-zom-coms.” Few movies this decade have been as endlessly rewatchable, and, if nothing else, Simon Pegg’s Shaun has provided me with a great Halloween costume over the years. (It’s worked much better than my stab at Donnie Darko, and makes for a great lithmus test to find the movie-people at any given Halloween party right away — not to mention the women-who-find-men-who-look-vaguely-like-Simon-Pegg-fetching, which, as you might have guessed, is a key demographic for yours truly.)

The Pegg-Frost-Wright follow-up Hot Fuzz didn’t make this list, alas, although it is a very entertaining village romp through cop-movie cliches. But here’s hoping that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and, whenever it gets off the ground, Ant-Man, will make next decade’s top 100, come 2019.


41. The Pianist (2002)

From the original review: “The first half plays out as a well-done and unflinching (non-Spielbergized) look at life and death in the Warsaw ghetto. (Watching Adrien Brody step over the bodies of starved children on his way to work, I was briefly reminded again of how unbelievably unrealistic and offensive I found Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.) The second half, however, is a different story. When through a combination of luck and timely aid Szpilman finally manages to escape the ghetto, the film enters (at least to me) novel territory and becomes a strangely riveting and unfamiliar survival story.

From the year-end list: “A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that ‘I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.; Glad to see I was wrong.

Just as I don’t ever cover Hollywood gossip here at GitM, I don’t really want to get into the kerfuffle that has reignited over Roman Polanski this past year. On one hand, what Polanski did was disgusting, reprehensible, and certifiably criminal, and there’s no getting around that. On the other hand, we just spent much of the past year basking in the afterglow of Michael Jackson’s contributions to music, and the King of Pop, by most plausible accounts, indulged in similar predilections. Imho, what’s good for the goose is good for the, uh, goose.

My point being, their personal lives aside, I still think Thriller is one of the best pop records of the past three decades, and The Pianist is one of the more powerful and engaging entrants in Holocaust cinema out and about. This is the story of the Holocaust outside the camps, and without that telltale Spielberg gloss. For most of the movie’s run, patently craven behavior and sheer blind luck are as crucial life-or-death determinants as anything else. And even if Brody’s pianist gets his own personal Oskar Schindler late in the film, the remorseless existentialism that drives Polanski’s worldview here — and most likely everywhere else, given the personal nature of this flick — has already been well-established by then. Not for the faint of heart, The Pianist feels sadly and uncomfortably true.


40. Knocked Up (2008)

From the original review: “Well, as you’ve probably heard, Knocked Up is both very, very funny and surprisingly real. For one, it’s got a funky, down-to-earth, DIY, lived-in feel that helps make it, along with Hot Fuzz, the most satisfying comedy of 2007 thus far. But Knocked Up also manages to be rather touching by the end, in a way that feels totally earned. The film doesn’t rely on cutesy baby antics or wildly improbable romantic flourishes to garner your affection, but rather on showing flawed, realistic, well-meaning people trying to make the best out of the complicated situations that make up life, be they modern love, marriage, or an unplanned pregnancy. As such, Knocked Up turns out to be a knock-out, and a very welcome special delivery.

From the year-end list: “Judd Apatow’s sweet, good-natured take on modern love and unwanted pregnancy was probably the most purely satisfying film of the summer. As funny in its pop-culture jawing as it was well-observed in its understanding of relationship politics, Knocked Up also felt — unlike the well-meaning but overstylized Juno, the film it’ll most likely be paired with from now herein — refreshingly real.

I almost put The Forty-Year-Old Virgin here, which is also very worthwhile in its way. But in a decade where American comedy seemed to be verging toward all-Apatow, all-the-time in its latter stages, Knocked Up was the former Freaks & Geeks auteur’s most fully-realized creation of the decade. (FWIW, F&G came out in 1999.)

It is also, as David Denby pointed out in one of his better moments, the apotheosis of the slacker-striver romance that characterized countless rom-coms and quasi-rom-coms of late, from About a Boy to The Break-Up to, for that matter, the next movie on this list. And more than 40-Year-Old-Virgin and more too than Juno, the other unintended pregnancy fable of 2007, Knocked Up — Seth Rogen’s palatial digs therein notwithstanding — felt like life in the Oughts as it really went down.


39. Sideways (2004)

From the original review: “In sum, Miles is almost completely beaten down by life…so of course he attracts the attention of a smart, beautiful woman (Virginia Madsen) who shares all his important interests and remains fond of him, even and despite his awful behavior. If you can get past this one critical and wholly improbable plot point (and I did, eventually), Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a trip to California wine country well worth taking. The movie basically plays like an approaching-middle-age version of About Schmidt (right down to the unfortunate nude scene), but this seemed a more well-rounded and generous film than its predecessor.

From the year-end list: “Like a fine 1961 Cheval Blanc, Alexander Payne’s elegiac toast to California wine country and the regrets and indignities of middle-age has a tendency to linger in the senses. Paul Giamatti must tire of playing depressive, barely sociable losers, but he’s great at it here…Sideways isn’t as funny as Election, but it is a memorable trip.

To be honest, I still find it hard to forgive Sideways its central conceit. Speaking of slacker-striver romances, what on earth would Virginia Madsen ever see in Paul Giamatti’s character? But that aside, Sideways was still one of the more memorable indy-dramedies of the decade, and, like wine and O Brother, it too has improved with age. (That being said, I still prefer Payne’s Election, but that was also part of the season of riches that was 1999.)


38. Let the Right One In (2008)

From the original review: “A Swedish import that combines elements of the age-old vampire mythos with My Girl, My Bodyguard, and Morrissey (hence the title), Let the Right One In moves and feels like a particularly well-crafted Stephen King short story (or perhaps a bleaker version of one of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War fairy tales), and definitely makes for a compelling nightmare before Christmas if you’re in the mood for it…[A]t times it feels as naturalistic, character-driven, and hyperliterary an endeavor as In the Bedroom or Little Children. There’s definitely some gore here and there, but as with the best horror stories, Let the Right One In is most frightening in the realm of ideas, and for what it doesn’t ultimately show or explain.

From the year-end list: “As if living in public housing in the dead of a Swedish winter wasn’t depressing enough, now there’s a nosferatu to contend with… My Bodyguard by way of Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King, this creepy and unsettling tale of a very unsparkly pre-teen vampyrer will leave bitemarks long after you step out into the light.

Y’all can keep your sparkling emo-Mormon vampires, thank you very much. (Although we would like Michael Sheen back when you’re done with him.) This creepy and understated Swedish horror story of 2008 pretty much filled my own quota for teenage nosferatu love for the decade. Yep, it’s a doozy, alright. And, not to get all Glenn Beck up in here, but you may leave as scared of life in Swedish socialist-style public-housing in the dead of winter as of the actual vampyrer at hand.

One word of caution: If you rent this film, watch it with subtitles — I once saw ten minutes of Let the Right One In dubbed and the whole enterprise seemed tonally off. Speaking of which, I’m averse to the idea of the forthcoming American remake, Let Me In, particularly given that it’s being brought to us by the director of Cloverfield. Still, I must concede, it has assembled a darned good cast: Chloe Moretz of (500) Days of Summer and Kick-Ass, Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road, and Richard Jenkins as the handler, so to speak.


37. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

From the original review: “I’m pleased to report that the Coens’ first foray into full-fledged romantic comedy (although one could argue for The Hudsucker Proxy) is an out-and-out winner. I’d heard earlier that the Coens had diluted their trademark zaniness for the sake of a mainstream audience this time around, but I found the reverse to be true — the brothers have instead juiced up what could have been a tired genre exercise (Imagine this film with Matthew McConaughey, Hugh Grant, Kate Hudson, or Sandra Bullock) with their unique flair and managed to create one of the best, funniest romantic comedies I’ve seen in some time.

From the year-end list: “I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection…Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious…[I]t’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.

Ok, so The Ladykillers didn’t work out so hot. Still, Intolerable Cruelty is a much-maligned film, in my opinion. Featuring George Clooney at the top of his Coen game and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a natural foil for his throwback, matinee idol looks, Intolerable Cruelty was a rom-com that, I thought, zinged with some of that old-Hollywood, His Girl Friday-type pizazz.

Ok, Geoffrey Rush is over-the-top here, and so are a lot of the jokes, from the Tenzing Norgay, “Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy” business to Wheezy Joe’s fatal inhaler problem. (For that matter, Cedric the Entertainer’s part seems tailor-written for Jon Polito, and the Coens eventually re-used the really-old law partner joke in here for the Rabbi Marshak in A Serious Man.) Still, the cat-and-mouse romance at the center of Intolerable Cruelty works quite well, and it’s a great deal of fun to watch play out. Try it, you’ll like it.


36. X2: X-Men United (2003) / Spiderman 2 (2004)

From the original review (X2): “I’m not sure how it’ll play to people who didn’t grow up on the comic, but last night’s midnight showing of X2 was much better than I had anticipated. Offhand, I can think of three setpieces (Nightcrawler at the White House, the assault on the mansion, and Magneto’s escape) that were the closest thing to fanboy pr0n I’ve seen in ages (LOTR notwithstanding), and that’s not counting all the great little flourishes and knowing winks throughout…Sure, the film drags a bit in the last twenty-five minutes or so (as they set up X3), but overall Singer & co. hit this one out of the park.

From the year-end list (X2): “Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine…X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.

From the original review (S2): “Here he comes, watch out bud. He’s got genetically engineered blood…and a frozen run of bad luck like you read about. After a series of underwhelming summer films so far, Spiderman 2 is a happy surprise, and a distinct improvement on the decent original. After an up-and-down first outing, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire (as well as the gaggle of writers on board, among them Michael Chabon) have clearly settled into the rhythm of Peter Parker’s struggle-filled existence, and the result is the most enjoyable and faithful comic book adaptation this side of X2.

From the year-end list (S2): “A definite improvement on the first adventure of your friendly neighborhood wallcraller, Spiderman 2 was a perfectly made summer film that stayed true to the spirit of Peter Parker. Along with X2, this is the gold standard for comic book-to-film adaptations right now.

Eh, you know, in the end, I just couldn’t decide. With the onerous origin stories out of the way in each of their respective first films, Bryan Singer’s X2 and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 were both a chance to let these beloved characters’ freak flags fly. And, taken together, they were the highlight of Marvel movie-watching in the Oughts. Even more than Batman’s much-heralded second outing this decade (still ahead of us on this list) there are scenes in both X2 and Spiderman 2 that feel like four-color panels come to life, from Spidey crawling on the ceiling while talking smack to Doc Ock to Magneto chuckling with glee while floating away from his until-recently-inescapable glass prison.

Both franchises hit a serious wall in their third outings, of course — the poor, long-suffering mutants more so than our friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. Still, both X2 and Spidey 2, like Stephen Norrington’s Blade, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and hopefully Kenneth Branagh’s upcoming Thor, proved that certain Marvel franchises can be very translatable to the screen when left alone in the right hands.


35. The Wrestler (2008)

From the original review: ““I’m an old broken-down piece of meat and i deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.” If that’s your man, then tag him in: The final and best film of last Friday’s four, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a downbeat, moving, and resonant character study of a man past his moment. If Frost/Nixon was the ‘feisty underdog takes on the champ’ Rocky movie of the day, The Wrestler captured the other half of that famous story — the aging athlete shuffling around his ‘real’ life, looking for any place he can make sense of himself outside the ring…I wouldn’t cry foul if The Wrestler manages to pin down Oscars for Rourke and/or Tomei, and it’s too bad Aronofsky got locked out of Best Director contention this year — dabbling in the ‘rassling form has clearly been good for him.

From the year-end list: “Have you ever seen a one-trick pony in the fields so happy and free? Me neither, to be honest, but Aronofsky’s naturalistic slice-of-life about the twilight days of Randy “the Ram” Ramzinski was likely the next best thing. I don’t know if Mickey Rourke will experience a career resurrection after this performance or not. But he won this match fair and square, and nobody can take it from him.

Displaying an understatement and naturalism one wouldn’t guess he possessed after Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky hit one out of the park with The Wrestler, thanks in large part to Mickey Rourke’s turn as, well, Mickey Rourke. With key support by Marisa Tomei (who had a much-better decade than 1992’s My Cousin Vinny would ever have predicted), The Wrestler was an-almost perfect match between actor and role, and a small but very effective movie about the indignities accompanying an aging and forgotten warrior’s latter days. Another round to the Ram.


34. The Hurt Locker (2009)

From the original review: “A taut, minimalist “men-in-combat” thriller that immediately goes up on the top shelf of Iraq flicks next to HBO’s Generation Kill (and, if you’re counting Gulf War I, Three Kings), The Hurt Locker is also that rare thing in the summer of Terminator: Salvation, Transformers, and GI Joe: a war movie for grown-ups…In vignette after vignette, The Hurt Locker ratchets up the suspense by degrees, until you find yourself — like the EOD team we’re following — living out each moment in a heightened state of tension, endlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s an impressive moviemaking feat, and it helps to make The Hurt Locker one of the best films of the year.

From the year-end list: “Bombs away, and we’re not ok. Other than Modern Warfare 2 and Generation Kill, this immersive, nail-biting account of an IED team’s travails in the midst of the suck was the best pop culture simulator out there for feeling embedded in Iraq…and stuck at the wrong Baghdad street corner at just the wrong time. And with the tension ratcheting to uncomfortable levels in each of the ordnance disposal scenes, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker…was the action movie of the year.

Of course, warriors’ glory days aren’t all that much better, as evidenced by Kathryn Bigelow’s tense and sparing The Hurt Locker. But, as with Randy the Ram, Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sgt. William James has a taste — some might say addiction — for the ring.

Like the IED team it follows, Bigelow’s movie succeeds mainly because of its attention to detail — not only in ratcheting up the unbearable tension throughout, but in the little moments. Say, for example, the scene with Jeremy Renner in that suddenly ridiculous-looking American supermarket, or his interactions with the locals (both the kid selling DVDs, and the “safe” house he finds himself in later.) The Hurt Locker doesn’t really offer three-part character arcs or easy-to-digest answers — It just puts you right in the thick of danger, with all the fear and excitement that portends. War is a drug, indeed.


33. A Serious Man (2009)

From the original review: “He may seem cruel and indifferent. He may even be vain and jealous (Exodus 20:5.) Still, thank HaShem for the Coens! Like manna from Heaven, the brothers are the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. At this late date, you probably know if you vibe to the Coen’s mordantly kooky aesthetic or not. And if you do, A Serious Man, their sardonic reimagining of the Book of Job set in late-sixties Jewish suburbia, is another great movie in a career full of them…A word of warning, tho’ — Despite the funny on hand here, and there is quite a bit of funny, in a way this world may be the Coens’ darkest yet.

From the year-end list: “Oy vey. This existential disquisition into wandering dybbuks, sixties Judaica, quantum mechanics, and Old Testament justice was yet another triumph for those devilishly talented brothers from Minnesota. The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik introduced us to several colorful, Coenesque personages (Sy Ableman, Rabbi Nachtner) and offered vignettes (the Goy’s Teeth) and quotable philosophy (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) that cinephiles will ponder for awhile to come. The Coens abide.

In another decade of solid-to-great offerings, A Serious Man was Joel and Ethan Coen’s best comedy of the Oughts, particularly for those who like their Coen craziness straight from the tap. Going home to Minnesota for this inquiry into Judaism, mathematics, and the meaning of it all clearly brought out the best in the brothers, and the Coens ended the decade as they began, in lean, fighting trim. Whether it’s Hail Caesar! or True Grit, keep ’em coming, guys. Each Coen movie is a mitzvah for the rest of us.


32. The Cooler (2003)

From the original review: “True, you can guess where this is basically going from the opening moments. The Cooler is ultimately a brief genre exercise in noir romance – It’s not reinventing the wheel. But the wry script takes a few jags I wasn’t expecting, and Kramer, Macy, and Bello succeed in fashioning two lovebirds who veer from playful to amorous to desperate for each other in a way that belies the cookie cutter courtship of so many other films…[I]f you can stomach the occasional burst of Old Vegas-style mob brutality (usually at the hands of Baldwin), The Cooler is a testament to the notion that even perennial losers can sometimes catch a lucky break, and a touching character-driven romance well worth checking out.

Word is the rest of the decade didn’t go so hot for director Wayne Kramer, what with 2006’s Running Scared and 2009’s Crossing Over. (I didn’t see either…did Crossing Over even come out?) But The Cooler, a magical-realist tale about the mystifying blessings of Lady Luck, was one of my favorite movie romances of the Oughts…and one that side-steps the Madsen-Giamatti Sideways problem with a key second-act twist. William H. Macy and the very underrated Maria Bello both bring their A-game to this Vegas fable, and Alec Baldwin does yeoman’s work in the type of meaty character role he’d make his own as the decade unwound. Who knows? Maybe luck was just shining on Kramer that year.


31. Moon (2009)

From the original review: “Granted I tend to be a sucker for these sorts of films, which are far too rare nowadays…Nevertheless, I found Duncan Jones’ low-key, hard-sci-fi rumination Moon to be really, really great — exactly the sort of small-budget ‘big think’ science fiction production that it feels like you used to see a lot more of back in the day. (Silent Running, Outland, even stuff like Capricorn One and Soylent Green.)…Sure, I probably saw this film under ideal conditions for the subject matter — by myself at the 11:45pm showing — but I was riveted by it. And if you’re a science fiction fan (or a fan of Sam Rockwell, who’s showcased here to great effect), Moon is a must-see.

From the year-end list: “While Michael Bay, McG and their ilk tried to top each other with gimongous explosions this summer, Duncan Jones’ moody, low-key Moon just aimed to blow our minds. A throwback to the seventies big-think sci-fi that has fallen out of favor in the post-Star Wars-era, Moon’s big special effect, other than Sam Rockwell, of course, was its clever ideas. And in a year of hit-or-miss (mostly miss) blockbusters, Rockwell’s quiet two-man show turned out to be the sci-fi extravaganza of 2009.

I feel like I’ve been chatting up this movie quite a bit lately. Still, in case y’all missed the thread, I really dug Duncan Jones’ Moon. It’s all of a piece — A small, well-thought-out, and low-fi flick that just aims to tell an interesting science fiction tale and get you thinking, no more, no less. And amid the sturm und drang of Bayhem and McG’s killer robots and Cameron’s Pandora in 2009, I thought Moon‘s relative silence spoke volumes.


30. Requiem for a Dream (2000)

From the original review: “Technically, Requiem is a masterpiece. Darren Aronofsky pulls out every visual effect and cinematic sleight of hand he previewed in Pi, and then some, to great effect. There are some truly unforgettable moments in this movie, although I must admit that — very occasionally — the technical razzmatazz does get in the way…[D]espite…substantial problems, Requiem is a powerful, enthralling film that invites comparison with such downer classics as A Clockwork Orange and Taxi Driver. Two days later, I’m still mulling it over in my head. I’m not sure if I completely enjoyed it, but I do know I must recommend it.

From the year-end list: “Powerful, dazzling, and a technical masterpiece, despite the flawed ending. Gets stuck in your head like bits of food get stuck in your teeth.

Ah, Requiem for a Dream. In many ways, I tend to think this flick is wayyyy too over-the-top to be taken at all seriously. And by hyperaccentuating the extreme negatives of drugs here, what with the gangrenous limbs and heroin-fueled whoredom and whatnot in its final act, it sorta misses out on the reasons why people tend to take drugs in the first place. (Hint: They may in fact be enjoyable at times.) In that sense, at its worst moments, Requiem for a Dream can be as hyperbolic, monotone, and quite frankly ridiculous as a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” ad.

But, for all of its occasional this-is-your-brain-on-drugs ludicrousness, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem is undeniably a powerful and hypnotic movie experience. Between Ellen Burstyn even outdoing Bale’s American Psycho that year in a just-go-for-broke performance — I still think she got cheated out of the Oscar — and the droning, brain-slashing score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet (now a staple of movie trailers, thanks to The Two Towers), Requiem has moments that are still burned into my skull a decade later.

And with one clever film conceit, Aronofsky vividly captured one facet of addiction that rings all too true, whether your vice is cigarettes, heroin, TV, or Oreo cookies: Half of the draw — well, maybe not half, but a sizable chunk, at least — is the comfortable routine of a process. I guess that’s why they call it a habit.


29. Sexy Beast (2000)

True, Ben Kingsley’s surprising turn as a foul-mouthed Cockney madman is a bit of a gimmick. (In fact, Ralph Fiennes later used said-gimmick himself in 2008’s In Bruges.) Still, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast was a smart and funny crime thriller that introduced many of us to the venerable Ray Winstone (although Wikipedia now informs me he’s been around since Quadrophenia) and that anticipated Ian McShane’s later breakout/comeback as Al Swearingen of Deadwood. (Spoiler alert: It’s also one of two movies here in the twenties that involve supernatural leporids.) And to my mind, some of the inspired England v. Spain riffing herein just never gets old.


28. Milk (2008)

From the original review: “Arguably the best film about the realities of politics since Charlie Wilson’s War, Milk is blessed with excellent performances across the board — most notably Sean Penn, James Franco, and Josh Brolin, but also supporting turns by Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and others. And as a chronicle of a key moment in an ongoing civil rights struggle, Milk also feels like a watershed film of its own in its approach to its gay and lesbian characters. In short, it’s one of the best films of 2008.

From the year-end list: “What with a former community organizer turned ‘hopemonger’ being elected president — while evangelicals, conservatives and sundry Mormons inflicted Proposition 8 on the people of California — Gus Van Sant’s vibrant recounting of the tragedy of Harvey Milk was obviously the timeliest political movie of 2008. But, in a year that saw entirely too much inert Oscar-bait on-screen in its final months, Milk — romantic, passionate, and full of conviction — was also one of the most alive. While it extends some measure of compassion even to its erstwhile villain (Josh Brolin), Milk is a civil-rights saga that harbors no illusions about the forces of intolerance still amongst us, and how far we all still have to go.

A film that put the lie to Brokeback Mountain‘s Kabuki-theater austerity to some extent, Gus Van Sant’s Milk featured gay couples that were more passionate, more realistic, and, perhaps most importantly, more matter-of-fact than those decidedly not co-habiting in Ang Lee’s Wyoming. Unlike the tragedy of Jake and Heath (or 1993’s Philadelphia, for that matter), it showed mainstream (straight) audiences that being gay isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a matter of life and death. In fact, gay couples are a lot like straight couples — varied, heterogeneous, often in lust, sometimes in love.

And its sexual politics aside, Milk was also a smart and insightful film about our American political system as a whole — maybe especially in the year of Candidate Obama and Prop 8, but just as much so today. After all, the struggle for real change in America didn’t end when Harvey Milk got elected. It was only just beginning.


27. Layer Cake (2005)

From the original review: “[A] smart, stylish, and sublimely smooth British crime film that does Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch one better…Essentially, you know the drill — this is a puzzle film in which you’ll have to listen carefully and learn to distinguish between various delinquents with names like Tiptoes, Kinky, Slasher and Shanks. And, while the final few grifts just get a bit too big to be believable, for the most part the story holds together with intelligence and verve, in no small part to Daniel Craig, who’s a magnetic presence here, and Matthew Vaughn, who displays a crisp, confident direction that’s all the more impressive for being showy without ever seeming flashy.

From the year-end list: “If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

In retrospect, Casino Royale should probably have been listed as one of the honorable mentions in the first quarter of this list. Nonetheless, Daniel Craig first proved he had the chops for 007 — and then some — with his star turn in this well-made and very entertaining Cockney crime drama. And he’s only the pick of the litter here: Layer Cake also includes wily hands Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, Jamie Foreman, Kenneth Cranham, and George Harris, as well as able performances by others soon-to-break-out like Ben Whishaw, Tom Hardy, and Sienna Miller. (Sure, one could argue Tom Hardy of Bronson “broke out” as the evil Picard clone in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. But did you see Star Trek: Nemesis? Being in that movie should be considered the opposite of breaking out, I should think.)

True, Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust turned out to be amiable and mostly forgettable for me. But, if I’m holding high hopes for his Kick-Ass in 2010, it’s because of Layer Cake, a movie that just got edged out of the top twenty-five. Along with…


26. Garden State (2004)

From the original review: “Seduced in by this teaser (and the accompanying song, Frou Frou’s “Let Go”, which has been flitting about my head for days now), I entered expecting a stylish but showy and self-indulgent film, as befitting a first-time triple threat. (At worst, I feared something along the lines of a Whit Stillman or P.T. Anderson flick.) But Garden State feels not only intelligent and confident but grounded, understated, and, like its dazed, over-medicated protagonist, even somewhat self-effacing. More than anything, I found the movie a sweet, quirky, and good-natured tone poem about awakening to both the pain and the possibilities of the life around you.

From the year-end list: “Writer-director Zach Braff’s ‘anti-Graduate’ debut was a small but touching ode to home that, along with reviving Natalie Portman as an actress and offering the best soundtrack of the year, delivered exactly what it promised. A bit hokey at times, sure, but Garden State wore its heart on its sleeve and, for the most part, got away with it. It was a witty and eloquent voyage to the Jersey burbs and a testament to the proposition that as Paul Weller put it, it’s never too late to make a brand new start.

As I’ve said many times, Zach Braff’s Garden State is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but perhaps I should stop making excuses for it. It had the closest thing to a Pulp Fiction-like era-defining soundtrack that the Oughts saw, with cuts by Frou Frou, The Shins, Colin Hay, and Iron & Wine. It had a cast stocked with quality, A-list talent like Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, and the inimitable thespian Method Man. (Where my cheese at?) It managed to bring Natalie Portman back to life after her near-fatal submersion in George Lucas’ green-walled CGI prequel tank. And, like Moon, it was a small film that delivered about exactly what it promised.

In short, Garden State is pretty close to a modern version of the movie it so often references, The Graduate. (Or, at least, it’s a heck of a lot closer to The Graduate than 2005’s Rumor Has It, which more explicitly tried to make that claim.) What can I say? For me, at least, Garden State delivered.

25, 25 movies to go…and here’s the next 15.

Vizier Quest.

Donnie Darko appears to be having more trouble with the timestream (at least as far as I can ascertain without sound) in the CGI-heavy full trailer for Mike Newell’s The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton (late of the last Bond), Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley. (Does Kingsley say no to projects anymore?) Eh, it looks like The Mummy meets one of the later Pirates movies, but I guess it could be fun in a turn-your-brain-off, two hours of air conditioning kind of way.

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